|REALITIES OF WAR
How has Saving Private Ryan changed the Hollywood war movie?
August 11, 1998
in this forum:
Will the movie change the public's attitude towards military service? Why was public reaction to the movie so strong? What other war movies do you like or dislike? How do American and foreign films compare? The Online NewsHour asks: Many viewers said Saving Private Ryan was powerful enough to make Americans reconsider participating the U.S. military. Do you think the movie will change the public's attitude towards military service or is the Saving Private Ryan a reflection of attitudes that already exist towards war?
Professor John Chambers responds:
Historical films like this one both interpret the past and are reflections of their own time. This film is a reflection of current attitudes towards movies -- including war movies -applied backwards to World War II. Saving Private Ryan is a particular combination of Hollywood's current fixation with the "pornography of violence," the graphic illustration of the impact of weapons and munitions on the human body, and the fascination with the 50th anniversary of World War II, Grisly gore became standard scenes in Vietnam War movies (as well as other violent action films since the 1970s). But they had not been applied to American GIs in World War II before (except for some brief shots in Catch-22 and a few other films). Now for the first time we see long and intensive scenes, of large numbers of GIs being shot, mangled, and otherwise blown apart in great detail.
This certainly brings home to audiences today the horror that GIs faced in World War II combat. Americans have seen world War II as the "good war," and it- was certainly a justified war against Nazi Germany and militarist Japan. Audiences have seen pictures of enemy dead. But now they are seeing World War II Gis being killed. So many of them are slaughtered in the massive and horribly random death on "Bloody Omaha" Beach. This is new.
In that sense, the film may very well change the way the American public views war --not war in general, since we have already become accustomed to view the Vietnam War in such bloody slaughter, but rather it may change the way in which the American public views combat in World War II. This is because the previous perception of American ground combat in World War II movies has been of a cleaner and more heroic type of fighting -.characterized by such popular films as Battleground (1949) with Van Johnson, Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) with John Wayne, and The Longest Day (1962) with Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, and forty other stars. This may now change. Presumably Saving Private Ryan will introduce a new more bloody and more realistic visual approach to the nature of combat, including the American combat experience, in World War II.
Paul Fussell responds:
I do not think people are moved to participate in the U.S. military by movies, no matter how powerful or well made, Movies, after all, are show business, and intelligent people know that. Besides, the military situation in the film, that is, problems attending the massive invasion of Europe by foot soldiers, is likely not to occur again.