At the end of Saving Private Ryan (1998, dir. Steven Spielberg), a German Tiger I tank rolls into the ruins of Ramelle, a small French village along the Merderet river. The Americans have been waiting for this moment. Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) has prepared an ambush for the forthcoming Wehrmacht Panzer division: snipers are staged in a bell tower, soldiers are hidden with grenades behind rubble, buildings are occupied and explosives are armed at a nearby bridge. Everything is set. Once that Tiger makes it far enough into town that it can’t turn back, the slaughter starts.
Fire rains down onto the streets, explosives destroy treads. The tank is trapped, then destroyed. This tiny Tom Hanks-led American force trounces the much larger and better-armed Panzer division in an epic climactic battle, a classic of Spielberg cinema.
In this sequence, the costumes are perfect. The weapons are period correct. The Tiger looks like it might even be real. But make no mistake: the end of Saving Private Ryan is the World War II action equivalent of Daenerys Targaryen’s leather dress, and, in effect, is much more troublesome.
Since the days of Stagecoach (1939, dir. John Ford), Hollywood has struggled to depict its protagonists’ adversaries are anything more than fodder. Apache raiders and Wehrmacht soldiers throw themselves into the meatgrinder of Tom Hanks and John Wayne; they carry no concerns for their own safety, only a primal urge to let themselves be killed.
Real people do not behave this way.
But often in cinema, especially in war movies, the enemy are not treated like real people. In Saving Private Ryan, the Germans are more like Nazi zombies than intelligent soldiers. They have no agency in the narrative whatsoever. They are slaves to our desire for patriotic bloodshed.
Should the troublesome viewer think even momentarily about the Battle of Ramelle, he may consider the strengths that a tank has over infantry. He may realize that a tank’s defining characteristic is its enormous cannon, and that a cannon’s defining characteristic is its ability to blow things up—like, for example, highly exposed snipers in a bell tower. If he’s particularly wise he may even realize that the treads of a tank do, in fact, reverse, and that he might be better off leaving the site of his ambush and coming back later. Perhaps after having blown up the town’s remaining buildings from afar.
Instead the driver of the Tiger does nothing and lets himself die. So does his infantry escort, who more or less kill themselves through ineptitude, delivering victory to the Americans.
I’ve previously argued that ahistorical elements in cinema can be used to create empathy with historical characters. Entirely disrespecting the agency of human characters––even if they’re Nazis––does the opposite. The Germans in this sequence do not seem real. This is distracting enough and (like Stagecoach) borderline racist. It’s as if to say that Americans have wants and desires but Germans are drones, little more than bugs à la Starship Troopers (1997, dir. Paul Verhoeven), good for nothing but being killed. This is bad enough when taken alone.
But the narrative implications are no less grave. The complete stupidity of the Tiger renders Tom Hanks’ victory hollow. The Americans haven’t won a battle through quick wit, against all odds. They’ve won because their adversaries are too stupid to live. That hardly fills the viewer with patriotic fervor. Nor does it illustrate the sacrifice of Hanks’ character. Defeating these “non-player characters,” to borrow video game jargon, is hardly worth celebrating—and by extension, neither is the war.
We celebrate our victory in World War II not because it was easy, but because it was hard. Because it required sacrifice. Because it was so important to do. Saving Private Ryan’s finale does as much as it possibly can to undermine that victory. Historical films thrive on empathy, but I cannot empathize with soldiers fighting fake Germans. The realism of this film adds nothing, because the human element is entirely neglected.
Stories are about people. It is the one quality all narratives shares. To tell compelling stories, one must write compelling people. This does not only apply to good guys. A good story treats all villains, even the worst, as humans. This is important in all but the most stylized forms of cinema, but is vital in historical adaptations. Otherwise, what’s the point?