Saving Private Ryan

by KE Monahan Huntley

Saving Private Ryan, screenplay (principally) by Robert Rodat, directed by Steven Spielberg, is an epic WWII film without a Dramatica grand argument story. It contains an objective story throughline and an implied main character, stoic protagonist Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks). Unfortunately, like the eight American soldiers under his command, we are not allowed into his heart enough to become emotionally attached-essential for audience identification with the main character. We can see attempts to control his anguish manifested in his shaking hands (which looks a bit obvious) and we do observe a (silent) gut wrenching sobbing jag--but we are watching him--we are not the man in uniform.

Problematic as well is midway through the film, Miller allows to his men the war has changed him--he just wants to complete the mission and earn the right to go home. This admission is confusing--does it mean he has lost the altruism evidenced so far? Should we look for a change to his change, or will he remain steadfast to his new view?

There is no readily apparent influence character to aid in defining the main character's drive. A potential influence character is Corporal Upham, idealistic and untried, he may represent the innocent English Composition schoolteacher Miller was back at home. Another is Private Ryan himself--the symbol of a mother's sacrifice. (Note--one ever mentions missing his father.) Neither soldier impacts Miller to the point of testing his resolve. Upham does not interact on a consistent basis with Miller--Ryan is more concept than character. Without clearly developed main and influence character throughlines, a passionate relationship (relationship story) cannot be explored.

Explicit is the objective story: "The mission (os domain-physics) is a man" (story goal-obtaining)--saving Private James Francis Ryan. Three enlisted Ryan boys are dead within days of each other--as some consolation the youngest son is to return home. Capt. Miller, late of the harrowing Omaha Beach invasion, is under orders to search for the soldier. Gearing up and falling in, his recalcitrant Army Rangers are resentful of putting their lives on the enemy line for an effort they do not believe has anything to do with winning the war.

The company manages to find him despite bloody skirmishes, mutinous infighting, the wrong Pvt. Ryan, two of their own killed, and a POW. Pvt. Ryan, however, refuses to go. A member of a depleted platoon, he is guarding a bridge key to the War strategy--moreover, the dogface adamantly wants to remain with his soldier "brothers." Violating the story limit's (optionlock) criteria, Capt. Miller and his men decide to stay. More spectacularly choreographed carnage ensues. The battle over, Capt. Miller commands Pvt. Ryan to "Now earn it."

This is the point where Spielberg loses me. With those dying words, Capt. Miller has effectively granted a lifetime of guilt to Private James Francis Ryan. What does he owe? Had he not been doing his patriotic duty when they found him? Did he not refuse a free ticket home? Did he not choose to remain and fight? Present day James Ryan (outcome-success), a symbol of all WWII valiant veterans--having bought into this guilt--turns to his wife to ask if indeed he had fulfilled his Captain's last order.

The battle scenes are stunning--metallic in color, metallic in taste of blood. Stark enactments of deliberate mutilation and random dismemberment depict the too numerous lives that are horribly wasted. "War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing." If this is Spielberg's warning strike for future revolutions--he certainly succeeds on a visual level that is breathtaking. Saving Private Ryan pummels us with images of brutality, God, and the American Flag--and as such, without Dramatica's four perspectives necessary to give the story a context that will resonate--it delivers a message mixed up almost beyond all recognition.

About the Author

KE Monahan Huntley is an editor and publisher based in Southern California. As one of the original contributors to Dramatica, she helped edit and analyze many of the examples. In addition, her numerous articles provided an insightful "conversational" approach to the theory. Today she can be found at Write Between the Lines or follow her on Twitter @kemhuntley.

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