Not long after Saving Private Ryan came out, the buzz had it that, had nothing but a two-hour blank screen followed its opening sequence depicting the Omaha Beach assault of June 6, 1944, Steven Spielberg would still win an Oscar. The genre of war movies, which goes almost as far back as the medium of cinema itself, falls into periodic exhaustion, but the director of blockbusters like Jaws and E.T. had managed to revitalize it. How did he and his collaborators pull it off, starting with the harrowing World War II battle scene to end all harrowing World War II battle scenes?
Spielberg and company faced one challenge above all others: “the sequence had to be chaotic and coherent at the same time,” says video essayist Evan Puschak, better known as the Nerdwriter, in his examination of Saving Private Ryan‘s first 28 minutes. All battle scenes try, in one way or another and to varying degrees of success, to depict the near-incomprehensible unpredictability and violence of military combat in a comprehensible manner, but this one accomplishes that goal to an extent many astonished viewers may never have thought possible.
A dozen years earlier, Tony Scott’s Top Gun did something similar with its unusually non-disorienting depiction of aerial dogfighting, but no two films could have a more different attitude to war itself. In Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg set the glory to one side and showed all the (often literally) gory details that even avid viewers of World War II movies don’t usually see. Borrowing the visual style from the historical newsreel footage shot on the ground at Omaha Beach and elsewhere, Spielberg also deliberately fills every frame with as much detail of the action as possible, which those real-life cameramen had to shoot on the fly.
“The Omaha Beach scene might seem like the craziest, fastest, most intense scene in all of film,” says Puschak, but he calculates an “incredibly high” average shot length of 7.2 seconds. Instead of cutting, cutting, and cutting some more, Spielberg uses his signature purposeful camera movement and (relatively) long takes to place, and keep, the viewer in the midst of this harrowing event. The scene came out feeling so real that it actually triggered post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in some of the veterans who went to see it — surely not Spielberg’s intention, but proof positive of his ability to “capture chaos with clarity.”
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.