“Tiger stories start in tears and end in blood.” — Neil Gaiman, Anansi Boys
“Don’t pass up the chance to see it on the big screen, with big movie sound. A real slap in the brain pan.” — The Von Hoffman Bros. Big Damn Book of Sheer Manliness on “Apocalypse Now”
Hey, do you remember that weird, crazy time in American history when we were so utterly convinced that fascism is wrong, that we sent 9000 Americans to their graves (plus British, Canadian, Australian, and other allied troops — I don’t have the numbers for them) for the opportunity — not the probability or certainty, just the chance — to end fascism in Europe? Yeah, that happened 75 years ago, today (or tomorrow, but since it’s already tomorrow in Europe today, I guess it’s today). Crazy, huh?
As you might take away from the above quote, one of my minor (still unfulfilled) bucket list items is to see “Apocalypse Now” on the big screen. In the meantime, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings (I presume), the 1998 classic, Saving Private Ryan was given a limited theatrical rerelease. Since my new life philosophy is, “Don’t pass up a good opportunity now in hopes of a better one tomorrow,” I got a ticket.
I must say, of all the films I’ve seen, Saving Private Ryan is the one that is completely changed seeing it in a theater, as opposed to my home screen (unless your screen is 10 m high and has speakers that can stun a man at 20 paces). I’d agree with Nick Hodges’ analysis that the film is, taken on its own, a brilliant piece of subtly pro-war propaganda, because it overplays heroism and duty and downplays other, less glorified aspects of the war, like the massive atrocities committed by allied troops (this is what Howard Zinn thought of most historical analysis/writings on WWII). And I’d agree with that analysis, except it assumes Saving Private Ryan is a war movie.
It isn’t. It’s a horror movie.
Now that I’ve seen it in a theater, I honestly think this film has much more in common with Jaws than Band of Brothers. Think about it. The film starts with a dozen main characters, most of whom are mostly-unlikeable, then slowly fills in their individual back-stories while whittling them down, one unbelievably gruesome death at a time. Every single second of this film is drenched in terror, panic, grief, or suspense. Even the quiet scenes or ones showing people bonding and friendly are overshadowed by the audience’s knowledge of what happens to these characters (and if you can’t guess that based on the harrowing first twenty minutes, you’re probably someone that texts while driving). If that doesn’t sell you on this as a horror movie grafted on top of a war film, let me remind of you of the scene where Adam Goldberg is fist-fighting a Nazi in the background, while a tertiary character slowly chokes to death on their own blood in the fore-ground (not something you notice in your living room, surprisingly). For those of you wondering (about a 21-year-old film), Goldberg is then ever-so-slowly — almost gently — stabbed to death just a few minutes later while his comrade is paralyzed with fear just a few feet away. Again, these are the sort of details that you might miss if you see it on anything less than a massive, overwhelming screen.
The sound also needs to be discussed, because, unless you have speakers the size of a semi truck, you’ll likely miss that there is almost never a moment of absolute silence in the film. I’m not even describing the soundtrack, just the sounds by themselves. Like the characters, you hear many things/events in the film long before you see them or comprehend what you’re seeing. You wouldn’t think the sound of waves crashing could be construed as sinister, but, after hearing this film at 900 decibels (especially in the aftermath of the Normandy landings), you will.
Yeah, the film highlights Americans’ contribution to the European invasion and downplays collateral damage, but the sum total effect of the film isn’t the message of pride at sacrifice, or heroism, or the necessity of violence under the right circumstances — it’s enormous grief and anguish at such unbelievable human suffering and losses for such little gain or good. All of which does get lost if you aren’t sitting in front of an overwhelmingly large screen whilst being assaulted by weapons-grade John Williams.