Movie Review – Saving Private Ryan vs The Thin Red Line

Until recently, world audiences were unwilling to witness the true horror of war brought close to home, right into your face. Spielberg, in much the same way he revolutionized the extent that digital effects could tell a story in Jurassic Park, decided to take what was , at the time, a relatively unconventional approach and utterly dehumanize the ravages of war on the participants, and give us the full throttle adrenaline ride that it must have been to be shot at, shot up, and blown to bits on the beaches of northern France during the first days of D-Day. Of course, Saving Private Ryan was never meant to be thrilling.


As is often the case in Hollywood, similar films are released within a few months of each other that makes people wonder if the major studios are not somehow colluding to produce a certain kind of sentiment among the viewership: that’s not the case, by the way, that was a rhetorical statement. Every couple of years, two studios will release a film that is so similar in plot or storyline it’s generally a race to see which comes out first.

Examples, among others, include Deep Impact (about an asteroid heading for Earth, and sending a team up to blow it up from the inside out!) and Armageddon (one of my favourite films, about an asteroid heading for Earth, and sending a team up to blow it up from the inside out!); there was also Antz and A Bugs Life, similar themed CGI films from PDI/Dreamworks (they also did the Shrek movies, for anybody keeping score) and Pixar (the whacky guys behind those unseen gems such as Toy Story, Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo), and not to mention the two title films I am referring to in this post.

Ahh yes, 1998 was a great year. All of the above films were released in 1998, in fact, 4 of them rank in that years top grossing films.

Today, what I want to discuss, are the relative merits of the two epic war films released in 1998, that redefined the way war movies were filmed and shown to audiences.


Until Saving Private Ryan was released in late July of 98, war had generally not been touched on by modern filmmakers with the exception of Oliver Stone, whose career until then had included Born on The Fourth Of July, Platoon, and to a certain extent, Salvador, all exceptionally well made, often controversial, films dealing with war in a remarkable confronting way. Prior to Stone, the closest audiences had come to participating in actual war was in the old 50’s and 60’s “glory” war films, starring the most rugged and chiseled stars of the time (generally in gratuitous cameos) all beating their chests and engaging in macho bouts of unbridled heroism that descended into outright nonsense. Until recently, world audiences were unwilling to witness the true horror of war brought close to home, right into your face. Spielberg, in much the same way he revolutionized the extent that digital effects could tell a story in Jurassic Park, decided to take what was , at the time, a relatively unconventional approach and utterly dehumanize the ravages of war on the participants, and give us the full throttle adrenaline ride that it must have been to be shot at, shot up, and blown to bits on the beaches of northern France during the first days of D-Day. Of course, Saving Private Ryan was never meant to be thrilling. It was, for the first time in modern cinema, an example of the sheer brutality and uncompromising human cost of waging war on fellow humans. Graphic, forceful, bravura filmmaking done in such a way that the audience feels positively ill upon witnessing this, Spielberg managed to bring home just how bad war actually is to an audience desensitized by Playstation and Big Brother.

Tom Hanks as Captain Miller
Tom Hanks as Captain Miller

Reading any review of Saving Private Ryan will no doubt mention the films opening twenty minutes, which is a veritable assault on the mind and senses, putting you right into the carnage of the D-Day landing, bullets, bombs, grenades and everything. I remember sitting in the cinema, a fair way towards the back, and still twitching nervously in my seat as i felt the bullets whiz past me, the bodies and limbs shattering and exploding on the screen felt as real as sitting at my keyboard does now. It moved me, and I sat through the rest of the film feeling nauseous; not due to the hand held nature of the cinematography, but due to the graphic and powerful nature of the images flickering on the screen. The finale, a forty five minute attack on a small river bridge and the last stand by a group of desperate soldiers, is both harrowing and heart rending. It was here I felt that Spielberg denied us the somewhat smug showiness of previous films. Spielberg’s serious films, including Schindler’s List, that much vaunted Best Picture Oscar winner of 93, generally still have vestigial moments of showiness, shots or scenes that just scream “look at how clever we are”. With Ryan, however, I felt that at this point, Spielberg had simply decided to avoid his past cliches and turn a directorial corner.

Carnage on the Beach.
Carnage on the Beach.

The film relies heavily on the shoulders of Tom Hanks for its emotive power and the all-too-human touchstone we need for films to connect us, and he never fails. His unflinching Captain Miller is perhaps too stoic to be real, but history tells us people got to this point in war, disconnecting with their own emotions to help them survive the bloody unthinkable. When he breaks down after the death of one of his younger soldiers, you can feel the tears being pulled out of you. Such raw power on screen is staggering to behold. Of course, the passage of time has lessened the impact somewhat of this remarkable film, Watching the film multiple times on DVD, in the intervening decade since its release, has numbed us somewhat to it’s stark reality. Since SPR came out, almost every film tackling war since has been shot and edited in a similar way. A prime example is Ridley Scott’s equally magnificent Black Hawk Down, another example of top class war film. It’s like Hollywood suddenly discovered a new way to make war “real”, and not the stuffed shirt buffoonery of years past.

Under fire...
Under fire…

Then, in December of 1998, around six months after the release of SPR, came the much vaunted return of famed director Terrence Malick. After a twenty year absence from the film-making scene, he returned with perhaps one of the more difficult and obscure war films ever made. More like a postcard from paradise with some battles thrown in, Australian audiences avoided this film like the plague after initial test screenings: it’s not hard to see why.

I said get up that hill dammit!

Malick is one of those directors who would rather spend a week shooting trees and animals than any actual acting, or action. The Thin Red Line is filled to the brim with shots of trees, fauna and wilderness of every shape and size, and takes an ice age to develop into a story. Told in such a slowly paced way, most audiences (at least here in Australia) were put off by the fact that it had been touted as a big blazing action film, and wasn’t anything of the sort. Critics raved about its cerebral nature, however, others were confused with the point the the film was ultimately trying to make.

Straw huts couldn’t repel enemy fire, but they kept the flies out.

TTRL tells a disparate story about a group of soldiers fighting the war on Guadalcanal, and their emotions and thoughts of fighting such fierce battles in such a beautiful part of the world. More often than not, voice-over is used to tell the story, something modern film audiences can only tolerate for so long. Unlike SPR, the battle sequences are few and far between, although it must be said that when they do occur, they are quite stunning. So far in between, that in the cinema I watched this in (which was pretty much packed, by the way) you could actually feel the audience bristling with boredom after about the first half hour, waiting for something to actually happen.

He’d just dropped his chewie over the side…

While watching this film in the cinema, at its complete running time of nearly 3 hours, TTRL is like injecting Valium directly into your brain and letting it rest there for the whole time. The film is, essentially, mind numbingly slow and utterly pretentious, devoid of any real emotional impact as most of the cast are reduced to cameos and bit-parts trying to make up a whole: only Elias Koteas and a stunningly fierce Nick Nolte bring any credence to the all-star casting going on here. What is also stunning about this film, aside from its sheer length and lack of emotional depth, is the sheer number of big name stars who gave performances before the cameras and were cut! Names like Martin Sheen, Billy Bob Thornton, Gary Oldman and Viggo Mortensen all acted for Malick, but due to the films massive length, their scenes were ultimately cut. I doubt seriously whether Oldman would have delivered a performance worthy of the cutting room floor, so it makes you wonder if all the shots of trees and birds and rivers and things that actually made the cut were that much better?

That whole hill thing? Forget it. I OWN your ass now!!!

Critics of Malicks told stories of who notoriously difficult and eccentric the director could be to work for, and for most on set, it proved to be well founded folklore; the problem is, most people thought this was th work of some kind of misguided genius. I have to tell you, Malick is no genius. TTRL, as well as the more recent labour-of-audience-viewing, The New World, are both utterly pretentious and un-involving tripe of the highest order; although moments of TTRL do ascend to greatness, they are ultimately hamstrung by their faults. Where I find Thin Red Line particularly disappointing is that it speaks so much, and says so little: you come away with very little from this film that hasn’t already been said so often by other, better, films.

Boys, I quit.

So for future reference, if a director has a reputation for being difficult and his films are languid, laborious, lengthy piles of waffle, such as TTRL, why do people keep giving them money to make more films? I guess when Martin Scorcese and other film luminaries rave about this film, you have to give what they say some credence, however in this particular instance, I think they were watching a different film than I was.

So which is the better film?

While poles apart in terms of directorial skill, look, emotional content and overall entertainment, both films attempt to take war into the lives of the viewer, putting them on the front line and on the battlefield; whether successfully or otherwise is perhaps not the point, I guess. Both films are brutal at times, and beautiful as well, for their themes of human loss and despair. Private Ryan is a graphic, in-your-face doco styled affair, whilst TTRL is a true widescreen affair, lavish shots of landscapes and battles aplenty in ravishing 70mm photography, like a holiday brochure gone horribly awry. Both achieve their point stylistically, although perhaps the gritty SPR style slightly comes out in front for assisting the storytelling, unlike TTRL, which it appears the cinematography IS the story.

He just realised that he’d forgotten his compass….

The acting across both films is uniformly excellent, although there is less actual acting in TTRL, which relies almost exclusively utilises voice-overs, so for me, SPR comes out on top again. Voice overs are good for part of the film (think the funny parts of Bridget Jones’s Diary) but not all. Overuse of a voice-over can kill a film, and it does here. With Private Ryan, the ensemble cast is used to brilliant effect by Spielberg, gaining all the dramatic narrative he requires from simple, elegant conversations told in a realistic way as our soldiers move through the battlefields of France.

Personally, I found SPR a much more emotive and fulfilling film, devoid of derivative narration and pointless scenery. It got to the point, and told the story well, which is all you can ask of any good film. TTRL managed to sway between patriotic, patronising, and just plain pissy, trying to be an really expensive art-house film and succeeding tenfold. Thematically, they attempt to convey the same message, I think, and unfortunately, in my humble opinion, only one really succeeds.

Spielberg’s film is far superior.


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47 thoughts on “Movie Review – Saving Private Ryan vs The Thin Red Line

  1. I find it questionable that people "like" SPR because it shows the "horror" of war. The opposite is true; people are inherently fascist and love the pleasure and spectacle of violence.

    But take away the SFX of any Spielberg movie and there is nothing left.

    1. I think there's a few people who would argue with you about that last line: perhaps in recent times, yes, but a lot of Spielberg's earlier work wasn't just about the SFX.

  2. its dull because apart from great battle scene and entertaining story theres nothing to it…spielberg is a dreadful director who only seeks ways to make money …on the other hand Thin Red Line shows peoples philosophical perception of the war, its a smart movie for smart people, its an art not a business product

    1. SO it has "great battle scenes" and an "entertaining story", and yet it's dull? There's "nothing to it" except an entertaining story and great battle scenes"??? Okay then.

      I think even those who claim TTRL is the better film would argue that Spielberg is anything but a dreadful director – and I'm among them. Regardless of your feelings for him personally, he makes good films even if there's the dreaded "commercial gain" behind them. God forbid people try and make money from making films! I'd hate to know what you think of Christopher Nolan!

      I'd wager any money you like that 20th Century Fox was hoping The Thin Red Line would make money for them, just as Paramount did for SPR. Both films, being films, are a business product. You can't tell me that money never came into the process on either film, so your argument is redundant. All films are made to profit somebody, be it a producer, financial backer, or major Hollywood studio. Somewhere, somebody makes (or loses) money in this endeavor.

      TTRL seems like a waffling poem of a film, while SPR goes for a gut-punch of horror – both films have their place, and it's subjective as to which one speaks to you more, I guess. The arguments on this article have indicated as such.

  3. i personally think saving privet ryan is dull, acting is bad

    while THIN RED LINE is a deep and moving experience, obviously public will chose the SPR because of its battle scenes, the same way the chose transformers instead of dramas

  4. I saw it on TV several weeks ago (TCMuk). I've talked to several people on IMDB who have downloaded it from internet torrent sites (apparently DVD quality) because only VHS copies are avilable to buy on websites like amazon or ebay. The film itself is very good when compared to other war moves of the late 50s and early 60s, but can't touch Sam Fuller's work during this period or even Malick's adaptation.

  5. Tieman, you've posted some fascinating stuff here! However, I do have one question: Where were you able to see the 1964 version of The Thin Red Line? I've been trying to get a copy of that movie for ages now but it seems to be out of print.

  6. Incidentally, I figured out the word which prevents comments from being posted on FERNBYFILMS. It's actually "Alfred Hitch****" !!!

    You can't talk about the great master in these comments because the site's censoring machine recognises it as being offensive.

  7. What do you guys think of the scene in which the Jewish soldier (who earlier in the film gets a Hitler youth knife) is knifed to death by a German while an intellectual American soldier stands by and lets him die? Peter Ehrenhaus wrote a book which reads this scene, and others, as a represented “rape” of the Jew by German Nazism, and how the film “Americanizes the Holocaust and subtly employs the Holocaust as justification for American involvement in WW2 and future jeremiads”.


    “Although set in the past, Spielberg’s ‘antiwar’ film has ideological ramifications that affect spectators now and in the future, and provide the self-perpetuating jingoistic justifications for future unilateral military invasions, incursions and interventions.” – Frank P. Tomasulo (historian/cultural critic)

    “As an apparatus of the state, Saving Private Ryan does what it has to do: it re-creates a fascination and a reverence for war so that, someday in the not too distant future, the state can put this fascination and reverence to use once again.” – Krin Gabbard (cultural critic)

    “Saving Private Ryan is an effort in sustained dishonesty. […] it totally evades politics and history; it gives man an excuse for his behavior; and most obviously, it hails the redeemed character … without the audience having to act on anything but their ability to look at the screen.” – Robert Kolker (author)

    “I don’t want to judge the works of other colleagues in interviews. But taking “Schindler’s List” as the most famous example, there’s a scene in that film when we don’t know if there’s gas or water coming out in the showers in the camp. You can only do something like that with a naive audience like in the United States. It’s not an appropriate use of the form. Spielberg meant well – but it was dumb. It’s very difficult in German cinema because of the guilt that’s still present. It often drifts off into a sentimentality that’s not appropriate for the subject.” – Michael Haneke

    “It’s actually out of respect for the importance of what happens there. It’s, of course, very tempting, if you don’t have that kind of respect, to just sit on that spectacular event, and that’s what a lot of Hollywood films do. For example, if you take “Schindler’s List” and you have that shower scene, I think it’s absolutely disgusting to show that.” – Michael Haneke

    “Saving Private Ryan is a classic example of the latter, in the flickering light of its propagandistic glow, the American people stand revealed for what they really are: stupid, self-absorbed, morally unsophisticated rubes ready to be fleeced by the first charlatan who comes along and tells them what they want to hear.” – Clark Carpenter

    "Schindler's List? Kitsch as fat as a dinosaur.” – Imre Kertesz (holocaust survivor, nobel prize winner)


    Below are some excerpts from Susanne Owen's “War and American Identity”:

    “Miller and Jackson re-emerge in the cinematic national metanarrative as material memories of moral national victory, salient (and self-conscious) icons of an idealized past. Cinematic stories about “the Nam” feature numerous scenes where guns are used both in violation of, and independently of, high moral purpose; these uses destabilize the myth that warfare can be guided by moral purpose. In striking contrast to expressions of moral dis-ease or subversive pleasure in post-Vietnam cinema, Spielberg’s sermon works to reunite the gun with high moral national purpose. He does this primarily through visual and discursive characterization of an American sharpshooter (see Jameson, 1998).

    […] Pvt. Jackson is existentially and aesthetically differentiated from the other male soldiers in the unit. Even in the context of the narrative, he is the only character who is able to sleep. His comrades, who are too exhausted and traumatized to rest, remark with bemusement and some envy that Jackson sleeps because his “conscience is clear.” […] Significantly, Jackson is the only main character who dies heroically in a sacred place, a church tower. In Jackson’s characterization, there is no visible or discursive trace of post-Vietnam moral anxiety about using guns on behalf of the nation. Like Miller, Jackson is utterly at ease with the social order and his place in it; he, too, is without guilt.

    […] Spielberg re-sacrilizes the gun as signifier of lethal force through visual and discursive alignments of sacred purpose. The first images of Jackson in the film associate him with religious faith. As Jackson and other men prepare to disembark from the deadly transport boats, Jackson kisses a crucifix and silently mouths a prayer. Though one reviewer refers to Jackson as a “Sergeant York Type from Fundamentalist country” and a “prayerful sharpshooter” ( Jameson, 1998), the character itself is portrayed without irony or for purposes of critique. Each of the three times he is given a direct order to use his skill as a sniper, the Americans are outmatched by the Germans, who have more men, more firepower, and better strategic positions. Each time Jackson prepares himself to kill German soldiers, he prays a prayer evocative of the Old Testament Psalms where Jehovah’s chosen people sought divine intervention in contests of lethal force.

    […] Visual composition of Jackson’s prowess as a sniper consists of low angle, tight shots of his face, hands, and rifle, signifying the strength and moral superiority of the character. Each time Jackson performs his mission, the audience is sutured into his viewpoint; first we see the establishing shot of Jackson looking through his scope, and then the subjective camera positions us to look with Jackson through the scope. We see that Jackson’s kills are “clean”; his shots are precise, his enemies die instantly. Paul Virilo (1989) explains that “[t]he act of taking aim is a geometrification of looking,” an imaginary and idealized extension of ocular perception (p. 2). Looking through Jackson’s “eye of the mind” (Bhabha, 1995, p. 59), viewers witness a restored American vision of righteous destruction. The surgical shots (both gun and camera) work to restore memory of war as an honorable contest of skill and chance; what Jackson does with his gun is both fair and admirable within the established rules of war (see Fussell, 1975; Keegan, 1999). Moreover, because Jackson kills with such finesse and grace in the midst of mass carnage, his use of the gun is available for aesthetic interpretation. By transforming the act of killing into an art form, traumatic memory of moral uncertainty, atrocity, and defeat is displaced in favor of commemorative recollection of righteous retribution, of victory. Rhetorical displacement of trauma is possible, in part, because Jackson’s scopic gun works metaphorically to re-center American moral authority in modern warfare. As Homi Bhabha reminds us, the “central metaphor for rational, national identification is the scopic regime;” western man is the center of his universe (p. 59). He thinks (or speaks or shoots); therefore, he is. Jackson’s graceful performance under life-or-death pressure restores legitimacy to mythic images of American military might and a shared vision of national destiny.”

    “…Saving Private Ryan reunifies white, masculine Identity and “reillusions” American national identity in the wake of Vietnam. It (re)imagines a time before the social dislocations of mid-century movements for gender and racial equality and restores moral authority to the modern American nation-state, confronting cultural cynicism about the legitimacy of blood sacrifice to the nation.

    Spielberg (as quoted earlier) views post-Vietnam cultural malaise as evidence of falling away from the covenant (i.e., “the greater good” is lost). The sin of moral failures in Vietnam must be atoned; thus for Spielberg, Ryan is a “morality play.” The call home to the foundational tenets of a mythic past is Ryan’s charge.

    […] Ryan re-directs the focus of American traumatic memory to the ethically usable pasts of World War II, what Englehardt (1995) calls “victory culture.” In this recovery project, Spielberg posits memory itself as a precious and dwindling resource. He crafts representation of national ethos through the visual metaphor of witnessing. And he “cures” the ideological crises of “coming home” through appropriation of the feminine and erasure of race conflicts in American history. Saving Pvt. Ryan offers redemption from the Vietnam syndrome through re-invention of a pre-Vietnam and pre-nuclear American democratic ethos — unshaken by foreign and domestic policy disasters or the uniquely American identity politics that emerged out of the “civil” wars of race, gender, and sexuality.

    Yet, Spielberg never quibbles (how can he?) with the post-Vietnam legacy that war is hell for American white men; in fact, he frames his story as traumatic memory. Whereas memory work was a troubling subtextual theme in the films of Coppola, Cimino, Kubrick, Stone and DePalma, memory is foregrounded as the central visual and narrative theme in Saving Pvt. Ryan. The film begins and ends with visual tropes of the traumatic memories of Ryan, a white male American survivor, triggered by his pilgrimage to the United States military cemetery at Normandy.

    When he locates the grave of Captain John Miller, the man responsible for saving his life, Ryan literally falls to his knees with the pain of recollection. And from there — on his knees in anguish — he recollects the horrific landing at Omaha Beach and the haunting overlay of the dying words of John Miller to the young Ryan: “James, earn it; earn this.” The paucity of Tom Hank’s dramatic concluding speech (an act of Hegemony reclaiming traumatic memory) stands in stark contrast to Stone’s self-conscious closing monologue in Platoon or the rambling lament of Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. After Miller gasps these words, and dies, the camera pulls back respectfully from his body; through a series of reverse shots, Miller’s three surviving men grieve over his body.

    The narrative then loops back to the point of origin, to the now senior citizen, James Ryan, who stands weeping amid the rows of trim white crosses. In a liminal encounter, he tells Miller, “I’ve tried to live my life the best I could.” He implores his bewildered spouse, “Tell me I’m a good man.”

    This brief tribute makes sense in the context of the story that has been told. Five of eight main characters have died in service to their country. Three remain alive to shoulder the responsibility of commemorating the war as a covenant of faith in democratic idealism. In the context of the film narrative, this faith has been forged at considerable cost. Pvt. Ryan has learned of the many American lives expended to save his own. Cpl. Upham has experienced the devastating collapse of his Emersonian idealism about war and the rules of fair play. The most cynical character in the ensemble cast, Pvt. Reiben, has been moved by the courage and selflessness of his comrades to abandon cynicism and embrace the wrenching necessity of human sacrifice for the greater good. In contrast to post-Vietnam cinema, Ryan offers the homily “war is hell, but necessary and even heroic hell” (“War,” 1998, p. 70). And unlike post-Vietnam cinematic veterans, redemption of trauma for the survivors of Ryan is possible through performed identification with American national ethos, through faith forged within the context of male military duty.

    […] The narrative looping in Ryan strategically reconstructs the confessional and mortification rituals so characteristic of Stone and Coppola’s films and conquers traumatic memory for its own ends. Their confessional motifs suggested that there were terrible things about war that the civilian audience did not know. Their mortification motifs suggested that the survivors grappled with crippling anxiety about the actions of the United States in entering and exiting the war. Spielberg integrates these moments of crisis into his story, but avoids or does not privilege them as primary themes, thereby reviving the possibility of constructing (rather than deconstructing) national identity through memory work. […] Spielberg’s film illustrates that traumatic memory need not interfere with the commemorative functions of jeremiadic logic. Ryan shows us that remembrance of trauma can be sacred, like a “patriotic hymnal” (Carson, 1999, p. 70) about “the glory of military heroism” (Zinn, 1998, p. 38) that stands as a “solemn memorial” (Doherty, 1998, p. 68) to American national ethos.

    […] In order for Spielberg’s film to shift the assumptive grounds of public imagination from perennial crisis to commemorative practice, his story needs to modify at least two inter-related entailments of the post-Vietnam crisis; these modifications reinvigorate the ideological potency of the jeremiad myth. First, the disgruntled private citizen pressed into military duty must be reimagined as an honorable and heroic public servant (citizen-soldier). And second, the gun as signifier of lethal force must be re-sacrilized and refeminized as a legitimate instrument of the state. Neither of these entailments can be addressed effectively unless the malaise of troubled masculinity represented in post-Vietnam cinema can be cured. Spielberg avoids the problem through two strategies. He imagines non-male, nonwhite citizens as absent presences in the national metanarrative, and he appropriates feminist critiques of conventional masculinity.

    […] Re-imagining the soldier-citizen: though Spielberg acknowledges the Vietnam War as implied audience, and pays tribute to the anguish and anxieties articulated through post-Vietnam cinema, he ultimately atones for the lapses of Vietnam while celebrating American bravura. Spielberg’s cinematic jeremiad works to re-illusion traditional icons of unified national purpose discredited by post-Vietnam stories — icons of nationalism (e.g., the American flag), revered political patri-archs (e.g., Abraham Lincoln), and the defense of sacred purpose through lethal force (e.g., the gun, “the Alamo”; see Doherty, 1998) – restoring faith in a new Hegemony and military complex. Through compound character interactions with Captain Miller, Spielberg works on the primary tensions that traumatized Vietnam veterans and helped to fragment American national identity in the post-Vietnam years. Through Miller, the other key male characters witness and ultimately embrace a reconstituted American democratic ethos embedded in the postmodern narrative premise of “both/and.”13 The “both/and” logic is imperative for overcoming the masculine anxieties of post-Vietnam cinema and for sanitizing the historical race and gender practices of the Greatest Generation.

    […] Problematic white masculinity recedes in Ryan. And, like pre- and post-Vietnam combat films, white American male interests still drive the narrative. What’s new in Ryan, however, is a “postmodern mix-and-match” (Goldstein, 1999, p. 44) of gender nostalgia and post-feminism, constituted through John Miller and his relations with his men. While I agree with commentators who read Miller as “beloved WASP commander” (Goldstein, 1999, p. 47) or typical “idealized everyman leader” (Doherty, 1998, p. 70), I argue that he is more than a familiar face in the “multiethnic sampling of homo americanus” (Doherty, 1998, p. 70). My critique of the film grounds his heroism and leadership in American cultural post-feminism. In this regard, Miller is an ideologically innovative configuration of masculinity within the conventions of combat cinema.

    […] Miller is a historical impossibility, the sensitive new male of postfeminism – at once conventionally masculine in ability and bravery, yet in sync with feminist critiques of masculine institutions of power. Moreover, this trope of gendered integration works to reconcile generational tensions between Greatest Generation and Baby Boomer masculinities (see Doherty, 1998; Goldstein 1999). In subsequent sections, I will illustrate how Miller and his men appropriate feminism and femininity.

    […] Significantly, under John Miller’s re-gendered style of leadership, the mission to save Pvt. Ryan reunites the significance of following orders (frequently discredited in post-Vietnam cinema) with moral human agency in the midst of chaos, terror, and obscenity. Noting the rhetorical forcefulness of the scene, one film reviewer comments: “In the end, their men follow the Millers of this world not simply because of The Cause or even formal discipline and mere habit, but because of a moral authority rooted in competence and character.” (Cohen, 1998/ 1999, emphasis added) John Miller “saved democracy,” to use Ambrose’s phrase, by asking audiences to re-imagine a good (white) American (man) in combat conditions, who does his duty compassionately and morally. Because Miller embodies the integrated experience, vision and trauma of the pre- and post-Vietnam warrior, he is at once private citizen and public servant, the ideal citizen soldier of the jeremiad and the Hegemonic Order dependent on it. Through a postfeminist masculinity, Miller recoups moral authority and rehabilitates discredited white masculinity, thereby offering a cure for the malaise of post- Vietnam masculinities.

    […] Resacrilizing the gun: Miller and Jackson re-emerge in the cinematic national metanarrative as material memories of moral national victory and an idealized past. However, their presence in the narrative is contextualized through selective cultural amnesia: Women return to the margins of the nation story;16 citizens of color disappear altogether.17 As The Village Voice observes, Ryan evokes a “world where (white) men were men and everyone else stayed out of sight” (Goldstein, 1999, p. 47). Such notable absences in the film narrative merit careful scrutiny. Sociologist Elizabeth Jelin (1998) argues that “[t]o forget . . . does not imply a void or a vacuum. [Rather], it is the presence of the absence, the representation of what was once there and no longer is, the representation of something that has been erased, silenced or denied” (emphasis added). In Saving Pvt. Ryan, women assume the positions consistent with conventional historical representation: the sexual object, the warrior’s raison d’etre (why he fights), the helper, and the reproducing mother (Honey, 1984; Rupp, 1978). Femininity is strategically sexualized in the narrative in order to contain homoerotic possibilities, a generic convention in American war narratives (e.g., Belton, 1994, pp. 164- 183).

    […]Jeffords and others (e.g., Bates, 1996; Wood, 1986) argue that appropriation of the feminine and displacement of women is a common strategy in post-Vietnam literature and cinema. Jeffords explains: “The apparent breaking of gender boundaries that occurs when men “occupy with ease, and without inhibition, the position of the female” is simultaneously a spectacle to distract from the reaffirmation of gender boundaries and a controlling of gender movement through the reinstitution of rational violence. In this way, the apparent occupation of the feminine position by the masculine is not seen as a challenge to constructions of gender but instead an appropriation of them.” As Zoe Sofia phrases it, “masculinist production depend[s] upon the prior cannibalization of women, and the emulation of female qualities.” Men do not become women in these narratives, they occupy them. (p. 105)

    […] Modleski (1991) argues that “male feminization,” where males are empowered at the expense of women, is a primary characteristic of post-feminism (p. 7). Male hegemony, she argues, “ultimately deal[s] with the threat of female power by incorporating it” (p. 7). The Village Voice reads Ryan through the same lens. They observe that for males of the Baby Boomer generation, the film holds a special allure. This yearning for a dangerous yet admirable past has a special weight for [those] who have had to temper their birthright of power over women. They may be willing, even eager, to shed this burdensome supremacy, but a reside of rue remains. (Goldstein, 1991, p. 47)

    […] Miller’s feminization can be read in at least two ways that restore legitimacy to masculine idealization of national identity and to the jeremiad. The film’s mutiny scene honors the conventions of post-Vietnam anxiety about moral purpose. Yet, the resolution of the crisis maintains the possibilities for recouping unified national purpose by the end of the narrative. The possibilities for moral authority in the scene stem from Miller’s dedication to ethical principles of conduct, and from the emotional intimacy and generous options he offers rebellious men. Compared to post-Vietnam depictions of hegemonic masculinity in military training and combat, Miller’s approach to aggressive confrontation instantiates Modleski’s assertion: Masculinity can occupy feminine narrative space. In this manner, historical characterizations like John Miller can function to discredit the urgency of feminist critiques of past and present American gender practices, or to imply that contemporary feminist critique is obsolete or has been conquered. The feminization of John Miller also serves to reinscribe democracy as feminine. Earlier, I noted that Miller’s willing defense of democracy is instantiated in memories of his wife pruning roses. He fights for her (and thus, for democracy) and to return home to her; she is the absent presence who serves as the conduit home. However, in Miller’s own death near the end of the interior narrative loop, he speaks as feminized democracy. His vulnerability as a mortally wounded soldier is the focus of the camera and the three surviving members of the unit. Miller’s dying words to them (and to the witnessing audience) requires commemorative memory work: “Earn it, earn this.” The camera lingers on Miller’s lifeless body as the voice-over of a renowned military leader (Gen. Marshall) reads the words of a mythic American president (Lincoln) to commemorate why (white) American men fight and die for their nation state. This discursively framed visual representation of sacrifice for noble purpose encapsulates a mythic American past.

    […] Moreover, as the camera lingers over the now-stilled hand tremor of Miller, anxieties of post-Vietnam memory arestilled. Within this mythic framework, Democracy is whitened and feminized, constituted as an idealized ontological condition of perfection, ever needful of protective vigilance. There is no sense at all, within the visual and discursive logic of Spielberg’s jeremiad, of Democracy as robust, as active and imperfect, or of how democracy might be practiced in a racially and ethnically diverse culture. Saving Private Ryan takes us back to a time and “a nation where people of color were virtually missing from public life” (Goldstein, 1999, p. 47). When asked to account for those absences, Spielberg reportedly fell back on arguments of historical accuracy; that is, “blacks didn’t fight in most of the great battles” (Goldstein, p. 47). Setting aside the factual claim of this statement (see Hasian, 2001; Morehouse, 2000; Motley, 1975; Piehler, 1995), it is perhaps sufficient to note the unintended irony of Spielberg’s reply. Black presence in the United States Armed Forces, “except as stewards and support troops, would have been disruptive to the Greatest Generation” (Goldstein, p. 47), whose contributions as ideal Americans Spielberg asks us to commemorate. What would happen to the “nation story” (Berlant, 1997) of World War II if absences in Spielberg’s story were given presence? In other words, can American democracy be disarticulated (Hall, 1982) as white male sacrifice, and rearticulated as an on-going set of performative practices where competing and contesting interests engage in discourses of power? No doubt, various American “pasts” would, as Benjamin observed, flash up as moments of “danger” for the mythic imagination. Imagine that “danger” in the form of a disclaimer at the end of Spielberg’s film, or Tom Hanks’s solicitation of funds on behalf of the proposed WWII memorial on the Washington Mall.

    […] The white male warrior laments sins of the nation, and then memorializes the locus of his trauma – an American national identity coalescing around differences and diversities that increasingly rupture mythologies of unified white masculine citizenship. Ryan articulates a longing for ideological consensus in the form of white masculine power (see Novak, cited in Johannesen, 1985). In Ryan, Spielberg reconciles acknowledgement of post-Vietnam trauma with the longing for conditions and myths threatened by that trauma. Thus, guns and blood sacrifice are resacrilized; conventional gender roles and race relations are reaffirmed. Mythic transcendence in Ryan effaces the historical struggles of female and non- Anglo American citizens; ironically, transcendence is made possible through the democratic ethos crafted by and through that struggle (see Campbell, 1989; Condit & Lucaites, 1993; hooks, 1981). In Ryan, the disgraced ethos of white masculine heroism is rehabilitated through appropriation of the human rights ethos of the women’s rights and civil rights struggle for parity in American democracy. In Miller we find the reconciliation of paradox that the jeremiad seeks; the reconstituted democratic ethos that Miller embodies is available for public imagination only through historical conditions that subvert the very stabilities. Spielberg seeks to resacrilize and reaffirm. War stories with narrative logics of moral certainty no longer characterize American national identity,23 even as white masculinity remains the most potent icon of American civic virtue. Decades of political upheaval, social reform, and cultural critique have tempered reverence for the origin myths of the American national community. Yet, the struggle to de-couple white masculinity and civic virtue remains a primary goal for advocates of race and gender parity in American politics and culture. Bordo (1992) puts it well: “The Great White Father . . . just keeps on returning, even amidst the seeming ‘ruptures’ of postmodern culture.”


    I find her writings interesting. She's basically showing how Miller's (Tom Hanks) feminisation and the feminisation and resacrilizing of the gun, are “necessary” to resell the myth to post Vietnam audiences. The film’s “gender games” are employed specifically to restore faith in order, short circuit feminist critiques of war and masculine institutions of power, and completely co-opt historical conditions that traditionally sought to subvert or destabilize the film’s myths.

    What the film resorts to is what philosophers call “ideological cynicism”, in which ideology no longer operates because “they do not know it, but they are doing it” but because “they know it, but they are doing it anyway”. In other words, cynicism indicates the deeper efficacy of political ideology, as “any successful ideology always allows subjects to hold a distance towards its explicit ideals and prescriptions”. In “Ryan’s” case, the troops and the audience voluntarily agree to the myths being regenerated precisely because of their cynicism.

    So what we have throughout the film is Vietnam era, call it “grit”, subjugated to American, WW2 mythology. The troops, for example, demonstrate complete contempt for command and their orders, but they dutifully and nobly do their mission and sacrifice their lives for Ryan (us), who in turn sacrifices his life for them (his platoon/the state/us/“earns this” etc), all the while whilst naively thinking themselves apart from command and acting in their own personal interests. Ie- an American metanarrative cannot be reconstructed unless it completely co-opts and therefore destroys Vietnam “anxieties” and "scepticism". Again, think “Black Hawk Down”, in which all historical context is ignored and war is glorified precisely because everything goes wrong, is FUBARed and everyone is incompetent.

    Writing of this, author and philosopher Sacvan Bercovitch says, “though America is a symbolic field, continually influenced by intrinsic and extrinsic sources, American Hegemony characteristically absorbs and adapts those influences to its own distinctive patterns and for its own distinctive purposes.”

  8. James Jones was political in his own way, C138 (as was Malick). I recently re-read "The Thin Red Line" and watched the 1960s version of the film (pretty good), and both ooze extreme cynicism and a sense of the soldiers being mismanaged, exploited and dehumanized.

    Historian Patrick McCormick on “Saving Private Ryan”:

    “…but Spielberg, at least, was wrong. Along with other hyper realistic and heroic combat films of the last two decades, Saving Private Ryan functions as a pro-war movie. Replacing the just war ethic with a warrior‘s code, these neo-patriotic films direct American audiences to surrender their civic and moral duty to critique and debate the government’s call to arms by embracing a simplistic call to support the troops. In an era of increasing U.S. militarism a growing stream of neo-patriotic films recounting the heroism of America‘s citizen-soldiers offers a battlefield ethos as the guiding ethic for an American public that should be wrestling with the moral and political questions and complexities of war and peace. And these pro-war tales reinforce the larger narrative coming out of Washington, a narrative instructing good citizens to imitate the martial virtues of combat soldiers, sacrificing everything (including their conscience) for the sake of the brave troops fighting and dying on the battlefield.

    […] The battlefield has not been sanitized of the gore of war, but the soldiers fighting there have been idealized. Like the post-Vietnam antiwar films they follow, these hyper realistic movies portray combat as a hellish caldron, but unlike these antiwar tales, these neo-patriotic films show the battlefield as a crucible in which heroism and camaraderie are forged.15 This narrowed version of patriotism and the purpose of combat is repeated and reinforced in other hyper realistic neo-patriotic films like Flags of Our Fathers, Black Hawk Down, Saving Private Ryan and We Were Soldiers. In Iwo Jima, Somalia and Vietnam, audiences learn, American soldiers do not fight and die for abstract notions like liberty or justice, or for the folks back home, but simply and exclusively for the man next to them. As one soldier explains in Black Hawk Down, "it's about the men next to you, and that's it. That's all it is."

    […] But Saving Private Ryan, Blackhawk Down, Flags of Our Fathers, and We Were Soldiers are not pro-war films just because they supplant the restraints of a just war ethic with a warrior‘s code. These hyper realistic combat films also tap into what J. Glenn Gray called “the enduring appeals of battle”. In his 1959 classic, The Warriors: Reflections of Men in Battle, the World War II veteran and philosopher identified three “secret attractions of war”: the delight in seeing, the delight in comradeship and the delight in destruction.

    […] The combat films in question tap into these attractions, while glorifying war by sanitizing combat of nearly every trace of cowardice and idealizing most (of our) grunts as heroes. Francois Truffaut would have disagreed with Steven Spielberg‘s (rediculous) comment that “every war movie, good or bad, is an antiwar movie”. The French film maker believed the thrill of watching combat on the screen undermined any antiwar message; the action and excitement of the battlefield rendering war, in spite of the film maker‘s best intentions, attractive. Gray agrees with Truffaut, arguing that the battlefield presents an incomparable spectacle, an awesome treat for the lusting eye, from which neither the soldier nor observer wishes to turn away. This may be director Sam Fuller‘s point as well, when he argues that it impossible to make a real war movie – or a movie that effectively communicates the terror and chaos of war. For in a darkened theater the audience, which is in no real danger, experiences only Gray’s “delight in seeing the horror of combat”.

    […] Those who, like Spielberg, believe that a realistic portrayal of war’s savagery (if one assumes that Spielberg’s war is realistic) will turn audiences against war, must come to grips with the attraction war has even when we look at it straight on. As the British military historian Richard Holmes has written, “Ironically, portraying war in all its harsh realism often has the effect of making combat more rather than less attractive.” Michael Salevouris echoes this sentiment, noting that “the sad truth is that even those that strive for scrupulous objectivity, can unwittingly make war seem glorious and exciting.” This danger seems grave enough in hyper realistic combat films that give our lustful eye such rein to delight in all of war‘s stark spectacle.

    […] ….and in Saving Private Ryan the title character refuses to leave the battlefield because he is “with the only brothers I have left”. As hellish as the portrayal of war is in We Were Soldiers, Flags of Our Fathers, Blackhawk Down and HBO‘s Band of Brothers, there is also a promise of sweet friendship for those who will brave its horrors. When asked if he had been a hero, one of the veterans in Band of Brothers answers, “No, but I served in the company of heroes”, suggesting that combat provides soldiers with a communion of saints.

    […] But the appeal of these films to a largely civilian audience uninterested in enlisting comes from the hope that war provides a similar communion for all its supporters. In “War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning”, Hedges makes a persuasive case that war – regardless of their cause or purpose “provides citizens of every society with a sense of common purpose and community” that “reduces and at times erase the anxiety of individual consciousness.” Thus, these neo-patriotic films signal audiences that war, with all its brutality, will forge a communion of heroes out of our motley society. As it does with the raw recruits who had once stumbled onto the parade grounds as misfits and strangers, the engine of war promises to transform a nation of consumers into a band of brothers.

    […] Being in the company of heroes is the final attraction of these films, and the last fiction they tell of war. Christopher Hayes agrees that Saving Private Ryan and similar films introduce their audiences to war’s “physical horrors – torn, limbs, exposed viscera, muck, blood”. Absent completely, however, “are the moral horrors of combat, the horror of taking a life, of feeling the killer within.” 29 And Stephen Klien notes that the screenplay of Black Hawk Down deletes Mark Bowden‘s admission that once the fighting started “American troops abandoned their rules of engagement …and shot down every Somali they saw, including men, women, and children.”30 Instead, the audience sees men risking their lives to avoid killing civilians, once again presenting American troops as “more valorous and less realistic than the actual soldiers in the battle.”31

    […] So while the crop of neo-patriotic films coming out of Hollywood for the last two decades has embraced the gritty realism of post-Vietnam war movies and discarded the sanitized versions of battle offered in traditional Hollywood war films, they end up functioning as pro-war movies. By replacing the just war ethic with a warrior‘s code these neo-patriotic movies suggest that audiences need not worry about the larger and more complex moral questions of war, and should simply exalt or pity the courage and loyalty of these brave fighting men. By reverting to an idealized and heroic picture of the ordinary soldier, these films sustain the fiction of war as something that inflicts physical harm but not a source of moral decay and degradation.32 And finally, these films suggest war is a crucible that forges extraordinary friendships and community, portraying the battlefield as a grisly Valhalla where brave soldiers and citizens can find an antidote to the alienation, purposelessness and discontents of civilian life. 33

    […] To fully grasp the import and power of Hollywood‘s neo-patriotic films we need to see how the shifting fortunes and reputation of the U.S. military in the real world corresponded with and fed into the treatment of soldiers and war at the movies, and how the message of these neo-patriotic films reinforced a growing tendency in American politicians and citizens to give undue reverence and disproportionate authority to the armed forces, surrendering their own civic and moral duties to engage in serious political and ethical debate about matters of war and peace.

    […] In Hollywood and Washington the soldier in uniform has taken center stage, replacing the chaos and confusion of politics and ethics with the clarity and camaraderie of combat.34 Hollywood‘s neo-patriotic films offer audiences a warrior‘s ethic unhinged from larger questions of cause and country.

    […] In an essay on the rhetorical impact of neo-patriotic films like Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down, Stephen Klien notes that through the idealization of combat soldiers and the exultation of the warrior‘s code they are shown to follow in the hell of battle, American audiences are encouraged to discount their political and moral duties as citizens to engage in the fray of civic discourse and critically analyze their nation‘s call to arms, embracing instead either shock, reverence or support for the heroic troops whose unflinching sacrifice and suffering is presented to our lustful eyes with such graphic hyperrealism.46

    For though the gruesome violence of these films seems to offer a critique of war and to challenge the authorities and policies that placed these brave soldiers in harm‘s way, the gritty hyperrealism and violence with which these films assault our senses, combined with the naïve idealism of their sanitized portrayal of American soldiers, exults the warrior and his code while marginalizing or trivializing the activities of anyone not actively engaged in his fight or defense. In the unquestionably realistic setting of the cinematic battlefield there is room for friend or foe, but not for the abstract complexities of civic discourse or for the rough and tumble back and forth of political debate.47 This is a pre-democratic arena, where soldiers and subjects answer the call to arms and come to the aid of their comrades. Anything else is folly. As one of the heroes of Black Hawk Down argues when asked what he thinks about America‘s incursion into Somalia, “Don't really matter what I think.”

    Christopher Hayes makes a similar argument about pro-soldier movies and the larger celebration of the World War generation in the works of Ambrose, Spielberg and Brokaw. According to Hayes, these neo-patriotic films and narratives advance “the Cult of the Soldier”, displacing the messy and ambiguous work of politics with the clarity and camaraderie of combat. But, “when politics dies,” Hayes warns, “when it is suffocated underneath the warm blanket of patriotic consensus, the conscience of the republic dies along with it.”

    In the real world the result of this distracting focus on the warrior‘s code or the “Cult of the Soldier” has been to keep audiences from examining or critiquing the history forced upon them. For it is not that America no longer has a cause for its wars, only that this cause may not bear much scrutiny.

    […] In Hollywood and Washington the courage and virtue of soldiers have distracted audiences and citizens from the larger issues. By focusing on the warrior‘s code of combat loyalty we have been able to avoid asking hard questions about the rightness or justice of our cause.

    […] Finally, in the militaristic pro-soldier society described by Bacevich the ever present obligation to “support the troops” translates far too easily into an unquestioning support for the policies that have sent these soldiers into harm‘s way, while Klien and Hayes argue that Hollywood‘s neo-patriotic films give audiences little place or encouragement to do anything but support the wars in which these cinematic heroes are fighting. “Support for the troops” swiftly becomes support for the war – regardless of whatever other cause or justification is being offered for the government‘s call to arms – because it is shorthand for support for those who have already died in battle. Christopher Hedges and Stanley Hauerwas describe how the deaths of war‘s first victims and the sacrifice of our troops is soon transformed into a holy cause that must be supported by all the citizens.58 Whatever other reasons may have been offered earlier for the war, honoring (or avenging) these deaths and/or this sacrifice has now become the ultimate and unquestionable duty of all patriots. As Hedges puts it, "the cause, sanctified by the dead, cannot be questioned without dishonoring the dead." 59

    […] …these films demand that we honor this sacrifice by making our own blood offering to the gods of war. Indeed, “honoring the troops” is not merely a call to honor the soldiers who have fallen in this present conflict. It also serves as an intergenerational call summoning sons and daughters to honor the sacrifice of their elders by making a similar blood offering. Michael Ignatieaff argues in "A Warrior‘s Honor" that the vengeance which fuels the wars around the world “is a desire to keep faith with the dead, to honor their memory by taking up their cause where they left off,” and that attempts to break the cycle of war depend on understanding and addressing the moral appeal of this bond. Both Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down embody this call to honor the dead by taking up their sacrifice, recommending a support for the troops that leads inevitably to support for their (and other) wars. Support for the troops has become the cause, or as Tom Sizemore‘s character reports, “the mission is a man”. And when a dying Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) commands the youthful Private Ryan to “earn this”, one generation of warriors commands their sons to honor and imitate the sacrifice they have made.61 In Black Hawk Down the battle scene opens and closes with Eric Banan‘s character, quite ridiculously, reminding the hero (and the audience) that the only reason a soldier (or nation?) fights is to protect one‘s troops and that the fighting is never over until all the troops have been rescued or honored. And, like Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down closes with a soldier standing over the corpse of a fallen comrade. Being a hero, the audience is instructed, is about honoring the fallen, which requires either avenging their death or imitating their sacrifice. Thus does support for the troops forge the endless chain of war.

    […] The hyper realistic combat films coming out of Hollywood for the last two decades seem at first glance to share the disgust and horror of war seen in post-Vietnam films. But these neo-patriotic films, while rubbing their audience‘s faces in the brutality and savagery of war, are decidedly pro-soldier and pro-military, and function as pro-war propaganda. In heroic tales of courageous and honorable grunts fighting and dying for one another, audiences get a sanitized view of soldiers and their behavior in battle; and our lustful eyes are drawn irresistibly and exclusively to this small band of combatants, convincing us that they and their concerns are the full reality of war. Politicians and civilians, along with larger moral and national questions melt into the background, leaving the audience (and the citizenry) with one duty only, to admire and imitate the courage and loyalty of these brave warriors.

    […] The lesson of these films, that loyalty to our brave troops and attention to their immediate concerns are the only obligations of American audiences and citizens, has been consistently reinforced in an increasingly militaristic nation, where soldiers and the military have assumed unprecedented status and authority and where politicians, citizens and the press have been happy to sit in awe and watch. We need no longer wonder, worry or think, for we are all soldiers now – or acolytes of those brave warriors who go into battle. The effect of these neo-patriotic films and this new American militarism has been to suggest that the just war ethic may be replaced by a warrior‘s code, that the role of the citizen may be supplanted by that of the soldier, and that the ballot box may now be discarded in favor of a yellow ribbon.

  9. Did you really call The Thin Red Line political? We must have watched different movies, because I didn't see anything political in that film.

    The battle scenes of SPR are incredible, but that doesn't make it a good movie overall. It goes for the signature Spielberg sentimentality and cliched story that is seen in almost every other war movie. On top of that, it's the kind of obnoxious movie that was "made for the veterans" and "inspired the world to remember" or whatever other pretentious shit is written on the back cover of the film's Blu-ray now.

    But that's just my opinion. My three favorite war films are Apocalypse Now, The Thin Red Line and Paths of Glory.

  10. A bit late but:

    So what if you're not american? Neither am I.

    I am somewhat of a militray geek though, but either way.

    If you didn't know what they are, don't assume it either. Shit, simply calling them soldiers. Using the term marines as a colloquially descriptions for military personel in war is just plain wrong. Marines are a specific branch among the many military personell. It's like if I refered to a large group of people by their skin color, when there's with no doubt people of a different one.

  11. "In cinema's presumption, in its pretension to being the real – which is the craziest of undertakings – no culture has ever had toward its signs such a naive, paranoid and terrorist vision." – Baudrillard

    There are only five or six types of war films, the most common being "the Platoon movie". Traditional this sub-genre contains three basic elements: hero, group, and objective. The group is made up of a mixture of ethnic types, most commonly including an Italian, a Jew, a cynical complainer from Brooklyn, a sharpshooter from the mountains, a Midwesterner (nicknamed by his state, "Iowa" or "Dakota" for example), and a character who must be initiated in some way (a newcomer without battle experience) and/or who will provide a commentary or "explanation" on the action as it occurs (a newspaperman, a letter writer, an author, a professor).

    As the group moves forward, action unfolds in a series of contrasting episodes that alternate in uneven patterns: night and day, safety and danger, action and relaxation, dialogue and non-dialogue, comedy and tragedy, good weather and bad weather, combat and non-combat, and so on. Military iconography is used and explained, conflicts break out within the group (in which the objective, leadership and war itself is questioned), rituals from home are discussed and remembered and new combat rituals are enacted. As the group advances, they encounter the enemy and certain members die. A final climactic battle, often a last stand referred to as an "Alamo", takes place at a bridge or in a town, and reveals the film's overall purpose. The hero or narrator, who has usually had the objective forced on him, then has to make a series of difficult (and unpopular) decisions. He sometimes survives (although most of his men don't), and he sometimes dies.

    These films were common in the 40s and 50s, and rarely deviated from this formula. The genre remained silent for a number of years, thanks mostly to the Vietnam war, before two films reactivated it briefly in the 80s and 90s: Sam Fuller's "Big Red One" and Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan".

    Fuller's film, which eschews realism at times for a more metaphysical outlook, and which revokes corny moralising in favour for stoic silence, has been criticised by some for being "fake". Filmed on a minuscule budget (1/25th the budget of "Private Ryan") and without the benefits of modern technology, viewers dismiss it as a "dated movie". But with repeated viewings (and an extended cut released recently) the film reveals a maturity, an immediacy, a sort of no-nonsense authenticity, that most "platoon" films lack. Indeed, of all WW2 platoon movies, from "Bataan" to "Guadalcanal Diary" to "Objective Burma" to "Saving Private Ryan", the trio of "The Big Red One", "Beach Red" and "The Thin Red Line" are arguably the best, not because of their "realism", but because of their metaphysical trimmings.

    But when people complain that old war films are "not realistic", what do they really mean? When "Bataan" was released (the first film to pull together all the elements that came to define the genre) it was praised for its "gritty realism". Shot entirely on studio sets, viewers and critics were blown away by its extreme violence, its authenticity and the bloody "Alamo" finale in which everyone dies. A violent beheading (which largely occurs off-screen) was deemed particularly shocking, despite the fact that no blood is shown.

    As time passed and censorship restrictions were loosened, genres of violence (horror, war, gangsters, and westerns) all increased in bloodiness. Sam Peckinpahs "Cross of Iron" and "Platoon" were praised in their day for their gore and realism, but today both seem hopelessly stupid. Likewise "Private Ryan" and "Black Hawk Down", two films praised for "taking it to the next level", today look indistinguishable from next generation hyperreal computer game shooters. In reality it is only technology that progresses, cinema's "understanding of war" regressing into the infantile comfort of movie narratives over 90 years old.

    And yet with each wave of technological innovations, the latest war films pretend to bring us "closer to the truth of war". When "Private Ryan" was released advertisements proudly proclaimed "Now You Know!", the implication being that after witnessing the film, we now know what combat is like. Hyperrealism has somehow become conflated with truth, when in fact the two are often in complete opposition.

    The shaky, desaturated looks of "Ryan", "Schindler", "Black Hawk" and "Hurt Locker" are designed to simulate reality, when in fact they mimic archived, documentary or news footage. The intention is thus not to bring us closer to reality, but closer to a mediated hyperreality, an image of an image of an image, regressing further into what Baudrillard calls the simulacra, further and further from any ground zero reality.

    Coupled with this, these films offer a curious lack of any real insight into the psychology of the soldiers or the nature or politics of warfare. Beyond spectacle, we get offers of heroism and redemption, but little else. It's as though an obsession with rendering the aesthetics of war "real", has pushed past realism into video game simulation and rendered all context and truth void. All that matters is the look and sound of the thing. Surfaces are all you need to know.

    This, of course, is Baudrillard's description of the 21st century American desert-city. Surface is no longer about the realisation of a thing's essence, about history and truth, but assumes almost the exact opposite meaning. An overemphasis of depth-less surfaces leads to object-hood, rather than art.

    1. And who said cinema couldn't be a learning experience? Thanks to Tieman for his quite well versed discourse on the problems associated with "war films" in general. Now, if I could get him to add the link to the IMDB page this article is being discussed at, that would be awesome!

  12. I don't have a problem with directors like Eli Roth; their work rarely pretends to be something it isnt. But lets be honest, people only like Ryan for its action scenes (what is the D Day sequence but pure spectacle, with no bearing to the rest of the film). Violence always has a sexual element and vice versa, and the chemical rush afforded by violence operates in the same space as mammalian orgasms. The allure of combat's spectacle is a juvenile thing, and numerous studies have linked the high levels of testosterone in criminals convicted of violent crimes, to that of young males going through puberty and the chemical releases experienced when watching violence. And that's why no one went to see "Amistad". Spielberg didn't kill enough slaves. He learnt his lesson with "Saving Private Ryan", though, and dispatched a couple thousand Nazis for our amusement. Of course many Nazi propaganda films functioned in the same way, overtly juicing people up on the spectacle of violence whilst covertly regeneration nationalist ideology. It's why Ryan loses more fans as it ages, something awful about it gradually being revealed with time.

    Torture porn films like those by Eli Roth are quite openly pornographic (Roth himself shot a Private Ryan styled porno/propaganda war movie which was inserted into Tarantino's latest film). Saving Private Ryan, however, hypocritically pretends to be a "serious" and "realistic" movie when in reality it's a form of "war porn" grafted onto a those "men on a mission" adventure movies that were common in the 60s (Guns of Navarone, Kelly's Heroes, Dirty Dozen etc).

  13. My comparison of Gibson's film and Saving Private Ryan was attemping to show how both films are religious films with the same iconography. The message of both films is the same, the mythologies being tapped into are the same, and the way the audience is manipulated into "accepting" the message in both cases is the same. I find the messages and methods of both films morally indefensible.

    I don't have a problem with directors like Eli Roth; their work rarely pretends to be something it isnt. But lets be honest, people only like Ryan for its action scenes (what is the D Day sequence but pure spectacle, with no bearing to the rest of the film). Violence always has a sexual element and vice versa, and the chemical rush afforded by violence operates in the same space as mammalian orgasms. The allure of combat's spectacle is a juvenile thing, and numerous studies have linked the high levels of testosterone in criminals convicted of violent crimes, to that of young males going through puberty and the chemical releases experienced when watching violence. And that's why no one went to see "Amistad". Spielberg didn't kill enough slaves. He learnt his lesson with "Saving Private Ryan", though, and dispatched a couple thousand Nazis for our amusement. Of course many Nazi propaganda films functioned in the same way, overtly juicing people up on the spectacle of violence whilst covertly regeneration nationalist ideology. It's why Ryan loses more fans as it ages, something awful about it gradually being revealed with time.

    Torture porn films like those by Eli Roth are quite openly pornographic (Roth himself shot a Private Ryan styled porno/propaganda war movie which was inserted into Tarantino's latest film). Saving Private Ryan, however, hypocritically pretends to be a "serious" and "realistic" movie when in reality it's a form of "war porn" grafted onto a those "men on a mission" adventure movies that were common in the 60s (Guns of Navarone, Kelly's Heroes, Dirty Dozen etc).

    Many filmmakers, artists and writers, as they do Schindler's List, regard Saving Private Ryan as a giant exploitation movie, its plot a string of titillative c*m-shot/gun-shot action sequences. But this is nothing new for Spielberg. "Schindler's List" was Jaws with Jews, a string of Hitchcockian set pieces in which infantilized Jews are menanced to illicit cheap emotions. The shower sequence in that film is the best example, where the fate of the Jews is treated as an exercise in suspense. But the whole film is a series of little action set pieces. Will the gas chambers work? Will the Nazi's find the girl? Will the sniper let the woman live? Will the train stop? Will the little boy find a hiding spot? Will the gun misfire? Will the hose be long enough? It's like a silly game of pee-a-boo. The mindset also turns up on a larger scale near the film's end, in a tasteless suspense scene that mines thrills over whether the list will arrive in time to save the Jews from getting gassed. And so on and so on.

    Schindler's List has nothing to do with the Holocaust, it is a gross mis-representation (one example: Ralph Fiennes character, a psychotic figure of wild excess, is precisely the type of man that UNDERMINED the Holocaust, that prevented it's smooth efficiency. The Nazis themselves convicted him and found him abhorent!), in much the same way that Saving Private Ryan has absolutely nothing to do with WW2. Absolutely nothing. Audiences are literally dumber and more misinformed, having watched Saving Private Ryan.

    I would say the marketing of a film is somewhat important. When "Platoon" premiered, Time Magazine quoted academics who declared it "the most realistic Vietnam movie ever". Today the film looks ridiculous and everyone knows it has nothing to do with Vietnam. Now historians like Antony Beevor are coming out and saying that, gee, "Saving Private Ryan" isn't realistic at all. Indeed, ten years later and the film looks like a giant Play Station 3 video game. But that's to be expected, the film was conceived to be hyper-mediated.

    – Tieman

  14. Is the word Jews banned from comments? I've tried for 2 days to post here, but can't seem to. Hmmm. Will try again later.

    1. I have to approve your comments before they'll appear. You will notice I have now done so!

      Remember dear readers, multiple comments from the same poster often become seen as spam. If you do post multiple comments, be aware that I will have to approve them before they'll appear, and rescue them from the good old spam folder!

      To avoid this, can I suggest perhaps limiting your words to a single comment post, rather than multiples? Thanks!

  15. I'll comment on your comments on Eli Roth some other time. I can't seem to post comments on this page from this computer.

  16. Sorry for the late reply. What do you mean by "an appreciation of Nazism?"

    My comparison of Gibson's film and Saving Private Ryan was attemping to show how both films are religious films with the same iconography. The message of both films is the same, the mythologies being tapped into are the same, and the way the audience is manipulated into "accepting" the message in both cases is the same. I find the messages and methods of both films morally indefensible.

    I don't have a problemw with porn directors like Eli Roth; their work rarely pretends to be something it isnt. But lets be honest, people only like Ryan for its action scenes. Violence always has a sexual element and vice versa, and the chemical rush afforded by violence operates in the same space as mammalian orgasms. The allure of combat's spectacle is a juvenile thing, and numerous studies have linked the high levels of testosterone in criminals convicted of violent crimes, to that of young males going through puberty and the chemical releases experienced when watching violence. And that's why no one went to see "Amistad". Spielberg didn't kill enough slaves. He learn't his lesson with "Saving Private Ryan", though, and dispatched a couple thousand Nazis for our amusement. Of course many Nazi propaganda films functioned in the same way, overtly juicing people up on the spectacle of violence whilst covertly regeneration nationalist ideology. It's why Ryan loses more fans as it ages, something awful about it gradually being revealed with time.

    Torture porn films like those by Eli Roth are quite openly pornographic (Roth himself shot a Private Ryan styled porno/propaganda war movie which was inserted into Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds). Saving Private Ryan, however, hypocritically pretends to be a "serious" and "realistic" movie when in reality it's a form of "war porn" grafted onto a those "men on a mission" adventure movies that were common in the 60s (Guns of Navarone, Kelly's Heroes, Dirty Dozen etc).

    Many filmmakers, artists and writers, as they do Schindler's List, regard Saving Private Ryan as a giant exploitation movie, its plot a string of titillative c*m-shot/gun-shot action sequences. But this is nothing new for Spielberg. "Schindler's List" was Jaws with Jews, a string of Hitcockian set pieces in which infantilized Jews are menanced to illicit cheap emotions. The shower sequence in that film is the best example, where the fate of the Jews is treated as an excercise in suspence. But the whole film is a series of little action set pieces. Will the gas chambers work? Will the Nazi's find the girl? Will the sniper let the woman live? Will the train stop? Will the little boy find a hiding spot? Will the gun misfire? Will the hose be long enough? It's like a silly game of pee-a-boo or whack-a-Jew. The mindset also turns up on a larger scale near the film's end, in a tasteless suspense scene that mines thrills over whether the list will arrive in time to save the Jews from getting gassed. And so on and so on.

    Schindler's List has nothing to do with the Holocaust, it is a gross mis-representation (one example, Ralph Fiennes character, a psychotic figure of wild excess, is precisely the type of man that UNDERMINED the Holocaust, that prevented it's smooth efficiency.), in much the same way that Saving Private Ryan has absolutely nothing to do with WW2. Absolutely nothing. Audiences are literally dumber and more misinformed, having watched Saving Private Ryan.

    I would say the marketing of a film is somewhat important. When "Platoon" premiered, Time Magazine quoted academics who declared it "the most realistic vietnam movie ever". Today the film looks rediculous and everyone knows it has nothing to do with Vietnam. Now historians like Antony Beevor are coming out and saying that, gee, "Saving Private Ryan" isn't realistic at all. Indeed, ten years later and the film looks like a giant Play Station 3 video game. But that's to be expected, the film was conceived to be hyper-mediated.

  17. I see you praised "Black Hawk Down" in your review of "Saving Private Ryan". Have you seen the 1964 film "Zulu" ("Zulu" resembles "Black Hawk Down" and Ridley Scott would use the war chants from that film in "Gladiator")?

    Have you heard of the term "passive victimhood"? It's a strategy a lot of war films use to garner misguided sympathy. Think the film "United 93", in which a band of heroic Americans become the "victims" and so we rally behind them as they "unite" against faceless, barbaric enemies.

    Psychologists once did an experiment where they showed participants two maps of Israel: one showing it as a large country surrounding the small Palestinian enclaves, and the other showing it as a tiny island in the middle of the hostile Arab world. In the "Palestinians as underdogs" condition, 55% said they supported Palestine. In the "Israelis as underdogs" condition, 75% said they supported Israel. In other words, you can change opinion thirty points by altering perceived underdog status.

    Films like "Black Hawk Down" and "Zulu" are all tragedies in which truth is skewed such that the "historical victim" is shown to be "the aggressor" and the "historical aggressor" is falsely shown to be either "the victim" or up against huge odds or facing some difficult mission.

    But this is nothing new. Killing the "savage" in order to rescue him from the darkness (and then playing the inconvenienced victim), is a tactic which "great nations" have exhibited throughout history. From India, to China, to Africa, to Germany, to Vietnam and now to Iraq, national victimhood has always provided the moral basis for retaliation and power accumulation.

    Consider, for example, the sob stories that followed 9/11 (and the subsequent roll out of enormous amounts of hardware), or the way the British Empire turned the Sepoy Rebellion and the Siege of Khartoum into extreme symbols of the white man's burden. Through this, the slaughter of millions of ungrateful foreigners became, not only an act of kindness, but a noble weight which the Empire virtuously carried on its shoulders.

    Think also Ridley Scott's "Black Hawk Down", in which a group of outnumbered Americans fend off a horde of Africans. The film is a mighty misrepresentation of what happened in Somalia, turning the white man, once again, into a noble everyman, violently betrayed by the very savages he pretends to civilise and defend.

    In 1992, George Bush senior announced that America had come to do "God's work" in Somalia, a nation devastated by clan warfare and famine. Unfortunately, in Pentagon speak, "God's Work" means bombing nations to hell, the US government arming clan chiefs and warlords in a deliberate attempt to destabilise the region. The US has been doing this for a long time, backing the Somali dictator Siad Barre in 1978 and pitting him against the Soviet sponsored Ethiopians, all as a means of reclaiming the south east portion of Somalia and its vast reserves of natural gas. Between 1978 and 1988 the Americans lent around 3 billion dollars to Barre, most of which went to arms and led to untold amounts of bloodshed.

    It's a similar story today. With the retreat of the Soviet Union, the US then began backing the Ethiopians, coaxing them into taking Somalia from the very Somalians they once pitted against Ethiopia (the same thing happened to Iraq, the US arming Saddam against Iran and then supporting Kuwait against Saddam before finally blitzing Saddam themselves). This little 2 year long war eventually failed, and the Ethiopians backed out. With no conflicts to justify their presence in the area, the US then seized upon the buzzwords "Somalian pirates" and "war on terror" as an excuse to beef up their military presence in the region.

    Through these buzzwords, the US justified their support of yet more Somali warlords, pitting them against a group called the Islamic Courts Union, despite the fact that the ICU is not an Al-Qaeda affiliate or a terrorist organisation. In fact, the ICU was a relatively honest administration which not only brought a level of peace and stability to Somalia that hadn't been seen for nearly two decades, but was also succeeding in unifying the country and creating some semblance of nationhood.

    But of course the US doesn't want this. 30 per cent of America's oil will come from Africa over the next ten years. It's therefore no surprise that the CIA engages in a covert war which recruits warlords (the very same warlords who pass oil laws in America's favour) and urges them to hunt and kidnap Islamic militants, secretly imprisoning them on offshore warships which illegally double as floating prisons.

    At the same time, many European, US and Asian shipping firms signed dumping deals with Somalia's puppet leaders, allowing them to use the Somali coast as a cheap toxic dumping ground. This practise became widespread as the country descended into civil war, and still continues. This toxic waste has been responsible for all manners of deaths and illnesses, such that a formal complaint was sent to the United Nations. Of course the UN did nothing. In 2006 Somali fishermen then complained to the UN that armed foreign fishing fleets were using the breakdown of the state to plunder their fish stocks and intimidate fishermen. Despite repeated requests, the UN refused to act. Meanwhile the warships of global powers that patrol the strategically important Gulf of Aden did not sink or seize any vessels dumping toxic chemicals off the coast.

    So angry Somalis, whose waters were being poisoned and whose livelihoods were threatened, took matters into their own hands. Fishermen began to arm themselves and attempted to act as unofficial coastguards, some of which became the "Somali pirates", the new terrorist bogeyman of the seas.

    The origins of piracy in Somalia are therefore linked to the lack of a functioning central government and is considerably different to the media's portrayal. It is the pirates who are the victims of attacks on their territorial waters by corporate polluters and fleets.

    What does this have to do with "Zulu"? Well, "Black Hawk Down" is simply the "Zulu" of our times, both films ignoring the ugly undersides of their conflicts in favour for romantic battles in which outnumbered white men bravely gun down hordes of savage blacks. The Somalis in "Black Hawk Down" speak only to condemn themselves. They display no emotions other than greed and the lust for blood. Their appearances are accompanied by sinister Arab techno, while the US forces are trailed by violins, oboes and vocals inspired by Enya. The white troops display horrific wounds and clutch family photos while all around them, Somalis drop like flies, dispensable and unmourned. Put helicopters in "Zulu", and it's the same film. The white man's "peacekeeping burdens" updated for the digital age.

    Honor, fear and interest. Of the three motives Thucydides gave for war, honour came first. That was because, as an officer, he understood that fear and interest don't rank high among the reasons men march into battle. What soldiers know, artists know too. Throughout history, artists have depicted war as driven less by fear ("weapons of mass destruction") or interest ("blood for oil") than by motives such as fame and glory.

    The most constant but least honourable element in war is blood lust, a form of barbarism which the ancient Greeks sought to dignify by portraying their soldiers as noble heroes. This distanced them from the savages they frequently battled.

    But The Enlightenment introduced a new version of honour, based on the idea of war as a rule-bound, principled undertaking. This illusion was shattered in World War I, when millions were mowed down on the mechanised killing fields. It became clear that national honour was nothing more than a deceptive veneer over violent bloodshed. As such, Hollywood's first few war films were largely pacifist.

    Then came the Good War. In 1942 "Sergeant York" was released, a filmed biography of the Tennessee rifleman who, by killing 23 Germans, became the most decorated American soldier in history. The film recast the Great War as a reasonable national enterprise, not as the crazy slaughterhouse depicted throughout the previous 20 years. "Sergeant York" can be viewed as the first movie to foster public support for America's entry into World War II by dramatising a new, democratised ideal of honour.

    While Democracy was seen to be right and good, war itself was believed to be morally wrong, its causes connected with the aggressiveness natural to evil authoritarian regimes. Thus, over time, the idea took root that the only just war was a war in defence of democracy.

    This became the formula for almost all war movies made between 1942 and 1945. Under the guidance of the Office of War Information, most of these feature films played up the skill and heroism of the ordinary GI, and played down the carnage of battle.

    This formula lasted into the post-war era because it was effective at promoting the democratic ideal of honour. Like its predecessors, this ideal posits a link between virtue and victory. On the level of fact, it's well documented that Japanese, German, and Russian soldiers fought valiantly during World War II. But on the level of myth, it was important to show the "sons of democracy" fighting more valiantly than the "sons of fascism". In 1949 Hollywood released about eight war films that did just this.

    In the 50's we had a few anti war films, the best two being "Pork Chop Hill" and "Paths of Glory". Both films dealt with large groups of men dying to take a hill of no clear strategic importance. These films challenged the establishment. Prior to them, the soldier was an individual, capable of choice. When the time came for him to make "the ultimate sacrifice" he did so willingly because he believed, without being coerced, that the cause for which he was dying was his own dignity and freedom.

    But this was now shown to be naive. War, now ugly and meaningless, could no longer rationalise honour. And so henceforth soldiers no longer died for country, they died for their comrades. They acted out of loyalty and fear of dishonouring the unit. They no longer died uselessly for bad countries, they died honourably for good soldiers.

    Then came Altman's MASH, the first movie to portray the American soldier not as an exemplar of democracy but as an avatar of alienation. A lone wolf. This was common in western and detective movies, but new to the war genre. Given the importance of the unit in that genre, the lone wolf was not a natural fit. Kubrick take a similar approach in "Full Metal Jacket", though his "lone wolf" is sucked in precisely because he is opposed to ideology; thats how military ideology works, as Kubrick's anti "anti war film" film, shows.

    The 1960s and 1970s saw the elimination of virtually all film industry controls over violent content in movies. Along with the fall of the Hays Office, this development made it possible to depict battle more graphically than ever before. The technical challenge of rendering the ultimate action sequence became an obsession.

    Yet the 1970s also saw a growing realisation that Vietnam veterans were taking an unfair bashing. So along with the challenge of making war look gorier came the challenge of making vets look nobler. The two goals were reconciled by amplifying the violence and reducing war to nothing larger than the ethos of buddies helping buddies (ie- Bands of Brothers).

    This ethos now dominates almost all war movies. An anomaly is "The Thin Red Line". But Malick's film is a rarity. If American war films are wandering back into dangerous, propagandistic and gore-glorifying territory, it is not because they're getting good at simulating the spectacle of combat. It's because, in an effort to avoid political controversy, they offer underdeveloped plots and characters to serve an outdated and dysfunctional definition of honour. At some point the shooting stops, and soldiers ponder why they fight. If no adequate reason presents itself, then they grow less willing to walk back into hell. This is what happened in Vietnam (hence why "The Green Berets" and "We Were Soldiers" focus on the early years), and this is what will happen in the "war" against terror. So it's worth asking how well the post-Vietnam formula (ie war porn in the guise of brotherly love) works in 21st-century films about 21st-century war.

  18. Hello. Mr Rodney probably doesn't know this, but EVERYONE'S discussing his article over at the IMDB message boards. I think that it's good that someone made a page specifically for comparing both films. Over at BRIGHT LIGHTS FILM JOURNAL they did a similar comparison, though they took a different stance, favouring Malick's film.

    Personally, I don't like "Saving Private Ryan". Market the movie as a "Kelly's Heroes" or "Guns of Navarone" styled "boys movie" and you'd have a masterpiece…but as a "serious film", I think it fails completely. Yes, "Saving Private Ryan" wows you with technique, but it really is a slice of pop fascism (heck, it was first screened for Pentagon chiefs). The very same fascism Verhoeven satirizes in "Starship Troopers", in which good looking americans gun down muslim bugs.

    I was wondering, does the author of this article like "The Passion of Christ"? Mel Gibson's film, like Spielberg's, used gore and violence to batter its (Christian) audience into weeping over a man who died for their sins. Do you believe Christ died for your sins? Do you believe you are guilty of something and need to earn his forgiveness? Do you believe you need to honor Christ? The tactics of both films are exactly the same, and are similar to works typical of the Third Reich.

    The reason "Saving" and "Passion" are so loved is because they tap into a very strongly rooted fabric of myths. Myths and codes which people naively believe in. The great war directors (Fuller, Kubrick, Jancso etc etc) do not believe in these myths…wouldn't touch then with a ten foot pole. Incidentally, Spielberg even directed a propaganda piece called "The Timeless Call", the title of which sums up best his view as to what war is. His Band of Brothers was even released a week before 9/11, his pulse, as ever, on contemporary public perception.

    But war is an industrialized, man made thing, (to which naive males are, yes, sexually attracted to- just look at statistics showing the equivalent testosterone levels in violent offenders and young males) and too often films divorce it from its socio-economic and political context, treating it all as a rights of passage journey into some fabled "jungle" of "human madness" in which our brave boys must bravely endure some "hell" for our sins. In reality, war is a supremely flat, banal thing.

    Regarding "Eyes Wide Shut", it's hated by virtually everyone and loved rabidly by few (many of them directors: Bertolucci, Scorsese etc). But on the topic of Kubrick, its worth noting that Kubrick directed "Fear and Desire" in 1953, a pretentious little war film which tried to concretize John Donne's quote, "No man is an island entirely unto himself". The idea was that we are all connected, one body linked completely, and whatever man does, positive or negative, has a knock on effect on his environment and the rest of mankind. At the end of Kubrick's film, a surviving soldier chooses to cut himself off from all others. He drifts off into a river, an island unto himself, not wanting to be part of this violent world of man.

    Malick's "The Thin Red Line", begins where Kubrick's film ends. With a mass of voice-over narrators, the film tries to convey what Ralph Emerson called "The Oversoul", all Malick's soldiers "living in succession, in division, in parts, in particles" such that "within every man is the soul of the whole".

    Pvt. Witt, played by Jim Caviezel (who fittingly also played Jesus Christ), however, has deserted the army and sought refuge on an idyllic island. This notion of "cutting yourself off" from man, to better "connect" to some spiritual realm (which gradually reveals itself to be non-existent), has been Malick's theme throughout his filmography. His characters constantly seek to create "personal islands" for themselves. Once his characters create these idyllic havens, however, they either grow disenchanted or the social order encroaches, resulting in conflict or death. Yet Malick's characters always naively embrace this death. They see death as a blissful escape. The glory.

    In "The Thin Red Line", Witt is an optimist who sees "the glory" in everything. He sees his island as paradise, firstly because he is deluded and unable to see the natural horrors occurring all around him and secondly because his island is genuinely detached from the social order.

    And so as the film unfolds, Malick portrays war as a clash of opposing ideologies within a kind of natural, inescapable Oversoul. As such, all the men in the film are paired off according to very specific world-views, which they articulate with voice-over (like the opposing poles of magnets). Importantly the men don't grow or change. Their philosophies remain the same from beginning to end. And so we have the spiritualist, the atheist, the cynic, the idealist, the loyalist, the lunatic, the romantic, the optimist, the pessimist etc…all these different character traits, thrown together on an island.

    Malick mocks all these ideologies, or disagrees with them all, with the exception of 3 pairs. Of those 3 pairs, he identifies with 1 and romanticises the other. The first relationship is between Nick Nolte and Captain Starros. Both men battle over the question of loyalty. Whether a man is owned by those above, and whether his life is worth sacrificing for some greater "good". Starros believes that every life is precious, Nolte does not. Nolte wins.

    The second relationship is based on love. It involves one private and his wife. He's always rambling on about his love and romance, treating it as a profound relationship. At the end of the film he receives a letter stating that his wife has left him. Love loses.

    The third and most important relationship is between Pvt Witt and Sean Penn. Penn becomes a stand in for Malick and acts as the polar opposite to Witt. Witt believes that man is innately good, that we all have a "glory" within us and that there is an afterlife. Penn is a sceptic. He believes in no afterlife, that everything is a lie, and that we're in Kubrick's world of "sh*t". At the end of the film, Pvt Witt dies. The cynic wins.

    This relationship between Penn and Caviezel is the most important. The film opens and closes with this pair and gives them the most screen time. Though Malick sees hope and "glory" in Witt, he takes Penn's view that the world is harsh and one must forge an island away from it. Penn's final and most memorable line is "There's only one thing a man can do- find something that is his and make an island for himself" a philosophy which both Kubrick and Malick embraced.

    Ultimately, though, Malick's films all portray a war between the Romantic Ideal of "man in harmony with nature" and the Post Enlightenment ideal of "man lording over nature", which is why his cinema is often called a "Heideggeren Cinema" (he famously translated the works of Martin Heidegger). Romanticism began as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and as a revolt against the social and political norms of scientific rationalism and the Age of Enlightenment. It favoured ancient customs, folk art, "returning to nature", spontaneity, enchantment, freedom, and rejected rational and Classicist models in favour for a form of Medievalism which, in theory, helped one escape the confines of population growth, urban sprawl, and industrialism. In short, the Romantic Ideal exalted a kind of gifted, enchanted, misunderstood loner whose creativity followed the dictates of his own wild inspirations rather than the mores of contemporary society. Such a "romantic outlaw" is found at the core of every Malick flick.

    So Malick's films deal with what German sociologist Max Weber calls "Rationalization's disenchantment of the world", in which society cherishes "instrumental Rationality" over and above "value rationality" to such an extent that magic/spirituality/religion/ethereality/humanity is slowly eroded. This process of devaluation or disenchantment gives rise to a condition of cultural nihilism in which the intrinsic value or meaning of ideals and actions is increasingly subordinated to a "rational" quest for efficiency, control and the pursuit of "mundane materials", often by violence. Weber calls this the "iron cage of specialists without spirit and sensualists without heart".

    In breaking free of their worlds and retreating to the Romantic Ideal, Malick's "heroes" are thus searching for some mythical wholeness, some non-existent Eden which is unattainable precisely because all pre-enlightenment myths of wholeness have been displaced by the modern discovery of a plurality of worlds. The tensions of Malick's films, however, arise from the fact that the modern world which allows for all, also allows for nothing. As plurality is threatening, the Social Order attempts to reduce this threatening plurality – and the sceptical undermining of knowledge and morality it entails – to one universal world again by means of conquest and domination. And that is the paradox Malick explores: the Post Enlightenment world which preaches multiplicity but seeks to impose its own unity, its own singular Law (imperialism/colonialism/the Big Other), and the Romantic Ideal which promises some spiritual wholeness, but delivers only the lawless, malevolence of Nature.


    Here's a review of "Passion of Christ" pertinent to this discussion…

    "The more films show violence explicitly, the less they deal with it. And the less they make us understand what its roots are and where it's coming from." – Wim Wenders

    You know the story: people stumbled out of this movie in tears. They took their family members, they praised it for its "historical accuracy", whilst the media bandwagon rolled out the experts and harped on about the validity of New Testament eyewitnesses.

    Yes, audiences flinched at the brutal violence, the gore and the blood, but it was their duty to see the film! It was their duty to spread the news! To show their kids! To tell the world of a righteous God who faced an androgynous evil (apparently Satan is bisexual) and endured so that we may all live free!

    And so one by one, audience members threw their heads back and thanked Christ for dying so that they may be saved. Christ suffered for your sins, the film said, now "Earn this!"

    In other words, it's "Saving Private Ryan" with whips instead of bullets.

    Philosopher Jacques Ellul, a sort of Christian anarchist, states that post WW2 propaganda will increasingly appeal to guilt and sorrow. Soldiers become dead Christs who, though they are secretly whipped and crucified by their own leaders, will be used as emotional tools to draw the support of a guilted public. We pin ribbons and build altars to our suffering Christs (Willem Dafoe even dies "on" a crucifix in "Platoon"), praising them for dying for our sins and protecting us from evil, but the truth is, we are sinless and owe our Christ soldiers absolutely nothing.

    Many films recognise the way military and religious genres overlap ("Jesus Camp" portrays religion as boot camp and "Full Metal Jacket" portrays boot camp as a cultic institution with rituals, prayers and sermons), but audiences tend to avoid these films in favour of easy sadomasochism. These sadomasochistic films, with their pornographic violence and dopamine inducing cum-shots, use a variety of common propaganda tactics: appeals to duty, a mix or euphoria, romanticism and sadism, enemy as Other, guilt tactics, exalting the common man (Christ a mere carpenter, Hanks a mere teacher), obfuscation, misdirection, rehashed mythology etc.

    Reappropriating the various codes and signifiers of their respective genres – crucifixes, flags, helmets, cemeteries, altars, sepia and monochrome mayhem – these films thus succumb to the Cult of the Military/Church. The Cult which says that Freedom isn't free, and that the cost of freedom is blood which must be periodically sacrificed on the altar of Liberty by the military/clergy. This kind of thinking tends to believe that we only have freedom because we are allowed it by the government/God, and that we should be grateful for it and turn an unquestioning devotion onto the government/military/church.

    More interesting is the way films like "Passion" and "Ryan" are marketed. "Passion" was first screened for the Pope and bible groups before going national. When it was eventually released, it was equipped with salivating sound-bites from the Vatican ("It was so," The Pope solemnly remarked) and believers ("I didn't know what Christ endured for me!"), the media promoting it as a film which every Christian should dutifully attend. "Ryan" had a similar release, premiering at the White House for President Clinton (who publicly endorsed the film and told America that it was their duty to see it) and a phalanx of generals (Just as Spielberg's "Band of Brothers" would be screened for Generals a week before the 9/11 attack), before community screenings for veterans, special university "educational" press packs and, like "Passion", an ad campaign which relied on the "spectacle" of walkouts, the "need for councillors" at the cinemas to help "traumatized viewers" and talking heads who praised both films for either their "historical accuracy" or the "authentic sound of gunfire". These weren't films, this was history. Myth regeneration on a grand scale.

    Even the tag-lines of both films were indistinguishable: "12 Hours That Changed the World", "The Movie Behind The Greatest Event In The History Of The World", "They Died to Save You", "One Man Changed the World Forever", "The Price Of Freedom", "The Greatest Danger for Eight Men was Saving…One", "By His Wounds We Were Healed", "Now You Know", "The Last Great Invasion Of The Last Great War", "The Movie That Inspired The World To Remember" etc etc.

    So like "Ryan", Mel Gibson's " Passion " is a supremely evil film. A veritable orgy of cruelty and suffering, bogus mythologies regenerated with techno-wizardry and masochistic point-of-view shots which serve, not to disgust us, but to celebrate the necessity of gore. This is sadomasochism as public-consumption spectacle, the film opening with the words "By his wounds we are healed" and then proceeding to equate salvation with suffering. This being Mel Gibson, there is also a strong homo-erotic element (Jesus and Simon), but mostly it's violence that is eroticised (violence always has a sexual element). We should have seen this coming, of course. Mel's journey from "Road Warrior" to "Lethal Weapon" to "Hamlet" to "Braveheart" to "The Patriot" to "Passion" to "Apocalypto" mirrors closely Spielberg's journey from "Duel" to "War of the Worlds", both directors thriving on sadism as spectacle, though Mel is operating on a slightly different plane. He is film as flagellation, acting as self crucifixion for the audience…..


    – tieman.

    1. Tieman,

      Thanks for that amazing piece of criticism, which perhaps expands on what the vociferous Mr Freeman tried to get out above. There's not a lot more I can add to my arguments on SPR, so I leave it to the readers to put forward a case in response to your article!

      I'm still a little gobsmacked that you allude to the fact that people who enjoy both SPR and The Passion of The Christ have an appreciation of Nazism! I can assure you this isn't the case! You also include some dialogue on the marketing of both SPR and Passion Of The Christ in order to further your argument: I think this is a redundant argument to your cause – as the marketing of a film, and it's actuality, are separate issues.

      Although, I did want to ask if you considered torture-porn films (such as Hostel 1 & 2, the SAW franchise and other bloodthirsty genre entries) as evil as well. While I still think any film trying to explore the savagery and horror of war is an order of magnitude more elucidating than Eli Roth's latest, some of your comments about gore and the gratuitous camerawork employed by Spielberg (and also by Mel Gibson) indicate a revulsion of such explicit material. Your thoughts on films which delight in gore, rather than try and use it to horrify us, would be appreciated.

      Again, many thanks, and it looks like a trip over the the imdb might now be in order for me.

  19. To the poster who said TTRL "glorifies life" this is not true. It may show the beauty of life, but this is a Gnostic beauty which is wholly malevolent, indifferent.

    To the guy who wrote this article and webpage: how old are you and how many times have you seen TTRL? SPR is a juvenile, evil evil evil film. TTRL is the kind of sublimely great art that Joyce made when his readers, unable to keep up, rebelled against him….only to catch up with him decades later.

    TTRL is ahead of its audience; rewatch it, learn, grow, return.

    Also, someone above listed a group of films SPR rips off. Actually mate, the list is far greater. SPR is one big string of cliches, Spielberg's just lucky kids and audiences weren't alive when those films were popular. I'm a military buff, though. I've seen em all.

    As for SPR's "realism", they said the same about "Platoon". Have you seen that film recently? It looks like a cartoon. SPR already looks the same way. Bad art dates fast.

    1. Martin, I think if you're willing to label the look of Platoon as a "cartoon", you've obviously missed the point of it. There's an inherent cinematic-ness to Platoon which is borne of the era in which it was made, whilst SPR redefined the look of the war film thanks to a grittier visual palette… TTRL is not "ahead of its audience"; I take issue with this statement and retaliate by saying that a film should never be "above" its audience in terms of cerebral context. Malick ruined an otherwise great film with pretension and wankery.

  20. The less said about the juvenile, propagandistic, pornographic, fascist, exploitative, cliched, derivative and war mongering Saving Private Ryan, the better. "Earn This"? That's called fascism. Stop taking my taxes. And enough with the WW2 "good war" myths!

    Now The Thin Red Line…Jesus…that's the peak of cinema right there. Scorsese put it up there with Eyes Wide Shut as one of the best films of the 90s. Heck, I've seen it 8 times and will watch it every year till I die.

    The thing is, Malick, like Kubrick, is an intellectual filmmaker. He is a student of German philosopher Martin Heidegger, and so The Thin Red Line must best be understood if one has a knowledge of Heidegger, and the philosophical ripples caused by the clashes betwen post enlightenment worldviews and pre enlightenment classicism. ie – postmodernism's multiple subjectivities clashing with the rigidities of imperials/colonialsm etc WITHIN the Post Englightenment Ideal vs pantheism and monotheisms clashing with gnostic lawnlessness WITHIN Classicist and Romantic ideals.

    In simple terms, order hypocritically hidden within disorder vying with disorder hypocritically within order.

    1. Martin, you had me until your third paragraph. Then you lost me. Unfortunately, i don't have a degree in psychology or philosophy or whatever it is that you're taking about here. As close to that as I ever get is watching Doctor Who.

      Comparing TTRL to Eyes Wide Shut as a great film is somewhat misguided, in my opinion. Eyes Wide Shut was a final pretentious blow-out by a director overreaching his ability to create characters.

      I'm 35 as I write this, and have seen TTRL enough times to have formed a valid opinion of it. It might not be to the intellectual standard of Harvard university, but it's still my opinion and it's still valid. I've never experienced combat, so I have no basis for a life experience comaparison, and I invite those who have been in combat to put their comments here; I write my reviews to try and extrapolate the entertainment value of each film, hopefully succeeding more than failing. What is it about SPR that is inherently "evil", as you state? Is it the fact it's "cliched", and if so, what cliches are you talking about? Does it try and rewrite historical fact? Are the characters inaccurate in their portrayal or actions?

      As a military buff, exactly what kind of film would be an accurate portrayal of the horror of war?

  21. TTRL is a lyrical masterpiece. It is slow, yes (since when that has been a bad thing I wonder – the slower a beast walks, the better view you get of its muscles and sinews in motion). It doesn't really tell a story in the traditional sense. It's very – ambient. But in my view, TTRL will always be far superior to SPR.

    SPR has some very strong moments, is a lot less abstract and far more brutal – which makes it easier to follow and absorbing enough to make one almost forget that the story is rather lame, the characters are rather cardboard and the ideological overtones of it stink. It is a good film, yes. Spielberg is a skilled director who (for the most part) knows what he's doing. But…

    (Here I would like to add that I do like heroism in films and stories, I do like films about great men making great sacrifices – but SPR – for many reasons – simply rubs me the wrong way.)


    Yes, both movies tell us that war is hell, but SPR is a patriotic film that – on some levels – more or less glorifies that hell – TTRL takes a more universal, humanistic approach and it glorifies life.

    It always boils down to personal preferences and likes and I gotta say the slow tempo of TTRL was perfectly fine with me. I wasn't bored for a single minute. I sat back, enjoyed the view and used up the open space and the periods of silence for feeling, reflecting and thinking.

    Yeah, I admit, the voiceovers made me at times feel like I was being spoonfed – but they were generally well written and delivered in a way that made them for the greater part unobtrusive.

    When I left cinema after watching SPR, I was breathless and full of all kinds of impressions – which waned withing a matter of hours. Now TTRL *really* made an impact and those images, sounds and impressions are with me still – some 11 years later.

    So for me, TTRL beats Ryan hands down.

    1. "Yes, both movies tell us that war is hell, but SPR is a patriotic film that – on some levels – more or less glorifies that hell – TTRL takes a more universal, humanistic approach and it glorifies life."

      Great comment Cesare! I hadn't considered that approach before, that TTRL glorifies life while SPR seems to embrace death. I can't argue with what you've said so eloquently, so I won't try. I also agree that sometimes the characters in SPR seems a little cardboard, a little generic, but by the same token, I didn't find TTRL's characters as involving and emotionally broad as you did. I guess that's the thing about film: everybody will find different things to enjoy and appreciate in any film they watch.

      Great comments, which proves to our other readers that it is possible to have a conversation about films we disagree on without resorting to calling me a wanker.

  22. "Saving Private Ryan – 10/10

    The Thin Red Line – 5/10 (only redeeming feature is the battle sequence in the middle hour of the film.)"

    Wow, this shows that you are a child at heart. Saving Private Ryan is entertaining; Thin Red Line is EPIC and a masterpiece.

    Go to war in Afghanistan an Iraq and then tell me how you feel.

    1. I've mentioned this before: if you're going to make statements like "The Thin Red Line is EPIC" and "a masterpiece", then can you at least provide a reason for them? If you disgareee with my review, it's fine to do so, but at least make a case for yourself rather than simply throw out a line like that!

      Consider me among the many who think the war in Iraq and Afghanistan is pointless and should never have been entered into. So no, I'm not going to fight over there.

  23. Sorry, with respect, whilst I generally enjoy your writings, I must declare that you do not know of what you speak. Have you seen "Halls of Montezuma”, “Sands of Iwo Jima”, “Objective Burma”, “Bataan”, “Battleground”, “Destination Tokyo”, “Retreat, Hell!”, “They were expendable”, “Back to Bataan”, “Guadalacanal Diary”, “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” and “Sergeant York”?

    Saving Private Ryan is nothing but cliches stollen from these movies and many others! It's half baked propoganda (earn this!) and fuels the usual WW2 lies. It is also a very pornographic film, using sadism and violence as easy jolts for the audience. Combat is far more mundane.

    "The Thin Red Line" is a much more sophisticated, intelligent picture, which requires several viewings to digest. Gung-ho nonsense like "Saving Private Ryan" is why we're in Iraq.

    1. A couple of rebuttal questions:

      1 – What "usual lies" are you referring to in your argument? Can you clarify?

      2 – In what way is combat "mundane"? I dare say many serving soldiers in war zones would hardly call taking enemy fire "mundane", so I'm not quite sure what you mean.

      3 – I would have thought that watching SPR is a reminder of why we should not be in Iraq, not the cause for it. Is this not a fair assessment?

  24. "bridge and the last stand by a group of desperate marines"

    thats where your review lost all credibility. Not like if you to be an expert to realize that:

    -they were paratroopers,airborne

    -the marines never touched the european theatre

    All TTRL is a lot psychological than SPR. rather than the action, it mostly all what going on in the heads of many of the soldiers who were drafted there and how they react to such situations.

    I love both films, but if I had to chose one, it would be TTRL

    1. Yep, you figured out that i have no idea on the US military structure. Well done. Of course, I'm an Australian, so that might explain my lack of credibility in this regard.

      For the record, I believe I used the term "marines" as a colloquial descriptive for military personnell in the war.

  25. Saving Private Ryan was a movie aimed at the masses, filled with non-stop action and explosions to entertain. I did enjoy the film, but it really didn't have much to offer other than bullets and dismembered bodies. The Thin Red Line however actually delved into the true emotions of the men actually fighting the war, and took more of an anti-war position rather than an American propaganda film (I mean for Christ's sake, Saving Private Ryan ended with the image of an American flag, as if they had won the war by themselves). I was actually captivated throughout TTRL, and at many points it actually had me in tears, which is bizarre for a big guy like me. I honestly don't understand how you couldn't see the beauty in the way peace was portrayed in TTRL, and how well they portrayed the one true fact of warfare: they didn't know what they were fighting for, they were just following orders. But then of course, your idea of great cinema is Michael Bay's Armageddon, so I can tell that your attention span can't last through a film with any merit.

    1. Hmmm, well, I don't know if I've ever called Armageddon "great" cinema, but it is fun. And you were going so well until you decided to insult my intelligence. Oh well.

      I see your argument for TTRL and I do agree with you about the way peace and the confusion surrounding the reason for fighting (the) war was portrayed. I tended to be a little put off by the excessive running time and smorgasbord of characters TTRL shoehorned into itself, generally glorified cameos for the most part, and the stilted, meandering narrative Terrence Malick used to convey said points. While SPR was more an "action/war" film, I will disagree that it wasn't an "anti-war" film as you stated. I would say that it's one of the better anti-war films ever made, perfectly capturing the terror, carnage and horror of battle in a way we'd never seen before. Admittedly, the approach to war by both films is markedly different, and no doubt the two are poles apart in both tone and point, so it's probably an unfair comparison to make. I admit, the point of TTRL did get lost on me in translation, and I guess I just can't stomach three hours of glorious wide-screen establishing shots. Perhaps it would be best simply to say that both films make the same point in different ways. War is hell.

  26. bluecollaraddict, it goes without saying that a good war film should cover a range of emotions and themes. Black Hawk Down was not meant to be some kind of essay on the good or bad of war – I think Ridley Scott merely tried to show (without politics) that when a situation goes bad, people get killed. The utter confusion and insanity of what happened in '93 was perfectly realised, yet it did not have to dwell on any political or social commentary. I don't watch war films for the explosions of the blood and guts.

    But if you, in your wisdom, could explain to me the main thrust of The Thin Red Line, I'd be very grateful.

  27. There is more to a good movie than just blood, guts, and explosions. The fact that you thought Black Hawk Down was a "top class war film" shows me that you haven't realized this. Perhaps you should stick to Vin Diesel movies.

  28. Interesting.

    I've never seen The Thin Red Line, but after reading this, I now not to waste 3 hours of time trying… unless I want to see some trees and birds, and explosions.

    I wonder what your review of SYJ and UG will be like 😉

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