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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
Spielberg and his equally gifted star, Tom Hanks, struck just the right notes too, promoting the film in modest, even reverential tones, selling their movie by understatement. Indeed, the impression conveyed was that this film was not to be seen as entertainment. Dark precautions went out: The first twenty-five minutes, re-creating the assault on Omaha Beach, might be “too intense” for some people. The film had a serious, high-minded purpose. Saving Private Ryan would not be an empty military pageant like The Longest Day, shuttling platoons of stars across the screen to declaim hollow patriotic rhetoric. Nor would it burden its audiences with cynical reservations about the war or the cause for which it was fought. No need to fear such dialogue as that from The Naked and the Dead, uttered in exhausted fatalism by the member of a much less successful infantry patrol, “…we broke our ass for nothin’,” which elicits the reply, “Higher strategy.” No, by telling a simple story, Saving Private Ryan would reinvest the Second World War with the straightforward dignity it deserves and by so doing take its audience closer to the essential truth of this war—perhaps any war—than any other film had ever done.
When the film actually appeared, any doubts that this movie was quite as good or as original as advertised were quickly shouted down. Box-office returns, which quickly exceeded fifty million dollars and as of this writing are nearly two hundred million, overwhelmed contrarians like Vincent Canby of The New York Times and Louis Menand of The New York Review of Books . The thoughtful reviews they offered were widely regarded as acts of lese majesty. Other commentators happily perpetrated all manner of rhetorical inanities, using the film to wag reproving fingers at effete baby boomers who were filling up theater seats. We were happy to be insulted, and to insult. On the Web the chat, as captured by John Gregory Dunne in a recent New Yorker article, was less than genteel when someone named Brad declined to be impressed. “Let me guess. You are a wannabe hippie. Take your poetry reading, latte-drinking, non-shaving, sandal-wearing BUTT to Arlington National Cemetery and then come back on line, pudboy.” This, from Darren, who despises Brad because Brad has the bad grace to suspect that war is not fun. Darren thinks he knows more about war by eating popcorn in the dark. Hell hath no fury like a noncombatant.
So a question worth asking is how we came to think we know more about war than we actually do. What body of knowledge did we rely upon before Saving Private Ryan came along? The answer is that what most Americans today know of war comes from film—theatrical films, contemporary newsreels, propaganda and training films, documentary films, video films, and now gun-camera films. From the Mexican War onward armies and cameras have gone to war together, producing still photography now easily adapted to film. But if one were to calculate which war dominates film, as Peter Maslowski has done in his fine study Armed With Cameras: The American Military Photographers of World War II, the Second World War has no competitors.
All the major armies of the Second World War deployed still and film camera units to document combat action. Millions of still photos, thousands of miles of film were shot on all fronts, at sea, in the air, and on the ground. Some of the American photographic units included veteran filmmakers, among them John Huston, Darryl Zanuck, Edward Steichen, George Stevens, and David O. Selznick. Filming the war demanded not only technical expertise but courage as well, for American cameramen labored under strict instructions not to “re-enact” combat footage. Combat film would be shot in combat. The lengths to which photographers went to capture just a few minutes of fighting were extraordinary. On several occasions combat cameramen raced ahead, unprotected, toward enemy lines, just to make a shot of an American assault head-on.