Deconstructing Saving Private Ryan’s Epic Opening Battle Scene: How Spielberg Captures Chaos with Clarity

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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Great “Fil­mu­men­taries” Take You Inside the Mak­ing of Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark & Jaws

Shot-By-Shot Break­downs of Spielberg’s Film­mak­ing in Jaws, Scorsese’s in Cape Fear, and De Palma’s in The Untouch­ables

Learn the Ele­ments of Cin­e­ma: Spielberg’s Long Takes, Scorsese’s Silence & Michael Bay’s Shots

Res­ur­rect­ing the Sounds of Abra­ham Lin­coln in Steven Spielberg’s New Biopic

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.

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Comments (3)
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  • H. Douglas Stead says:

    This is one of the the most inter­est­ing sto­ry about a war move I have ever read. It has lead me to won­der the pro and cons of such clar­i­ty.

    With VR tech­nol­o­gy get­ting bet­ter and bet­ter, some­time soon, Sav­ing Pri­vate’s depic­tion of wars real­i­ty will like­ly be con­sid­ered soft-core. ​I am inter­est­ed in your think­ing on this and par­tic­u­lar­ly the ques­tion of show­ing wars real­i­ty as close as being there, is or will be a good in terms of soci­eties lead­ers and future spend­ing of sol­diers lives to find solu­tions to prob­lems. Par­tic­u­lar­ly con­sid­er­ing today’s real­i­ty of North Korea and the Mid East.

  • Chase McKenna says:

    How many men do we see die in the open­ing scene?

  • Martin says:

    Only rea­son why the Kraut army did­n’t mur­der more Allied sol­diers on the first day of the Nor­mandy inva­sion was that they sim­ply ran out of ammo. The stategedy after was to draw the Allies fur­ther inland into an almighty artillery, tank trap. Ver­ri­eres Ridge for exam­ple?

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