What Combat Does to Man: Private Ryan and its Critics

Saving Private Ryan challenges our moral seriousness, and that is a daunting thing for a summer film to have done.

Issue: Winter 1998-1999

"Among the groups of scared, tired riflemen along the beach were a few intrepid leaders--officers, noncoms, and privates on whose individual backs the big responsibility at the moment lay. They began by example and exhortation to prod the men to get up, leave such poor shelter as they had found, and walk or crawl across the beach flat and up the hills where the enemy was dug in with rifles, mortars, and machine guns." --U.S. Army history of the Normandy invasion

The first movie audiences to see Saving Private Ryan went in to watch it with the usual accompaniments of that form of entertainment--boxes of popcorn and noisy banter. Two hours and forty minutes later they streamed out in stunned, wet-eyed silence. Veterans of World War II (even those, such as Paul Fussell, who are most caustic about the gulf between those who live war and those who write about it) testified to its fidelity to reality. A chat room devoted to the movie on America Online attracted ten thousand postings in a week, many from veterans or their children, paying tribute to the film. The American Legion created a "Spirit of Normandy" award for Steven Spielberg, and the U.S. Army, in the presence of its chief of staff, General Dennis Reimer, gave him its highest civilian decoration. The Marine veteran who edits the semi-official Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute saw it, came back to his office, shut it down for the day, and took his entire staff to see it.

You must be a subscriber of The National Interest to access this article. If you are already a subscriber, please activate your online access. Not a subscriber? Become a subscriber today!