DOM: Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg,US,1998)

I thought long and hard about Spielberg, but disregarded perhaps his best film, Schindler’s List, as I just can’t bring myself to watch it that much. I finally settled on “Saving Private Ryan” as it that only Spielberg film I have come to as an adult and it still has a profound affect on me after many viewings and is still a film I want to come back to.

Spielberg started off making TV movies and indeed his first film, “Duel” (starring Dennis Weaver) got a cinema release as it was so effective. However his first cinema release proper was “The Sugarland Express” made in 1974 about the kidnap of a child starring Goldie Hawn (the only film I’ve ever seen her in or indeed want to), this is a truly excellent film, but it had a sad ending and flopped, Speilberg said he would never make another film with an unhappy ending.

In 1974 he began work on an adaptation of Peter Benchley’s best selling novel “Jaws”, the film went way over budget due to technical failings of the shark and the weather, Universal were very worried. The film was released over the summer and became the first summer blockbuster, a truly stunning film with three power house performances from Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfus and Robert Shaw and atmospheric music from John Williams, it broke all box office records. I still remember when the film premiered on TV in the UK in 1981, there was such a big buzz for it, something that home video (now DVD / Blu-ray) and Sky destroyed, and this just couldn’t happen today.

For weeks in the playground afterwards all the kids were talking about was “Jaws”

His next film also starred Dreyfus, “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind”, I found this pretty boring, but Spielberg has been tweaking it ever since with a Special Edition in 1978 and an even more Special Edition during the 90s and one of my friends still swears it is Spielberg’s best film and better than the same year’s “Star Wars”. With Spielberg mania on a high, Universal said “Go and make whatever you want and spend as much as you want” so he did. He made the disaster that is “1941” a comedy about the Pearl Harbour bombings, you can see the money going up before your very eyes, a truly awful film.

After this, he took a couple of years off to gather his thoughts and after the success of “Star Wars” and it’s sequel “The Empire Strikes Back” linked up with George Lucas for the beginning of the highly successful Indiana Jones films with “Raiders Of The Lost Ark”, a brilliant action film that put him back on top and his next film would top even that. 1982, another year, another Spielberg hit, but not just any film, this was “E.T.” and became the biggest grossing film of all time until “Titanic” in 1997.

During the 80s he still wanted to make his “adult” film and had a few goes at it “The Color Purple” (1985), “Empire Of The Sun” (1987) and “Always” (1989), all were Ok, but not entirely successful.

After a third Indina Jones film in 1989 he updated Peter Pan as “Hook”, which did Ok for him, however he was ready to unleash his two biggies in 1993, in the summer “Jurassic Park” (a film which looked pretty good when it came out, but was basically just showing off what you could do with CGI and maybe they could sell a few toys and lunch boxes along the way) and in the fall “Schindler’s List”, a stunning adaptation of Thomas Kinnealy’s  “Schindler’s Ark”, without question the best Hollywood film about the Holocaust and on Oscar night he finally took home best picture and best director.

“Saving Private Ryan” was made five years later, the story of a woman who has lost three sons in the war and a special mission is set up to find her only other son who is somewhere in France. The film opens and closes with two of the most extraordinary battle sequences ever filmed, the first on Omaha beach in Normandy where the US army lost an incredible amount of life, the second as they try to save a bridge from being taken.             What follows in between is a basic ‘man on a mission’ film, but done with such style, it overshadows everything that has come before it. It’s incredible drained out colour and another excellent score from John Williams. He uses hand held cameras and speeds up certain sequences. There is one sequence (that borrows from The Archer’s “Black Narcissus”) when they first set off and you see a few drops of rain on a leaf that becomes a fully fledged storm, little touches like this make this far from any normal ‘man on a mission’ film.

Tom Hank’s might have taken home consecutive Oscars in 1993 & 94 (for ‘Philadelphia’ and ‘Forrest Gump’ respectively), but this is his finest performance as Captain Miller who must lead this group of what are not much more than boys across France to find Matt Damon.

I know Mark Cousin’s might have made ‘The Story Of Film-An Odyssey’ and swears that the best WWII film is the Russian film ‘Come & See’, well, I’ve seen that once and have all but forgotten it now, I never forgot “Saving Private Ryan” after my first viewing, in fact I went back to the cinema again to see if it was as good second time around!

Well, what happened on Oscar night? Spielberg did take home “Best Director” for Private Ryan and there was a school of thought that said that for the first time ever Best Picture will be split between “Saving Private Ryan” and Terence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” for portraying two very different visions of war, but in the end maybe the vote was split down the middle and “Shakespeare In Love” won! There is a picture from that night of Spielberg with Harrison Ford and a few others and none of them look very happy.

After this, Spielberg hasn’t done that much really returning to Indiana Jones once more with “& The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull”, a couple of forgettable films with Hanks (“Catch Me If You Can” and “The Terminal”) and most recently “The War Horse” and “Tintin”. I suppose he might be chasing dreams he set out in the 1970s like Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, De Palma, etc but he has made more blockbusters than any other director and when the Harry Potters & James Cameron’s blockbusters have long been forgotten, Spielberg’s will be remembered.

10 responses to “DOM: Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg,US,1998)

  1. Dom, I share your difficulty with Spielberg. Clearly, in my post Star Wars list I need to acknowledge his contribution to the cinema of my generation, but I don’t know which film to include. Its not that I think that his films are consistently great so its hard to choose, it more like they are consistently adequate with really great bits. The opening scene to RYAN is unforgettable, a real tour-de-force that has been imitated since but not equaled. However, the rest of the film is so hooky that I wish that it had ended after the first twenty minutes.

    Once again, I refer you to EASY RIDERS AND RAGING BULLS by Peter Briskind to understand why he was able to pull some distance between himself and the rest of the ‘movie brats’ of the seventies. Its all about the money, not the art.

    • My favourite bit in ER&RB is when Friedkin and Bogdanovich go for dinner at Coppola’s house to discuss setting up the Directors Company and Lucas is the waiter for the evening.

  2. “Jurassic Park” (a film which looked pretty good when it came out, but was basically just showing off what you could do with CGI and maybe they could sell a few toys and lunch boxes along the way)

    Not rising to it.

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