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War In The Dark
Why World War II is so difficult to get right on the screen—and the movies that do it best
February/March 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 1
Well before the film’s debut we could hear the drumbeat of publicity. Steven Spielberg, America’s favorite moviemaker, was going to give us a film about World War II. The title, Saving Private Ryan , gave away nothing. Unlike Schindler’s List , which translated Thomas Keneally’s best-selling book on the Holocaust to the screen, Saving Private Ryan would build its plot around an obscure incident from the invasion of Normandy.
Well before the film’s debut we could hear the drumbeat of publicity. Steven Spielberg, America’s favorite moviemaker, was going to give us a film about World War II. The title, Saving Private Ryan, gave away nothing. Unlike Schindler’s List, which translated Thomas Keneally’s best-selling book on the Holocaust to the screen, Saving Private Ryan would build its plot around an obscure incident from the invasion of Normandy. Four brothers from the Niland family had had a very bad war by the summer of 1944: Two had been killed on D-Day, and another was thought to have been killed in Burma. The last brother, Fritz, had jumped with the 101st Airborne Division into Normandy, where the odds were that he would make his family’s final contribution to the Good War. An enterprising Army chaplain, Father Francis Sampson, found the paratrooper and pulled him out of the fighting. The story was good enough to merit the approval of the most jaded critic, and it was true besides.
But Hollywood could never leave a fact alone. Father Sampson would disappear during the script conferences, to be replaced by eight Rangers, led by a captain played by Tom Hanks. Having survived their own assault on Omaha Beach, Hanks and his men now have the mission to rescue the last of the brothers. Hanks & Co. have little enthusiasm for this crackbrained idea, but they are experienced combat soldiers and therefore can expect to have acquired an intimate acquaintance with “chickenshit,” a wartime term best defined by former 2d Lt. of World War II infantry, now Emeritus Professor Paul Fussell as that which “has absolutely nothing to do with winning the war.” Of course Hanks’s squad completes the mission, but not without cost.
Few can doubt that when the history of film in the twentieth century is written, Steven Spielberg will have a place in the front ranks. He has learned to calculate our cultural rhythms so keenly that we invest his work with transcendent significance. We so cheerfully accept his power over our imagination that we forget his other talent as one of America’s great entertainment businessmen. His market power is now at least as great as his artistic power. The fabled promoters of movie history, Cecil B. DeMille, Darryl F. Zanuck, and Irving G. Thalberg, are amateurs compared with Spielberg. So what began as a drumbeat became a tightly composed symphony of press releases, photo ops, tie-ins, interviews, and film clips. Web sites and chat rooms began to appear on the Internet. For weeks before the film’s release, hardly a day passed without reference to Saving Private Ryan on television.
The buzz said that Saving Private Ryan was going to be a new kind of war film, one that unflinchingly depicted the sharp end of war, the essence of war itself—the infantryman’s war. Saving Private Ryan was going to be the greatest war film ever made, hands down, no kidding, about any war. When Saving Private Ryan hit the screen, it would immediately be recognized as the gold standard for an entire genre of film, and that standard would be founded upon the very action that had always defied being captured on film: combat soldiers, individually and in small groups, more threatened than assisted by the vast mechanical accessories of modern war.