A reflection on Saving Private Ryan (and an attempt to save my own sentimentality)

I’ve noticed that I’ve been quite repetitive with my analyses; I had always tackled the philosophical implications of the work I critiqued with my own existentialist lens, but never took the work for its other aspects. How was it made? Did it bring anything new to the filming industry? Did it have some sort of cultural impact? So like an old star trying to jumpstart a dying career, I will try something different—a critique that deals with the work as it is. And quite on time too; it’s the last critique I’m writing, so I might as well ‘go out with a bang’. Please pardon the cliché despite the fact that it shows how much of a bad writer I am.

Anyway, we’ll be talking about a movie that brought a little something-something to its field on the time it was released. By now, the Second World War had probably become the most ubiquitous war in contemporary media next to the Vietnam War. There’s no shortage of seeing burly American soldiers on TV and film taking down fascist Nazis or imperialist Japs with 1,000 pounds of Freedom. But has anybody imagined a time that it wasn’t so? Maybe it’s hard to do so; I wouldn’t be surprised. Almost every one of us has grown up knowing that there was this big war that started when some hothead with a toothbrush mustache took over Europe and ended when Japan grew mushrooms the size of skyscrapers. It’s safe to say that we learned it all from TV and movies.

So I guess I should say that you’re probably an alien, a time lord, some sort of Morlock or a combination of all three if you haven’t watched Saving Private Ryan.

For now, I want to talk about how certain scenes from that movie appeared in some media (mostly video games), and how they had shaped my consciousness about the War itself, despite it being in Europe and nowhere near the Pacific. No structures, no philosophical dialectic, just random rambling a la French New Wave. Is that good? All right, let’s get started.

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I remember the first World War II movie I watched being Ryan, in a World War II marathon along with Enemy at the Gates and Pearl Harbor. I can still see myself staring hard at how German machine gunners mowed down those soldiers as they hopped off their Higgins boat, amazed at how humans were so capable of such elegant cruelty. Besides from ogling those hot nurses in Pearl, the Omaha beach landing was the starkest memory I had of World War II from my childhood. That Omaha beach landing (actually in Curracloe Beach, Ireland; not Normandy, but eh, who cares) would go on being repeatedly referenced in a lot of World War 2 media, especially video games. Medal of Honor: Allied Assault seemed to have copied the whole sequence so perfectly that I wonder if Spielberg sued Electronic Arts at some point. I even remember a part where you’ll hide in the corner of a bunker just like how Miller was while staring at the machine gun nest in the cliffs. Note that MoH: AA was also the first WW2 video game I played. In Call of Duty 2, an American mission has you landing on Omaha, but it mixes it up a bit by having you climb up cliffs instead. Still, it can’t help but shout out to Ryan so it treats you to a few minutes of watching your comrades die while shell-shocked.

It seems that in any sort of media, Omaha beach was this bloody place where lots of guys died (and that’s not really far from the truth. In fact, what happened in real life might have been a lot more brutal) with its statuesque bunkers. Even if other games mixed it up with cliffs or bunkers in cliffs, I can’t deny that it was Ryan that first showed me what Omaha beach was. I still couldn’t believe that such a place could exist, where so much suffering and dying could happen in a matter of minutes. Sometimes, I wonder whether those who survived the fighting have dreams—their personal hells. That foxhole blown out by artillery or the sandbar they had to hug to avoid machine gun fire, that one place under the tank barriers, all while calling out for their mothers. And they were all my age. I considered myself lucky that I wasn’t around to get drafted; see it for myself.

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Another scene I remember was when Miller had his squad attack the hill hiding a German machine gunner. That hill is in Call of Duty 2, and your task is to defend it until P-88 warplanes come to the rescue (yet another Ryan reference; P-88s also arrive at Ramelle. One CoD2 character even calls them ‘Angels’ just like in the movie). It is such a strange-looking hill—a mound of dirt with a rectangular tennis racket or Wendy’s burger spatula or Flyswatter on top of it. When I first saw it, I assumed it was how Nazis took down airplanes; the ‘swatter’ would rise up from the ground and swat the plane off from the sky. Well, I was half-correct; I eventually found out that it was a radar station that looked for airplanes to get shot down. It wasn’t the actual thing that did the dirty job (Germans had Flak 88s for that), but it did help. I was just surprised to see such a strange building exist. Living in the Philippines and having seen nothing but the Post-Modern Hispanic-American Vomit that is common house architecture here, the bunker with its Wendy’s Spatula surprised me. Such a structure, and they built it just to detect planes on the while knowing that it will get destroyed somehow. The war must have been so important that people were willing to create such strange places. In the Philippines, such a place wouldn’t exist (if one did, I haven’t seen it yet), and people would still make hollow-block based houses and Nipa huts.

In some strange way, that bunker showed me how things could actually be different in the world, not in just terms of architecture but also other disciplines. A design like that reflects the designer, and the designer’s mind reflects those of the nation (not state, but nation as in race) he or she belongs to. Ergo, if the Germans were so utilitarian with their bunker designs, that must’ve meant that they were quite pragmatic people (despite the fact that pragmatism was an American concept). If they were so pragmatic, that would bring on a whole plethora of assumptions: did Germans tend to think of what is important over what is right? Were Germans serious, no-nonsense people you had to get straight to the point with like Americans or Japanese? Did the Germans value the quality of their work (because the bunker was still bombed out but it had to be captured because it was still operational regardless)? Basing on the principle that achievements are the reflection of a person’s inherent personality, looking at a building tells you a lot about people (read: assumptions), and gives you a bird’s-eye view of how they think and act. At least, it’s something to refer to if there’s nothing else.

A strange article, this one was. Writing this now made me realize that I could have made this into another philosophical treatise, especially since it’s still two weeks before my deadline anyway. Still, I figured that these thoughts should be talked about somehow, as I think it’s trying to say something about a way of thinking that is quite ubiquitous in people. Would be it sentimentality? Maybe, but the definition is a little off; it has to be a little more noble.

into another philosophical treatise, especially since it’s still two weeks before my deadline anyway. Still, I figured that these thoughts should be talked about somehow, as I think it’s trying to say something about a way of thinking that is quite ubiquitous in people. Would be it sentimentality? Maybe, but the definition is a little off; it has to be a little more noble.

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