Posted: June 1st, 2021
The ingenious film, directed by Steven Spielberg, ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is in my opinion the most realistic film to ever portray the D- Day landings. Many critics have even said it to be so vivid that the only element missing is the smell. In the Film’s first battle scene, lasting twenty- five minutes in total, it brings all reality into the living nightmare that took place so long ago. Brought back into life by Spielberg, I will show how he creates excitement and tension in the most realistic of ways.
I will discuss how he portrays the characters, his use of sound and last of all, his use of camera shots and how they contribute to the overall effect of the scene. Spielberg manifests an overall memorable opening scene and I will show just how. Released on the 24th July 1998, ‘Saving Private Ryan’ promised to break all blockbuster records and go straight to the top. Spielberg stunned the world with the film’s realism and authenticity, proving that his renowned reputation is not just hearsay, but fact.
The plot is loosely inspired by the true story of the Niland brothers, where two of the four were killed and the third, presumed dead. The decision was made to retrieve the fourth, to prevent a national uproar and from a whole family from being wiped out due to War. The plot, proving exciting, brings much controversy over the mission to risk eight lives for the sake of one. The whole epic World War 11 drama cost approximately $65 million in total, most of which was spent on the graphic detail and effects in the first battle scene of the film.
Although the twenty-five minute battle scene is complex cinematically and visually, the plot of the beach landings follows through reasonably simply. The scene starts off in focus of a small regiment of troops, quivering inside the hull of a boat, petrified by the sound of oncoming machine gun fire. The ramps fall down as a wheel spins round, pronouncing the ends to most of their lives. The boat opens out as many are shot dead instantly by the flurry of bullets thrust toward them. Few make it out a live before they have to plough through thousands of dead up the beach.
As the battle scene cuts into view, the first character to be seen visually is Captain Miller. This immediately indicates that he is high up in rank and so, instantly gives him a commanding presence among the craft. The calmness of his voice even seems to sedate the tension in the atmosphere. However, the initial part of him to be seen is his pair of trembling hands. This conventionally is a sign of fear and to some, may show a weakness. Leaders are not usually associated with fear; stereotypically they are fearless. Spielberg has used this ironically, to show the realism within his character.
All the soldiers fighting on that day were normal citizens fighting for pride and country. They all experienced fear. On D- day there were no fearless war heroes such as John Wayne and this is why Captain Miller, along with all the other troops, is shown in trepidation. As the shot moves outward, the whole of Captain Miller’s body is revealed. His appearance can be seen and again realism is reinforced. The person acting as Captain Miller, Tom Hanks does not have the stereotypical appearance of a War hero; he is small, placid and in lack of the muscle attributes usually associated with a clichi??d soldier.
Through this casting Spielberg conveys a message. The men fighting on that day were normal. They weren’t all large men built of muscle, who could defy death and so, the person cast as Captain Miller isn’t either. Through this, the character of Captain Miller is made realer to the audience, thus making the film more accurate and historically correct. On the beach, after the regiment has landed, the Captain experiences a brief period where his emotions and conscience are thrown into turmoil. The horror of what is happening around him starts to sink in, as all terror results in a mental breakdown.
The fact that he does not just march through the beach and that he is affected shows his compassion and empathy. It shows he is a caring human being; one who is gravely affected by the horrific things being done to his comrades. Through this period of collapse, Spielberg creates lots of tension, as the audience, who have gradually started to become attached to this realistic character, are willing him to snap out of it and gain his composure. They want him to get out of this situation and lead his troops up the beach.
Another character that stands prominent in this scene is that of Sergeant Horvath. Spielberg has used Horvath’s character to contrast with Captain Miller, and this is seen even in the first few seconds of his di??but. Immediately as the audience set eyes upon his broad build, it can be seen that he is much more robust than the Captain and that he conforms more to the stereotypical image of a fictional war hero. I think that Spielberg has highlighted this point emphasise the normality and ordinary image of Captain Miller.
He has done this to show that soldiers were all shapes and sizes. Through this contrast made, the realism of both characters is increased as they both can be recognised uniquely. Horvath and Miller again contrast in their methods of dealing with the trepidation and horror thrown at them. Whereas the Captain releases his petrified state through the constant trembling of his hands, Horvath allows his fear to disperse through chewing. Through Horvath’s different reaction, Spielberg defines his character more, making him more realistic as he deals with situations in a different way.
As soldiers in real life all reacted uniquely depending on their personalities, Horvath does too. The audience then can identify better with him, likening him to people they know, thus recognising him as a real type of person, one who is unique. Although Captain Miller and Sergeant Horvath contrast in many ways, together they form a prevailing partnership. In every order relayed by the Captain, the Sergeant reinforces it, thus portraying his regard, proving that he has an immense admiration for the man. Horvath continuously stays close to the Captain, waiting for his command and looking out for him.
Spielberg uses him as the Captains right arm. Everything about Horvath, from his bear like face, down to his cumbersome build, shout; protector! In view of this, the audience take a liking to him and confide comfort in the fact that Horvath will protect and bring their ‘everyman’ (the Captain) to safety. Spielberg uses the relationship between the two characters to excite the audience, as he shows that War is so out of the ordinary, that it brought together people in friendships who otherwise wouldn’t have done so.
Captain Miller and Sergeant Horvath have such a strong relationship during this scene that excitement arouses among the audience, as they know that together the two will survive. Private Jackson, the regiment’s sniper is another character that has an essential role in the battle scene. His preliminary appearance is in the landing craft, immediately before the ramps descend. His face, being one of pure dread is an open book to the audience. He is so terrified that his expression and the first act that he commits, a kiss on a cross, show that he believes that there is no hope for survival left.
It is as though he thinks that a kiss on the cross is the last action he is going to do and that if God is ever going to come to his aid, let it be now. I think that Spielberg has used this crucifix and his expression of misgiving, to draw compassion for the Private, but also to show how close death is to God. Immense suspense is created through the terror in Jackson’s eyes. Private Jackson is not focused upon much during the struggle to gain ground and progress up the beach, however is substantial in the climax of the Scene.
In this section of the scene, there is a long pause where the camera focuses upon the concentration on Jackson’s face. He is speaking to God as he prepares to shoot and kill the Germans. During this moment of prayer, Jackson is in the action, yet alone and buried in responsibility. The long, seemingly calm pause is interspersed with other images of the dying, frantically praying to God in midst of all Chaos. Spielberg has used this range of images varied together, to prolong Jackson’s pause, generating tension as the audience anticipate the outcome.
The different images are of various scenarios, where like Jackson they are praying to God in their time of need. Although the requirements of God are very different, this just shows that whatever situation that people are in, the natural instinct at the end of the day, is to call for a supernatural being, to come at their rescue. The element of spiritual confiding in this, show again just how close death is to God and this is clearly portrayed when Jackson say’s: “I am close to you Lord”. This is said moments before the Private shoots.
He at this point is unsure of his survival and shows that he knows that he is incredibly close to dying. Spielberg lets the audience know this too and creates ample suspense through the pause. All tension that has been lingering is completely released when Private Jackson shoots and kills the remaining Germans. At this point the enemy onslaught has been destroyed and the American Soldiers are safe. Spielberg uses this point to release all of the excitement and tension that has been building up, transferring the audience into a relative calm.
In the whole of the Battle scene, death is an element not escaped from. Spielberg has chosen to portray War how it really was, holding nothing back. In real life, death is not heroic; it is a tragedy that brings fear into the hearts of all men. It was not attractive, it was horrific and to keep it in line with realism. Spielberg too had to show it in this way. During the Scene, everywhere you turn, there is a person dying a painful death, with screams pronouncing the bodies awash with blood.
Spielberg creates compassion among the audience, with empathy for the injured. However, he also arouses tension as the thought that maybe one of their favoured characters will be next, loiters in their minds. Spielberg has chosen to show death in such graphic detail, to keep nothing back from the audience. He wants to show it in a realistic way and I think wants to make it as authentic as possible. In other fictional War films, the Soldiers die heroically and for a patriotic reason. In reality, the Soldiers did not want to die and were scared out of their wits.
Spielberg has portrayed it much truer to life and has steered away from these stereotypical films into reality, in order to keep the whole film’s authenticity as honest as possible. Unlike the Americans during the scene, the audience does not see the Germans’ faces. The camera shot restricts the view to distinguish only their backs, shoulders and arms from the rear. Spielberg has done this to dehumanise them, taking away the audiences empathy for their emotions. The eyes are said to be the ‘windows into your soul’ and by masking their faces the audience cannot see them and therefore can’t sympathise with their emotional state.
The Germans were human and they too were going through the same trauma as the Americans. However, Spielberg wanted to get the audience biased toward the allies and so stopped the audience from having any compassion for the ‘enemy’. By doing this, Spielberg creates tension as the audience don’t want the Germans (whom they have no emotional attachment to) to kill the ‘much loved’ Americans. One machine gun post poses the greatest threat of all, mowing down life by life in every careless movement.
The regiment of Soldiers, led by Captain Miller, work as a unified team to break past the barbed wire and screams of the dying. Taking cover, with the aid of their sniper, they kill they gunners and advance past the German bunker. All tension is then released; we know that for now that they are safe. Spielberg has used the characters in such a way, to reinforce the overall realism in the scene. By using one stereotypical character to represent the professional soldiers fighting on that day, he contrasts the rest of the characters to him, emphasising their statuses as average civilians.
Through this contrast, realism is put into each of the characters as the realisation that these men were ordinary, comes into the minds of each spectator. Spielberg exploits the character’s thoughts and feelings, making the audience connect with them, thus producing tension at the uncertainty of their survival. Through these points made by Spielberg, as a teenage male, I can appreciate the fact that these soldiers were not much older than I and that they weren’t all war heroes, but young, petrified men.
Sound is another resource greatly used by Spielberg. The ever-loud rapidity of war seems to up the pace of the scene constantly, heightening the adrenaline of the audience and bringing their physical emotional rate in parallel with the chaos on the screen. Spielberg produces immense excitement, as the audience cannot bear to look away. Every moment is unpredictable and so is the sound along with it and this is extremely exciting and tense for the spectator. The last and possibly the greatest used of all three techniques is that of camera work.
Spielberg has used this element to create immense tension in the scene. He has done this most notably through a deception early on, by killing off characters that the audience have become attached to and so, simulating an emotion of loss. Through out the scene he has used a long lingering shots to contrast with the rapid staccato of battle, emphasising certain important pauses, thus also generating suspense. The shots of death throughout the scene are extremely moving and certainly cause every spectator to stop and think about the brave men who died on 6th June 1944.
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