Today marks the 71st Anniversary of the Normandy Landings on D-Day. As the day winds down I thought it best to share one of my favorite scenes from a film that tried to capture the chaos and death of the fateful day on June 6, 1944. The film in question is Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. This is the film which won him his second Best Director Oscar (I still think the film should’ve won Best Picture over Shakespeare In Love) and the film which helped redefine not just how war films were shot from 1998 on, but also de-glorify World War II on film.
This scene showed the opening moments of the D-Day Landings on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. It’s a scene that’s over 22-minutes in length and shows the utter chaos and destruction heaped on American troops as they attempted to land on the beach to take their objectives. While there have been war film before Saving Private Ryan that depicted war as the hell it truly is they were mostly about the Vietnam War. Rarely did we ever get a World War II-based war film which showed war in realistic fashion. Spielberg broke that taboo by making the battle scenes in his film — especially this extended opening sequence — done as realistic as possible without actually having people killed for real on-screen.
When this film first came out in the summer of 1998 no one knew what to make of it. This opening sequence became the talk of everyone who went to see the film. To say that they were shocked by what they saw was an understatement. Even now with over a decade since the film was released and people having seen this scene over and over again it still retain it’s impact. It’s not even the grand scale of the production required to film this action sequence which made this scene so memorable. It were the little things. Like a mortally wounded American GI crying out to his mother while trying to keep his blown out insides from spilling out. Then there’s the scene of another young soldier praying furiously with his rosary beads as men around him die by the score.
This scene also showed what most World War II films of the past failed to do. It showed both sides behaving barbarically. In the past, only the Germans were shown in a bad light. In Saving Private Ryan, we see that American soldiers were also prone at shooting surrendering troops and/or not mercy-killing enemy soldiers being burned alive (actions that have been well-documented by historians). This scene also showed just how courageous the young men of this generation which Tom Brokaw has called “The Greatest Generation”. Men who went off to war not for material gains, but for an idea that they had to stop evil (Nazi and Hitler) from taking all of Europe and, maybe, the world itself.
There’s a reason why Saving Private Ryan is in my list for greatest films of all-time and why this scene remains one of my all-time favorites.