Saving Private Ryan: Anti-war or Pro-war?

The movie Saving Private Ryan directed by Stephen Spielberg is a war movie that aim to demonstrate the reality of the war on the battlefield. Despite the movie’s success in moving the audience to tears with the bravery of the soldiers, there are critics that doubt the movie’s ability to truly expose the root of a war. However, the movie’s ability to present the realism on the battlefield allows people to visually experience the hardships that every soldier went through and promotes the anti-war theme.

There are people argue that the movie is not enough to be an anti-war movie.

In the article Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan: Small Truths at the Expense of Big Ones by David Walsh, he expressed his concern:

“The war found its real source in the conflicts between different groups of major capitalist countries for supremacy. . . . seeking to establish its own global dominance… Did the true character of the war, in some fashion or other, communicate itself to the troops in the field?. . . . One suspects not” (Walsh, 1).

Walsh was calling out the political war that the movie had left out. Every war was ignited from the difference in ideas from different countries; in this case, it was the Allies against the Axis, and they used war as a mean to force each other into submission. Walsh expected Spielberg’s movie, as an anti-war movie to go deep into the root of the problem, and expose the causes to the audience, in order to maximize the true meaning of war. He also believed that soldiers from the Second World War would not commit to the battle as much as their predecessors had done in the Civil War 80 years ago. From Walsh’s point of view, Saving Private Ryan was more of an “anti-militaristic” rather than an “anti-war” movie.

Biguenet also added to Walsh’s doubt with a critical detail:

“In nearly three hours, apart from the letter by Lincoln that General Marshall reads and the one that he himself writes to Ryan’s mother, “Saving Private Ryan” offers not a single word about love of country.” (Biguenet, 1).

Biguenet thought that Spielberg had the characters focus in surviving the battle so much that he reduced the time where characters could have express their patriotism. He also pointed out that Spielberg’s misuse of Lincoln’s letter to a mother of five that all perished in the battle. Because in reality, Mrs. Bixby — the mother of five actually protested the enlistment of her sons. Two of them died in combat, one became a prisoner of war, and finally two deserted. Biguenet also cited detail from M. Lincoln Schuster’s A Treasury of the World’s Great Letters, that Lincoln should not have the right to write such letter “while his own two sons, one still a child but the other 21, were ‘kept at home in luxury, far from the dangers of the field.’” To the general audience, the use of Lincoln’s great letter seem to be an effective way to boost the morale of the troops.

Even though Biguete and Walsh criticized Spielberg’s methods of achieving the anti-war theme, Hunter in the other hand praised his set up. According to his article Spielberg’s War: It’s Hell, he wrote:

“But Spielberg also understands war’s deepest reality, which is that being there is not enough, and being willing to die for your country is also not enough; you have to be willing to kill for your country” (Hunter, 1).

Hunter’s view for a soldier to enter the real war was his will to survive and his will to kill human being. There were only two things happen on the battlefield: Kill or be killed. Hunter’s statement was most likely supported by Walsh’s detail that soldiers of the 1940s were workers, professionals, or small farmers — who had never kill a human being before. Spielberg showed that idea through the character Sergeant Upham — a German and French translator who had not been in an actual combat. Upham was chosen to tag along on the mission after Miller’s translator was killed. Sergeant Upham perfectly demonstrated the psychology of a rookie — he was nervous; he always tried to talk with squad members to divert his fear; he was unable to squeeze the trigger after witnessing his friend’s death in vain. Upham’s emotion was mixed and his actions were not coordinated with the situation. Spielberg’s purpose was to create a “mess” out of Upham — to show how a newbie would really react in the midst of the battle.

Hunter also crushed a mainstream idea that many war movie mistakenly delivered: War is not a sport. In the essay, he quoted about how Spielberg’s movie described the realism of war:

“It’s mean, terrifying, exhausting and quipless. There’s no spunk and very little humor. Morale is nonexistent. It’s a grinding, debasing job carried out in physical misery in an environment — mud, rain, cold — that is itself an enemy. . . .the biggest cliche that the movie assaults is the very conceit upon which war movies have been eternally built: It is the idea that somehow, combat is cool. . . . And there was that Hollywood thing where the hero ran through blizzards of fire and somehow was never touched, because, after all, he was the hero” (Hunter, 1).
The protagonists usually survive the unbelievable. Here’s why.

Hunter tackled the issue where war was shown as something magnificent by recent studios. Movies that used war as a theme for entertaining often starred fortunate main character who zapped through the firestorm without taking a single wound — because he was the main character. He defeated the enemy, snatched the glories and walked away with a cool explosion — a series of movie editing indeed. But none of those moments were found in Saving Private Ryan. The battlefield in Saving Private Ryan was filled with blood, guts, bodies, body parts, flesh — just anything within the body of a human being — all over the field. The realistic, uncensored clips of gore definitely delivered the message: War is not something to be fantasized or dream to be a part of.

Soldiers die to enemy fire—Normandy invasion scene.

While I agree with Biguenet and Walsh that Saving Private Ryan is not qualified to be considered a full-fledged anti-war movie, I also believe it certainly not a pro-war movie either. If Walsh is leaning more toward the causes of war, then Hunter’s argument is a showcase about the consequence of war for the soldiers.

The picture that Walsh wanted Spielberg to draw was the mechanics of war. He wanted the movie to show the audience the causes of a war. He would like to see the progression of each stages of the war. Walsh also wanted the details to be supported by historic records. Walsh had made a plausible point that the movie ought to be consistent with the real life record if the author wanted to portray the anti-war theme. However, because of consistently urging for the accurate details, Walsh had pictured the movie Saving Private Ryan as a documentary piece rather than an entertaining piece.

Biguenet on the other hand had criticized the movie for the lack of patriotism throughout the movie. He even proved that the Abraham Lincoln’s Letter was a misplaced piece by Spielberg. He wanted the war that was presented in the movie to have a meaning; to be able to give the audience a sense of achievement that “It was the right thing to end the war” and to emphasize the respected to the fallen heroes. Biguenet praised the movie for being able to achieve the brutality. But all those slaughters and sacrifices were somewhat empty to Biguenet as the movie was not able to demonstrate “neither glory, morality, patriotism, nor any clear meaning attended the slaughter of millions” (Biguenet, 1).

Instead of trying to find the deeper meaning like Biguenet or demanding for historic accuracy like Walsh, Hunter’s perspective came from footage in the movie. Even though the movie may or may not deliver what Walsh or Biguenet were asking for, it had done a good job of presenting the realism of war. Every scenes in the movie were intense and often blood-filled. Soldiers on the battlefield always at risks of unexpected death. Everything was unpredictable, and the death for each soldiers was brutal. It was hard not to have goose bump with scenes where soldiers watch their friends on the verge of death, suffering, and their final wished was to come back home.

Walsh, Biguenet, and Hunter together had described the elements of war: politic, sacrifice, and the mean of fighting. Walsh believed that a war was started by the dominant powers who were pulling the trigger behind the curtain. They used war as the final mean to force each other into submissions, and the political leaders had to find out a way of propaganda to give the soldiers legitimate reasons to take arms. Once the soldiers decided to become the force for their political leaders, they had to have the will kill for their country, as mentioned in Hunter’s quotes. The battlefield was not a stadium for anyone to impress the others. The battlefield was a place where the soldiers had to do his best in order to survive while they watched their friends felt around themselves. The enemies could be human, or the environment itself. When the soldiers won the war for the politicians, people started to ask themselves if the war was the right thing to do as stated by Biguenet. Biguenet believed that patriotism was one of the greatest factors that decided whether or not a person would take arms and fought for the country.

Another crucial detail was not mention by all three critics, a very important factor that also suffered the consequences of war in which Spielberg included in his movie while most other screenwriters had ignored: Civilians. A scene in the movie where Captain Miller’s squad was being ambushed by a German sniper, and during that chaos, I saw a family of four caught in the middle of the intense fight. The parents and their children were scared and confused; their house was torn in half because of artillery fire; they were defenseless. Even though the family’s appearance only lasted for only a few minutes, but Spielberg was able to implant the consequence of having civilians got caught between the crossfire of opposing factions. Clearly, civilians’ struggle was a critical detail that boosted the anti-war theme that Spielberg was aiming for.

A French family get caught in between the German and American crossfire.

The majority of the movie described the horrors on the actual battlefield. Spielberg streamed the mission of a group of soldiers who were risking their lives to save another soldier so that he could go home and made the commanders in charge, making the political leaders looks good. The movie’s aim was not the sympathy from the audience but allowed the audience to experience the cruel reality of the battle themselves through gory visuals — to promote the anti-war idea that “war is not a sport” as viewed by recent studios (Hunter, 1). I think the movie successfully showed the facial expression and emotion of each character. The audiences saw the different emotions that the soldiers went through. The audience were left wondered how would they react if they were thrown into the midst of the war. Hunter was more reasonable with his statements more than the others critics. Because the movie was showcasing the consequences of war. Spielberg had poured his focus on the field rather than the behind the curtain political cause; he chose to emphasize the emotion of the soldier during the battle rather than the soldiers reflected on what happened after the war. I agree with Hunter that Spielberg’s movie has moved its audience and target the anti-war theme by showing the reality on the battlefield.

Captain Miller struggled to get to the beach just to meet with more gunfire and more people dying around him.
The facial expression of a German sniper while ambushing enemies.

Although Spielberg does not make a connection with the political conflict and patriotism in the movie, Saving Private Ryan still able to offer a realistic experience of war to the audience. By emphasizing the individual’s emotion and visually delivering gruesome images, the screenwriter is able to share the hardships that each and every soldier has to endure on the battlefield.


I would like first to thank my group members Caila and Casey for spending their valuable time and gave me helpful feedback. They read my essay throughout and offered their suggestions. They encouraged me to write toward a better essay. I would like to thank Rachel for proofreading my essay. I would also like to thank Professor Harris for spending his valuable time. His advice propel me forward to keep writing and to produce a meaningful essay. Lastly, I would like to thank the readers for spending their time and enjoy reading the essay.

Author’s Note

War movies have always been my interest. Recent war-related movies usually falsely describe how real wars would really looks like. Movie directors and screenwriters are focusing in creating the most intriguing story lines, with many side elements to make the war looks cool. Their efforts certainly catch people’s attention, and the audiences do enjoy the movies. But the directors and screenwriters are ingraining into many young minds that war is something very cool, and the battlefield is the stage for them to show off. However, comparing to the real wars that had happened and wars that are still ongoing, those movies are illusions that caused people to misunderstand. Saving Private Ryan caught my attention because of the way Spielberg visually depicts the realism of war. His war is filled with ruins, gruesome, blood, despair, and hopelessness — the accurate description of an actual war. I admired the movie and the details that the movie has offered. I enjoy reading the critics. They assist me in realizing the strength and weakness of the movie.


Biguenet, John. “The Profound Contradiction of Saving Private Ryan.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 5 June 2014. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.

Hunter, Stephen. “Spielberg’s War: It’s Hell.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 24 July 1998. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.

Walsh, David. “World Socialist Web Site.” Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan: Small Truths at the Expense of Big Ones.” - International Committee of the Fourth International, 31 July 1998. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.