Despite the Allied forces officially declaring victory on September 2, 1945, World War II is a war that will never end, on the big screen at least.
From now until the end of days brave heroes of the silver screen will be battling evil Nazis, rescuing the oppressed and freeing the world from the grasp of tyrants.
In the last ten years around the world, there have been over a hundred films set during World War II released detailing every aspect of the war from the evacuation of Dunkirk to the brutalities of the Pacific Theatre.
And yet despite the myriad of films depicting the misery of humanity’s darkest hour, one film stands out from the crowd as the ‘best’ war movie ever made, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.
Set during the Normandy landings, a crucial battle which paved the way for Allied victory in Europe, the film tells the story of Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) and his squad, as they battle through occupied territory to find Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) to inform him of his brothers’ deaths.
When it was first released in 1998, Saving Private Ryan was a massive critical and commercial success, garnering near-universal praise from critics for its unflinchingly realistic depiction of war.
Saving Private Ryan was recognised at the 71st Academy Awards garnering 11 nominations including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Screenplay, and won Spielberg his second Best Director award.
Since its release the film’s been further acknowledged as a true classic, entering into the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress, and topping numerous ‘best of’ lists over the years.
More than that, Saving Private Ryan was even voted the ‘The Best War Movies Ever’ by the Ranker community, beating out classics like Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now and Platoon for the top spot.
So why does Saving Private Ryan have such universal appeal? Well, there are a number of reasons, including setting, story and cast which all work together to make Ryan something special.
The Second World War has fascinated moviegoers for years and there are some pretty widely accepted reasons as to why.
Firstly it’s important to remember the conflict wasn’t just isolated to Europe. Soldiers from across the globe fought against the Nazi scourge, many coming to France and Germany to do so.
As cynical as it may sound, this gives the Second World War near-universal appeal to movie audiences because almost everyone can share in the glory of helping save the world from the Axis powers, and has some emotional connection to the fighting.
Setting Ryan during WWII separates it from films that take place during a conflict like Vietnam, a war fought almost exclusively by America, which inevitably means Europeans have less of a connection to it.
Furthermore, the Second World War, if I’m being really reductionist, is an easy war to understand.
While modern-day conflicts are complicated muddy affairs which call into question Western intervention, the Second World War is relatively simple, especially on the Western front.
Like a real-life Lord of the Rings – where Germany is Mordor and Hitler is Sauron (I guess that makes Mussolini Saruman) – it’s hard to question that the Allies were right in their decision to fight the Nazis and end their brutal regime.
To put it plainly, it’s easy to make the Allies the goodies and the Axis powers the baddies, and it was probably the last time making such a distinction in war was so simple.
This narrative is easy for moviegoers to understand and in my opinion, it explains why so many war stories are set during this conflict, because you don’t have to spend time explaining who the enemy is and why we hate them.
It helps filmmakers how some of the most brutal battles and spectacular stories of astounding humanity in history, happened during World War II.
Using Saving Private Ryan as an example, the film’s opening 28 minute battle on Omaha Beach, named ‘the best battle scene of all time’ by Empire magazine, remains one of the most memorable and harrowing cinematic moments of my life.
Even now, nearly two decades on, I remember the first time I watched it – seeing men blown apart, their intestines literally spilling out as they beg for help, hammered home the horror of war and how senseless it was.
The beach scene was so realistic, real-life veterans called it the most faithful depiction of combat they’d ever seen – a number even left the theatre due to the scenes being so traumatic.
Knowing this actually happened to people makes it all the more powerful, and I’ll be honest, if this had been some fictional battle in a fake war, it’d have lost some of its power.
What really cements Ryan as a classic, and makes it better than some of the other ‘big’ war films is, for as disturbing as the film’s battle scenes are, it remembers, for all the horrors of war, humanity is essentially good and there is valour in fighting.
While films like Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now and Platoon deconstructed the notion of ‘the good war’, Ryan reminds us, while war may be hell, humanity is not the devil.
Instead, it honours the bravery of those who fought fascism for our freedom, showing these were men trapped in possibly the worst situation imaginable, and yet their humanity shone through.
While some may criticise the film as an unflinchingly patriotic piece of propaganda designed to promote the message World War II was a ‘good war’, I disagree.
The film never shies away from depicting war as senseless and cruel, it’s just that its central philosophy and message is about man’s tenacity and bravery in the face of adversity.
Again, it’s helped by the fact Ryan draws inspiration from a true story.
Specifically the case of the Niland brothers. Four brothers – three of whom died during service – requiring the army to rescue the fourth before his familial line was wiped out.
Finally, we can’t discount the film’s astounding cast for making the film work.
Many claim Hanks’ winning performance as Captain Miller grounds the whole thing, but I believe the camaraderie between the squad (Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel, Adam Goldberg and Giovanni Ribisi) is actually what anchors it.
There’s a feeling of genuine fire-forged friendship between the squad, helped by the fact Spielberg forced them to endure ten days of boot camp led by a marine to get them in shape for the film.
Fun fact, Spielberg deliberately left Matt Damon out of the boot camp so he wouldn’t fit in with the rest of the squad – a decision which paid off in the long run.
Saving Private Ryan may not be my favourite Steven Spielberg film, but it’s undeniably his greatest war film.
Wait, he did Schindler’s List? Oh…