Cover Story

"Saving Private Ryan": Message in a Battle

Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks take on World War II in harrowing new drama

STEVEN SPIELBERG HAD ONE OVERRIDING MISSION. STOP. TO MAKE THE MOST REALISTIC FILM POSSIBLE ABOUT THE HORRORS OF COMBAT. STOP. FOR THIS TALE OF 8 SOLDIERS SENT BEHIND ENEMY LINES TO RESCUE ONE MAN, THE DIRECTOR SUBJECTED HIS STARS TO RAIN, RATIONS, PHYSICAL AND MENTAL ABUSE—ALL IN THE NAME OF 'SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.' STOP. HIS MESSAGE? STOP. WAR IS HELL ON EARTH. STOP.

This is how you die.

When a bullet hits you on a field of battle, your knees buckle. Your stomach contracts. If the slug hits your brain, you flop to the ground like a mannequin. You don't squeal, "Oh, my God! I've been shot!" You don't throw your arms in the air like a Broadway dancer. You don't die, says Steven Spielberg, "in slow motion, with a blood bag coming out of the front of your chest and a huge fireball behind you, shattering a plate of glass and then tumbling almost acrobatically into a perfect air-bag landing. That's not how it is."

In Spielberg's new movie, Saving Private Ryan, people die. Normally, that wouldn't make much of a ripple in the pop consciousness. Ever since Spielberg's own Jaws, summer movies have been swimming in cartoon carnage. But Saving Private Ryan opens with a tableau of World War II violence that's so raw, so real, and so sustained—it takes place on the blood-soaked sands of D-Day's Omaha Beach, and it lasts nearly half an hour—that it blows every previous Hollywood treatment of combat to smithereens. "In other war movies, when an American GI gets hit, the commanding officer can write home that he never knew what hit him, that he didn't suffer," says Stephen Ambrose (Citizen Soldiers, Band of Brothers), the historian whose books provided Ryan with some of its grisly detail. "Well, it almost never happens that way. What you get is your guts coming out of your stomach, and you've gotta stuff 'em back in. You want morphine and you want water and you want your mother and you want a cigarette. In Spielberg's movie, that's what happens."

Fairly or not, Spielberg is known as our Merlin, the man who conjured up the "sense of wonder" school of filmmaking. Giddy, saucer-eyed, gold-dusted fantasias like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jurassic Park have turned him into the 20th century's wizard of the box office. But Saving Private Ryan—the story of eight American soldiers sent into Nazi territory to rescue the only one of four brothers who's still alive—completes a 180-degree turn that began with the darker spells of Empire of the Sun and Schindler's List. "I think people stopped trusting me about 10 years ago," says the 51-year-old director and mogul. "I really don't feel people expect from my movies the same kind of Disney enchantment that they ascribed to me back in the '70s and the first half of the 1980s." Spielberg went into Private Ryan, he says, "assuming the role of a combat cameraman, not assuming the role of an artist." He had one credo: "I wanted to achieve reality." So he sent the actors to boot camp.

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