Spielberg’s denigrating, countercultural portrayal of American soldiers (which was lauded by many conservatives)

In our discussion of the new ten-part TV series The Pacific, I noted that a reviewer had said that its approach was similar to that of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Which led me to observe about the latter:

… the movie showed Private Ryan, returning to Normandy as an older man, as a pathetic figure broken by guilt. Why? Because another man had died during the mission to save him. Since, according to director Steven Spielberg, there was no meaning or purpose in WWII other than saving Private Ryan, therefore there’s no truth higher than Ryan, and therefore Ryan’s own existence has no sanction. He’s guilty for existing.

In a review of Saving Private Ryan in Chronicles in 1999, which was actually a letter responding to Chronicles’ original (and positive!) review, Roger McGrath had a similar reaction to that scene, but that’s just the start. Here is Professor McGrath’s letter/article, which he has sent me:


Wayne Allensworth in his poignant and beautifully written review of Saving Private Ryan (Chronicles, Jan. 1999) focused on what was right with the film. However, I found much that was wrong with film. For me the wrong outweighed the right. Nonetheless, Steven Spielberg has made an important contribution to the making of war movies by emphasizing the blood, gore, death, and horror that is an inescapable consequence of battle. His depiction of the landing at Omaha beach ought to remind all Americans that we should not put our boys in harm’s way without our national security at stake and without a well defined mission. We had such in World War II. We have not had such since.

Saving Private Ryan has great cinematography, great action direction, and great special effects. This is Spielberg’s strength—and he might be the best in the business at it. On the other hand, his weaknesses are many, although they may all be traced back to one: he does not seem to understand men or what it means to be a man. He certainly does not understand the American male of past generations.

Saving Private Ryan opens with an old man—we learn latter this is Private Ryan—not walking but shuffling to the American cemetery at Normandy. The old man is bent, broken, and pathetic. His wife, children, and grandchildren walk along behind him with exaggerated expressions on their faces, at once patronizing, pained, and inane. His face reveals no pride, strength, courage, resoluteness, or gumption, only weakness, fear, and guilt—Spielberg’s American Male. The movie ends with the old man at the gravesite of Capt. Miller. The group of children and grandchildren stand in the background, still mugging for the camera. The old man looks at his wife and asks, “Tell me I’ve lived a good life. Have I been a good man?” My wife leans towards me and whispers, “Oh, puke.”

After loathing Spielberg for his portrayal of the old man, I found myself admiring Spielberg for his depiction of the landing at Omaha. The realism was astounding, although there seemed to be a dearth of officers and NCOs issuing orders, organizing troops, and leading men. Perhaps to heighten the effects of the carnage, Spielberg seemed content to allow his troops to lie on the beach exposed to withering fire and be slaughtered.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Ryan, looks out the kitchen window of her Iowa farmhouse and sees a passenger car with U.S. Army insignia approaching. She walks out the door and then lowers herself onto the porch and half sits and half sprawls—Spielberg’s American Woman. This was not the pioneer farm woman who helped conquer the frontier. This was not the mothers or grandmothers of America of the 1940s. Those women would not dare show emotion or weakness in front of strangers. This was not the real life Mrs. Sullivan of Iowa who lost all five of her sons in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. Ironically, Spielberg, in imitation of John Ford in The Searchers, shoots the scene from inside the farmhouse looking through the front doorway. Ford never would have had Dorothy Jordan sprawled on the porch.

Once off the beach Capt. Miller is chosen to lead the search for Pvt. Ryan. There is a bit of a problem here. The 101st Airborne, Ryan’s outfit, landed behind Utah beach. Why, then, use Capt. Miller who is a company commander of Army Rangers at Omaha beach? Moreover, why pull a company commander out of the line to conduct the search? Small stuff for Hollywood, I suppose, and suspending disbelief is required at some point in most movies. This movie, however, asks the viewer to suspend disbelief again and again and again.

Capt. Miller is a reluctant warrior—a kind of Everyman—who would rather be back home teaching English to his high school class. He is very well played by Tom Hanks, an actor who is generally at his best in romantic comedies where softness and charm are assets. It is not quite clear, though, how and why Miller became a captain of Rangers—the army’s crack outfit. The same applies to the handful of men he selects from his company for the mission. They are supposed to be Army Rangers but look and act like flotsam recruited from the stockade. Chain of command and discipline are foreign to them. This bunch is going to take on the German Army?

Off they go searching behind enemy lines for Pvt. Ryan. They stroll rather than walk. They are bunched tightly. There is no one walking point or drag, or on the flanks. They chatter and whine constantly. They debate the merits of the mission—and everything else—with their captain. This is a walk in the park.

They chew out a member of the squad, Cpl. Upham, for saluting Capt. Miller. The corporal, recruited from Headquarters company because of his language skills, has no combat experience and does not understand that saluting an officer in the field is a good way to get that officer killed. Good work, Spielberg got that one right. But, wait, Capt. Miller has his captain’s bars painted on his helmet, bright white railroad tracks against a solid green background. The same pot and the same bars remain on the captain’s head throughout the movie. Also, for some reason, Cpl. Upham does not know the meaning of the acronym FUBAR, something, along with SNAFU, that everyone in the service knew from boot camp onwards.

They arrive at a village and make contact with elements of the 101st Airborne. The fat-faced sergeant who greets them looks like a roly-poly 40-year-old who has spent the war as a cook in some rear area not as a member of Brig. Gen. James “Jumping Jim” Gavin’s vaunted paratroopers. Then one of Capt. Miller’s squad, while busy disobeying orders, is shot by a German sniper. Capt. Miller sends his own sniper into action, a southern boy named Jackson. The resulting sniper duel was taken from a real event but the war was Viet Nam not W.W.II. When Marine sniper Carlos Hathcock, a good ol’ boy from Arkansas, saw a flash from the sun’s reflection on the lens of a NVA sniper’s scope, Hathcock fired at the point of light. The round from his Winchester Model 70 went right through the enemy sniper’s scope, into his eye, and out the back of his head. Jackson performs the same trick on his German rival. There is a problem with Spielberg’s version, however. The action takes place during a driving rainstorm. The sky is black. There is no sun.

The movie is so very uneven that I suspect several different writers must have been involved with the script. After a glider pilot movingly describes his crash landing and the loss of his copilot and most of the troops he was transporting, we witness the spectacle of the sole Jewish soldier in the movie, Pvt. Mellish, loudly and obnoxiously taunting German prisoners. He screams at them that he is Juden. Just in case this is too subtle for movie-goers, Spielberg has him wave a Star of David at the prisoners. Mellish looks like a cowardly schoolyard loudmouth hurling insults at someone who cannot fight back. I really do not know what Spielberg thought he was accomplishing with the scene. Later, when a German soldier slowly sinks a bayonet into Mellish’s heart, does anyone one watching the film care?

The same lack of feeling is extended to most of those in the squad who died. In fact, in my circle of friends, there was general disappointment that Pvt. Reiben, like Mellish an obnoxious loudmouth, did not get greased. Reiben is regularly insubordinate and at one point refuses Capt. Miller’s direct order on the battlefield. A ridiculous shouting match follows with Sgt. Horvath. Not only does Spielberg again have a squad of Army Rangers looking like misfits released from the stockade for a work detail but he has again put his American Male on display. Reiben and Horvath shout at each other. They do not fight. They just shout.

The shouting match concerns a German prisoner. Should he be killed on the spot? The German prisoner turns craven coward and spews all sorts of nonsense, including the obligatory “F*ck Hitler,” that he thinks will ingratiate himself with the Americans. He is a thoroughly despicable character. He also sports a buzz cut like all his fellow Germans in the movie. (Is this some effort at connecting the soldiers with today’s skinheads? W.W.II documentary footage reveals that the typical German soldier’s hair was generally far longer than that of the American soldier.) The prisoner is Spielberg’s German Everyman. Does Spielberg not understand that by reducing the enemy to a cowardly caricature he diminishes the America soldier? I suppose it was not really much of a task to have defeated the krauts, after all. Then, too, it is amazing that these craven folk conquered nearly all of Europe in a few months and would possibly be ruling a Continental empire today had they a supply of oil.

A movie has to make the viewer identify with, or at least care about, the characters. If not, the viewer remains uninvolved and there can be no suspense. With the exception of Sgt. Horvath and the sniper Jackson and, for some, possibly Capt. Miller and the medic, was there anyone in the squad the viewer really cared about?

The squad finally finds Pvt. Ryan (who inexplicably wears PFC stripes). Ryan and a couple of his buddies from the 101st have just helped save the squad by destroying a German armored personnel carrier. Ryan refuses to leave what is left of his outfit and the viewer begins to root for him. The combined forces prepare to defend a bridgehead in the village against an anticipated tank attack. Although they have only small arms, Capt. Miller says they can use “sticky bombs.” None of the Rangers or the paratroopers know what he’s talking about. They all must have forgotten because the use of sticky bombs were part of their basic training and the bomb is thoroughly described in the Ranger Handbook of Field Expedient Devices. But, then, these Rangers are like no others.

They take a break and lounge about the town telling stories of home. This does nothing to endear the audience to them. The stories are contrived, implausible, and silly and sound like they were written by junior high school boys. Telling the stories make two good actors, Matt Damon and Ed Burns, look like they can’t act.

In preparing his defense Capt. Miller puts the sniper Jackson in the belfry of a church tower. The position is good as a temporary observation post but no self-respecting sniper would put himself in such a vulnerable spot, especially with tanks approaching. Snipers need a position that will both support the mission and allow them an avenue of escape. Jackson becomes one big target for the heavy German guns. Worse, though, Spielberg does not have Jackson picking off the Germans at 600 yards out. No, Jackson only shoots at the Germans when they arrive in the street directly below him—and he does it looking through a scope. A forty-foot shot at moving targets through a scope! Spielberg has the camera look through the scope and give the audience the sniper’s view. There are Germans running through the street with the crosshairs following them! It looks like panavision. Has Spielberg ever looked through a 4x scope at something 40 feet away? How could technical advisors have ignored this?

Capt. Miller also establishes some rather deadly fields of fire for his own troops. He and Ryan are positioned directly behind one of their own men and will surely blow off his head when firing commences. At one point during the final battle Reiben sits on Ryan, pinning him to the ground to prevent him from fighting. This is evidently to protect him. However, this is the same Ryan who has been fighting heroically up to this point. I hope I missed something because the scene is unfathomable. So, too, is Ryan curled in a ball, rocking back and forth, and screaming as the battle nears its climax.

Meanwhile, Cpl. Upham, the cowardly office pogue, freezes and fails to carry ammunition to his comrades, leaving them to be killed by Germans. Before the bridge is lost, however, P51 Mustangs arrive and the Germans are put to flight or to surrendering which they do, as always, with amazing alacrity. A half dozen or more throw down their weapons, raise their arms, and surrender to a lone American, none other than Upham. He recognizes one of them as the German prisoner of past days and immediately shoots him to death. Upham then strikes a heroic pose and the camera focuses on him for several beats. Is this supposed to be the act that has redeemed the coward—the shooting of an unarmed prisoner?

A good test of a movie is whether one would see it again. Unlike To Hell and Back, Twelve O’Clock High, The Sands of Iwo Jima, Mr. Roberts, Patton, Retreat Hell, The Enemy Below, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, The Bridges at Toko-Ri and a few others, Saving Private Ryan is a one-timer. In his depiction of the real carnage of battle Spielberg surpasses them all—but there it ends. His men and his Army Rangers are, for the most part, a sorry excuse for the real thing. A good friend of mine, Army veteran Glenn Miley, whose decorations include the Silver Star and the Purple Heart, summed it up beautifully. After watching the movie he shook his head in disgust and said: “That was Spielberg’s army. He’s even taken that.”

- end of initial entry -

Just to clarify, Mr. McGrath’s letter/review is disagreeing with Chronicles’ review by Wayne Allensworth. I find it amazing that not just mainstream conservatives fell for Spielberg’s anti-American, liberal propaganda, but even the paleocons at Chronicles. It shows again how easy conservatives are. All that the Hollywood mind-shapers have to do is offer something that seems pro-military or pro-America or pro-Christian, and the conservatives will instantly fall all over themselves saying how wonderful it is, while they fail to see the liberalism that is really there.

John P. writes:

Another point that bothers me about that film and also Band of Brothers, is that the Germans are portrayed as incompetent and greatly outnumbering the Americans. In reality the Germans fought effectively though outnumbered in men and materiel throughout the last phase of the war. So, in addition to insulting American soldiers, it insults German ones too. But I guess that’s okay in today’s PC climate.

I don’t know if you’ve commented on James Cameron’s Titanic but that is also a travesty and an all-out attack on British men of the better classes.

LA replies:

I agree with you on Titanic. It was an atrocious movie.

John P. continues:

Another thought occurs to me. It may be that we can’t simply blame Spielberg entirely for his choices. He may have made a judgment call that the American public simply wouldn’t relate to US soldiers who were stone-hard, poker faced and highly disciplined. So it says something about the movie-going public as well as Spielberg.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at March 26, 2010 02:35 PM | Send

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