Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan in 4K: easily the best way to watch Spielberg's war epic

by Jim Bray
May 10, 2018

Talkin' 'bout their generation...

Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan got a lot of good press when it came out, for its tribute to those who fought and died to save our western civilization from the German Nazis. It also garnered praise for its powerful and graphic depiction of what it was probably like (Hollywood influences notwithstanding) to have made that deadly but vital beach landing on June 6, 1944.

This is the perfect time of year, approaching America's annual Memorial Day celebration and the anniversary of the Normandy invasion, for Paramount to reissue a 20th Anniversary edition of Spielberg's film with an absolutely spectacular conversion to 4K disc with HDR – a very pleasant surprise, indeed.

It's a pretty good movie, too, though it would have been better if they'd forgotten the "saving mission" aspect of it and just continued to document Tom Hanks' group as they fought inland after establishing their beach hold. That opening (actually the second sequence after a bit of a narrative hook) is probably the best look at the horrors – and heroes – of war that I've seen, an unforgettable bit of movie making that puts those men's sacrifices into perspective for those who've never had to endure what my father's generation did in order to make the world safe for us.

On the other hand, documenting the fighting from the beach and inland was done already in Darryl F. Zanuck's "The Longest Day," the 1962 masterpiece that looks at the big (as in "really huge!") picture surrounding Operation Overlord, the invasion of the European mainland. That black-and-white movie starts the night before Spielberg's film and portrays the beach landing in context – as one vital part of a multifaceted operation.

As a baby boomer whose father's Halifax bomber crew flew over France the night before the Normandy Invasion, I appreciate the broader context of The Longest Day; heck, you'd never know from Spielberg's film that there was a lot more going on than the beach assault. In fact, the overall Overlord was so vast that the opening assault in Spielberg's film actually occurs about halfway through The Longest Day.

These films should be shown in high school history classes around the free world, lest we ever forget the heroes who were our fathers and grandfathers.

My dear and gentle wife won't sit through the frightening horrors of Saving Private Ryan, but I argue that the graphic nature of the scene is necessary to shock today's desensitized pop culture - for whom blood and gore are just the latest horror movie or video game outing. And, as I noted in my review of the original Blu-ray, "these D-Day scenes, with their horrifying images and spectacular use of surround sound, immerse you in the experience so much so that you almost feel as if you're there - all while celebrating the reality that, thanks to the people who were there, you can watch the film from the comfort of your home theatre and don't have to be there yourself."

As far as the story is concerned, once John Miller (Tom Hanks) and his men have accomplished their mission of getting ashore and securing their section of the French coastline, Miller is ordered to assemble a squad and head inland, through not-yet-liberated countryside, to search for Private James Ryan. It's a mission of both compassion and PR, because Ryan's three brothers have already given the ultimate sacrifice to the fight for freedom and the grand Poohbahs of the U.S. military decide to send him home to ensure the war effort doesn't completely destroy his family's lineage.

Sound contrived? Watch the supplements that are on the accompanying Blu-ray and you'll see that it's a lot closer to the truth than you might expect.

Hanks and his team, battle-hardened veterans (the excellent cast wears its characters' experience behind their eyes) are faced with the prospect of giving up their lives (and of course some do) to save the life of a faceless stranger (Matt Damon) who, to them, is being given a free ride home from the hell they all want to escape.

Like life, it isn't fair. It isn't justice; it just is. And they have their orders.

The theme of the ultimate value of a human life pops up repeatedly through the movie - from the opportunity to help some small children to the urge to wreak vengeance on a Nazi soldier they hold responsible for gunning down one of their mates. Oddly enough for Hollowwood, though, the film presents the events matter-of-factly and lets you draw your own conclusions, rather than beating you over the head with back dated morality.

Hats off to Spielberg for this. I don't know the man, but perhaps he saw this film as too important for slipping in the liberal dogma that so often pollutes films such as this. Or, as I noted in my earlier review, "perhaps he realized that it's because of the people who sacrificed…that all of us are free to spout whatever dogma we choose today.

"But we've lost so much. Our forefathers gave their lives to ensure our freedom, yet today we are no longer nearly as free as we were even 50 years ago - the creeping loss of freedoms adding up so that, while we're free to ride a bicycle, we're no longer free to do it without the helmet mandated by Big Government. Okay, that's a pretty minor example, but count up the freedoms we're losing today and it's a frightening scenario. Heck, some of us are no longer free to express our opinions if they're deemed by others to be offensive or "hurtful".

"This isn't the world the heroes of 'Saving Private Ryan' saved, and subsequent generations should be ashamed to have squandered so much of their heritage in the name of comfort, ease, and political correctness."

Indeed, my baby boomer generation has a lot to answer for, and Saving Private Ryan is a good reminder of that.

At the very end of the movie, the elderly Ryan remembers Hanks' character's final words to him and questions the value of his own life. It's a powerful and emotional gut punch from a gifted director who can play his audience like a fiddle.

Steven Spielberg has done a superb job of showing us that, rather than these young Americans being a bunch of gung ho jocks intent on crying havoc and letting slip the dogs of war (or killing babies), these kids knew exactly what they were doing, and why. And they – and millions of their brothers in arms - not only saved the fictional Private Ryan, they saved every one of us who came after.

Lest we forget.

A superb example of 4K…

Paramount's 4K UHD treatment of this film really knocked my socks off. I had expected it to offer an upgrade over the old Blu-ray, like most of the 4K discs I've seen to date, but when I fired up the 4K HDR disc it was as if I'd never seen the film before. I kid you not: this 4K version looks absolutely spectacular, and if you've never seen Saving Private Ryan before, this is definitely the version to try.

I was never happy with the look of the original DVD or Blu-ray. The film's original "faded" look imparts a kind of documentary feel to the film, as if it were shot live in June of 1944, but I expected that to translate to an okay but not great 4K upgrade.

Boy, was I wrong! This 4K HDR version leaves me with nothing but superlatives to say. The colours still look kind of faded, but my goodness – it's amazing how the 4K treatment has upped the colour ante anyway, so much so that I think this is one of the best 4K upgrades I've seen. Add to that the fine detail 4K allows, which is evident on uniforms and faces and sets, and the incredible dynamic range provided by HDR, and you have a really great 4K disc presentation.

The audio, Dolby Atmos that's backward compatible for mainstream home theatres, matches the visuals beautifully, offering a dynamic and enveloping soundtrack as ordnance whizzes around you. But it isn't all bombast (or bomb blast!); the audio in the quieter scenes is just as realistic and enveloping (just not as loud!) and contributes to an overall feeling of being there.

In all, this is a compelling and high-quality 4K release I recommend highly.

As mentioned, if you haven't yet bought Saving Private Ryan, this is definitely the version to get, even if you don't yet own 4K equipment. That's because Paramount has also included two Blu-rays (one for the feature and one for the substantial number of supplements) and a code for a digital download.

The extras appear to be identical to those on the original Blu-ray, and that's fine with me. Among the goodies is Steven Spielberg discussing his interest in WWII and how it led him to make the film, the research done for the film, the evolution of the screenplay and the director's intentions.

There's also a feature on the cast in which Spielberg, Hanks and others introduce their different characters and explain how the actors worked together. Boot Camp includes memories from the cast about the intense training regimen they went through thanks to Captain Dale Dye.

Making Saving Private Ryan sees Spielberg et al discuss the film's look, production design, costumes and photography, while Re-creating Omaha Beach is pretty self-explanatory – but very interesting.

There's also a feature on the film's music (yet another great John Williams score) and sound, and some Parting Thoughts in which Spielberg and Hanks share their thoughts on the experience of making the film.

Add to that "Into the Breach: Saving Private Ryan - a 25-minute documentary with the cast and crew and "Shooting War" (a Hanks hosted/narrated documentary on WWII combat photographers in Europe and the Pacific theater of war) and you have a fully featured package.  

Saving Private Ryan should be on every high school's curriculum, but I doubt it will be until there's a sea change in who's in charge of education. That's not only a shame, it's also a damning testament to the revisionist, politically correct age in which we now live.

Copyright 2018 Jim Bray

Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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