“The Second World War was fought in a thousand places, too many for any one accounting.”
Ken Burns opens his documentary series “The War” with the above quote. For the world we live in now, there has not been a war that’s influence is still felt around the world like World War II. The names of the sacred scenes that turned the tide of war are now a part of our vocabulary: Pearl Harbor, Dunkirk, Bataan, El Alamein, Guadalcanal, Stalingrad, Iwo Jima, Monte Cassino, Hiroshima and Normandy.
“Saving Private Ryan” is known for its interpretation of the Allied landing on Omaha Beach that took place on June 6th, 1944. This is considered the most powerful scene of the entire film by many. To me, it is the very first scene when an old man is walking on the pavement at the memorial cemetery at Colleville-sur-mer. Not far behind him is his family. Suddenly, he stops and walks onto the grass. Breaking the frame are those white crosses and Stars of David that mark the graves of some of the finest men and women to ever serve our country. We zoom out and the screen is engulfed by a sea of white grave markers. I love this scene because it reminds me that the cost for freedom is immeasurable.
“Saving Private Ryan” is the story of a small squad of American soldiers led by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) through German occupied France in search of Private James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon). Due to Ryan’s brothers dying at the same time, James has to be delivered home. During their search, the squad loses two men. This loss of comrades creates resentment against a man that they will never meet after their mission is completed. They find the man, who is defending a bridge in a small French village and decide to stay and help.
Here, we see the kind of men that these soldiers truly are. Some are the heroes we must remember, and then there is one portrayed by Jeremy Davies that is a coward in the sense that we must feel ashamed of him. I have always viewed the coward as a comedic character, but Upham is not comedic. It’s almost disgusting how cowardly he is. There is a moment that reveals this part of him when a comrade is in a knife fight with a German and he’s losing. He calls for Upham’s help, knowing him to be at the bottom of the staircase, and yet he never arrives. The German goes down the stairway, looks at him and sees him as no threat before leaving.
The film ends with the death of Captain Miller, Private Ryan comes to the man who uses his dying breath to tell him, “Earn this.” Earn what exactly? Earn the opportunity to be the one that lived due to the deaths of others? Earn being called a member of the greatest generation? Earlier, Miller remarks that Ryan better be a game changer on the world stage, he better invent a more fuel-efficient light bulb or something of that nature. But as we know, he does not live up to this expectation, but becomes a grandfather with a family. So the question remains for Ryan, has he earned his place in life? This must be the greatest burden that he must hold, and when a film posses such a question, it truly is marked as a great film.