Following on from my previous blogs of Spielberg through the 1970s and the 1980s I now arrive at Part 3 of my journey through his career, and if push came to shove, my personal favourite, the 1990s. It was a particularly golden era of Cinema for me, it was the decade thanks to a successful driving test that allowed me off my own back to become a regular cinema goer. It was the decade that I began to earn money so could supplement the regular cinema trips by beginning to build an extensive VHS collection. It was also the decade of Cool Britannia, the launch of the Premier League and my University years.
Pretty much every Friday night my friends and I would head across to the Warner Brothers multiplex cinema in Pilsworth Bury, (Bolton didn’t have a multiplex at that time so we had to drive and take risks in war-torn Bury to get a decent cinema seat). On occasions I didn’t go with friends…………oh yes on occasions I went with a girl. The world was indeed an exciting place.
There was an abundance of variety on offer on the big screen as well, with hardly any hint of a wisecracking superhero or pointless remake.
It was also the decade that I finally started to join the dots regarding Spielberg. Jurassic Park was the film that made me realise, that this was the same guy who made Indiana Jones, Jaws, E.T and Close Encounters……….I loved all those films, and now he is making one about dinosaurs. The 90s was the decade that would finally reward him with critical approval, and rightly so, with 2 astonishing pieces of Cinema about World War 2 which are faultless in their execution and hugely immersive for the audience. It was also a decade that still showcased his fun side, and that is where we now begin.
Have to fly, have to fight, have to crow, have to save Maggie, have to save Jack, Hook is back.
I’m going to throw this straight out there……….I like Hook, I like it a lot. One of Spielberg’s most derided films has struggled to win fans in the past three decades, even Spielberg has publicly cited Hook as the one film of his that he struggles to enjoy. Critics have labelled Hook as over bloated, over stylised, overlong and bizarrely when you consider this is a Peter Pan film, over-acted.
Initially conceived as a musical with Michael Jackson in the lead, the idea was scrapped with Jackson not interested in playing a “grown-up” Peter Pan and John Williams songwriting not hitting the right creative path that Williams and Spielberg had envisioned. Ironically, in my opinion, Williams actually produced one of his most underrated Spielberg scores for Hook, catching the finished films actions, childlike humour and emotions perfectly.
As stated earlier I am a big fan of Hook but there are clearly issues. It’s overlong, at 2 hours 20 mins for what is essentially a kids film, it could quite conceivably lose 40-50 mins. Most of that chop could come from the ponderous opening act. Yes, there is a need for a backstory, there is a need for character development but Hook takes too long to get going. I recently watched Hook with my kids and you are almost 40 minutes in before you glimpse Neverland and the youngest, in particular, was beginning to lose interest. That’s not to say that adults won’t find things to enjoy in this extended first act. The immaculate Maggie Smith lends the film gravitas and the film sparkles whenever she is on. Caroline Goodall also is enchanting if a little underused as Moira.
Once the action relocates to Neverland the film really does come into its own. Spectacular sets that do lend to the earlier conceived musical ideas, glorious matte backdrops that transport viewers into the pantomime surroundings of Neverland. This in my mind is Spielberg setting his stall out. If you don’t like Hook at this point then leave now as you never will.
The colour that streams from the screen, the ping-pong dialogue between Williams and Hoffman, the Lost Boys (not as annoying as they clearly could have been) are fantastic entertainment, and in the middle of all that you have the indefatigable Bob Hoskins having the time of his life as the bumbling Smee.
Yes, it’s over sentimental, (remember this is a kids film), yes Julia Roberts has nothing of any note to do and yes it is too long. However, there is so much to love, such as the food fight, the finding of Peter’s face and, a personal favourite, Hook’s suicide attempt. Special mention must go to Charlie Korsmo, who stands out in a movie full of kids, as Jack.
Hook is divisive amongst Spielberg fans but for me, it achieves what it sets out to do. Its fun-filled, action-packed and was a film genuinely aimed at all the family. When compared to future re-tellings of the story it stands head and shoulders above P.J Hogan’s 2003 Peter Pan and Joe Wright’s awful 2015 Pan.
Hook was a relative box office flop and this followed on from a rather nondescript few years for Spielberg. Indiana Jones films aside, Spielberg had not really hit his box office mojo since E.T in 1982. That was all about to come to an end.
Spielberg admitted to being disappointed with final result of the movie. He had such a hard time working with the rebellious crew of young actors that he later said, only somewhat kiddingly, that the experience made him wonder if he wanted to have any more kids. He also felt guilty that he wasn’t able to find an economical method to filming the many complex human-flight sequences in the film. However, after Robin William’s death, Spielberg says he is now thankful he made the film, as that was how he met Williams and became good friends with him. (1)
Why should you watch it?
Dismissed at the time of being over-blown, that is now with hindsight one of its main strengths. How do you make a Peter Pan film without throwing every color of the rainbow at the screen? A bit ponderous to start with, but once it establishes its confidence it is rip-roaring entertainment that rewards those who are willing to give it a second chance.
Jurassic Park (1993)
Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.
Christmas Day 1990, 3:15pm, the Queen has just finished her annual, televised address to the nation and the BBC is about to show the World television premiere of E.T. Spielberg had always been fiercely protective of his most personal film. The video release of E.T was not until 1989, 6 years after the theatrical release. The BBC was allowed to show E.T on the proviso that they didn’t make any cuts, hence the line “it was nothing like that penis-breath” remaining in the broadcast, despite the time of broadcast not normally allowing such “language”. The reason I mention this is a further indication of the power of Spielberg. The BBC wanted the world exclusive and were willing to bend their own stringent censor rules to get the film. The power of Spielberg is that what may be deemed unacceptable for other filmmakers doesn’t apply to him.
Take Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, for example, a film rated as a PG in the UK but when all said and done considerably more violent than films such as Tim Burton’s Batman which was rated as a 12 in the cinema and 15 on home video.
Jurassic Park itself whilst not a graphically violent film, is incredibly tense and fraught with peril from the off. In the UK it received a PG certificate whilst films like James Cameron’s The Abyss and the Spielberg produced Arachnophobia received a 12. I know which one scared me the most. There is a thought that if Jurassic Park was made by any other director then the 12 certificate would have been applied.
So onto the film itself, on paper, it is a match made in heaven. Spielberg and dinosaurs, in reality……….it is a match made in heaven. I’ve mentioned the tension already but it’s worth mentioning again, as this is the most white-knuckle, sweat dripping, edge of the seat terror-inducing Spielberg film since Jaws. I can remember watching it in the cinema as an annoying 16-year-old and being scared beyond belief from the Dilophosaurus attack to the Velociraptor siege at the conclusion of the film. The T-Rex attack on the Jeep is the films stand out set piece and is nerve shredding good. It starts with one of Spielberg’s most iconic, yet simplest special effects, a tepid glass of water sat on the dashboard of the Jeep, a distant thud creating a tantalizing ripple on the water. The audience knows to get itself ready……this is not going to end well.
Spielberg is a master of the off-camera menace, take the first hour of Jaws where the shark is never seen but the terror is always there, or the build-up to the climactic scene in Saving Private Ryan, where the sound of German artillery is heard approaching the compound, we know this isn’t going to be a comfortable watch.
In the T-Rex scene the thuds continue, “Can you hear that?” asks Tim “Maybe they’re trying to turn the power back on” replies blood sucking lawyer Donald Gennaro ambivalently. No its nothing like that Donald, prepare yourself for an unscheduled trip to the toilet, where quite frankly the lack of toilet paper will be the least of your worries. Once again employing the power of suggestion alongside groundbreaking animatronics, the brilliance of this scene is that here are the main protagonists, cars stopped in the middle of a thunderstorm and somewhere there is this ginormous beast, but the cast and the audience don’t know where it is. John Williams drops his score completely as if he too is sat frozen in fear waiting for the next resounding THUD!
When the T-Rex does finally emerge the scale and sheer power of the dinosaur is captured perfectly from the giant footsteps to the destruction of the Jeep with Tim and Lex still inside. The moment where Spielberg shows the kids screaming and clinging onto each other as the mighty T-Rex squishes the Jeep further into the mud with its enormous foot is so terrifying for all involved (cast and audience) that you have to remind yourself this is a PG film. I can remember vividly watching that scene in the cinema, it was as if the audience were unable to breathe. This is what Cinema is about, there doesn’t have to be fountains of blood to make an audience scared, just tap into inherent fears of the human psyche and then push them to the edge.
“My early exposure to all the leviathans of the Saturday matinee creature features inspired me, when I grew up, to make ‘Jurassic Park.'” (2)
If the T-Rex scene is all out terror then Spielberg demonstrates his more sinister side with the more suspenseful Raptor chase. Where the T-Rex is a beast who will hunt to satisfy his hunger, the Raptors are painted as more calculated. They are described as being in it for the chase, for the thrill of it. In many ways, the Raptors harp back to Yul Bryner’s Gunslinger in Michael Crichton’s other “theme park gone wrong” thriller, Westworld or even the T-800 in James Cameron’s The Terminator. The difference here is that the Raptors work as a team, displaying acts of cunning and guile, remember they never attack the same part of fence twice. Whereas the T-Rex attack harks back to the monster horror movie, the Raptor attack is more a psychological thriller designed to keep even the most anti-nail biter chewing down to the bone.
If I’m honest the end is a bit anti-climactic but as an audience, we have been through enough to wheeze a huge sigh of relief. As for the performances, they are all top-notch. Sam Neill is amazing in everything and one shot in particular displays the greatest “eye-acting” ever captured on film when he first sets eyes on the Brachiosaurus, a scene that 25 years on is still as breathtaking now as when Dr. Grant first grabbed and turned Dr. Sattler’s head to share the moment.
Jeff Goldblum plays the chaos theory mathematician Ian Malcolm, who is the first to notice that all is not all merchandising and day passes in the park. If there is one disappointment in the film is that Malcolm spends the final third of the film incapacitated and with little to do. His banter with Richard Attenborough’s Hammond is playful and gives the film some of its lighter moments. The children once again are less annoying than they could have been, Joseph Mazzello’s Tim is particularly charming. There is also a great turn from Samuel L Jackson as the chain-smoking Computer operator Arnold.
The stand out performance for me though is Laura Dern as Paleobotanist Ellie Sattler. Here is a female lead who is a match for any of her male counterparts in the movie. She is smart, gutsy and takes risks for the bigger picture. In a decade that launched the phrase “Girl Power” into the public psyche, here is a character who is an early icon of the movement. She is the complete antithesis to, Kate Capshaw’s Willie Scott in Temple of Doom.
Jurassic Park was huge in every way, a box office behemoth which Spielberg actually needed after, Indiana Jones aside, a few disappointing years. It was generally loved by critics, but of course not in that way, it was, of course, a popcorn peddlers dream. As for Spielberg himself, the post-production of Jurassic Park became a catharsis as he was about to go on the most personal experience of his career.
Why should you watch it?
Copying somewhat the less is more blueprint that was so accidentally fundamental about the scares of Jaws, here Jurassic Park again toys with some of the more inherent human fears and puts the audience through the emotional ringer, at times gasping for air. A petrifying study of when “science goes wrong” that 25 years on is as fresh and tense now as it was then.
Schindler’s List (1993)
Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.
In 1989 Spielberg directed and prepared two films for cinematic release, the bombastic blockbuster Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and the quieter, more intimate Always. If 1989 was a practice run, then 1993 was the main event. This is the first real example of what has become somewhat of a Spielberg trademark, the one for the fans and the one for himself. 1993 is possibly Spielberg’s crowning glory. Box office demolition thanks to Jurassic Park and then, finally, universal critical approval for one of the most astonishing pieces of Cinema anyone has ever produced.
I watched Schindler’s List again recently in order to be able to put this blog together, it had been a few years since I had sat through it. And that is exactly the point, we helplessly sit through it. There are times when it scarily feels that you are watching a documentary, this is helped in parts by the black and white cinematography and that approximately 40% of the film was done using hand-held cameras. The shoot was relatively quick, just 72 days, and was a personal immersion for Spielberg who had owned the rights to the source material since 1982 but had waited until he felt he was mature enough as a film-maker to be able to do the material justice.
“The Holocaust was life without light. For me the symbol of life is color. That’s why a film about the Holocaust has to be in black-and-white.” (3)
In Empire of the Sun, Spielberg hinted at the brutality of war but never really showed anything other than carefully constructed shots to illustrate the point. In order to do the subject of the Holocaust justice, Spielberg removes the shackles and shows us everything. At times as a viewer I found myself wanting to cry out in exasperation, mainly to the cameraman to stop showing this now, or even more strangely, ask them why aren’t you helping? We are shown in unflinching detail the desperation of the people as they search to survive against the evil regime that is bent on destroying their home, their town, their religion, their people.
A relative unknown at the time Liam Neeson lends a noble gravitas to the philandering, arrogant Schindler. When we first meet Schindler it is hard for us as the audience to warm to him but after he witnesses the liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto, we see a more vulnerable side to the profoundly effected Schindler as the true horrors consume him. In the first half of the film, it is difficult to truly like Schindler, we sympathise greatly with Mrs. Schindler, a small but effective part played by Caroline Goodall whose performance of loyal displeasure illustrates how the audience feels towards Schindler at first.
The frustrations that we feel towards Schindler pale into monochrome insignificance once we meet the execrable Amon Goeth, played by Ralph Fiennes with enough intimidation as to make Voldemort cower with fear in the corner. The main difference, of course, is that Goeth is based on a real person, so his depiction makes the evil that he purports all the more heinous. Fiennes fixes Goeth a steely gaze that freezes the audience as we once again beg the cameraman to stop filming as he carries out his cold-blooded executions.
For all the terror that the realism of Goeth brings to the screen, there is hope in the form of Ben Kingsley’s Ishtak Stern who acts as Schindler’s alter-ego and conscience. Stern is the voice of reason, the man who appeals to Schindler’s frugality by pointing him in the direction of the cheaper Jewish workforce. In turn, Stern ensures that many workers are needed to help the German war effort and by doing so helped save hundreds of lives. Kingsley is perfect in the role and is the warm presence on screen that the audience needs to help deal with what they are witnessing.
Schindler’s List was rewarded with 7 Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director for Spielberg. On occasions Academy Awards are presented to individuals for a body of work as opposed to their most recent output, e.g. Martin Scorsese belated win for The Departed, which whilst a good film is not really in the same league as his earlier work, but here there was no doubt that Spielberg was being rewarded for Schindlers List. The critical acclaim had finally arrived for Spielberg after so long being treated with a sniffy upward-turned nose by his peers and well deserved it was.
However, perhaps more importantly for Spielberg, the film was a personal tour-de-force, an emotional pilgrimage that introspectively examined his somewhat lapsed Jewish faith. Spielberg was not paid for his contribution to the film and the Shoah foundation was established to further the remembrance of the Holocaust in World War 2.
In order to remove himself from the emotional bombardment of the filming process, Spielberg would edit Jurassic Park in the evenings to help lighten the mood. He had his friend the late Robin Williams ring the set regularly and perform some of his stand up routine to try to increase the morale of cast and crew
The question remains about whether as a viewer you can “enjoy” Schindlers List? I think enjoy is the wrong word, but there are lots to admire and as a piece of cinematic art it is peerless. Whilst it’s clearly not a film to sit around with your friends over beer and pizza looking for light giggles and thrills, neither should one feel guilty about appreciating and immersing oneself into one of the late 20th Century’s most complete pieces of Cinema.
Why should you watch it?
It is Spielberg’s most complete work. Yes, it is an ordeal at times and has moments of such unflinching brutality, but to sugar coat some of the events would be a disservice. It is film making of the highest calibre. Not one for a regular re-watch but it is Spielberg at his artistic best. Quite simply one of the finest pieces of Cinema ever made.
Jurassic Park: The Lost World (1997)
Oh, yeah. Oooh, ahhh, that’s how it always starts. Then later there’s running and um, screaming.
After the emotional rollercoaster of the critical success and personal enlightenment of 1993, for the first time in his career, Spielberg took a sabbatical from the director’s chair. Four years was the longest that he had gone without a major cinematic release as director. When he decided to return he followed a path that had previously been trodden in 1989 and again in 1993 by releasing two films almost back to back. The one for the fans and the one for me was never more evident than the 1997 blockbusting Jurassic Park sequel and the intense, historical courtroom drama about true life events of the Spanish slave ship Amistad (which I will come onto shortly).
With The Lost World, it was argued that Spielberg was easing himself gently back into the director’s chair and on reflection, it is easy to concur with such thoughts. The Lost World, whilst entertaining in places is Spielberg on auto-pilot. I wouldn’t go so far as to say there is a lack of effort on display here but I don’t get the feeling that the director is overly enthusiastic about the job at hand. Spielberg himself has mentioned that perhaps his heart wasn’t fully in it
“I beat myself up… growing more and more impatient with myself… It made me wistful about doing a talking picture, because sometimes I got the feeling I was just making this big silent-roar movie… I found myself saying, ‘Is that all there is? It’s not enough for me.'” (4)
It’s not all bad though. What you have is still a fairly entertaining dinosaur movie and if we are honest with ourselves there is still tremendous fun to be had here. The cliff-top caravan vs T-Rex scene is outstanding, in particular, the slowly cracking glass separating Julianne Moore from plummeting to a watery grave is a quintessential Spielberg moment. If the director is bored and longing for more, he certainly isn’t showing it at this point.
There is also a beautifully shot Velociraptor chase through tall grass that sends shivers down the spine and the majestic Pete Postlethwaite who pretty much improves any film that he is in, is a more despicable, hissing big game hunter upgrade on the first films more skeptical Robert Muldoon played by Bob Peck. Despite the film lacking the strong presence of a Dr. Grant figure, (played with wide-eyed calmness in the first film by Sam Neill) it is good to see Jeff Goldblum front and centre as the wily chaotician, Ian Malcolm.
A pointless subplot involving Malcolm’s stow-away daughter is a Spielberg touch too far and adds nothing of any significance other than to add yet another struggling father figure to the Spielberg canon.
The problem that the film has before its even started is to still find wonder in the dinosaurs. I noted earlier in this blog when reviewing Jurassic Park that the first glimpse of the Brachiosaurus and the T-Rex attacks in particular still stand the sense of wonder today. There are no such money shots in the Lost World, the dinosaurs are introduced within the first 15 mins and they are there for the entirety. There is no real sense of menace, and Spielberg addresses this by turning the hunted into the hunters. There is a mean core that runs through the characters of the Lost World none more so illustrated by Peter Stormare’s latest European thug who gets his comeuppance from a pack of hungry Compsognathus.
The film climaxes in downtown San Diego where the hunting party has brought their captured T-Rex to be displayed at the San Diego Zoo. Needless to say, all doesn’t go to plan. Now what was quite an intriguing idea and what must have seemed like a fun concept on paper is quite frankly all over the place. This is the most out of control from a directorial point of view Spielberg has been since the dark days of 1941 (the film not the year).
I don’t hate this film but I realise there is plenty wrong with it. I feel this was a time when Spielberg felt he had to remind the world that he could still pedal the popcorn and make a film for the fans. I think this is the last film, with the possible exception of 2008’s Crystal Skull where he actually bowed to the easier option. It’s maybe the only film in his entire back catalogue where you could think that any number of directors could have made this.
Why should you watch it?
Despite its flaws it is still massively watchable. Yes there is a sense of phoning it in by Spielberg, but for sheer popcorn entertainment it can’t be faulted.
Give us, us free. Give us, us free. Give us, us free. Give us, us free. Give us, us free.
As stated in the previous blogs every decade of work has a film that somewhat passes under the radar, a Spielberg film that sits quietly in the corner observing more illustrious or attention-grabbing bedfellows. In the 1990s we have Amistad a story of a slave mutiny on board a Spanish vessel on a trip from Cuba to the United States. Amistad often gets lost in the back catalogue of Spielberg historical dramas and that is actually a great shame as once again there is much to admire and digest.
Amistad is essentially an old-fashioned courtroom drama, but instead of a lonely accused sitting in the dock whilst free wheeling lawyers grandstand against each other in attempt to win the favour of a balanced jury, here we have 60 slaves crammed into the dock, none of them understand the language that is used to help determine their future existence. The courtroom scenes are interspersed with touches of light comic relief, the language barrier and an argument on where best to place a table are fun interludes. There are also moments of horrific torture and punishment on the Amistad itself, where slaves are seen scraping the food off each other’s faces to fight the terrible hunger they are suffering from.
The 10 minute scene halfway through the movie where Cinque, played with indomitable power by the marvellous Djimon Hounsou, recollects his experiences of the Amistad that culminates in rocks being tied to the feet of the already chained together petrified slaves as they are thrown over the side of the boat into the ocean is as brutal as any scene up until that point that Spielberg had ever put on-screen. As powerful as that scene is, it’s not really in keeping with the rest of the movie and adds little more than shock value.
This may be the problem for Amistad, the experiences of life before and on the boat for Cinque are never fully explored, with Spielberg instead focussing more on the court case. My feeling is that this would have been a better epilogue to the more interesting story and considering this is a film about the persecution of black slaves, the film paints the two white leads, an albeit excellent Anthony Hopkins as the brusk yet moral abiding president John Quincy Adams and Matthew McConaughey’s young impressionable lawyer, whose impressive hairstyle is the most memorable thing about him as the heroes of the piece. Morgan Freeman is criminally underused in a role that gives him very little to do other than stand around looking like he wants to join in more.
As previously stated Hounsou is an extraordinary screen presence and its near on impossible to tear your eyes away from him when he is on the screen. Hopkins also appears to be having a great time and almost steals the show with his impassioned 10-minute plea to the Supreme Court to find in favour of the Africans.
After the cruise control of The Lost World, Spielberg was back in serious mode, this being his first directorial release for his newly formed studio Dreamworks but again there is a feeling that he perhaps has his eyes on other projects. At times the film seems a little preachy and it possibly all ties up a little too neatly at the end.
The Academy who had been falling over themselves to reward Spielberg for his harrowing depiction of Holocaust brutality equally turned a blind eye to a depiction of a more direct American atrocity. With the exception of a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Anthony Hopkins, there was only a couple of nominations in technical categories. No Best Picture nomination in a year that saw Boogie Nights also snubbed in favour of the farcical The Full Monty and the lightweight and ever so dreary As Good As It Gets. Whilst the horrors of the Holocaust happened thousands of miles away the issues of slavery happened right on their own patch. Not only was Spielberg’s film largely underappreciated, it may have also have been largely unwanted.
Why should you watch it?
Amistad feels shockingly relevant today and more people need to see it. It could have done with focussing more on the back story of Cinque and his cohorts and it is all a bit too neat and tidy, but it is a subject matter that should not be undersold and should have been seared into the consciousness of the cinematic going public.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
I just know that every man I kill the farther away from home I feel.
After a busy yet somewhat underwhelming 1997, a year that saw the release of two films that were perfectly serviceable but somewhat nondescript, Spielberg returned to a familiar subject for his next Cinematic release, World War 2.
Saving Private Ryan is the story of a battalion of American soldiers who are tasked with a mission to find a paratrooper whose three brothers had all been killed in action. This simple premise is all the set up that you need as you get launched straight into the middle of a blistering attack on the senses. For anyone who has not seen Saving Private Ryan then it is worth noting that this film is not for the faint of heart, with Spielberg at his brutal visceral best that will leave the audience trying to contain themselves through some of the most realistic depictions of warfare captured on film.
Most people familiar with the film will talk about the Omaha Beach landing scene which dominates the first 25 minutes. There is very little that I can add that has not already been written about this opening battle in the last 20 years other than to say I can distinctly remember that in a scene that is so loud and unflinching in its ferocity, there was unadulterated silence in the cinema as it unfolded in front of us. Myself and the friends I was with were numbed to our seats as the horror and emotion engulfed us.
As was often the way back then, my cinema-going friends and I would go for dinner and possibly a few beers before catching the late night movie and I remember this was one such occasion. So we were probably in quite high spirits as we sat through the trailers and the excitement began to build as we waited for the latest Spielberg epic to begin. That first 25 minutes was the most sobering experience I had ever had with a piece of Cinema. This wasn’t the place to give that knowing elbow to the friend on the right of you, you know the one where 20 minutes into a film, you give them a nudge that is the universally recognised body signal that this film is great. No, we sat, staring at what was happening. Then the reality hit home, and in retrospect, this was part of the Spielberg genius, the reality hit home that this was the reenactment of a real event. However it was more than that, the realisation hit that these were not trained soldiers, these were normal men sent to do an extraordinary and inexplicable thing, these were your local teacher, your baker, your local store owner…………your grandfathers. None of these men had signed up for this but here they were making the ultimate sacrifice to allow us to lead the lives we now do, allow me even to write this. This is the genius of Spielberg, it’s just a film but it feels so real. Before the Germans even fire a single bullet there is a brief scene aboard the approaching boats to Omaha, where Spielberg shows a couple of extras huddling beneath the decks, with looks of abject terror on their faces…………these are not soldiers…………these are ordinary, petrified men who are quite literally moments away from going through hell.
It is easy to dismiss, and many have tried over the past 20 years, Saving Private Ryan as just being 25 minutes of brilliance and then two and half hours of trudging. I’m here to reaffirm that they are truly wrong. I will talk about the closing battle, protecting the town of Ramelle shortly but before we get to that there is plenty going on to ensure that this film is not just a one-act special.
The Jackson vs clocktower sniper had Spielberg at his most imaginative and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski at his most searing. This is followed by an attempt to capture a German machine gun post that goes horrifically and tragically wrong. It is here that the often overlooked character development of the film. The fall out from the failed machine gun capture sees the squad slowly begin to turn on each other and dissolve as a coherent unit. They are pulled back together by Captain John Miller played by Tom Hanks who was making his debut in a Spielberg film. Hanks was at the time the most bankable leading man in Hollywood, having secured two best actor Oscars in the previous 4 years and countless box office smashes. He was the quintessential Spielberg leading man, an everyday man put in the most extraordinary situations. The Spielberg/Hanks working relationship is still going strong two decades later.
I made ‘Saving Private Ryan’ for my father. He’s the one who filled my head with war stories when I was growing up (5)
Hanks gives an exceptional performance, he is the glue that is holding the whole hellish world together. He is joined by a superb cast who are all at the top of their game, especially Tom Sizemore who plays the robust but curmudgeon Sgt Horvath and Giovanni Ribisi who plays the sensitive medic, Wade. There are also early career performances from Vin Diesel and Matt Damon. However, the stand out for me of the supporting cast is Jeremy Davies who plays bookish interpreter Upham. He shines the brightest in a cast that rarely puts a foot wrong.
So onto the climactic battle protecting the town of Ramelle. Once again there is a bombardment of the senses, however, unlike Omaha, this is a slow build. Reminiscent of the T-Rex attack in Jurassic Park where we hear the impending doom before we see it, here Spielberg employs the power of rumbling sound to tap into the nerves of the soldiers and the audience. We hear the German tanks for a full 2 minutes before we see it, once the tank arrives we are back into the inferno of the hell of the Omaha beach, only this time in a more claustrophobic, rubble piled setting. Some of the violence in the Ramelle battle is more distressing for the audience, at this point we have invested two and half hours in getting to know these men, these heroes, we want to see them survive. But in a war there is no fairytale script, a particularly harrowing knife fight ends in agonising slow motion as one combatant finally gets the upper hand after an exhaustive struggle. The battle of Ramelle in my mind is equally as effective as the Omaha Beach landing and further shows that Saving Private Ryan is not just the sum of its opening 25-minute salvo.
Criticism labeled at the film was that it was too American, that once again America thinks it won the war on its own. I’m pretty sure that no one wins the war in this film, and besides anyone who watched any of the British war films of the 1950s would be led to believe that not only did Britain win the war on their own but they were the only ones in it.
Saving Private Ryan’s success and enduring longevity is testament alone to the legacy that the film has. It was Best Director Oscar number two for Spielberg, whereas the Best Picture award bizarrely went elsewhere. Those who watched the Academy Awards that year will probably never forget the look on Harrison Ford’s face as he read out the name Shakespeare in Love.
Why should you watch it?
Because it is so much more than just the opening 25 minutes. The character development and notion of brotherhood between the main protagonists is one of Spielberg’s finest depictions of togetherness and bonding. As viscerally blinding as this film is, at the heart of it is a truly human story.
As the 1990s came to a close, Spielberg had visually matured as a filmmaker. He had finally been accepted by his peers, with critical acclaim for two of the most groundbreaking depictions of World War, whilst still demonstrating a flair for the fantasy and wonder with Jurassic Park.
Spielberg would move into the 21st Century once again at the top of his game. As the world became used to life after 9/11, Spielberg would start to explore darker issues, the fluffy friendly family fodder would become few and far between, things were about to get creatively very interesting.