What is one life worth? That is the question at the heart of Saving Private Ryan (1998). But if that is too esoteric for you, watch it again to see a young Vin Diesel as Private Caparzo. Would you believe that he was barely in his thirties when this film was released? And that he is now in his fifties? Time flies, does it not? But enough about the gravel voiced one’s age. As strange as it might sound for a movie about World War II and featuring so much death and destruction, Saving Private Ryan is a pro-life movie.
Saving Private Ryan starts off with the elder titular character (Harrison Young) visiting Normandy, and specifically the cemeteries holding the American soldiers who gave their lives in the Allied invasion of France. Yet, at first, we do not know who he is, or whose headstone before which he is standing. And then it cuts to the actual D-Day landings as Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) waits to hit Omaha Beach with the rest of his unit. The proceeding fight to get off that narrow strip of sand is one of the most intense battle scenes ever filmed. Truly. During the course of that battle, it is revealed that the three of the four Ryan brothers have perished, two in Normandy and one in the Pacific. In a poignant scene, their mother gets the news of the deaths of most of her sons on the same day. From there, the United States government decides to bring him the last son. The problem is that he has dropped with the 101st Airborne Division, and they are scattered all over the place. Thus Miller and his men are called upon to seek out Private Ryan and get him out of the war zone. This assigned task is made all the more harder by the fact that they have to wade through ongoing skirmishes throughout Normandy. Along the way, Miller’s cadre suffers a couple of casualties, which makes the rest question why they are going after one man specifically. After the death of T-4 Medic Wade (Giovanni Ribisi), their reluctance becomes near mutiny. Nonetheless, they finally locate Private Ryan (Matt Damon). Miller and his men are ready to leave, but Ryan wants to stay and complete his mission to protect a bridge. Of course, the Germans want to take this crossing for themselves, and they throw a number of men, tanks, and various other accoutrements of war at Miller’s squad and the collection paratroopers. Despite putting up a valiant defense, the Americans are eventually overwhelmed and pushed back to a last stand. Miller is one of the last to die, and just before slipping off this mortal coil he advises Private Ryan to “earn this.” Shifting back to modern times, Ryan tells the gravestone that he had been reminding himself of this every day since.
It is a credit to Private Ryan that when Miller shows up and tells the young soldier that his brothers are dead and he is being sent back to the United States, that he also does not understand why this is happening. The history of warfare is replete with stories of men who, when faced with the prospect of living while so many of their comrades died, are uncomprehending. Saving Private Ryan is no exception in this regard. The response for the Psalm reading from today’s Mass says, “It is I who deal death and give life.” The “I” here is, of course, God. While that might seem like a macabre approach to Faith, whether you believe in God or not, we do not have control over the moment of our demise. There are also rewards for the Faithful, and the rest of the readings from today (including a couple of feast days) make this point clear. At any rate, given the number of loved ones with Ryan when he makes his emotional return to Normandy, he clearly did something right.
I suppose I could also talk about the character of Private Jackson (Barry Pepper) in Saving Private Ryan. He is the resident sharpshooter among Miller’s men, and as he lines up each shot he quotes Bible verses. One might think that he would be a natural to discuss in a blog such as The Legionnaire. However, the Catholic Faith does not condone violence, and despite Private Jackson’s words, He does not make people into “instruments of death.” That can only come by our own free will in deciding to obtain the training to be so lethal. What I find far braver is the scene during the fight on Omaha Beach where a Catholic priest, unarmed of course, goes from corpse to corpse reading Last Rites while machine gun bullets whiz around him.
There is no way around it: Saving Private Ryan is a tough watch. There is blood and gore, as much as you might expect from a graphic film set during one of the most famous moments of World War II. And get ready for most of the characters you follow throughout to die some pretty gruesome deaths. Yet there are touching moments too. When Miller arrives at the first village where paratroopers are holed up, there is a French family looking on from inside their blasted out home. They are afforded a good view as there are no walls left on one side of their abode. Sensing danger, they try to get the Americans to take their daughter, and her sorrowful cries tug at the heartstrings. It is no wonder that veterans of the battle who saw this when it was released were reported to have broken down into mournful sobs, and some had to leave the theater. But there is genuine heroism too, and that is worth something.