When it comes to the history of war films, there are two major periods: before Saving Private Ryan and after Saving Private Ryan.
Steven Spielberg’s 1998 epic about a team of American soldiers (led by Tom Hanks) sent behind enemy lines to retrieve the titular private (Matt Damon) and bring him home to his family remains one of the greatest films of all time not just for its elegant storytelling and thematic resonance, but for crafting a new aesthetic of cinematic wartime combat that would irrevocably become the gold standard for the way war would be captured in cinema.
Twenty years after that film’s release, it’s easy to trace the aesthetics of war films from Dunkirk to Atonement (and even non-WWII films like Black Hawk Down) back to the stripped-down immediacy of Saving Private Ryan’s treatment of Omaha Beach. While war films prior to Ryan had used classic Hollywood techniques to explore the grand chaos of the battlefield, Spielberg’s innovative treatment of the film’s opening sequence (and combat as a whole) created a template that virtually every war film has followed in the decades since.
For the cinema of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, wartime was brutal, but sanitized. Take The Longest Day’s treatment of the Omaha Beach invasion – static wide shots dominate the scene, crisply framed to depict the disciplined formations of German soldiers taking their positions. Each camera setup is designed for maximum clarity, the audience given a god’s-eye view of the action, so we can marvel at the sheer scope of the Darryl F. Zanuck production. There’s an orderliness to the proceedings, both sides comprised of highly organized groups of composed soldiers meeting in glorious battle. There are shades of chaos – soldiers stumble and slip on their way out of the Higgins boats or scramble for cover after losing their hats – but there’s a virtuousness to the Allied soldiers’ efforts that highlights the heroism of The Longest Day’s protagonists.
Ryan’s greatest innovation is doing away with that illusion of order, of heroic soldiers strutting into gentlemanly battle. Its Omaha Beach is stripped down, frenetic, the camera just as lost as its vulnerable, terrified subjects. Janusz Kaminski’s famously de-saturated cinematography made war actually seem like hell – not a place to show your bravery, but a melee you’d be lucky just to survive. Kaminski even removed the protective coating on his lenses just to achieve that blurry, diffused look in each shot. Lower shutter speeds made explosions and dust look crisper and weightier, each boom and crack of enemy fire inches from the audience’s face.
But the real secret to Ryan’s visceral success is that Spielberg places the camera not above, but among the soldiers. Inspired by the intimacy of actual WWII newsreel footage from photojournalists like Robert Capa, the director kept the camera low to the ground, swinging and shaking the camera as if the camera operator was caught in the action himself. Matching the sheer terror of the soldiers Spielberg follows, the ground-level camera offers a heads-up view of soldiers scrambling in terror, dragging their mortally wounded friends to safety, or even drowning in the water before they can even get to the beach. Bullets whiz past the characters’ heads, explosions land inches away from frame, the viewer surrounded by ear-splitting death. Never before had the fog of war seemed so confusing, and yet so eye-opening clear, as Hanks’ Captain Miller and crew are all too aware.
For Spielberg, the son of a WWII veteran, realism was the name of the game for Ryan – which meant de-sanitizing the cinematic battlefield in ways heretofore conceived. Consulting with military adviser Dale Dye and World War II historian Stephen E. Ambrose, Spielberg set to work making a more dirt- and blood-covered combat zone than had ever been attempted onscreen. On D-Day and all the days that follow, Saving Private Ryan’s field of war is filled with gore, viscera, and the existential wails of soldiers calling for their mothers as they bleed out.
Scholars have long argued that Ryan’s emphasis on the “actuality of combat” provided a post-Vietnam America with an outlet to express their understanding of the bloodier, more realistic vulnerabilities of military conflict. For the new cinematic battlefield of Saving Private Ryan, soldiers aren’t just faceless goons who fall over or disappear when dispatched – they’re exhausted boys, far from home, who meet protracted, tragic fates. In crafting the film’s approach to violence, Spielberg hired several actors with missing limbs to play soldiers with arms and legs blown off, the camera lingering on these injuries to hammer home the stark realities of war. We see the fear in their eyes as they stare down at a gut shot or slowly watch a German soldier run them through with a knife. No longer were audiences satisfied with a glorified version of warfare; they knew that war was hell, and Spielberg was determined to give it to them.
$500 million and five Academy Awards later, Saving Private Ryan proved the impact and efficacy of these darker, more realistic depictions of war; suddenly, this was what war looked like for popular media. More than any other film, Ryan’s influence can be seen in the DNA of virtually every other war film that came afterwards. Some of that is Spielberg’s doing; he produced the TV miniseries Band of Brothers and The Pacific (along with Ryan star Tom Hanks), as well as Clint Eastwood’s WWII companion films Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. He even developed the story for the successful Medal of Honor series of video games, hoping to replicate the intensity and realism of WWII combat as a first-person shooter.
Other filmmakers would see the value in placing such a strong emphasis on realism in their combat, even outside of the Second Great War. It’s inconceivable that Ridley Scott’s bleak, passionate Black Hawk Down would exist in its current form without the up-close inhumanity of war Spielberg introduced to the modern film vocabulary. Ryan changed more than how audiences would witness war on film; this is how we would see war as a culture.
Of course, World War II still isn’t finished with the Ryan style of dirt-covered hyper-realism: from Jean-Jacques Annaud’s soot-covered sniper thriller Enemy at the Gates to the uber-violent skirmishes of Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, Kaminski’s visual style for Ryan is practically the template for how to do a World War II battle scene. Naturally, there are variations on this theme: in crafting his war epic Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan has said in interviews that Saving Private Ryan uses a cinematic “language of horror” that urges you to look away, whereas he wanted Dunkirk to have a “language of suspense” that meant you couldn’t keep your eyes off it. The proof, as they say, is in the panzer – after Ryan, cinematic depictions of war took on a level of dirt, grime, and tragedy that audiences now accepted as the way war really looks.