Saving Captain Miller: Spielberg, Private Ryan and the Morality of War

Tom Sizemore and Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan (1998)

How do you make sense of the madness of war? It’s an almost impossible question, but one that Steven Spielberg attempts to answer in Saving Private Ryan. His third and (to date) final serious film about World War II (following Empire of the Sun and Schindler’s List, but excluding the comedic 1941), it’s arguably the most influential of the three and in its storytelling approach, perhaps the most interesting. While the other two entries into this unofficial World War II trilogy found Spielberg addressing the wider war and unfathomable atrocities of the Holocaust, here he deals in microcosm, minimising an expansive conflict into a representative morality tale that focuses almost entirely on the nature of battle, the toll it takes and how we justify that to ourselves.

Fittingly for a film about battle, Saving Private Ryan begins with the famous siege of Omaha Beach. It’s a shocking and horrifyingly lengthy sequence that depicts war as an almost literal hell that bears as much in common with a gothic painting as cinéma vérité realism. Twisted bodies are strewn on the sand, the blue water of the ocean rushes to the shore tinged with blood, fire bursts and smoke billows as gunfire and explosions rip through this once peaceful location. Spielberg is making a statement on the nature of cinema’s depictions of war by stripping away the escapist Boy’s Own tone of films like Where Eagles Dare and The Great Escape, but he’s also asking something of the audience by demanding we take part in it.

We can’t watch this sequence passively. Throughout Spielberg makes us a part of the action by channelling Robert Capa’s famous Magnificent Eleven collection of D-Day photographs and using shaky, point-of-view camerawork to put us on the beach. At one point this cacophonous approach even performs a fourth wall break of sorts as the camera — our head — briefly turns to look at a man writhing in agony, before rushing forward again. Its brevity lends it its potency. He was somebody’s son, somebody’s brother, somebody’s husband or boyfriend. We should identify him and mourn him, but in war he’s just another dead body we can’t afford to linger on. We, like the men on the beach, have been forced into moral abhorrence, and there’s no way out.

As the film progresses beyond Omaha, Spielberg trains his focus on the lightning rod for this quandary. Forget the title, because Saving Private Ryan isn’t really about saving Private Ryan; it’s about saving the man saving Ryan: Captain John Miller. A typical Spielbergian hero played by his symbol of American masculinity (Tom Hanks), Miller’s an educated everyman (a teacher), a noble and brave hero who always tries to do the right thing, and a dedicated family man who worships the home and his beloved wife. He’s also somewhat unknowable and distant from his men, who don’t know until late on in the film what their leader’s real-life profession is and have a sweepstake running on it.

Like most depictions of masculinity in his films, Miller speaks to an element of Spielberg’s personal life. Saving Private Ryan was one of the first films he made after reconciling with his father Arnold in the mid-1990s and he’d even go on to dedicate his Best Director Oscar for the film to him. “I missed my Dad a lot growing up,” said Spielberg, who’d been estranged from Arnold since his twenties. “Even though we were together as a family, my Dad was really a workaholic and he was always working.” Miller’s evasiveness seems modelled on Arnold’s distance and he represents Spielberg’s complex feelings of blame and forgiveness, standing as man we’re asked to accept as heroic, despite (and perhaps even because of) his flaws, unknowability and most of all, impossible choices.

Service has corrupted Miller. When the company arrives at the French town of Neuville, he commits the ultimate Spielbergian crime. A desperate citizen in a decimated house hands his daughter to the men hoping they’ll take her with them to safety. Private Carparzo accepts, but Miller objects. His greater experience has proven to him that such sentiment has no place in war, and his instincts are ultimately proven right as Carparzo’s humanity is rewarded with the bullet of a German sniper. In what plays as an inversion of the ‘girl in the red coat’ sequence from Schindler’s List, Miller sees danger in the plight of an innocent while Schindler saw compulsion to intervene. Taking the girl may be the right thing to do, but the girl isn’t part of the mission and so must be left behind.

Miller’s choice plays a major part in his decision-making later in the film when the group encounter a German machine gunner. Miller insists on taking the gunner out, despite it not being part of the mission. The decision is motivated by his need to assuage his guilt for the incident in Neuville and the huge number of difficult decisions and mistakes he’s made throughout the film. The gunner is captured, but at the cost of the company’s medic and at the end of the firefight, the men debate the gunner’s fate, most wanting to kill him in revenge. Miller, however, frees him in an act of humanity that contrasts sharply with his pragmatic attitude to the girl. “I guess that was the decent thing to do, huh Captain?” asks one of the men. Miller can’t answer. War has turned him into a split personality: the humanitarian who wants to do the right thing and the pragmatist who can’t. Whether in the heat of war or parenting of a child, life is filled with such impossible choices.

Saving Private Ryan is about solving this conflict and the battle for Miller’s soul reaches its conclusion in the climactic tank battle that claims his life. Mortally wounded by enemy fire, Miller sinks to the ground and whispers two words to Ryan with his final breath: “Earn this”. Spielberg then cuts to a shot of Ryan’s hand filmed from Miller’s point of view. It’s still, in contrast to Miller’s hand, which has been shaking throughout the film through trauma. As a sombre Ryan stands by Miller’s body, General Marshall can be heard on the soundtrack, reading a letter to Ryan’s mother that explains her son’s retrieval. Ryan and Miller are bonded by this moment. In a microcosm for the war at large, the latter has died so the former can live and it’s now up to Ryan to justify that sacrifice. Only by resolving Miller’s conflict and living the good and decent life the Captain never could, can Ryan do this.

How can the audience do the same, Spielberg asks once the battle is over and we return to the present day bookend? By turning the film off. Throughout Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg references indicators of sight. We cut from the present day opening to the past with a shot of eyes and repeatedly look down or through the barrels of guns and tanks. This is nothing new: Spielberg often uses sight and eyes as a representation of cinema and the knowledge and understanding it provides (think, for example, of Brody watching the beach in Jaws, Jamie’s tormented eyes at the end of Empire of the Sun, or David looking through the eyes of another version of himself in AI: Artificial Intelligence). Here though, he suggest that that knowledge is limited.

Using another key Spielberg motif — light — the final shot is of an American flag, backlit by the sun and billowing in the wind. Some critics have identified this as a patriotic moment that affirms American dominance and is designed to ease an audience traumatised by the film’s events. In actuality, it’s anything but. Instead of a booming red, white and blue that would justify such a reading, the sun mutes the colours, making for a rather pale and sombre Star Spangled Banner. With this image, the film is asking us a question: have you justified the sacrifice? Have you ‘earned it’?

With Ryan (and all WWII veterans, including Spielberg’s father) approaching the end of his life, Spielberg suggests the burden has passed to us. We have become Miller’s saviours. We have become the torch-bearers who have an obligation to those who died in conflict. But to fulfil our obligation we must reject the fiction of movies and ‘earn it’ in real life through moral action and a determination to never repeat the costly errors of the past. Only then can we truly earn the sacrifice of Miller, Ryan and Arnold Spielberg and begin to make sense of the madness and compromised morality of war.