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Saving Private Ryan

"Saving Private Ryan"
"The Longest Day"
"The Caine Mutiny"

Talkin' 'bout Their Generation...

by Jim Bray

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

Winner of 5 Academy Awards, "Saving Private Ryan" is about as honest a treatment of war as one can expect from Hollywood. And in Spielberg's steady hands, the frightening horrors are presented graphically - but not unnecessarily so - but rather than being the focus of the plot serve more as a backdrop to the human story and human relationships that unfold on screen.

Tom Hanks plays Captain John Miller, a volunteer "short timer" (he isn't a career soldier) who leads his men ashore with the first wave of the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. These D-Day scenes, with their horrifying images and spectacular use of Dolby Digital 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 theater.

Once they accomplish their mission of getting ashore and securing their section of French coastline, Miller is ordered to assemble a squad and head inland, through not-yet-liberated countryside, to search for the title soldier, Private James Ryan. It's a mission of compassion - and public relations - because Ryan's three brothers have already given the ultimate sacrifice to the fight for freedom, and he's being sent home to ensure the war effort doesn't completely destroy his family's lineage.

Sound contrived? Watch the documentary that accompanies this DVD and you'll see it's a lot closer to the truth than you might expect.

Miller's squad embarks on the mission, the central theme of which becomes "what is the price of a single life?" These battle-hardened veterans (the excellent cast wear their characters' combat experience behind their eyes, from where it peeks out periodically) are faced with the prospect of giving up their lives to save the life of a faceless stranger who, to them, is being given a free ride home from the hell they all want to escape. It isn't fair - but they have their orders.

Miller's squad is a family, tried under the most unbelievable circumstance, and they bond as a family unit. And as such, they feel the understandable pain when one of their family is taken from them. Toward the end, it seems, they begin to see that what they're doing for Private Ryan is no different than what they'd do for any of their own squad/family members.

The value of a human life pops up repeatedly through "Saving Private Ryan," 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. But rather than moralize, the film presents the events matter-of-factly and lets you draw your own conclusions.

In the end, and at the very end of "Saving Private Ryan," the elderly James Ryan remembers Miller's final words to him and questions the value of his own life as he lived it after being "saved." It's a powerful emotional punch from a director who has the talent and skill to play his audience like a violin, and I defy anyone not to be moved.

"Saving Private Ryan" neither glorifies war, nor does it protest it. It just is, and the war presented here was a - if not the - pivotal moment in the lives of those who waged it. These were men who went over, did a dirty job, and came home to build new lives, burying their experiences inside them, but never quite forgetting them even though they didn't talk a lot about them.

What Spielberg, through Robert Rodat's script, does glorify is these people - people who had the courage and the vision to put the safety and freedom of the human race above their own comfort and dreams. Despite the revisionists who seem to have so much control over our 1990's perception of these past events, the generation portrayed in "Saving Private Ryan" wasn't a bunch of misled cattle, neither was it a bunch of gung ho jocks intent on crying havoc and letting slip the dogs of war.

They knew exactly what they were doing, and why. And despite knowing what they were in for (as much as one can know such things without having actually experienced them first), they went anyway, and they not only saved the fictional Private Ryan, they saved every one of us who came after.

Steven Spielberg has done a superb job of showing us this.

Lest we forget:

The DVD is in widescreen (1.85:1) and Dolby Digital (a DTS version is also available). Picture and audio quality are superb, and the Dolby Digital mixing of the ordnance whizzing around the home theater is spectacularly frightening and involving. Extras include a message from Steven Spielberg in which he puts in a plug for donations to the US' D-Day museum in Louisiana. There's also a very fine documentary "Saving Private Ryan: Into the Breach" that not only details some of the film's production, but which puts the film into historical perspective. It's excellent.

You also get two theatrical trailers, cast/filmmakers bios, and production notes, though the latter are pretty well a straight rehash of the decent set of liner notes that are inside the package.

Saving Private Ryan, from Dreamworks Home Video
169 minutes, Widescreen (1.85:1), Dolby Digital
Starring Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore
Produced by Steven Spielberg & Ian Bryce and Mark Gordon & Gary Levinson, Written by Robert Rodat
Directed by Steven Spielberg

The Longest Day

The Longest Day

While it lacks "Saving Private Ryan's" gut-wrenching realism or emotional punch, this 1962 epic is an excellent companion piece to "Ryan," putting Spielberg's story into context in the overall D-Day picture.

Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck and shot by three different directors (one American, one British, and one German), the three hour film tells the "whole story" of the Normandy invasion, from before the go ahead was given until after the famed landings on the beaches. In fact, the beach landings that begin "Saving Private Ryan" don't happen until "The Longest Day" is two thirds over.

The movie gives us all sides of the invasion, featuring a lot of German perspective filmed in German (with English subtitles), views from the French populace and underground (subtitled), and a wide variety of Allied views - from paratroopers and glider troops to fighter pilots, "the brass" at the top and, of course, the grunts who assaulted the beaches and cliffs of Normandy.

The screenplay, which Cornelius Ryan based on his book of the same name, covers some of the preparations for battle, and follows many of the events. It's a much "cleaner" view than that of "Saving Private Ryan," and in that way is a more traditional war movie than Spielberg's epic.

But "The Longest Day" is an epic on its own, featuring incredible views of the air and sea armada that went to France on that fateful day. The views of the massing ships and waves of aircraft are spectacular (the film won Oscars for its special effects and cinematography), and the shots of thousands of soldiers landing on the beaches couldn't be shot on a conventional budget today without the use of digital special effects.

The cast is a veritable "Who's Who" of the period, and there's no mention of them in the opening credits (or "credit;" only the title is displayed on screen near the movie's beginning), perhaps so people don't spend the next three hours keeping tally of the stars who keep appearing. But there's a bunch of them (some 50 international stars of various magnitude are on hand, from John Wayne to Gert Frobe). Their egos appear to have been held in check and they give their all to the production.

Fox's DVD is digitally mastered to the THX standard, and the widscreen black and white picture looks very good. They've also managed to remix it into Dolby Digital surround, and done a very good job of it. Most of the audio comes from the center front channel, with good stereo effects where the action dictates it - and some surround is in evidence too at appropriate places. It isn't suitable for using as a Dolby Digital demonstration like "Ryan" is, but what do you want from a 1962 movie?

Unfortunately, liner notes are virtually non-existent beyond the blurb on the back of the box, and extras are limited to the original trailer and chapter stops, which aren't really extras any more.

Fans of "Saving Private Ryan" who haven't seen "The Longest Day" really should view the older film to get a broader perspective of the events that helped form the world in which we live today. Because we should never forget what they did for us.

The Longest Day, from 20th Century Fox Home Video
178 minutes, Widescreen (2.35:1), Dolby Digital
Starring 48 International Stars
Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, Written by Cornelius Ryan, based on his book
British Exterior Episodes Directed by Ken Annakin, American Exterior Episodes Directed by Andrew Marton, German Episodes Directed by Bernhard WIcki

The Caine MutinyThe Caine Mutiny, Stanley Kramer's powerful film version of Herman Wouk's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is the story of a wet behind the ears Naval officer assigned to a beaten up old Minesweeper. During his voyages, the ship comes under the command of a paranoid regular forces Captain who ends up being relieved from duty by a subordinate during extraordinary circumstances at sea.

It's a powerful film full of great performances from its all star cast. Humphrey Bogart was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Lt. Commander Queeg, the object of the mutiny, but the supporting cast led by Fred MacMurray, Van Johnson, and Jose Ferrer also deliver first rate characterizations.

Through the course of the film you grow to view Queeg with disdain, but the real disgust is for MacMurray - as pointed out by Ferrer's character (defence lawyer Barney Greenwald) "the real architect of the Caine Mutiny."

Filmed with the participation of the US Navy, the film is a good insight into life at sea, life in the Navy, and life during wartime. The situations faced by those aboard the Caine test the mettle of them all. The typhoon sequence that's the final straw for the bridge officers and becomes the catalyst for the mutiny is spectacular and makes you glad you weren't there.

As the audience, we feel in our hearts that the mutiny was warranted, but the Navy doesn't look at it that way. It has to protect its commanders and its method of operations from such actions, so the mutineers are brought up on charges in what appears to be a hopeless case in which the odds are stacked against them. What ensues is a gripping courtroom drama in which what the audience clearly witnessed happen at sea is refuted in the court of law - and it looks as if our heroes are going to sink quicker than the Caine may have if they hadn't taken extraordinary action during the typhoon.

The DVD is presented in widescreen and pan/scan versions and it looks and sounds wonderful, though the audio is directed to the stereo speakers instead of the center channel. There aren't a lot of extras, but you do get a good liner essay inside the package, as well as theatrical trailers for the film and for "Dead Reckoning." There's also the usual chapter stops and different languages and subtitles.

The film was nominated for seven 1954 Academy Awards including Best Picture, and is an exciting and emotional film experience. Columbia's DVD release does it justice at last, making the widescreen picture available in the sort of vibrant color s only the DVD medium can bring to the home theater.

The Caine Mutiny, from Columbia Tristar Home Video
125 minutes, Widescreen (1.85:1)/Pan and Scan, Dolby Digital 2.0
Starring Humphrey Bogart Van Johnson, Fred MacMurray, Robert Frances, Jose Ferrer
Produced by Stanley Kramer, Screenplay by Stalney Roberts
Directed by Edward Dmytryk


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Updated May 13, 2006