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08 September 1998

Saving Private Spielberg

James Heartfield attended the British premiere of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan last night

[Warning: like the reviews in most of the British press, the following reveals elements of the plot.]

Saving Private Spielberg

Monday night's London premiere of Steven Spielberg's new film Saving Private Ryan was liberally decorated with old soldiers, and they with medals and badges. Ten years ago American journalists sneered at the be-ribboned uniforms of army men like Oliver North as so much 'fruit salad' - but that was when old-fashioned militarism was still a power in the land, and their rudeness was born of fear. Then Hollywood was making films critical of military discipline, like A Few Good Men and Full Metal Jacket. Nowadays the wartime generation are old men, and their offspring patronise them instead of fearing them. The old soldiers did not mind. They were exchanging stories of the last time they met - the D-Day anniversary, the VJ Day anniversary, the protest against the Japanese Emperor's visit: campaigns of a different sort. (Just as well they have their own concerns, the British contribution to D-Day is accurately reflected in one line: 'Monty is over-rated.')

Spielberg was introduced by the money, Ms Lansing of Paramount, who was still getting used to the idea that he was a serious film-maker as well as the magician who enchanted her childhood with ET. Her Freudian slip 'I just want to stay seven' for 'I just want to say Steven' spoke volumes.

Spielberg himself honoured the generation that fought the 'necessary war', like his father, now 81, whose tales first fired his imagination. But Spielberg senior did not land at Omaha, he fought in the Burma campaign of 1943 to restore white supremacy in the Far East. Still, the idea of the 'necessary war' put this conflict beyond the doubts that have beset other campaigns, like Vietnam, Iraq, Somalia and Bosnia.

The film is rightly praised for its realistic feel. And the opening battle scene at Omaha is rightly celebrated for the utterly plausible and chaotic horror of the troops pressing onwards into enemy fire, with all the vile detail of an Hieronymous Bosch painting of damnation. It has been said that these scenes are more accurate that the later battles because the filling out of the characters makes it more difficult to kill them with the arbitrariness of a real battle. Spielberg has said that he wants to avoid the 'gung ho' conventions of Hollywood war films, but what is so impressive about the Omaha landing in Saving Private Ryan is that it is a tale of heroism. Over and again the insurmountable odds convince us late twentieth century weeds that it is time for them to cut their losses, but just when we think that Captain Hanks has turned into Captain Ahab, he starts to turn things around, imperceptibly at first, but then breaking through the German lines decisively. It is a genuinely gripping battle. Like the Somme, only they win. And for modern sensibilities, Hanks uncontrollably shaking hand only makes him more believable as a hero for overcoming his inner demons to defeat the Nazi ones.

Doubtless the Brechtian critics on Screen would tell us that this is not reality, but 'reality effect', the illusion of reality. The fact that Spielberg's cameraman was imitating for the look of wartime camerawork, even to the point of reducing the number of frames-per-minute to get that juddery effect, indicates that battle films shape our perception of battles. Perhaps the aesthetics of disjointed story telling have just caught up with the reality of disjointed warfare.

The effect is realistic, or at least persuasive in its detail, but the moral of the story, and the characterisation is an entirely modern imposition on past events. The relationship between Captain Hanks and his crew is all too familiar and replete with emotional sharing in a way that would have seemed quite alien to the order-barking style of traditional military command. The hard-assed Sergeant does his bit, and the Captain hardens his heart against emotional entanglement, but only so that they can open up to the troops more dramatically later on.

Least plausible, though, is the mission itself. Private Ryan's three brothers have all been killed within a week of each other, and the War Office typists catch the letters just before they all land on Mrs Ryan's mat. Instead the General drives over and promises to get her last son back, despatching a detail of ten men to save him. Spielberg claims it is a real story, but reports are that just one Chaplain was sent. After all, the War Office was preoccupied with sending Americans troops into Europe, not withdrawing them. And the business of war is killing people, not saving them.

According to Matt Damon, winningly handsome as the surviving Ryan, his character's 'going home represents all of their going home', but they were not going home, they were going in. American troops did not leave western Europe until the end of the Cold War, fifty years later, and even then most of them were redeployed in Eastern Europe and Saudi Arabia.

According to one actor the story rests on the 'nobility of that mission' to save Private Ryan. But this is a nineties version of nobility. In the more traditional militarism nobility meant setting aside your own personal safety for the greater glory of the campaign. Nobility lay in the transcendence of the particular individual outlook for the greater good. The death of a sibling was the ideal intermediate between self-interest and national service. 'What would you do if you saw your sister being raped?' was the question the Army boards used to sort the real pacifists from the merely cowardly. Avenging your brothers has been the clich of personal motivation in wartime as long as there have been wars. But here the clich is turned inside out. The death of Ryan's brothers is supposed to make him more valuable to his mother at home. The brush of death is not supposed to propel Ryan into altruistic and manly sacrifice, but to expel him from that collective venture back into the selfish egotism of a mother's love.

Not surprisingly the characters all rebel against this plot device, following the inexorable logic of their pastiche heroism. The detail spend most of the film knocking the plot, or mission as they call it, while even Ryan himself is moved to say of his comrades in arms 'these are my brothers'. And quite right too - who wants to be mummy's boy in a world of fighting men? The only convincing argument for saving Private Ryan is the pragmatic aside 'it's your ticket out of here, kid'. But that belongs to another war, when the cause was not enough to mitigate the underlying horror, and Ryan is no Vietnam vet.

Saving Private Ryan is a great war film, with a daft plot.

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