Saving Private Ryan

Gary MacLennan g.maclennan at
Tue Jan 16 03:00:13 MST 2001


digging through my files I cam across this piece I wrote for a student on
Saving Private Ryan -I do not think I have posted it before! Apologies if I
have. Still it might be of interest to some.


Finally got around to watching Saving Private Ryan. I found the opening
sequences reasonably tedious.  It is as if the film did not really get
going until they set out looking for Ryan. But as always the prologue to
the quest was very important.  The initial sight of the American flag and
then the old man driven in his search among the crosses were crucial. The
flag made the politics of it all clear. This was no true universal text but
one, which because its primary concern is with the memories of the powerful
could stake out a claim to universality.  This is the master as universal

The old man who was Ryan is of course an important character.  It is
interesting to note that he is given only a minimal present.  We can see
that he survived.  He has a wife and two generations of children. But he is
carefully presented as ordinary.  There is no sign that he invented a
longer lasting light bulb or done anything special.  So he is every man.
What is most important I feel here and again this reveals the politics of
this text is that he is anxious.  He is uncertain he has been worthy of the
sacrifice. He does not know if he has 'earned' it.

Now I want to say something about this notion of earning and to contrast it
with the notion of rights. The film wants to say that we do not have rights
to a quiet life, a sense of security, and a freedom from fear.  We have to
earn these.  And the only way they can be earned is by sacrifice. This is
of course the rhetoric of the paranoid nation, the nation that so dominates
and exploits the world that it can no longer sleep without the largest and
most brutal of guard dogs that history has ever known  namely the US army.
I was struck very forcibly here that the notion of fundamental rights
belonging to us because we are human is in essence a progressive
notion.  By contrast Spielberg seems to have embraced the philosophical
equivalent of economic rationalism.  We must walk the wall before we can go
home to the wife.

Other aspects of the quest are significant.  There is the debate as to the
importance and meaning of their mission.  They have set out for the Holy
Grail, but are unable to articulate this.  The Grail is of course their own
future, which is represented by Ryan. It is only at the bridge and when
they are confronted by Ryan's refusal to desert his 'remaining brothers'
that they realise that he is worthy of their sacrifice. He is worthy not in
terms of what he might be but in terms of what he is now at the bridge, at
that moment when he is presented with an escape route and refuses to take
it.  The mention of the Alamo has of course enormous significance for the
American Right.

It presents a tiny group of men prepared to die for their ideals.  This is
in many ways laughable caricature of the reality of the US army.  This is
the most powerful and the most cowardly army in the world, which relies
above all on firepower to win.  My own father and his mates used to laugh
at the fighting capacity of American soldiers.  They are at their most
heroic when Hollywood is directing the battle.

The other elements, which I wish to comment on, are the Jewish motif, the
presentation of the Nazi and the American intellectual. The Jewish American
soldier stands and taunts the German Prisoners with his Star of David and
the constant repetition of the word 'Juden'. Spielberg has talked of how
since Schindler's Ark he has been more consciousness of his
Jewishness.  Whatever the case I approved of this scene.  It is necessary
to remember the treatment of the Jewish people by the Nazis. Though one
could argue that the text is content to blame all Germans rather than to
specify the Nazis. Nevertheless for me this was the one redeeming moment in
the film when it addressed something of the political realities of 1944.

The American intellectual.  I suppose one could argue that there were two
intellectuals in the American camp.  Hanks is after all a composition
teacher.  But his intellectual forays seem very home spun indeed.  He knows
about Emerson but his real field of expertise would seem to be the field
manual.  Like a good pragmatist he knows how to make bombs from greasy
socks. So there is nothing scary about this intellectual in American
terms.  He is your average bloke whose great skill is in knowing how to
kill.  How reassuring for an American audience.

By contrast the translator is a freaky type.  This one is no pragmatist.
Rather he is close to the mystical end of the philosophical spectrum. Thus
he quotes Emerson about getting close to men in war.  And that sets the
alarm bells ringing.  These reach fever pitch when he gives a cigarette to
a German prisoner and tries to prevent his murder.  Obviously this is some
kind of 'deviated prevert' at work

The prisoner turns out to be your typical sexually twisted Nazi.  He kills
you with a knife as if he were shoving a big one up you. The intellectual
cringes in fear on the steps because of course he wants to be fucked by the
stronger man.  But the Nazi though a perverted sadist is still a warrior
and he strides contemptuously past the cringing intellectual.  He does not
even pause to fuck him. The latter's cowardice leads to the death of his
comrades and he slinks in fear in the crater while deeds of great glory are
being performed all around him.

I was especially interested in my reactions here. I was longing for someone
to shoot the bastard and put us and him out of his and our
misery.  Philosophically speaking my reactions would be best described by
the term 'nausea'.  For Dostoevski nausea is caused by the loathsomeness of
life. For Sartre nausea was caused by the meaningless of existence.  For
Nietzsche however it comes from seeing the rabble with their 'stinking
fires and dirty dreams'. For the good Nietzsche the rabble were 'maggots in
the bread of life'. What is the character of the nausea in SPR?  For me it
is the nausea of the intellectual who sees himself and loathes what he
sees. It is the kind of self-hatred that drove Yeats to cringe before
military men, and to dream of Cuchullain all his life.

So if a liberal intellectual is to see himself in this text he is invited
by Spielberg to see himself as the cringing cowardly effeminate
intellectual, whose humaneness leads to such terrible disasters. However it
is most important to note how he achieves redemption.  He summarily
executes the prisoner.  This is a genuinely chilling moment and is as right
wing as anything you would see in a John Wayne film.  We are asked to
approve of and vicariously participate in a murder and we are very willing
to do so.

So the film ends with the flag and I was left thinking that Mallick's Thin
Red Line with all its mysticism was a fundamentally decent by contrast with
SPR. What we were offered was just another accommodation by a liberal
intellectual with the prevailing ethos of the American military complex.
Another sell out.

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