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Saving Private Ryan: 5 ways Steven Spielberg's masterpiece changed war movies forever


To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan is being re-released in Cineworld.

The devastating World War II drama focuses on a platoon of American soldiers who must venture behind enemy lines to recover one man who's missing in action. The film's uncompromising depiction of conflict, and excellent cast led by a note-perfect Tom Hanks, left audiences shattered and helped guide the movie to Oscar-winning success.

Before you book your tickets, join us as we look back at the monumental impact it had on all subsequent war movies.

1. The direction

Forgoing the slick, overtly Hollywood presentation of World War II as seen in earlier movies, Spielberg developed a new and, at the time, radically different aesthetic. His approach with Saving Private Ryan, particularly in the harrowing Omaha Beach landing sequence (shot in Ireland) that opens the film, was to treat everything as a war documentarian would.

For that reason, the desaturated colour palate (courtesy of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski) and darting, bobbing camerawork lends a sense of visceral horror and realism to the conflict. At the time of the film's release in 1998, no-one had seen a World War II movie treated with such immediacy or horrifying impact. It strips patriotism and glamour from the scene, the starkest possible reminder that there are no heroes in war, regardless of which side one is fighting for.

The approach was enormously influential – one need only look at the likes of Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, released in 2001, to see how the aesthetic of Saving Private Ryan redefined contemporary war cinema.

2. The sound design

The immersive reality of a war film owes at least 50% of its impact to an effective soundscape, and Saving Private Ryan's deservedly won an Oscar. Acclaimed sound designer Gary Rydstrom, a Hollywood veteran with the likes of Jurassic Park and Titanic under his belt, said "the battle scenes are shot from the shaky, glancing, and claustrophobic point of view of a soldier on the ground. There are no sweeping vistas, only the chaos of fighting as it is experienced. the sound for this movie... had to set the full stage of battle, while putting us squarely in the middle of it".

Away from the more immediate sounds of crushing artillery shells and whizzing bullets, the moments where the film reduces the sound design to a disorienting blur are chillingly effective. We see this at the very beginning as Hanks's Captain Miller lands dazed on the blood-soaked Omaha Beach – by reducing the aural chaos to a dull roar in conjunction with slo-mo visuals, Spielberg and Rydstrom brilliantly capture the stress and horror of the conflict. The exact same approach would be mirrored in the opening scene of Ridley Scott's Gladiator two years later.

3. The ensemble cast

While it revolutionised war movies, Saving Private Ryan's story very much belongs to a rich legacy of Hollywood film-making. The central conceit, that of a group of soldiers on a mission in Nazi-occupied territory, owes itself on some level to the likes of The Dirty Dozen, although the aesthetic of the two films couldn't be more different.

Where Ryan gets the edge, however, is in the sheer conviction of its performances. As the conflicted yet noble Captain Miller (actually a school teacher), Hanks scored another Oscar nomination and further distinguished himself from the manic comic performances that made up the early stage of his career. Miller's gradual unravelling over the course of the movie secured Hanks as one of modern film's great dramatists.

And the remainder of the ensemble is equally impressive, marshalling a diverse ensemble of character actors and then-upcoming young faces. Tom Sizemore, usually cast as gangsters and heavies, is sympathetic as Miller's close ally Sergeant Mike Horvath, Matt Damon makes a late impact as the eponymous Private James Ryan and Giovanni Ribisi steals the show as the haunted medic Irwin Wade. There's also a pre-fame Vin Diesel in there as Private Caparzo, who makes a strategic mistake and pays for it with his life.

This multi-stranded ensemble approach was later popularised in Spielberg and Hanks's acclaimed WWII series Band of Brothers, which set records in terms of its budget and awards success.

4. The score

The working relationship between Spielberg and composer John Williams is possibly the most feted in cinema history. Their collaboration stretches back to 1974's The Sugarland Express, and has encompassed the likes of Jaws, the Indiana Jones movies, E.T., Jurassic Park and Schindler's List.

It's the final movie on that list that best informs the tone of the Saving Private Ryan Score: a dignified and moving portrayal of humanity under great duress, as opposed to the rambunctious nature of many other Spielberg-Williams projects. Saving Private Ryan is spotted very carefully, spotting being the term that defines where a score enters and exists a scene. Williams agreed with Spielberg that the battle scenes should be left unscored to give a better sense of veracity, meaning his melancholy music only comes to the fore in the moments where our characters come to terms with the conflict.

Williams's music truly shines during the end credits in his concert arrangement of the 'Hymn to the Fallen' theme, a piece so overwhelmingly powerful that members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the Boston Symphony Orchestra were reportedly moved to tears when recording it. The sombre tone of the score avoids patriotic cliche while also setting a new template for war soundtracks: Michael Kamen's later work on Band of Brothers is very much influenced by Williams.

5. The tone

More than anything else, it is the synthesis of all the above elements that secures Saving Private Ryan as a masterpiece. For all the film's American-centric focus (which drew criticism in some quarters), the movie never pretends that conflict is a simplistic or glib business to be accompanied by bugle calls or flag waving.

The film's script, by Robert Rodat, is more layered than many remember – at one point, the squad's reluctant decision to release a German POW strikes a humane note, before they later face the ramifications of such a decision. Even the somewhat cliched wraparound structure in which an ageing Ryan reminisces on his wartime experiences is treated with understatement, capturing a sense of bravery without being queasy.

From the messiness and terror of its conflict scenes to its complex characters, its atypically subdued Williams score to its overwhelmingly realistic sound design, Saving Private Ryan was like nothing seen before. The movie went on to win five Oscars: Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing.

But the film's most important achievement resides in its compassionate salute to those who died on the fields and beaches of battle.

Click here to book your tickets for Saving Private Ryan, screening in Cineworld on 6th June to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings.