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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  • 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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