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When Spielberg Did D-Day

Still from “Saving Private Ryan.”

Twenty years ago Saving Private Ryan arrived on movie screens to great acclaim.  “Steven Spielberg has taken Hollywood’s depiction of war to a new level,” gushed David Ansen in his Newsweek review while Janet Maslin in The New York Times hailed it as “Steven Spielberg’s soberly magnificent new war film” and Roger Ebert called it “a powerful experience”.  There were no dissenting opinions, and in an increasingly militaristic United States the mere act of purchasing a ticket for it at the neighborhood multiplex became a measure of one’s patriotism.  The film’s critical and financial success further burnished its director’s already glittering reputation.

Steven Spielberg, the man responsible for Saving Private Ryan, is an American icon whose name is synonymous with filmmaking of a certain caliber.  Movie audiences approach each new release bearing his imprimatur with elevated expectations.  Many of his films project an alternate America, an illusory world that never really existed outside of Hollywood but nonetheless stirs in many Americans an inchoate longing for something special they fear has been lost.  In this regard Spielberg closely resembles Walt Disney, whose movies he has often emulated by creating a candy-colored universe where everything seems cozily familiar.  Intellectually and artistically, Spielberg never strays far from the middle of the road.

Born in Cincinnati on December 18, 1946, Steven Spielberg is a child of the suburbs.  His family moved to suburban New Jersey and then to suburban Phoenix, and he also spent time in a suburb of LA called Canoga Park, where he stayed with an uncle.  His entire childhood was prescribed by what James Howard Kunstler labeled The Landscape of Nowhere.

Spielberg went to college at Long Beach State.  In 1968 a friend put up sufficient funding for him to shoot a short feature called Amblin’ which came to the attention of Sid Sheinberg, the head of Universal television, who promptly hired him to direct episodes of Night Gallery, The Name of the Game, and Columbo.  From then on, Spielberg’s success was assured.

Spielberg’s suburban upbringing seems to have produced in him a truncated and inelastic view of the world.  He is naturally conservative—intensely so—and is most at home in an idealized suburbia recreated from his childhood.  In films such as ET: The Extraterrestrial (1982) and Poltergeist (1982), suburbia plays an integral role, not merely as backdrop but as a world unto itself with its own rules, conceits and ambitions.  Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) has Richard Dreyfus playing Roy Neary—a suburbanite employed as a linesman for a utility company.  In Spielberg’s universe, it is a man from the suburbs who first makes contact with intelligence from another world.

Spielberg’s atavistic perspective is not limited to things domestic: his conservatism is most conspicuous in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), where non-Judeo-Christian religions and religious rituals are not merely mocked but openly stigmatized as evil, and those who ride in to save the day at the end of the film are British representatives of the Raj—colonialists—who, armed with superior technology, are the only ones deemed capable of rescuing our heroes.  The good guys are light-skinned.  The bad guys are dark.

Over time Spielberg has evolved into an artist of some substance.  In Schindler’s List (1993), he displayed real maturity and proved himself capable of handling graphic violence while generating genuine suspense and unnerving terror without resorting to ghosts or extraterrestrials or monster sharks.  In Saving Private Ryan (1998), Spielberg returned to the Second World War and its seemingly unambiguous morality, this time focusing on D-Day and its immediate aftermath.

The Longest Day is the direct cinematic antecedent of Spielberg’s effortA gargantuan, turgid, deadening and relentlessly dull epic, The Longest Day was based on a 1959 book about Operation Overlord by Cornelius Ryan and released in October 1962.  It starred every male actor then possessing star power: John Wayne, Kenneth More, Richard Todd, Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton, Steve Forrest, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, Red Buttons, Peter Lawford, Eddie Albert, Jeffrey Hunter, Stuart Whitman, Tom Tryon, Rod Steiger, Leo Genn, Curt Jürgens, George Segal, Robert Wagner and Paul Anka, which explains the superabundance of middle-aged performers impersonating men many years their junior.  (Then 55-year-old John Wayne played Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoot, who was 27 on D-Day.)

The Longest Day represents the very worst of filmmaking by committee.  Four directors share “credit” for the debacle: Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki and Gerd Oswald, while Darryl F. Zanuck’s directorial work remains uncredited.  Five writers contribute to the general disarray: Cornelius Ryan, Roman Gary, James Jones, David Pursall and Jack Seddon.  In cinema, more is not better.  The resulting dog’s breakfast plays like The Ten Commandments re-imagined as a Sergeant Rock comic book.

When shooting his own D-Day epic Spielberg used a screen aspect ratio of 1:85:1—typical of films made in the Fifties—and muted his colors to a washed-out palate that hovers just beyond black-and-white, thus approximating the appearance of the war movies he watched when very young.  His subject matter was the largest amphibious assault ever launched.  Operation Overlord had been in the offing for over a year but only from March 1944 forward did the idea of an invasion mature into a workable battle plan.  British General Bernard Law Montgomery was the primary force behind its final conception and in the weeks following the landings would serve as Eisenhower’s supreme commander of Allied ground forces in Northern Europe.  In The Guns At Last Light, the third volume of his liberation trilogy, Rick Atkinson more than adequately sets the stage:

Across the fleet majestical the war cry sounded: “Up anchor!”  In the murky, fretful dawn, from every English harbor and estuary spilled the great effluent of liberation, from Salcombe and Poole, Dartmouth and Weymouth, in tangled wakes from the Thames past the Black Deep and the Whalebone Marshes, all converging on the white-capped Channel: nearly 200,000 seamen and merchant mariners crewing 59 convoys carrying 130,000 soldiers, 2,000 tanks, and 12,000 vehicles.  (The Guns At Last Light: The War in Western Europe 1944-1945 (Picador, 2013) at p. 36)

As the events of June 6th unfolded, Sword, Juno and Gold Beaches went according to plan, though British and Canadian forces would encounter stiff resistance once they departed the landing zone, while in the U.S. sector Utah Beach proved to be a cakewalk.  Omaha Beach was a whole different can of worms.

The invasion of Normandy could easily have ended in tragedy, setting back the Allied war effort for years.  At Omaha Beach it came closest to foundering.  Some of the blame lay with inadequate reconnaissance and intelligence.  Aircraft tasked with surveying the landing site did not fly low enough to glimpse many of the defenses built into cliff walls overlooking the beach, nor were the defenders old men and young boys as planners led the attackers to believe.  Invaders departing landing craft plunged into a tempest of machine-gun, mortar and artillery fire.  Many of the landing craft never made it to shore and many of the attackers never made it off the beach.  By midmorning growing concern over events on Omaha Beach had some in command considering withdrawal.

Allied planners had hoped to soften up the defenses at Omaha Beach with aerial and naval bombardment prior to the landings, but the fortifications were too stoutly made and both naval guns and aerial bombs were too inaccurate to cause them significant damage.  When the Rangers hit the beach, the emplacements were more or less intact.  In The Guns At Last Light,  Rick Atkinson writes:

The German defenses were fearsome.  Eighty-five machine-gun nests, soon known to GIs as “murder holes,” covered Omaha, more than all three British beaches combined.  Unlike the obstacles at Utah, many of the 3,700 wood pilings and iron barriers embedded in the tidal flat at Omaha were festooned with mines—“like huckleberries,” as a Navy officer described them.  Unique among the five beaches, the escarpment allowed plunging as well as grazing fire.  Thirty-five pillboxes and eight massive bunkers—some “as big as a New England town hall,” one reporter’s description—defended the beach’s five exits, while eighteen antitank sites, six Nebelwerfer rocket-launcher pits, and four artillery positions covered the balance of the beach.  Guns enfiladed nearly every grain of sand on Omaha, concealed from the sea by concrete and earthen blast shields that aerial photos had failed to find.  (The Guns At Last Light at p. 65)

In the midst of this turmoil the men of 1 Platoon C Company 2nd Ranger Battalion managed to negotiate murderous bedlam on the beach, penetrate treacherous barricades of lethal obstacles and scale looming cliff walls to reach their designated targets.  Max Hastings in Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy (Simon & Shuster, 1984) describes this terrifying mission, which resulted in the capture of the threatening gun emplacements.  Their assigned task took the Rangers several hours to accomplish.  As noon approached, platoon leader Lieutenant Sid Salomon forlornly surveyed the madness on the beach below, convinced the invasion was a failure and that he’d probably have to swim back to England (Overlord at pp. 102-103).

Saving Private Ryan begins at the American Cemetery in Normandy, above the D-Day beaches.  The film’s opening image is of a U.S. flag shot with the sun pouring through it from behind so that the stars and stripes look brittle and translucent.  An elderly man has come to visit the graves of fallen comrades.  Stark white grave markers stand in endless lines stretching out in all directions, but he manages to find those important to him.  From this contemporary scene the film segues to a harrowing re-enactment of the D-Day landing at Omaha Beach, fifty years earlier.  What follows is a battle sequence that stands alone as a visual and aural masterpiece.  The opening shot shows angular iron obstacles arrayed in sinister chevrons on a specific sector of beach identified as Dog Green.  Allied planners had divvied up the Omaha landing zone into eight such sectors that also included Charlie, Dog White, Dog Red, Easy Green, Easy Red, Fox Green and Fox Red.  As a landing craft approaches the shoreline through heavy surf, GIs are seen puking over the sides of the vessel.  Captain Miller’s right hand is shown first—it appears to be trembling with fear.  As the camera tilts up to capture his face, Miller takes a slug of whatever resides in his canteen and braces himself.

Platoon leader Salomon was thirty—old for a lieutenant—when he hit the beach at Normandy.  Tom Hanks, cast as Captain John H. Miller, a character probably inspired by Salomon, was forty-two when Saving Private Ryan was released.  Pudgy and puffy-faced, Hanks does not visually register as a hardened infantryman.  Tom Sizemore, who plays Sgt. Mike Horvath (Miller’s subordinate and confidant), was then thirty-seven—more than a decade older than the man he portrayed.  Rick Atkinson writes: “The average GI was twenty-six, born the year that the war to end all wars ended, but manpower demands in this global struggle meant the force was growing younger: henceforth nearly half of all American troops arriving to fight in Europe in 1944 would be teenagers.”  (The Guns At Last Light at p. 19)  Hanks and Sizemore were also conspicuously overweight, and both men looked ridiculous in combat fatigues.  In this regard, Saving Private Ryan closely resembles The Longest Day and that school of war films where suspension of disbelief is mandatory.

When the ramp of Miller’s landing craft is lowered, a blast of machine-gun fire annihilates the first echelon of Rangers.  The camera then follows surviving GIs down the ramp and over the sides of the vessel and into the sea, where they drown beneath the weight of their equipment or get perforated by lethal streams of bullets that trail tiny bubbles like miniature torpedoes.  Once on the beach things don’t markedly improve.  Many of the invading Rangers cling to the first line of obstacles, as if such paltry shelter will protect them from the unrelenting hurricane of steel projectiles.  Others totally lose their shit.  Soon the surf is pink with blood and the sand is strewn with corpses.  (Some of Spielberg’s images of helmeted men shouldering ashore were obviously inspired by Frank Capa’s iconic photographs of the event.)  Ahead of the assault force loom the German defenses, which appear darkly medieval, ominous and impenetrable.  The soundtrack briefly shifts from the cacophony of battle to a numbing drone that represents Miller’s mental state as he negotiates the beach.  He sees a man carrying a flamethrower suddenly set ablaze when struck by shell fire, incinerating a couple Rangers standing nearby, while further along the beach a squad of Rangers spill from a burning landing craft with their uniforms aflame.  They wheel and spin through blood-tinged surf like dancers in some primitive ritual.  A soldier missing an arm locates it near his feet and seeks out a medic while a fallen soldier who has been eviscerated, his guts splayed across the sand, screams hopelessly for his mother.  A wounded soldier Miller encounters at the surf line and drags up the beach is struck by a mortar round and soon thereafter Miller is shocked to discover he is hauling only the upper portion of his burden.  The filming and editing of this sequence creates a surreal world within a world, an illusion shattered by a persistent GI loudly demanding orders from his superior—which snaps Miller out of his reverie.  As the captain regains his composure the soundtrack returns to real-time battle noise, which is huge and shocking and all too often punctuated by an unsettling metallic clang whenever a GI catches a bullet in the helmet.  Miller, with the able assistance of Sergeant Horvath, prods and berates and cajoles his men into moving up the beach and away from the surf line: if they linger there, he explains, they must certainly be destroyed.  Leading by example, Miller pilots his men across a beachscape so crowded with corpses that medics use the dead to shelter the wounded.  Miller’s Rangers reach a wall of barbed wire where a Bangalore torpedo is used to blast an opening, and thereafter make it to the base of the big gun emplacement they’ve been assigned to capture.  Using a shaving mirror cemented to a bayonet with chewing gum, Miller orchestrates the final assault on the massive concrete structure—an obstacle that must be taken if the critical Dog Green exit from the beach is to be secured.  Utilizing grenades and a flamethrower, the Rangers seize the crucial emplacement and in the moments thereafter are shown shooting unarmed Germans with their hands raised.

Once Spielberg’s Hollywood Rangers have accomplished their goal—silencing the German batteries that threaten the beach—things go seriously off the rails.  It now becomes necessary to examine the post-Holocaust world.  Not the actual Holocaust or Shoah, but the television miniseries Holocaust first broadcast in 1978.  It had a wonderful cast—Fritz Weaver, Sam Wanamaker, Meryl Streep, David Warner and James Woods among others—and was filmed on location in Europe, and—for the very first time (in mainstream media)—offered an unflinching look at life beneath the Nazi iron heel.  Unfortunately, the advertisers were not entirely on board with the spirit of the proceedings.  Immediately after witnessing a young Jewish woman gang-raped by Gestapo thugs, viewers were treated to an ad touting the joys of Underalls which, a curvaceous young actress explains, make you look “like you’re not wearing nothing!”  But even these jarring incongruities could not detract from the substance and power of the miniseries.  The word “holocaust” had not been widely used to describe the Nazi program to exterminate European Jews until after the show aired.  Before then, the death camps and the mass executions committed by the Nazis received only cursory examination when documentaries about the conflict were made.  Holocaust permanently altered the landscape.  This was a positive development, but immediately following its broadcast every American Jew, often from a family that had resided in North America for generations, was persuaded—against all fact and logic—that somehow he or she was directly impacted by Nazi crimes, though those events had occurred half a world away.  Israel used the popularity of the TV show to double down on its illegal settlements and to quell criticism of its own numerous crimes against humanity.  Indeed, by citing the Holocaust, Israel has for decades successfully circumvented international law.  In the post-Holocaust world Elie Wiesel’s Night, a fictional account of the death camps, has acquired a considerable international following while the memoirs of actual Holocaust survivors such as Viktor Frankl and Primo Levi are increasingly overlooked.  Saving Private Ryan is a post-Holocaust war movie and can only be considered in that light.

In Spielberg’s flick, once the crucial German emplacement on Omaha Beach is safely in U.S. hands, a Ranger finds a Hitler Youth knife that he ceremoniously offers a Jewish private named Mellish, played by Adam Goldberg.  On receipt of this gift, Mellish is overcome with emotion.  This scene is utter nonsense.

On July 23, 1944 the Red Army liberated a German death camp called Majdanek in Lublin, Poland—the first of many to be freed.  Before Majdanek made international headlines, little was known to the outside world of the Final Solution.  Certainly, a New York Jew named Mellish had no knowledge of such things.  At the highest levels of the U.S. Government and its Western allies decision makers possessed solid information about Nazi atrocities, but determined that the fate of an isolated minority ranked well below the greater imperative of defeating the Nazi war machine, and intelligence concerning these unspeakable crimes remained classified.  No word of these horrors reached the average GI until the hideous discoveries at Majdanek exposed Nazi war crimes to a wider public, but these events would not occur for nearly two months after the landings at Normandy.  In Overlord, Max Hastings notes an incident that occurred toward the end of June 1944, nearly a month after the landings: “Sergeant Andy Hertz, an American aviation engineer, was once asked to dinner by a French refugee family, fellow Jews.  He said that it was his first inkling of what the Germans were doing to his people.  As a souvenir, his hosts gave him one of the yellow Stars of David that they had been compelled to wear.  He kept it all his life.”  (Overlord at p. 200)

Why would Mellish be moved to tears on receipt of said knife?  Did he possess some form of telepathy that afforded him insights into Nazi designs unavailable to his fellow man?  Did he wear a tinfoil hat and receive alien broadcasts?  Saving Private Ryan is a film that could only exist in post-Holocaust Hollywood—a dominion of absurdity wherein the entire U.S. European war effort was launched not to free captive nations from the Nazis or to end Hitler’s threat to the international community, but solely to save European Jews from the death camps.  (Historian James McPherson defined historical negationism as “a consciously-falsified or distorted interpretation of the past to serve partisan or ideological purposes in the present”. )

In post-Holocaust Hollywood all matters associated with World War Two are subsumed by the Final Solution and its attendant horrors.  In 1967 Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen presented a group of homicidal misfits trained for a special mission to kill German military leaders.  In 2009 Quentin Tarantino reprised Aldrich’s effort with a movie called Inglorious Basterds—but this time the homicidal misfits out to knock off German generals are American Jews seeking vengeance for the Holocaust.  Even a flick remote from the Holocaust feels its effect: in Paul Schrader’s 2002 Auto Focus about Hogan’s Heroes star Bob Crane, Rita Wilson, who plays Bob Crane’s wife opposite Greg Kinnear, tells him after reviewing a Hogan’s Heroes script: “Bob, it’s the Holocaust.”  Auto Focus is set in the late 60’s, long before Holocaust was aired, when the term “holocaust” was used solely to describe a terrible event such as a plague or a great fire.  Further, a POW camp such as that depicted in Hogan’s Heroes had nothing to do with the extermination of Jews, but in post-Holocaust Hollywood anything bearing the stamp of World War Two is somehow connected to the death camps.  There are countless such examples post-1978.

Allied casualties on D-Day were appalling.  Rick Atkinson writes: “. . . the eight assault divisions now ashore had suffered 12,000 killed, wounded, and missing, with thousands more unaccounted for, most of whom had simply gotten lost in the chaos.”  (The Guns At Last Light at p. 85)

Saving Private Ryan briefly looks homeward, where those in the War Office process death notices for surviving family members.  Here it is learned that three of four brothers belonging to the Ryan clan have been killed, including two during the D-Day landings.  It is decided that an effort must be made to save the remaining Ryan boy and return him to his family.  This is hooey.  The fate of a single GI meant not a dram to those prosecuting the war effort, and from here on Saving Private Ryan ceases to be a serious movie about war and instead becomes a war movie modeled after a Boy’s Life adventure, with all the fantastical elements implied therein.  After the supercharged opening sequence, this is a catastrophic plot development.

Miller is asked to locate and retrieve Private Ryan and relates these improbable orders to a disbelieving Horvath.  The last French-speaking member of his squad had been killed that morning, so Miller must locate a replacement interpreter and finds one in Corporal Upham, who also happens to speak German.  Upham, played by Jeremy Davies, is portrayed as clumsy, inept and perpetually flustered.  Cartoonishly so.  This is to distance him from the Kool Kidz—the veteran members of Miller’s unit.  The Omaha Beach battle sequence ends at minute 24, and by minute 39 the script has already devolved to this sophomoric level.  Here we first encounter Upham’s persistent question: “What is FUBAR?”  The answer—Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition—is something only the Kool Kidz are privy to.

In the event, Allied forces hit a wall soon after leaving the beaches.  It was called the bocage: Norman pastureland framed with hedgerows.  Max Hastings in Overlord: “The huge earthen walls, thickly woven with tree and brush roots, that bordered every field were impenetrable to tanks; each one was a natural line of fortification.”  (Overlord at p. 152)  Treatises have been written about the difficulties posed by this landscape, which brought the Allied advance to a screeching halt.  Saving Private Ryan was filmed at various locations in England and Ireland, but none possessed terrain that even approximates the bocage.  Once again, suspension of disbelief is in order.

Miller’s band of merry men set out to find Ryan.  Observing these actors in period uniforms from a Twenty-First Century remove, one is struck by the absolute whiteness of the 1940’s U.S. Army.  Racism so profound and so implacable is impossible to ignore.  A war that at first glance appears morally unambiguous becomes less so upon closer examination.

Miller meets with the commanding officer of a unit they encounter in a Norman village (a captain played by Ted Danson, fifty-one at the time of filming) who provides them information as to Ryan’s whereabouts.

Next morning they reach tents sheltering wounded men at the rallying point where Ryan’s unit is gathering.  While Miller and the others press for information about Ryan, Mellish stands next to a passing line of German POWs and flashes his dogtags and a Star of David medallion and verbally identifies himself as “Juden”.  Once again, this is a fantasy of the post-Holocaust world.  Rick Atkinson reports in The Guns At Last Light that during the later Battle of the Huertgen Forest:  “Artillery and mortar barrages pounded Kommerscheidt through the night, and catcalling enemy infiltrators crept so close in the encroaching draws that Jewish GIs hammered out the telltale “H”—for “Hebrew”—on their dogtags.”  (The Guns At Last Light at p. 322)  Huertgen Forest occurred some weeks after the Red Army’s shocking discoveries at Majdanek, and Jews quite sensibly did not wish to flaunt their identity—as Mellish so proudly does—but rather to disguise it.  Mellish had no inkling that Nazi death camps existed and thus had no reason to behave in such a way, and had he known of the death camps and the fate of Jews captured by the Nazis, he likely would have hammered out the “H” on his dogtags in the manner Atkinson described above.  Here again, truth and fact are at odds with the post-Holocaust world, where Spielberg so comfortably resides.

Amazingly, Miller and his gang meet a partially deafened GI who actually does know Ryan and also has a good idea of his whereabouts—he’s part of a group of paratroopers defending a crucial bridge.  Armed with this information, Miller consults a map and identifies the location of the bridge but as he does so, his trembling right hand becomes painfully obvious to the other members of his unit.

They move off toward this new destination, marching through empty fields in a bucolic landscape.  During this passage and a later similar passage, there is no sense that they are combat soldiers operating in a war zone.  There is no distant crump of artillery or persistent drone of aircraft and the sky overhead is free of contrails, despite the thousands of sorties flown by allied airmen in support of the invasion.  Given advances in CGI and the magnificent budgets typically commanded by Spielberg projects, this is an inexplicable oversight.

Later, following an attack on a machine gun nest agmented by a radar array, Miller and company capture a German soldier.  The unit prepares to execute the soldier, who pathetically begs for his life, telling them he loves America as he spouts references to American popular culture—Betty Boop, Betty Grable and Steamboat Willie.  Becoming ever more desperate, he sings a scrambled but recognizable version of the Star Spangled Banner.  Upham—the only one in the unit who speaks German—attempts to intercede on his behalf, but the others will have none of it.  Just as his execution appears inevitable, Miller blindfolds the captive and lets him walk free.

At length Miller’s band locates Private Ryan.  Played by Matt Damon, Ryan is attached to a unit of Pathfinders defending a crucial bridge.  He leads Miller’s Rangers to the small town where the bridge and his compatriots are located.  Ryan protests that he can’t abandon his comrades in such a perilous situation.  Horvath angrily tells Ryan that Miller’s unit has already suffered two losses trying to locate him.  Miller asks Ryan how his mother will react when she receives yet another folded flag, but Ryan cannot be moved.

The penultimate sequence of the film charts a German attack on the bridge.  Though Miller and his men have planned what they believe is an effective defense, their plans go awry as soon as the first shots are fired.  One of the attacking Germans is the man Miller had earlier spared execution who, during the ensuing melee, kills Mellish with a bayonet.  Most of Miller’s unit is destroyed in this chaotic battle, and those who make it out alive owe their survival to the timely arrival of Allied reinforcements.  As the guns fall silent, Upham rises up from behind a pile of rubble and brandishes his M1 and—barking orders in fluent German—captures a squad of Wehrmacht troopers, one of whom is the soldier spared by Miller who now addresses Upham by name.  Upham shoots this man in cold blood while background music wells up heroically.  Elsewhere, Miller lies mortally wounded and Ryan goes to his side.  Miller’s last words to Ryan are “Prove it,” suggesting that Ryan now must make something of his life, given all that has been sacrificed to save it.  The final scene returns the audience to the graveyard above the beaches, where a now-elderly Ryan asks his family if he has led a good life.

Spielberg later claimed that Saving Private Ryan is an anti-war movie rather than a movie celebrating war, though the effect on audiences upon its initial release—when theatergoers loudly cheered as Upham quite deliberately shoots the unarmed German soldier—would seem to contradict this assertion.  In the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan Spielberg shows GIs gunning down defenseless Germans with their hands raised, but he also has the Wehrmacht soldier whose life Miller spared at the radar array returning to drive a bayonet through Mellish’s heart, as if to suggest such acts of mercy have no place on the battlefield and that all Germans are evil, period.

Of the soldiers portrayed in Saving Private Ryan, Miller alone has any dimension.  The others are merely stock characters, only one of whom—Caparzo—is played by an actor of almost the appropriate age: Vin Diesel, who was a relatively youthful 30 at the time of filming.  (Matt Damon at 27 was also young enough for his part.)  Some performances don’t even register.  It wasn’t until my third viewing that I realized Paul Giamatti—a fine actor—was briefly onscreen, playing someone named Sergeant Hill.  Saving Private Ryan has a terrific cast absurdly underserved by its screenwriter, who saddles them with the improbable task of risking all to save a single rifleman and to somehow make such a thing seem believable.

Robert Rodat, the screenwriter, was later responsible for the script to The Patriot, a Mel Gibson vehicle with its main character—Benjamin Martin—allegedly based on four actual participants in the American Revolution, including Daniel Morgan.  As is so painfully the case with Saving Private Ryan, The Patriot has only a tenuous grasp of historical reality.  British film history professor Mark Glancy describes it as “horrendously inaccurate”.

Saving Private Ryan is history re-imagined through a Zionist prism.  Alterations to the historical record in Spielberg’s film might seem slight or “nuanced” and therefore benign, but there is no harmless way to rewrite history.  The absence of any reference visually or otherwise to bocage terrain or to the aerial aspect of the invasion and a cast that included many who were far too old for the roles they played persuades me that historical accuracy was never high on the filmmaker’s agenda.  An orthodox Jew with close ties to Israel (Lebanon recently banned his 2017 release, The Post, because of these close ties), Spielberg could only visualize this hugely important historical event from an exceedingly narrow post-Holocaust perspective and Saving Private Ryan suffered grievously for it, but even more troubling is the false history he presented to movie audiences through a very powerful medium.  Leni Riefenstahl, anybody?

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Chris Welzenbach is a playwright (“Downsize”) who for many years was a member of Walkabout Theater in Chicago. He can be reached at incoming@chriswelzenbach.com

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