Brothers in arms

 

Stephen Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, just released in the US to a storm of approval, is the second World War movie shorn of cliche, banter and wisecrack. It's nothing but brutality, death and crushing nihilism, undercut by a grim, if futile, sense of duty.

"Everything you see might be over the top in graphic honesty," Spielberg said last week of his film that follows eight soldiers (led by Tom Hanks) on a mission to pluck a young soldier (Matt Damon) from battle to spare his mother further heartbreak after losing three of her four children in the space of a week. "But I still pull back from what I was told really happened," he added.

The story is fictional, but it closely parallels what happened to the late Sergeant Frederick "Fritz" Niland, of the 101st Airborne, who was recalled from France in 1944 after his three brothers were reported missing, presumed dead.

Whatever they say about Spielberg, nobody will ever call him inauthentic again. Any such suggestion will probably stop cold two minutes 13 seconds into Saving Private Ryan, when the first GI runs screaming up the beach holding his arm in one hand.

For Spielberg, the change began with The Color Purple, transmogrified into something even more mature in Schindler's List, and backslid heroically in Amistad. And now here it is in full bloom in Saving Private Ryan: the voice of a man.

"Now that I have seven kids (from two marriages), I feel the need to leave behind something for them to see and hear," says Spielberg. "I'm growing up and I have no control over it. My impulses are somewhere else now.

"Right now, I don't miss the other (more innocent) movies. But you have no idea how much heat I get from people who just want me to go on making E.T. over and over again."

Spielberg came to the second World War the way so many of his generation did: on his belly. That is, lying in the TV room of his house in Phoenix, where he was raised, and watching the classic gung-ho epics of what in his youth was simply called the War.

Bataan, Back To Bataan, Objective Burma, The Story of G.I. Joe, Battleground - all of them.

"I sometimes feel as if I've seen every war movie ever made," he says.

Of the hundreds he saw (many of which he saw again, in preparation for Private Ryan) he names only four that stand out: Battleground, They Were Expendable, All Quiet On The Western Front and A Walk In The Sun, three of which were directed by Lewis Milestone and one (Expendable) by John Ford.

But he knew that no matter how good they could be, the Hollywood movies weren't where he was going. He was going somewhere else.

"When people see World War II movies, they expect to be entertained. If they see a Vietnam movie, they expect to be shocked. But World War II has become fun: They want a big action-adventure. But it wasn't an adventure. It was a war. That's what I wanted to get at: what it was like to be under fire.

"A lot of soldiers described to me in vivid ways what it's like when people are shooting at you. I knew if I filmed it, it should be like nothing I'd ever seen before."

His quest for authenticity went in unusual directions: he worked hard, for example, to find actors whose faces were more like the faces of the 1940s than the faces of the 1990s.

"Kids in 1940 looked different. You can see it in the pictures from the war. They were closer to their immigrant roots. I went for faces that were like the faces I'd seen in the documentaries, such as Eddie Burns (who plays a Browning Automatic Rifleman in the film). He had the quintessential 1940s face. For some reason, there was a more manly bone structure in the faces of that time. Look at Cary Grant; you can't find faces like that anymore."

The film stars Tom Hanks and Matt Damon.

And in his re-creation of war, Spielberg has controversially put on film a record of the impact of high-velocity bullets and high-explosive shells on human flesh. Saving Private Ryan is probably the goriest war film ever made.

"I wanted to show the war not from my, you know, `rich and famous' point of view, but from the dogface's point of view. The vets I talked to all said the same thing: Tell what happened. Nobody has ever told what happened before."

He recalls: "When it was over, I was exhilarated but I was also ashamed of my exhilaration. It should have made me morose and a heavy drinker. But it was like a shell-shocked hysteria. That might not have been the politically correct way to feel, but that's how we felt."