Publication Date

October 1, 1998



In late July 1998, Steven Spielberg landed on the American public with his World War II film Saving Private Ryan, which won the war of critics, veterans, scholars, historians, and the general moviegoing public. All that is left is the cleanup at the box office and the final awarding of medals such as the Oscar for Best Picture. The bottom line of the positive critical evaluations is this: Saving Private Ryan is a new and different World War II combat film because it finally refutes the dishonesty of previous Hollywood movies of the genre.

The truth is not that simple, and Saving Private Ryan represents another case in the ongoing struggle for film historians, who must constantly deal with modern critics who judge artistic events by the standards of their own times. For the combat movie, this means if there’s no blood and guts, there’s no glory. Although there is no question that Spielberg made a fine film or that Tom Hanks and the rest of the cast have done an excellent job, there are issues of film history to be addressed in evaluation. No one is going to argue with the WWII veterans who have stated that Saving Private Ryan is the most realistic presentation of combat they’ve seen. There is also no question but that Spielberg has achieved integrity in his images. He closely consulted with historian Stephen E. Ambrose (author of Citizen Soldiers) and Dale Dye, a retired Marine Corps captain who acted as his chief military adviser. The issue to be discussed is not combat accuracy (or the quality of the movie) but rather accuracy about the history of the World War II combat genre and Saving Private Ryan‘s place in that history.

Taking an overview based on actual screenings, where does Saving Private Ryan fit? It has been defined by modern critics as groundbreaking and anti-generic, “the desire to bury the cornball, recruiting poster legend of John Wayne: to get it right this time.”1 The primary differences that have been cited are (1) its realistic combat violence, (2) its unusual story format in which soldiers question leadership and the point of their mission, and (3) its new and different purpose.

Realistic Combat Violence

This issue is by far the most significant. The violence of Saving Private Ryan‘s opening sequence (the D-Day landing on Omaha Beach) is overwhelming. Spielberg’s mastery of sound, editing, camera movement, visual storytelling, narrative flow, performance, and color combine to assault a viewer, to place each and every member of the audience directly into the combat experience. Spielberg anchors the audience in Tom Hanks (as Captain John Miller), and provides three recurring motifs for Hanks/Miller’s response to war: the elimination of sound (cinematic), a shaking hand (performance), and a resistance to explaining his prewar background (narrative). All are simultaneously internal and external, and all are clearly understood by the audience to be what they are: the stress of the combat experience. The elimination of sound is particularly effective, since it is both logical in the narrative (the captain’s hearing could have been damaged by the shock of battle noise) and psychological (it physicalizes the emotional trauma he is undergoing).

As the action unfolds, the audience sees blood, vomit, dead fish, dismembered arms and legs, wounds spurting fountains of blood, torsos disintegrating while being dragged to safety. Men drown, are wounded, and are shot and killed in a chaotic atmosphere of fear and bewilderment. Medics are forced to make ruthless decisions about the wounded ("Routine!" "Routine!" "Priority!") as they advance among what appears to be every soldier on the beach, all apparently dying. This opening sequence is a nightmare. Today’s audiences are shocked into silence while watching. No one talks, and no one munches popcorn or rattles candy wrappers.

In comparing the depiction of combat violence in Saving Private Ryan to older films, most historians and scholars would cite one primary factor in the difference: censorship. Interestingly, however, there is no specific rule governing combat violence in the Production Code. The code consists of “general principles” and their “particular applications,” and the latter include the categories of crime, brutality, sex, vulgarity, obscenity, blasphemy and profanity, costumes (a polite way of saying “no nudity”), religion, special subjects, national feelings, titles, and cruelty to animals. Under crime, it is suggested that “action showing the taking of human life is to be held to the minimum” and under murder (a subcategory of crime) that “brutal killings are not to be presented in detail.”2 (The rules under vulgarity, blasphemy, and profanity, of course, clearly dictated that a soldier’s conversation would be cleaned up. The movies used euphemisms such as “grab your socks” and “snafu.”)

Even without specific guidelines for war, the original combat films naturally conformed to the censorship standards of their own time. This meant finding ways to clarify horrible events for viewers without directly representing them on screen. (This ploy was similar to the ways they hinted at sex: fireplace flames, crashing waves, fireworks, and judicious editing.) An example of the original WWII combat film is the seminal Bataan (1943), directed by Tay Garnett and written by Robert D. Andrews. Bataan was not the first movie about WWII combat, but it can be accepted as the first that pulled together all the elements that would become traditional to the genre. How realistic was Bataan‘s combat? Critics of the day almost unanimously gave the movie raves, praising its “gritty realism.” Bataan, of course, was shot entirely inside a studio on sets, using matte shots, rear projections, and artificial fog machines. What is realistic (and gritty) about it is the genuine anger it contains. Its propagandistic passion was fueled by the recent fall of Bataan and America’s overall failure in the early days of the Pacific war.

In its own time, the violence of Bataan was considered extreme. All the men in the movie’s group die. There are no survivors. The combat finale—a last stand or “Alamo” like the one in Saving Private Ryan—is a fast paced, hand-to-hand fight against huge odds. The outnumbered men fight with desperation, throwing dirt in the enemy’s faces, tripping them, garroting them, and, shockingly, taking time to beat their already dead bodies with rifles. The worst image for stark violence is a decapitation which clearly illustrates the differences between violence “then” and violence “now.” A Japanese soldier runs in swiftly and strikes an American solidly in the back of his neck with what appears to be a samurai sword. The victim’s face contorts in pain, and a scream of horror is frozen on his lips. However, the audience is not shown his head falling off, and no blood spurts out or is visible. This Bataan beheading is one of the most graphic of combat deaths of the pre-sixties period, and certainly one of the most brutal of the era itself. Yet by today’s standards, it is a bloodless kill.

Does this mean "unrealistic"? Physically, yes. Psychologically and emotionally, perhaps not. And did the absence of blood mean that audiences believed that soldiers died without losing arms and legs or even blood? The tendency to assign an audience of the past the role of idiot, and an audience of today the role of genius is often a problem in critical studies. Filmmakers of the 1940s knew how to create powerful effects for the audiences of their time. They also knew that the 1940s audience was not detached from the horror of war. They were losing friends and family every day, and welcoming home the maimed and wounded. Even though they could not fully grasp what being in combat was like (and still can't), they could understand its results, which they were experiencing. Critics of the day also reminded everyone about the differences between the movies and reality. James Agee reviewedGuadalcanal Diary (1943) favorably, but said, “It would be a shame and worse if those who make or will see it got the idea that it’s a remotely adequate image of the first months on that island.”3

During the war, Americans were not seeing only fictionalized combat. They also saw images of war in newspapers, magazines, and newsreels. Thanks to extensive rapidly processed newsreel film, World War II was the first war that could be viewed soon after the events happened. In addition, the United States spent more than $50 million annually on documentary movies.

A talented team of Hollywood directors and writers enlisted in the armed services and were assigned to the film units that created them, including Frank Capra, John Huston, John Ford, George Stevens, and William Wyler.

Documentaries and newsreels put pressure on Hollywood, because from seeing them, home audiences gained an idea of what real combat looked like and expected war movies to look the same. In fact, the honest presentation of credible combat scenes was a concern for the Office of War Information, which asked all filmmakers to consider seven key questions regarding movies made during wartime. The first and most primary was, "Will this picture help win the war?" The last and most concrete was, "Does the picture tell the truth or will the young people of today have reason to say they were misled by propaganda?"4 World War II films were not intentionally unrealistic. In the most cynical terms, that was not good business. Instead, working within the limitations of censorship, wartime materiel restrictions, “good taste,” and propaganda, they accepted their task as one in which they were to entertain the audience, but also gain acceptance by coming close to the experiences they were living through outside the theater.

The complaint of "unreality" in Hollywood war films can be connected best to its narrative content: the sentimentalizing of relationships (both on the home front and in combat), the propagandizing of motives (which was part of the war on all fronts), and the presentation of battle violence that could not logically recreate the true battle experience. The falsification that made war exciting or glamorous was more a postwar phenomenon.

As time passed and censorship restrictions were loosened, genres of violence—horror, war, gangsters, and westerns—all increased in bloodiness, which did not necessarily make them more realistic. Two directors associated with violence—Sam Fuller and Sam Peckinpah—made key World War II combat films. Fuller, a World War II combat veteran, landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day as a part of the U.S. First Infantry Division. In 1980, he recreated his memory of the experience as a movie entitled The Big Red One. It is an abstracted, incoherent narrative from the point of view of a foot soldier who did not have the big picture and was only trying to survive. Fuller made the definitive comment on the attempt to put the war experience on film by saying, “You can never do it. The only way Š is to fire live ammo over the heads of the people in the movie theatre.”5

Peckinpah, famous for bringing blood into movies and for taking violence to a new level, made Cross of Iron (1977), a WWII combat film from the German point of view. Variety criticized it as “violence-fixated” and full of “grisly gore.”

Using his trademark cinematic device (slow motion), Peckinpah shows blood and bodies flying through the air after opening his movie with old black-and-white newsreel footage and still photographs for credibility.

However, the film which seems most akin to Saving Private Ryan is the little-known 1967 Pacific combat story, Beach Red, directed by Cornel Wilde and written by Clint Johnson, Donald A. Peters, and Jefferson Pascal, based on a novel by Peter Bowman. Filmed on location at a former battle site in the Philippines, Beach Red opens with a half-hour of full-out combat in which American marines land from LSTs onto a Japanese-occupied beach. The fight shows lost limbs (a severed arm or leg) floating in the bloody water or just left abandoned on the beach, bodies torched and burning by flame-throwers, and soldiers being blown to bits by grenades. Dead bodies are used for shields by survivors trying to advance. Men vomit, show fear and confusion. There is almost no coherent dialogue, just screams, terse exchanges of basic information, and some yelled-out instructions. As Beach Red progresses, it has a minimum of story development. Its present-tense story is almost nothing but combat, the visualization of what it takes to win an island back from the enemy under terrible conditions. (Beach Red is sometimes shown on TV in edited versions that reduce the gore.) The movie provides two forms of relief for the viewers. First, characters “think” and their thoughts are heard as spoken narration on the soundtrack, providing coherence and offsetting the absence of dialogue; and second, flashbacks relieve the combat intensity. These “past tense” moments are brief, but they restore order and sanity. Despite these reliefs, Beach Red is a classic example of genre updating. Using World War II movie situations from the past, it reconstitutes them as a bloody nightmare, larding into its images all the gore, dismemberment, and ugly death that was previously missing. It’s a 1960s update of a 1940 genre, a forerunner of Saving Private Ryan.

An Unusual Story Format

The story format of Saving Private Ryan (written by Robert Rodat) does not break with the established genre. Except that the object of the group’s mission is saving a single ordinary soldier for public relations concerns (or concern for his mother), it follows the traditional format. (Rescue missions more commonly saved some key figure, a symbolic guerrilla leader, an atomic scientist, a top commander, a brilliant president or king or Nobel prize winner, or even a group of prisoners or trapped civilians.)

My research for The World War II Combat Film indicated that the traditional story format contains three basic elements: hero, group, and objective. The group is made up of a mixture of ethnic and geographic types, most commonly including an Italian, a Jew, a cynical complainer from Brooklyn, a sharpshooter from the mountains, a midwesterner (nicknamed by his state, “Iowa” or “Dakota”), and a character who must be initiated in some way (a newcomer without battle experience) and/or who will provide a commentary or “explanation” on the action as it occurs (a newspaperman, a letter writer, an author, a professor). As the group moves forward, action unfolds in a series of contrasting episodes that alternate in uneven patterns: night and day, safety and danger, action and repose, dialogue and nondialogue, comedy and tragedy, good weather and bad weather, combat and noncombat, and so on. Military iconography is used and explained. Conflict breaks out within the group itself, in which the objective is questioned, leadership is questioned, and the war itself is often questioned. Rituals from home are discussed and remembered, and new rituals from their combat status are enacted. As the group advances, they encounter the enemy and certain members die. A final climactic battle—often a last stand, referred to as an “Alamo” or “A Little Big Horn”—takes place, which reveals the film’s overall purpose. The hero, who has usually had the objective forced on him, has to make a series of difficult (and unpopular) decisions. He sometimes survives (although most of his men don’t), and he sometimes dies.

Saving Private Ryan fits this format. Its hero is a former school teacher who has had combat forced on him by the war. The group contains an Italian, a Jew, a cynic from Brooklyn, and a particularly adept mountain sharpshooter (a Sergeant York figure). Private Ryan is from Iowa. The last-minute recruit for the mission, a translator, is not a combat soldier and must be initiated into the process. His questions and desire to learn form the running commentary. The action unfolds in a series of contrasts, and military iconography is explained (the “sticky bomb” and the German “88s”). A group conflict breaks out over whether saving one man is worth it or not, and Hanks/Miller’s decision to take out a German pillbox along the way is questioned. Hanks shrewdly diffuses this fight by interrupting it with one of the group’s rituals: the money pool regarding his own peacetime occupation. Home life is discussed-Ryan and his brothers in the barn, Hanks in his garden. Key members of the group die, and in the final “Alamo” armageddon, the hero articulates the key purpose of the movie: “Earn it.” This point—did Ryan live a life worthy of the sacrifices made for him?—can be translated into a higher meaning for a modern viewing audience. Have we as a nation earned the sacrifices that were made for our freedom and way of life by the combat soldiers of World War II? (This eloquent call for Americans to take a good look at themselves has largely been ignored by critics.)

Some critics have suggested that Ryan is unique in its questioning process and group conflict. In fact, the combat film was always grounded in the need to help an audience understand and accept war. As a result, even at the high point of propaganda, movies needed to articulate the question audiences inevitably asked: “Why are we doing this?” Even if the question was answered in a jingoistic way, it was asked. One of the main purposes of the combat genre was to answer that question. To do so, the movies used the idea that the average American soldier was an individual with a mind of his own and the right to question authority. Guadalcanal Diary, Bataan, Air Force (1943), The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), A Walk in the Sun (1945), and others made during the war itself, all reveal doubt and despair amidst the attempts to tell us we are doing the right thing in fighting the war.

Although many critics complain about John Wayne movies, they tend to forget that in Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), in which he plays a tough marine sergeant, he is also depicted as a lonely, frequently drunken man, driven by personal demons. When he forbids his men to go to the aid of a wounded comrade, they disagree with his decision, but obey. They spend a long night in their foxholes, listening to their friend’s desperate pleas for help. Wayne, the hard leader who knows they’ll be shot if they move and their position is revealed, is shown in close-up, sweating, perhaps crying, himself suffering through the night. In the end, this hero—John Wayne in his prime—is shockingly shot and killed even though the battle is over and won.

New and Different Purpose

Obviously the purpose of the combat film will not be the same in 1998 as it was in 1944. Although the basic story format is always kept intact (this is the definition of genre), its usage and purpose alters. It undergoes a process of evolution which reflects the times in which each movie is released. Originally, the purpose was patriotic and explanatory, to help the audience get behind the war and set aside their doubts and fears. After the war ended, there was a brief period of respite in which no combat films appeared, because there was no purpose for them to fulfill. Toward the end of 1949, they reemerged. The purpose of these films was to try to put the war in an "after the fact" perspective. The purpose ceased to be patriotism and became one of earned national pride, a deeper level of understanding, and justification. These movies were huge box office successes, and included such films as Battleground (1949), Task Force (1949), To Hell and Back (1955), and Sands of Iwo Jima. By 1960, after more than a decade of peace and prosperity, America started to celebrate the war in a series of epic recreations of the major battles: The Longest Day (1962), Battle of the Bulge (1965), The Bridge at Remagen (1969), and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). Many of these movies were shot on location, with international casts, sometimes including veterans of the actual events. The purpose of these films was allegedly to document or re-create the actual event so the audience could watch it, but what takes place is somewhat different. These are the movies that transform the war into legend, as they all have, despite attempts at accuracy—a kind of “Hurrah! Let’s Go!” quality. By the end of the 1960s, a secondary trend started to run alongside these epic re-creations. The Vietnam war was continuing, and a period of disillusionment with combat emerged. Initially, movies about the violence of Vietnam were not set in that war. Other genres—westerns, gangster films, and the World War II combat film—were used to express America’s doubt and anger concerning Vietnam. For this period of the evolution, the purpose was a denial process, and the genre’s format was either inverted, perverted, destroyed, mocked, or satirized. For example, The Dirty Dozen (1967) presented a hero who was an opportunistic cynic, a group (criminals awaiting the gallows, who were given a reprieve to undertake the mission), and an objective that was a fancy “rest and recreation” center for German officers, in short, a whorehouse.

This evolution of purpose shows how a genre, once it is fixed, can be used over time as the culture needs it to be used. Thus, the really interesting questions about Saving Private Ryan are: Why now? And for what purpose? Soon, more WWII combat films will be released, with such titles as Thunder Below; When Trumpets Fade; U-571; Earth, Wings, and Fire; and most notably, the second movie version of James Jones’s famous novel The Thin Red Line, directed by Terrence Malick. (The first was made in 1964, directed by Andrew Marton, and starring Keir Dullea.)

What has reactivated the combat genre? In asking the question, it's probably a good idea to remember that World War II did not exactly disappear from American lives. It has remained with us in movie revivals, television shows, books, magazines, documentaries, and the History Channel. Among the many reasons being suggested for the new movie versions are: male directors who watched combat films as boys and now want to make their own; a new conservatism that takes us backward to simpler times; the millennium that makes us want to reevaluate the century; and so forth. Until we see the combat films to come, however, we cannot really know what they will add up to. It's a new chapter for the evolutionary process, and what we know now is that Saving Private Ryan may be the seminal film. It certainly will be the first key movie in the new era.

In the meantime, we need to place Ryan‘s role in the genre’s history accurately. It is not that audiences had never seen soldiers question leadership or objectives, or that they had never seen violence or heard doubts expressed.

We live in an era of desensitizing movie violence. The New York Times pointed out that Starship Troopers, a space fantasy, also showed us bodies blown apart, limbs flying through the air, and plenty of blood and gore.

What Saving Private Ryan does is take the carnage out of space and back down to the human level. Spielberg has asked us to think about it and ask ourselves where we are going in the future in this country. As the “old” Private Ryan asks his wife—and by extension, the audience—”Did I earn it?” he connects the movie directly to the “me” generation. Is one individual worth it? What Saving Private Ryan means is in its final admonition: “Earn it.” Spielberg’s true accomplishment is that he has used familiar genre elements for a new purpose, putting them together in a brilliantly visualized movie that causes Americans to take the war seriously again.


1. James Wolcott, “Tanks For The Memories,” Vanity Fair (August 1998): pp. 70-76.

2. Murray Schumach, The Face on the Cutting Room Floor: The Story of Movie and Television Censorship (New York: Da Capo Press, 1974).

3. James Agee, “Review of Guadalcanal Diary,The Nation (November 13, 1943). Reprinted in Agee on Film (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958), p. 59.

4. Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black, Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies (New York: The Free Press, 1987), pp. 66-67 (from the Office of War Information Manual, 1942, OWI Files).

5. Lee Server, Sam Fuller: Film Is a Battleground: A Critical Study, with Interviews, a Filmography and a Bibliography (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1994), pp. 22, 52.

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