When I was a kid, I saw some newsreel footage from the D-Day invasion, and I remember one segment that showed an exhausted GI wade ashore, take a few steps up the beach, and then drop like a stone, shot dead. I was thunderstruck that I had seen a man die on screen. My dad told me that wasn’t even the half of it. He was born in 1936, and did not serve in the war, obviously. But he did get to watch as all of the young men of his neighborhood ship off, most of whom died on D-Day. I read about the invasion, and how bloody D-Day was, but I never really had any idea of what that horrible morning was like. I had some professors in college who fought in the war. I tried asking them about it. They deflected my inquiries for the same reasons why any other veteran I’ve ever spoken to about that war declines to provide any details. They saw and did things nobody should ever have to, most of them didn’t have any choice about it, and a lot of them are still haunted by what they survived.
I thought about all of these things when I went to see Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg’s epic WWII drama. The movie begins with a nearly half-hour segment that follows Captain John Miller and his unit of Rangers as they land on one of the bloodiest sectors of Omaha Beach. Immediately, we see entire Higgins boats full of soldiers get machine-gunned to death before they step one foot into the water. Realizing that they are going to die if they don’t get out of the boat immediately, Miller orders everyone to bail out and swim ashore. Many of the soldiers, weighted down by their gear, simply drown. A few are hit by bullets under the water, but a few, we watch for long, painful seconds as their lives quietly end. The movie shifts to a first-person perspective as Miller goes into the water, and as he bobs above and below the surface, the sound goes from the gurgling of the water to the sounds of battle, again and again. As I watched, I could hear members in the audience gasp every time Miller’s head rose above the water; we were that drawn in to the moment.
The remainder of the D-Day scene is simply one of the most exceptional scenes of military cinema ever made. Throughout it all we see the full range of emotions from the soldiers on the beach, from sheer terror to fearless valor. We see what it meant to fight all the way from the surf line to the German bunkers that defended the landing area, and how kids scared to death one minute can turn to heartless killers the next, borne from an anger and jubilance at having prevailed against certain death. It is a scene that by the time it is over, you are actually grateful, for it is one of the most relentless movie experiences you will ever see.
The rest of the movie is likewise outstanding, a tale of how Miller and his men—having survived against all odds so far—must travel deep into enemy territory, find paratrooper James Ryan, and extract him safely from the fighting. Ryan’s three other brothers have all died in the war, one of them during D-Day, and General George Marshall orders the last surviving Ryan to be brought home at all costs. Miller gets the job in a supreme example of no good deed going unpunished. As he and his men search for Ryan, they run into danger again and again in a series of memorable scenes that asks why these men’s lives are considered worth expending to save the life of just one man. As their casualties begin to mount, you see their point.
Miller does find Ryan, but Ryan won’t leave. He is part of a small unit tasked with holding a vital bridge, and he’ll be damned if he takes an easy out from the war. Baffled by this unexpected turn, Miller’s unit stays with Ryan to help defend the bridge. Once reinforcements arrive, then Ryan will agree to leave. But first, they must all repel an attack by a vastly superior German force in an extended battle that is very nearly as searing and as memorable as the D-Day introduction. There are a number of standout moments in it, from the deployment of sticky bombs with short fuses to the determination of a lone sniper to a desperate last stand involving hand-thrown mortar shells. But the moment of truth is during a gut-churning moment in which a German and American soldier grapple over a knife. As one of the soldiers’ strength begins to fail, we know that his end is near. One of his fellows is literally around the corner, and can easily jump in and turn the fight, but he is too paralyzed by fear to do anything. The fight ends not with a bang, but with a whimper, and the cowering soldier around the corner knows it ended the way it ended because of his inaction.
It is a difficult moment to watch, but a fundamentally honest one. In its aftermath, we are reminded of images of soldiers cowering behind tank traps at the beginning of the movie, too frightened to move. If they could, they would have fought. But the cruel truth is that some people stand and deliver in battle. Some simply freeze. And there is no telling which until one enters the flames. We cannot judge these men harshly. But what we can do is admire the bravery of those who faced the same horrors, and when called upon, enter the fire and crossed swords with the devil. War is hell, but not are all burned by it’s flames. Some are forged.