War Movies

Saving Private Ryan


World War II: the ostensible high-water mark of American exceptionalism and the "Greatest Generation" at its most selfless — and the setting of countless movies glamorizing the nobility of the mise-en-scène. One thinks of The Longest Day, where John Wayne and a cast of superstars storm the beach at Normandy, mostly emotionally impervious to the rat-a-tat coming from villainous Nazi pillboxes. One thinks of homilies committed to celluloid about the necessity of righteous war and men falling in battle reluctantly, disappointed they couldn't fight on and breathing their last about their families back home.

In one brutal moment at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan, half-a-century of Hollywood war movies are demolished. A squad of Allies is set to hit the beach in the wee hours of June 6, 1944. When their Higgins boat's doors open, bullets rip through the troops before they can take their first step, destroying them to a man. They never have a second's chance. Director Steven Spielberg unflinchingly captures it and the resulting bloodbath — where, essentially, meat was thrown at the enemy in a force that was victorious simply because of its overwhelming volume.

We've seen the horrors of war countless times on screen throughout the years, of course. But never as convincingly or as existentially despairingly as in Saving Private Ryan. With its men-on-a-mission second act, the film manages to synthesize the rah-rah patriotic jingoism with the hell-bent anti-war moods of protest films. It had been done before in minor ways, but never in a big-budget Hollywood movie, much less one directed by the industry's most high-profile filmmaker.

Saving Private Ryan neither discounts the soldiers' sacrifice nor imbues it with ultra-moral meaning. It empowers it by unflinchingly staring the historical reality dead in the eye. And the film is critical without convoluting the issue of the rightness or wrongness of this or any other war's action. War is hell, the film says, and it proves that it's disingenuous to not fully commit to that comprehension.

— Greg Akers

Small Soldiers

There's no denying the technical and cinematic achievement of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, so I won't try to combat my colleague's pick head-on with another widely embraced selection. Instead, I'll take a more guerilla approach by proffering a couple of lesser-known gems that offer pointed alternatives to Spielberg's unimpeachable movie-as-monument, specifically, Small Soldiers. 

Whenever I hear the phrase "war movies," I think of Phil Hartman. In Joe Dante's 1998 film, the late comedian, playing an Everyman father of two, hooks up his new big-screen TV with Dolby surround sound, flips to a war movie — The Dirty Dozen, I think — on one of his 257 channels, flops onto his couch, grabs a bowl of potato chips, and says, contentedly, to his wife, "I think World War II was my favorite war."

The film concerns two new lines of toy "action" figures — one programmed to fight, the other to "hide and lose" — that are implanted with military technology and take their battle into an unsuspecting middle-class community. Small Soldiers was mis-marketed as a kids' movie, but is instead a sophisticated, inventive satire on the notion of war as entertainment, be it the toys the film features or the war movies it constantly references.

A different kind of alternative to Saving Private Ryan is director Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One (1980), an unusually personal, idiosyncratic war epic. Where Saving Private Ryan is — no less than Small Soldiers, in some ways — a war movie about other war movies, The Big Red One is rooted in Fuller's personal experiences as a member of the 1st Infantry Division in WWII. Fittingly, Spielberg's film casts another soft baby boomer star (Tom Hanks) as its leader of men and audience/filmmaker stand-in. Equally telling is that The Big Red One casts another WWII veteran, Marine sniper and Purple Heart recipient Lee Marvin, in the role.

The Big Red One doesn't assault you with hyper-real violence like Saving Private Ryan does. Fuller didn't have the budget or technology. But that only leaves the film — and the viewer — more time to think as Fuller tells his gritty, poetic, sometimes cynical war stories across a landscape that includes North Africa, France, and Sicily.

— Chris Herrington

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