How Effectively Does The Opening Sequence Of Saving Private Ryan Convey The Sadness And Horror Of War

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“Saving Private Ryan” first wowed audiences and critics alike when it was released by Steven Spielberg in 1998. It was watched by millions worldwide and won 5 Oscars including best director. SPR was not your average war film. Most war films prior to SPR were much less shocking; they dealt with heroism and patriotism, not the grizzly reality of war; there was very little actual death. SPR is a stark contrast to these action-adventure type films. From the opening scene you are stunned by the gritty nature of the film: innocent soldiers are ripped apart by bullets and the death count is constantly rising. Did Spielberg achieve his aim of complete emulation of war? Or did he end up with just another action-adventure film like so many others?

The first scene really hits home the horrors of war. A mass grave in France is the setting; there are countless numbers of white crosses, each symbolizing a death caused by the war. The viewer is shocked by this as they are not expecting such tragedy so early in the film. This is also true of the second scene. All the crosses are in a perfect line, uniform and pure white, this is a huge dissimilarity to the reality of war. It all looks very peaceful. This contrast is highlighted in the next scene.
One word that could be used to describe the second scene is: hell. The boats the soldiers arrive on are dull and create an air of foreboding, almost like a purgatory for the hell that awaits them. As soon as the doors open you see this hell: a dark, desolate seascape filled with jagged metal crosses. Bullets rain down creating a real atmosphere as sand and blood flies everywhere blocking soldiers’ vision and ultimately killing them. The grey bunkers that the bullets rain down from are like the devil’s henchmen punishing the sinners. These crosses could be compared to the crosses In the first scene, like a warped, evil version of them that can lead to the comparison of the first scene and heaven; this is effective at showing the sadness and horror of war as it contrasts with the hellish second scene.

Ryan appears as a normal looking old man in the first scene, but his face is filled with emotion. You can really tell he cares about where he is going. He walks calmly but is clearly filled with anticipation; this is shown by the way he stops for a moment to look over the cemetery. His mouth is open, aghast as though he is breathing deeply to get to grips with what he is seeing. All this shows that this place is deeply important to him. It means so much to him that he breaks down eventually at the heart of the cemetery. At the end of the first scene the camera zooms onto his face and you can see that his eyes are the same colour as the sea. This shows that the next scene is his memory and it’s coming from him because in the next scene the first shot is of the sea.
In the next scene Miller is a relatively young man but has a similar look of anticipation to Ryan but Miller has a look of fear as well, you see his hand shaking which also gets across this terror of the conflict to come. Other soldiers on the boats look equally scared: a couple of them vomit which shows just how terrified they are. The soldier driving the boat shouts “God be with ya!” to the rest of the soldiers showing that he knows that they all have a bleak future ahead of them. Such bleakness would make the audience feel similar feelings as the soldiers of ominousness. This theme of the soldiers turning to God continues after this when one soldier crosses himself and another kisses a cross that he is carrying around his neck. These actions show that they think that only the most powerful entity in the universe could help them now. They react to being sprayed with water, possibly from a bomb in the water, with grim faces of foreboding and rightfully so because most of them are just seconds away from death. Just as we are given a moment to get to know these soldiers slightly, most of them are killed as the gates open and the bullets tear them apart making the audience feel gloomy and shocked at the lack of hope in the film.

Music in scene one is subtle and slowly becomes more prominent as the scene goes on. At first the only instruments used are brass instruments, played relatively quietly but getting slowly louder. They depict the emotion that Ryan is feeling, when he sees the cemetery he becomes more emotional and as a result the music gets louder and as he walks in violins are slowly introduced. As he sees more and more of these crosses his emotion increases and once again the music gets louder and more dramatic. Then as his emotion spikes and he breaks down the music lowers and evolves to becoming more patriotic as you are shown the hundreds of rows of crosses, all people who sacrificed themselves in the name of their country.

Sound effects are used very effectively to convey the horror of war in the second scene. Firstly the viewer hears the sound of the sea washing in and out in the first scene as you look into Ryan’s sea-coloured eyes and that connects the first and second scenes. One of the first sound effects you hear in scene two is that of the boat engine; it is a constant, droning sound which is not dissimilar to the constant droning of machine gun fire that starts as soon as the boat engine finishes. That makes the boat engine a bit like a premonition of horrors to come. When the soldiers jump into the water it is almost silent with just the noise of the water washing in and out; this creates a contrast to the awful noises of bullets hitting metal and flesh, explosions, the boat engine and the sound of the machine guns firing. The unexpected serenity lures the viewers into a false sense of security which makes the sadness and horror of war all the more apparent when you are thrown back into the battle. When you hear the ambient noises of screaming, shouting, shooting and crying from the soldiers’ point of view it feels almost as though you’re genuinely being shot at. When Miller partially loses his hearing the same effect as before when the soldiers dived into the water is created and once again they are shocked when they are thrown back into action but in this instance his lack of hearing forces him to look upon the nightmarish sequence of events surrounding him. Though conventional the fake blood and gore that is added to the scene does help add atmosphere and shows the people get not only hurt at war but tortured horribly too. These horrors seem to rob him of the ability to lead his men for a short while but eventually he snaps back to reality and begins to lead his men again. Altogether the sound effects in this scene are a key part of conveying the horror of war.

Camera angles and shots can make the viewer feel many different feelings and emotions. In SPR they are used to express the sadness and horror of war. The very first shot is an up tilted close up of the USA flag which helps convey the patriotism that was involved with the loss of the lives of the deceased in the cemetery. This makes the audience feel saddened by the deaths but at the same time makes them feel admiration at the courageousness of the soldiers. Another shot that is used in the first scene is a tracking shot behind Ryan that makes us feel as we are walking as part of his entourage, this contributes to making us feel more strongly about Ryan. Later in the first scene the camera zooms into a close up on Ryan’s face that creates emotion and shows the connection between the second scene and him through the sea in his eyes, thus linking the two scenes.
Shots in the boats are mostly shot at head level to create the impression that we are one of the soldiers creating the same fear that the soldiers feel in the audience. Shots from the Germans’ point of view are shot close to the barrel of the gun, from a high angle denoting power and pan as the gun is aimed at soldiers. The theme of point of view shots from the soldiers’ point of view continues as we dive into the water with the soldiers and run up the beach. It makes the film feel authentic and is used to create the feeling that you are in the war and increase overall realism in the film because is shot in an amateur-like way further making the scene feel as though it was shot by a participant of the war. When Ryan falls to the ground they show low angle shots from his point of view of the chaos all around him. Overall camera angles are used to make the viewer feel like a soldier in order to effectively show the horror of war while also conveying the sense of chaos and of horrors upon horrors succeeding each other too fast for us to fully comprehend.

In the first scene the editing is fairly slow and creates a mournful mood by moving the camera slowly around. Editing in the second scene is at a much faster pace to match the pace of the battle; All the soldiers are fighting for their lives, they’re in danger unless they move fast and the fast paced splicing of this scene helps show the viewer that.

To conclude I think that despite the conventional, ordinary nature of the film in some aspects such as intense fighting and blood and gore, the film is truly ground-breaking because it causes us to re-evaluate war like no film prior to this has done so well. It shows us the true horror and sadness of war and makes us think: “Are all these brave people’s lives really worth sacrificing over a petty argument?” When such pure horror and sadness is shown to us nothing seems worth that suffering, so is war worth it? This film at least makes us think: “No”. Sadness is shown in the first scene when you are shown all those people’s lives that have been taken by the war and horror is shown by the second scene when you see how much pain these people went through when they died, how much horror and fear they had to endure while/when they died. Personally this film has re-affirmed my view of war: That it is pointless and causes unnecessary pain and toil and I hope it helps get this view across to others so that maybe we can try and settle things a bit more intelligently rather than just brutally attacking each other. So for those reasons, I believe Spielberg did achieve his aim of creating a completely realistic war film and not just a film about how brave Americans win the war and kill all the bad guys.

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