It was said that the opening scenes of the D-Day invasion were so realistic that veterans hospitals across the country became filled with vets suffering from flashbacks after seeing the film.
The photographers of the American Civil War recorded not the battle but its aftermath: the field, debris-strewn and unpopulated, where a famous general fell. In the 1860s cameras were able to capture such scenes of eerie calm, eloquent in their desolation; but when civilians wanted to imagine the action—the way a sharpshooter stretched along a tree limb, one hand braced as he took aim—they had to look to the sketch artists, such as Winslow Homer. Quick cameras, and photographers willing to risk their lives to use them, went into battle only later. Robert Capa defined the new era with his image of an isolated man flinging wide his arms while reeling backward: a Loyalist soldier in the Spanish Civil War, seen at the moment of death.
By the time that picture was made, a few people had also taken moving images of slaughter. The French director and educator Marcel L’Herbier got his introduction to film while working for the army during World War I, editing footage shot in the trenches. He reviewed and then eliminated images of decapitation, evisceration and similar grisliness deemed unsuitable for screening on the Home Front. Offices of military propaganda are not run by Robert Capas; and so, in motion pictures, the traditional procedure has been to record authentic scenes of battle, then scrap them.
Quasi-authenticity straggles into view a few years after the war, presented by entertainers. When King Vidor made The Big Parade (1925), he depicted with great persuasiveness both the intimate horror of death in a foxhole and the awe-inspiring magnitude of an army on the march. Even today, those sequences can stir an audience. But they don’t quiet the mind, as do the great still photos of a time or place of fighting. Motion itself puts us into the mindset of drama; and so we lose the aura of the absolute that can surround a moment out of time.
Saving Private Ryan is not free of drama; but it comes closer than we’d have any reason to expect, and it moves. Everything in the film—story, theme, mood, moral—flows unstoppably from its opening recreation of the D-Day landing, a sequence that assaults both Omaha Beach and movies-as-usual. With all the artifice at his command, Steven Spielberg shatters the conventional comforts of artifice: You scarcely know which character to follow or which part of the screen to watch, how long the omnidirectional nightmare will last or how much blood will wash through. Within the first seconds, the bloodshed surpasses expectation; expectation itself is blown apart. I felt as if Capa’s pictures from Omaha Beach had multiplied and sprung into movement.
This was miracle enough for one summer spent in the dark—maybe even too much of a miracle. Since watching the picture, I’ve been yakking compulsively about Private Ryan and also (no surprise) about my father, sometimes without discriminating between the two. I think I’ll spare you my account of Sgt. Jack NMI Klawans (Heb) and his experiences with the Third Army. As for the film that so powerfully called up his memory: Although it’s imposing enough to have claimed the lead of this column, it now must yield to other pictures. What Spielberg does best, he has done supremely well in Saving Private Ryan. What he cannot do you may find in half a dozen other films, which are making this a memorably happy summer for sitting indoors.