25 years ago, a much younger version of myself slipped into a packed theater to view Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan on its opening weekend. You could sense the anticipation among the moviegoers; everyone knew they were about to see something special. Ever since the first teaser trailer aired, all eyes turned excitedly to late July when Spielberg would unveil his latest masterpiece: an epic World War II film starring Tom Hanks, one that had garnered plenty of controversy in the days leading up to its release.
True to form, Spielberg delivered a masterpiece that produced intense reactions from our opening-day audience. When the ramp dropped on those Higgins Boats, exposing a group of soldiers to German fire that violently ripped through their bodies, everyone seemed to grasp their seat handles collectively. Moments later, when Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller stumbles onto Omaha Beach and witnesses the terrible carnage around him — a lone soldier looking for his severed arm always drew gasps — I felt the tension in the theater escalate.
Even I began to sweat.
Spielberg sticks to the Raiders of the Lost Ark template and produces a bravura prologue that instantly captivates viewers and tosses them headfirst into the action. Except here, the results are horrific rather than enthralling — and he doesn’t stop for over 20 minutes.
I remember feeling squeamish, as if I had just witnessed a horrifying car wreck. There was nothing cool about the opening sequence, a beautifully orchestrated cacophony of chaos and death. The extended D-Day scene sticks with you. It’s visceral, brutal, and undeniably unforgettable.
Still, my favorite moment of Private Ryan occurs in the final act when Miller and his band of brothers, led by Edward Burns, Matt Damon, and Tom Sizemore, decide to defend a bridge in Ramelle against an advancing German army. Here, Spielberg unleashes perhaps his all-time great set piece, a sustained battle lasting nearly 40 minutes more in line with his blockbuster sensibilities.
Oh sure, the shocking violence continues. At one point, Adam Goldberg’s character, Mellish, gets into a fistfight with a German trooper and the pair roll around on the floor, biting, clawing, and grasping for life. Eventually, the German gains the upper hand and plunges a blade into Mellish’s heart. All the while, Jeremy Davies‘ Corporal Upham lingers outside, too afraid to save his friend.
It remains one of Spielberg’s nastiest scenes, particularly in how he uses his name to set up and destroy audience expectations. After three Indiana Jones films, ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws, Hook, and two Jurassic Parks, we became accustomed to seeing Spielberg’s characters rise and save the day, often at the last second. There wasn’t an audience member on opening day that didn’t expect Upham to leap around the corner to save Mellish in the nick of time.
That moment never arrives. I was stunned.
Yet, this bit is surrounded by thrilling combat and some truly epic filmmaking, culminating in an incredible moment when a tank launches over a hill like the shark from Jaws and nearly squashes Hanks and Damon’s characters. Such moments are sensational but never detract from the film’s somber tone. I’ve always felt Spielberg longed to make a traditional WWII action film but also wanted to maintain his newly minted Oscar-winning prestige and ultimately settled on a picture more in line with Schindler’s List.
The results aren’t perfect, with Spielberg leaning on war cliches and shocking gore to drive the film’s anti-war message home. No matter, Saving Private Ryan remains one of the iconic director’s most significant accomplishments and perhaps his last groundbreaking film, which had ripple effects throughout the industry. Everything from Call of Duty to Band of Brothers stems from Ryan’s massive cultural footprint. Interest in WWII increased twofold, leading to monuments, documentaries, and a slew of knockoffs on the big and small screen.
Still, the lasting image that always stuck with me is that of an audience quietly sitting through the entire closing credits, too stunned to move. Even when the words vanished and the ushers arrived, the crowd exited the auditorium in something akin to hushed reverence. I’ve never seen that happen again.
Saving Private Ryan is a masterpiece of cinema made by a director who understood the horrors of war.