The Immortal Beard: #1 — Saving Private Ryan

#1

The last time I saw my grandfather was Christmas 1998.  His health had been in a pretty steady decline, and during my visit I’d find myself answering the same questions I’d just answered half an hour ago.  I kind of had the feeling he knew the end wasn’t too far away.  But through it all he was still the loud, boisterous, cantankerous joker that had been such a constant presence for so many years.  So we were talking, and I mentioned that I’d seen this movie called Saving Private Ryan, and how vividly it depicted the D-Day invasion.  Suddenly his face became so very serious and his gaze became so very distant, and he said quietly, “I saw enough of that for real.  I don’t need to see it again.”

After his death, we would find out that he had seen some horrible things during his service in World War II.  In one instance, a commanding officer simply said, “We don’t have enough food to feed both you and the prisoners,” and walked away, the unsaid implication hanging in the air.  It didn’t make sense.  This was the man who always had a joke, who used to trick me and my sister into cursing when we were little just to tweak my parents, this huge jolly man who was a cross between Jackie Gleason and Clark Gable.  We never knew about his time in the war.  He never talked about it.  To learn he’d carried that darkness in him, unspoken for so many years…

Well, that’s when Saving Private Ryan became more than just a movie for me.

There’s this tendency to mythologize World War II and those who fought in it, to call it the Good War, and them the Greatest Generation.  They easily lend themselves to such leaps.  It was an event with such clearly defined villains — a genocidal dictator, an empire whose forces attacked us without warning — that it’s natural to look on those who opposed them as heroes.  But while the purpose may have been a noble one, war is still war, filled with horrors beyond imagining.  And most of the men who took part in it didn’t see themselves as heroes.  Their country called, they answered, and they did what was asked of them.  They were homesick and confused and scared.  But they still fought and bled and died in places like Kasserine and Normandy and Iwo Jima, not for the chance to come home and brag about what they’d done, but because it was their duty.  And there’s more heroism in that than in all the John Wayne flag-waving bravado you can muster.

That’s the essence of Saving Private Ryan.  That it wasn’t winning the war that made these men heroes.  It was them fighting it in the first place.

Schindler’s List used black and white cinematography to lend itself a documentary feel, to remind us of newsreel footage, our primary source of World War II images, and therefore give its images the weight of history.  Ryan eschews that; it doesn’t want us to think of our conventional impressions of the war.  It wants us to look at it in a new light, one unburdened by the somewhat sanitized safety of black and white.  And where there’s not simply black and white, there are also shades of gray, and the so-called “Good War” is revealed to be as surreal and senseless and uncaringly violent as any Vietnam or Iraq.  It just had the benefit of a more clearly defined purpose, albeit one that still ground down the men carrying it out, men for whom the purpose often became simply the next step, the next mile, the next mission.  As Capt. Miller says after the disastrous attack on the radar emplacement:

“The man means nothing to me.  It’s just a name.  But if … you know if going to Rumelle and finding him so that he can go home, if that earns me the right to get back to my wife, then that’s my mission.”

By this point, there’s so many cans of soil in Sgt. Horvath’s backpack,  the war has been narrowed down to what it takes for these men to go home.  There’s no cowardice in this; in fact, it makes it all the more courageous that they fight on.

Spielberg isn’t content to simply point out this quiet heroism though.  He uses the film’s bookends to ask if we’re capable of the same kind of courage.  Ryan asking his wife if he’s been a good man and led a good life is Spielberg asking if we, as a country, have done what Capt. Miller asked of Pvt. Ryan on that bridge in France:  have we earned it?  Have we earned what was given to us by the bravery and sacrifice of men like Miller and Ryan and the rest?   And seeing that final image of an American flag so brightly backlit by the sun that it seems faded, I can’t help but believe that Spielberg thinks we haven’t.  We’ve become a nation whose sense of pride and purpose has run away as surely as the colors on that washed-out flag.

My grandfather passed away a little less than a year after that last visit.  I didn’t visit him in the hospital; I didn’t want my last memory of him to be one of him in a bed surrounded by tubes and machines.  And by that point, I wasn’t sure he’d even remember the visit.  Later that fall, we gathered together and scattered his ashes over his favorite fishing spot and said our good-byes.  I didn’t cry, because I knew he wouldn’t have wanted me to.  We all carried on with our lives, aware there was an empty space in it, but glad to have the memories of who had once filled it.  Months later, I watched Saving Private Ryan on HBO.  By this time, we’d become aware of my grandfather’s experiences in the war,  and now I couldn’t watch a scene without wondering if he’d seen similar things, felt similar fears, made similar choices.  The film ended, and John Williams’ stately, solemn “Hymn to the Fallen” began to play over the credits.  Soon, I was sobbing, finally grieving, both for the man I knew and the parts of him I never really did.

And that’s when Saving Private Ryan went from “more than just a movie” to something much more profound.  It’s a monument to all those grandfathers who didn’t ask for glory or fame when they returned from the war, but just for the embrace of the loved ones they’d left behind.  It’s a memorial not only those who didn’t return, but to the United States that made such men possible, a country we were and could be again.  And it’s my favorite director telling me my grandfather was a hero.  As much as I love Bruce and Indy, they simply can’t compete with that.

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