Saving Private Ryan and why the audience was wrong (purely from a cinematic perspective)
Disclaimer: By no means do I intend to invalidate the veterans who felt that watching this movie in theaters was like reliving their own experiences of World War II. Veterans describing intense historically accurate war films as a portal back to their own experiences of the shown event have become important testimonies of whether or not certain cinematic depictions are authentic while maintaining the necessary level of reverence. The most recent example of this can be seen here.
The basis of my argument is purely from a cinematic, character driven standpoint. What I want to dispute is the anecdote that I remember back in 1998, which I heard when the movie was released: “If you can make it through the first twenty minutes of the movie, then you are good to go for the rest of it.” The opening beach sequence takes the cake. In terms of a technical undertaking, nothing like that had been done until then. But it seemed as though the general consensus was that unbearable nature of this film was front-loaded in the first twenty minutes.
I think that this is wrong and the truth is in reverse. Yes, the opening beach sequence is shocking and protracted, but the anxiety of that sequence is nothing compared to the final battle in Ramelle. The Omaha beach scene is rather impersonal. The final act of the film is anything but — it is personal, claustrophobic and uncomfortably intimate. The end sequence focuses on the elimination of the main characters which we have spent the last two hours coming to know. The D-Day sequence is a mass spectacle that acts as an important statement about the realities of war and how romantic heroism isn’t what triumphed. The battle scene in Ramelle is a methodical, unromantic, and torturous close up of the tearing away of characters despite our desperate need for a heroic victory.
The D-Day scene is sudden, it opens up in an extreme way with no build up. The Ramelle fight is steeped in anticipation — it is preceded by a long buildup of the squad nervously waiting and having their own characterizations fleshed out, we’re getting to know them specifically before we see them perish. Not to mention the scene is all the more infuriating thanks in no small part to Private Upham.