COMMENTARY: Saving Private Ryan and the pornography of violence

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c. 1998 Religion News Service

UNDATED _ Like”Titanic,”its predecessor as most talked-about movie of the year, Stephen Spielberg’s”Saving Private Ryan”merchandises violence.”Titanic”entertained us with the death of 1,500 hundred people.”Private Ryan”captivates us with the bloody, brutal horror of war, more realistically presented than ever before. It appeals to our tendencies to voyeurism, and if violence can be pornographic, then the first half-hour of”Private Ryan”is pornographic. That, of course, will not prevent it from winning the Academy Award.

The film, say the reviewers, is unlike all previous war films because it is a realistic depiction of the horrors of war. Perhaps the Omaha Beach sequence is realistic. Those that were there apparently think so.

The rest of the story, however, is either hokey, as in the search for Private Ryan, or trite, as in its final battle scenes.

How many times have we seen the outnumbered”good guys”(Americans, cowboys, etc.) hold off the”bad guys”(Germans, Native Americans) until the very last seconds? How often have the cavalry (armored or horse-borne) shown up just in the nick of time to save the day?”Private Ryan,”we are told, is a tribute to the men who fought in World War II. Does it earn them a respect previously denied? In fact, the veterans of that war were hailed for decades until their children _ the generation of the 1960s _ repudiated them in the face of the Vietnam war.

All veterans are eventually forgotten. Should we now have films showing the heroism of the Spanish American war?

Others argue the film is an anti-war film. It will help turn Americans against future wars. Will it really? Thirty-five years after the bloodbaths of Bull Run and Gettysburg, Americans were fighting a similarly foolish and bloody battle on San Juan Hill. Twenty years later came Belleau Wood and 25 years later they were in the Hurtgen Forest. Then, eight years later they were fighting at Hamburger Hill and 16 years after that they were resisting the Tet offensive.

None of these horrors prevented us as a nation from enthusing over the Persian Gulf War.

Almost every generation of Americans has had its own war. Many men in each of those generations went through the real, as opposed to cinematic, version of Omaha Beach or Tarawa or Iwo Jima. Yet we as a people have very short memories of either the casualties _ over 1 million, dead or wounded in World War II _ or the grief of the survivors. A single movie, no matter how violent, will change that?

Kenneth Branagh, playing Henry V in the 1989 film version of Shakespeare’s play, walking through the field after the battle of Agincourt, is as effective an argument against war as is”Private Ryan,”though much less appealing to our voyeurism.

The conventions of most films in which there is killing are such that no normal person enjoys the pornography of death because we all know that it is make-believe, even the gruesome four hours of”Gettysburg.”The appeal of”Private Ryan”is that its”realism”is so persuasive we almost believe we are on Omaha Beach. The bloody deaths no longer seem make-believe.

Spielberg and his colleagues have worked a brilliant tour de force in creating this illusion. However, the only purpose of the illusion is entertainment. Moreover, while the illusion is powerful, we are not in fact on Omaha Beach. It’s still all make-believe.

Why make it so gruesome then? For what other reason than to entertain? But weren’t there gruesome deaths in the great Greek tragedies? Yes.


Do those of us who have never been in combat, and have never read the books by those who have, really need to know how ugly it was? Can we not use our imaginations? If you weren’t on Omaha Beach, will”Saving Private Ryan,”for all its blood and gore, help you to know what it was”really like”to be there? How can it, when in fact, you are not on the beach, but rather sitting comfortably in an air-conditioned theater chomping on popcorn and slurping Pepsi?

Is not then the violence in”Private Ryan”as gratuitous as the violence in the typical gangster film? Are not the justifications little more than rationalizations for titillating audiences grown weary of small time and, by comparison, blood and gore films like”L.A. Confidential?” Could Spielberg have done a powerful film about D-Day with a minimum of violence? Surely he could. He might begin by reading, or re-reading, Aeschylus.


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