Commentary Magazine

Spielberg at War

There is little disagreement that Steven Spielberg’s smash hit, Saving Private Ryan, which opened July 24, is a powerful and richly textured account of war. The story it tells, of a small unit hunting for a lost paratrooper in Nazi-occupied Normandy, has won unstinting praise for its simplicity and evocativeness, and the film’s brilliantly realistic depiction of the D-Day invasion of Europe is by general consensus without parallel in movie history. Jay Carr of the Boston Globe called Saving Private Ryan “the war movie to end all war movies.” To Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post, it is “simply the greatest war movie ever made, and one of the great American movies. In one stroke, it makes everything that came before . . . seem dated and unwatchable.”

Yet Saving Private Ryan has also stirred up a good deal of controversy. On one side are those reviewers, by far the majority, who have applauded it for reviving the classic war film—“classic” in the sense of heroic, patriotic, and refreshingly free of irony—after a long period in which Vietnam-era cynicism held sway. Thus, the New York Times critic, Vincent Canby, raved about the film and concluded with relief that “With Saving Private Ryan, war is good again.” But then there are those who have interpreted it differently. Gene Siskel, who liked the movie very much, found it to be an “action-filled anti-war film” (emphasis added); so did John Podhoretz in the Weekly Standard, who liked it considerably less on that account. Richard Schickel of Time and Edward Rothstein, a cultural critic for the New York Times, both focused on the film’s imagery to argue that, whatever its cinematic virtues or flaws, it hardly brings us back to the status quo ante Vietnam.

Is Saving Private Ryan all-American or cynical, pro-war or anti-war? Spielberg himself has been of little help in clearing up the matter. In a series of interviews since the film’s release, he has shown himself of two minds. “War is not about glory,” he said to one interviewer, and then, somewhat contradictorily, “I felt we needed to be truthful to do honor to those soldiers.” He has described the film as a memorial, but has warned pre-teens against seeing it. More gnomically, when asked point-blank whether the movie was anti-war, he told the New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg, “I think it’s an anti-war film only in that, if you want to go to war after seeing this picture, then it’s not an anti-war film.”

There is, of course, a subtext to the controversy. Many of the complaints about the movie—particularly those arising from conservatives—are really complaints about Steven Spielberg. That is understandable. He is not just a great filmmaker but one of the most prominent liberal activists in the country, a close friend of President Clinton, and a generous donor to feminist, pro-choice, and civil-rights causes. It is therefore natural to look upon Saving Private Ryan as the pronouncement of Spielberg’s and Clinton’s generation—the Vietnam generation that had an opportunity to fight and did not—on the World War II generation of their fathers, that did. And it is hardly surprising that those anxious to protect the reputation of the latter would be reluctant to entrust it to the former.

But are the complaints valid?



Since broadening out from such “entertainments” as Jaws, ET, and Indiana Jones to pursue profound historical subjects—the Holocaust (Schindler’s List, 1993), American slavery (Amistad, 1997), and now World War II—Spielberg has been taken to task for sentimentalizing, substituting cheap message-mongering for true character development, and cutting corners with the actual record of events.

As a historian, Spielberg does indeed have some explaining to do. The real-life Sudeten industrialist and Nazi-party member Oskar Schindler—as Philip Gourevitch showed in these pages (“A Dissent on Schindler’s List, February 1994)—was far from the bumbling, laconic mystery-man Spielberg gives us; as a consequence of his reworking, the humanity and the moral flexibility of “regular” Nazis are exaggerated in Schindler’s List, while the ability of “ordinary” Germans to resist Nazism is curiously underestimated. Similarly, in Amistad, as Gary Rosen pointed out (“Amistad and the Abuse of History,” February 1998), Spielberg’s rendition of a slave-ship revolt crosses the line into outright misrepresentation, falsifying the real-life role played by the largely Christian abolitionist movement in freeing the Amistad rebels and inventing a black American component to the protests surrounding the event.

There has been a handful of quibbles about specific period details in Saving Private Ryan: captains, for instance, do not wear their helmet insignias into battle. But the only narrowly historical question that bears on the heart of the film is whether General George C. Marshall would have plausibly ordered the public-relations maneuver on which the plot hinges: sending a unit of soldiers out to rescue one man, on the grounds that his three brothers had already died in action. In this, Spielberg has been vindicated; as the military historian John Keegan notes, “The Pentagon did have a policy of withdrawing the last surviving son of a numerous family from combat.” In Band of Brothers (1992), Stephen Ambrose followed a company of paratroopers in the weeks after D-Day. Among them was a Private Frederick Niland, one of whose brothers was missing in action and two more of whom had been killed; he was retrieved by a special unit sent on orders of the War Department. Spielberg has described the Niland episode as “the kernel of truth around which this morality play has been fictionalized.”1



Another line of attack against Saving Private Ryan is that, even if its period details are correct, the story itself undercuts any potentially patriotic message. For one thing, that story is rich in examples of cowardice and criminality. Particularly striking is the climactic battle scene when Corporal Upham, an unctuous figure who is writing a book about how soldiers “bond” in wartime, cowers in fright, unable to fire a single shot, and winds up costing the lives of several of the men with whom he himself has supposedly “bonded.” Only when the battle is over does he execute a captured prisoner in cold blood—the very man whom, in an earlier scene, Upham has begged his captain to free.

But are we supposed to sympathize with this coward? In the course of his interviews, Spielberg made a remarkable statement about Upham: “He was me in the movie. That’s how I would have been in war”—from which Richard Grenier, writing in the Washington Times, concluded that Spielberg is “rather proud of his cowardice.” But whatever the director may have meant by his comment about Upham, having a coward in a war movie no more makes it a brief for cowardice than having an apothecary in Romeo and Juliet makes it soft on drugs. One can admire bravery without claiming that everyone is brave, or without claiming unusual bravery for oneself. In any case, Saving Private Ryan, which Spielberg has also called “a tribute to veterans,” does unquestionably admire their valor, possibly even because that valor was less than perfectly universal.

A subtler point that some have made in this connection is that the sheer accumulation of horrifying detail in Saving Private Ryan—the limbs blown off, the guts falling out, the near-absolute randomness of the carnage, the relentlessness with which it is all forced upon us—stacks the emotional deck against war. In this case, the charge, which also amounts to a tribute to Spielberg’s genius as a craftsman, has substance. But it is also a little unfair.

Although no one would ever accuse this movie of warmongering, there is no question that Spielberg considers World War II to have met the highest threshold for sending men into battle. Indeed, the few veterans who have criticized the amount of gore in the movie have faulted Spielberg not for deprecating the war itself or those who waged it but for lacking sufficient respect for the dead. Typical is Navy veteran David Horton, who wrote to the Los Angeles Times:

There were tanks that some bright engineers thought would float in the current of the English Channel. Well, they leaked, as anyone with an ounce of common sense could have told them, and they sank like stones. There were soldiers inside those tanks, and they drowned. I don’t need some filmmaker’s stylized, make-believe violence to tell me how horrible that death must have been.



Here at last we begin, somewhat obliquely, to approach the real issue at the heart of the dispute over Saving Private Ryan.

That war is hell is a truth universally acknowledged by those who have fought in it. Similarly, the violence, the brutality—and the arbitrariness—of battle have been a staple of many a novel and movie. This emphatically includes movies about World War II—the “good” war—and it includes movies made by people who were actually at the invasion of Normandy (Darryl Zanuck’s The Longest Day and Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One, for instance). There is even a tradition in World War II movies, from They Were Expendable to A Bridge Too Far, of viewing much of the carnage as senseless—a tradition whose traces can be seen in a strongly “patriotic” film like William Wellman’s Battleground (1949), which Spielberg has frequently cited as an influence.

If, in other words, there is something innovative about Spielberg’s treatment of war—and there is—it does not lie only in its unprecedented realism, or in the extent to which that realism inevitably makes war itself abhorrent. It lies somewhere else.

In any war, there are two narratives: the narrative of civilization, which wages wars, justly or unjustly, for reasons of state and/or out of considerations of honor, and the on-the-ground narrative, which basically consists of men killing one another. There can be overlap between the two narratives. The statesmen who run the war may have real solicitude, personal as well as broadly moral, for the men fighting it. (Indeed, such an act of solicitude is the springboard for the plot of Saving Private Ryan) And the soldiers on the ground may believe in the cause for which they are fighting. But very frequently the two narratives exist in hermetic isolation from each other—which means that for the men engaged in combat, the actual experience of war is often nothing more than a battle to the death, independent of right and wrong.

All war movies have been made by people living in civilization for people living in civilization. Spielberg’s is no exception. What is new about it is that, as a battle film, it is purged of the context of civilization. “Mercifully,” wrote Jay Carr in the Boston Globe, “there’s never a single overview or big-picture shot here, never a scene with Ike or Montgomery standing at a map with a pointer, spelling it all out for us.” Why this should be a mercy is unclear, but it is certainly true that Saving Private Ryan offers its viewers no perspective outside that of the day-to-day life of a GI grunt.

If, in most war movies, we are never completely overwhelmed by the almost incomprehensible violence of battle, it is because we are simultaneously being made to understand the reasons why the war is being fought (or, as in 1980’s Vietnam movies, the reasons why the war should not have been fought). By contrast, Saving Private Ryan hardly so much as acknowledges the existence of this realm of public values. The soldiers’ experience of war may not be altogether values-less, but it is exiled from the values that put them there in the first place.

“I wanted the audience in the arena, not sitting off to one side,” Spielberg has said. “I didn’t want to make something it was easy to look away from.” He has succeeded. According to John Podhoretz, “Spielberg takes World War II, and, in the interest of paying tribute to the almost unimaginable sacrifices made by those who fought it, minimizes the war beyond recognition.” Actually, one might put it the other way around: at least in terms of the on-the-ground narrative, Spielberg does not minimize World War II but rather maximizes it. In fact, it is exactly through this maximization of the soldiers’ experience that he has managed to make their “unimaginable sacrifices” a little bit more imaginable.



Still—and here is where Podhoretz’s point has bite—that does not address the question of what Spielberg himself makes, or wants us to make, of the war’s larger, civilizational, purposes. In the absence of Ike-with-a-pointer, the two short “framing” segments at the start and end of the film are just about all the politics we have to go on. In these, an aged Private Ryan returns to Normandy to look at the graves of his fallen comrades. Turning to his wife, he says: “Tell me I’m a good man. Tell me I’ve led a good life.”

It is no doubt this ambiguous sentiment that has led some critics to conclude that Spielberg intends to restore us to a benign, uncomplicatedly pre-Vietnam view of American character—in Stephen Hunter’s words,” Saving Private Ryan is probably the most conservative film of the decade”—while leading others to object that, as Edward Rothstein put it, the film fatally “privatizes patriotism” by divorcing it from its proper, political context. Citing Rothstein in the Los Angeles Times, the film historian Neal Gabler in effect split the difference between these two views. If, he wrote,

the film falsifies the sentiments of the soldiers of that time by having them declare they are fighting only to get back home, when in reality the soldiers in that war were avowedly fighting to stop Adolf Hitler, then the sentiments are at least falsified in a good cause: to neutralize the nationalism that had divided us [over Vietnam] and to humanize our sense of duty.

“To humanize our sense of duty” is a fine capsule description of the morality that informs Saving Private Ryan. On a personal level, there is much to be said for it—as is attested in the film by the many acts of bravery and sheer dogged determination performed by its protagonists. And yet, once our sense of duty has been “humanized,” what really are we left with?

Spielberg’s movie assumes that its audience knows the reasons why World War II was fought; but any such assumption is fraught with pitfalls. Absent Ike-with-a-pointer, in what way are we witnessing in this movie anything other than cold-blooded, nonsensical, mass murder? Absent Hitler, absent the Nazis, is it fair—to use a “humanized” term—that several brave American officers should die while the coward Upham, or Ryan himself for that matter, should live? Not to mention the deaths of a whole Higgins boat full of innocent American boys, perforated with bullets before they can even take a step forward.

“Ryan better be worth it,” says Captain Miller, the character played by Tom Hanks, when informed he has to take his men into German territory to find him. “He better go home and cure some disease or invent a new, longer-lasting light-bulb.” But Ryan is not a medical pioneer, not an inventor. As a young man, he is so thick he does not even know what the word “context” means. As an old man, he is a thoroughly tacky and undistinguished-looking American tourist in a polyester windbreaker. These are the terms—the on-the-ground, soldier’s-eye terms—in which we see Private Ryan. In these terms, we know him to be a good man. But in these same terms, and by any measure we may care to invoke, he is hardly “worth it.” And in these same terms, neither is the war itself.

Saving Private Ryan may indeed be the greatest war movie ever made. It provides undeniable evidence that Spielberg and his generation—call them the Baby Boomers, the generation of ’68, the Vietnam generation, or whatever—understand what it was like for their fathers to fight in World War II. It even provides implicit evidence that they understand the stakes of World War II, and the rightness of World War II. But it leads one to suspect that, all the same, they would never have fought it themselves.



1 Perhaps to preempt the kind of charges that surrounded Amistad—Spielberg was sued by the novelist Barbara Chase Riboud, who claimed he had stolen material from her novel, Echo of Lions (1989)—the director offered Ambrose a lucrative position as Saving Private Ryan’s “historical consultant.”


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