William Goldman on Saving Private Ryan

William Goldman checked out.

The same guy who wrote All The President’s Men, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Marathon Man also wrote The Princess Bride. Any one of those films would have made him a legend, but he wrote all of them.

This is what he had to say on Saving Private Ryan excerpted from his book The Big Picture, Who Killed Hollywood. (spoilers, he didn’t like it).

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN

The bullshit started early with this baby. I remember these remarkable interviews being given on the talk shows during the standard pre-opening hype. Sort of like this:

RYAN HYPIST I have to tell you the most important thing of all.
GENERIC KATIE Please.
RYAN HYPIST (Pause) Well this movie, it's . . . UM . . . violent.
GENERIC KATIE (Nodding—fascinated) You mean . . . bloody?
RYAN HYPIST Oh yes, oh God yes, bloody, so much blood, people getting blown up, killed—I have to tell you all this Generic Katie because I would never want to mislead the audience: this movie is a blood bath. Just so your audience knows that before they go—this movie is filled with battle scenes and gore and explosions and young men dying.
GENERIC KATIE (moved) Thank you for being so . . . brave and honest with us. I know it must have been hard for you.

And I am staring at the tube thinking, what is everybody smoking? Let me put it another way. Let's say I am hyping a re-make of How To Marry A Millionaire. But instead of a frothy comedy with Bacall and Grable and Monroe, I have made a hard R version. Starring Cameron Diaz and Heather Graham and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

MILLIONAIRE HYPIST I have to tell you the most important thing of all.
GENERIC KATIE Please.
MILLIONAIRE HYPIST (Pause) Well, this movie, it's .. . um . . . sexual.
GENERIC KATIE (nodding, fascinated) You mean .. . with nudity?
MILLIONAIRE HYPIST Oh yes, oh God yes, passion, so much nakedness, people having orgasms—I have to tell you all this Generic Katie because I would never want to mislead the audience: this movie is carnal. Just so your audience knows be¬fore they go—this movie is filled with rapes and lesbianism and nipples and young women screaming with sexual pleasure.
GENERIC KATIE (moved) Thank you so for being so . . . brave and honest with us. I know it must have been hard for you.

Sex and violence are the twin items Hollywood wants most desperately to sell these awful days. That's why the Ryan hype was so fraudulent. Here is the kind of brave and honest hype you will never live to see.

HYPIST I have to tell you the most important thing of all.
GENERIC KATIE Please.
HYPIST (Pause) Well this movie, it's . . . um . . . philosophical.
GENERIC KATIE (Nodding, fascinated) You mean . . . with talk?
HYPIST Oh, yes, oh God, yes, tons of conversation, all of it dealing with pain and suffering and how to live on earth without doing harm. I would never want to mislead your audience: This movie is intelligent. Just so your audience knows before they go—this movie is thought-provoking and deep and filled with the kind of wisdom we so need on earth these days.
GENERIC KATIE (To herself) Didn't believe one word.

Saving Private Ryan begins, as I'm sure everyone has told you, with an incredible battle sequence. Maybe that was true for them, but the version I saw sure began differently: a fifteen-second shot of Old Glory a-wavin' in the wind. With Copland-like music in the background. Even John Wayne would have been embarrassed to start a movie that way. Hearts and flowers, God bless America, all that awful stuff. Today, only the Farrellys could get away with something like that.

Then there follows a weird sequence which I have sub-titled "The Man With the Big-Boobed Girls." And I am not being facetious. This old guy lumbers around someplace, we don't know where, and behind him are a bunch of Norman Rockwell types, but all I can concentrate on are these big-boobed girls who are tagging along. Then we find that we're in a cemetery, and a shot of a flag tells us France. Lots of crosses. He kneels, at a particular cross, weeps, some of the family run to him, the big-boobed ones hanging back.

Then a long shot of his moist eyes and as the camera moves slowly into a close up of those eyes, we know this much: we are going into flashback now. The story that has moved this old man is about to be told.

And now we are into the battle sequence.

What to say about it? Fabulous, brilliant, extraordinary, whatever you want. And do you know why? The length: twenty four minutes. The stuff itself is absolute as good and no better than Francis Coppola's war stuff or Oliver Stone's war stuff. But here it just goes pulverizingly on and on. It was brave of writer Robert Rodat to write it that way and brave of director Steven Spielberg to direct it with that incredible relentless tension.

What to say about Spielberg? For me, as great a shooter as anyone in movie history. Clearly the most important American director of the last thirty years, and on occasion, the most brilliant.

When he is in his wheel house. More of that presently.

As anybody reading this must know, Robert Rodat's story is about a squad of soldiers sent on a rescue mission—to find a Private Ryan, a young soldier who has lost three brothers in action. Ryan, once located, is to be sent back home before another tragedy totally destroys the remains of his family.

The last shot of the great battle sequence is a shot of a dead soldier named Ryan.
OK, so what the movie has to do is simple: get the rescue squad going after the kid. The Spielberg of Raider's of the Lost Ark would have taken maybe a minute to set that up. Tom Hanks, the squad leader would have been called into a commander's presence, told to find a Private Ryan. Hanks would ask why and the Commander would say what you know: to make sure he does not die like his brothers. Get him home now and get him home safely. Those are your orders. Go!

That is not a hard premise to set up. In this movie it takes Spielberg thirteen pretentious, operatic minutes. (An amazing length of movie time.) Climaxed when a General reads a letter Honest Abe Lincoln wrote which is sooooo moving, sports fans, it brings tears to the other high officers who are listening to the General.

Sure.

Then, after more uninteresting stuff, forty minutes into the movie, Hanks' squad finally sets off on their odyssey to find Private Ryan. And the hunt for him is just terrific. (A word here—he will not win the Oscar but Tom Sanders sure should—great production design.)

Sequence after sequence. The village with the French girl and the sudden Nazi's and the wrong Ryan. The church. The wounded area with the haunted pilot where they find out where Ryan might be. The bunker fight with the Nazi who Hanks releases and wonderful work between Tom Sizemore and Ed Burns and Hanks. Then the fight with the tank and off-handedly, surprisingly, they find Private Ryan.

We are an hour and forty five minutes into the movie now. We have just had an hour plus of sensational storytelling. And I am so excited because I know what is going to happen now: they are going to take Ryan back only it is going to be so much harder than finding him was. Maybe they would revisit some of the places—would the pilot have killed himself, would the French girl be killed by sniper madness, would the madness of the entire enterprise come crashing down around them? The story was going to be like a great snowball, accumulating as it roared toward climax, gathering weight and size and emotional power as Hanks desperately tried to get the kid home to his shattered mother.

And guess what: the rest of the movie is a disgrace. Fifty plus minutes of phony manipulative shit.

Things start going south immediately. We are in a bombed French village which has a valuable bridge. Hanks tells Ryan to get ready. And Ryan—Matt Damon—says this: he doesn't want to go. Sure his mom has suffered, sure it's awful what's happened to his family, but these guys are his brothers now and he will not leave them.

Do you believe that? Do you believe that a young man who has just been informed his family has been devastated, that his mother has had grief overpowering poured on her, would say, hey, I'm sure mom'll understand but I want to stay here in the mud with my buddies.

Barely.

I can kind of make a case that Ryan is young and in such shock and feels so guilty at his good/bad fortune, he really at that moment wants to stay. OK. I go with that.
Then the first nail in the coffin: Hanks goes along with it—hey, what a neat idea, I'll stay too.

Inconceivable, as Vizzini would say.

Before I get to how it's done in the movie, let me make a parallel. Let's say you and I were given a sworn task by our father. To make sure little Matt next store gets to school that day. Our most important task on earth is to make sure that happens. OK. We go to little Matt's house, tell him to come along. And he says this: "My best friend in the world is visiting me today. I won't go."

And you and I think about it and decide we have only two choices.
(1) To let him stay home.
(2) To stay home with him.

Take a second. That make sense? Are those the only two choices available? How about adding a third: bringing the little fucker to school.

In an awful awful scene, after Matt has stamped his foot in anger, Hanks and Tom Sizemore, the tough Sergeant have a talk.

Sizemore asks what Hanks' orders are and Hanks replies thusly: "Sergeant, we have crossed some strange boundary here. The world has taken a turn for the surreal." And I am sitting there thinking no, nothing surreal about it. A simple request has been made that needs a simple answer.

Sizemore tells Hanks this. "Some part of me thinks the kid's right. What's he done to deserve this? If he wants to stay here fine. Let's leave him and go home."

And Hanks says "yeah."

And I say, where did the notion of leaving him and going home come from? Surely it has never been breathed on planet Earth before. What are you talking about? Then Sizemore hits him with the clincher: "But another part of me thinks what if by some miracle we stay and actually make it out of here? Some day we might look back on this and decide that saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole God awful shitty mess . . . . We do that, Captain, we all earn the right to go home."

So they stay. (Sizemore's speech might have made sense earlier—when they were having the fight about staying or going home, earlier in the flick, before they had found Ryan.)

You know the worst thing? It would have been easy to have them stay and not be phony about it. How? Try this:

Matt makes his pitch. Hanks says I understand your emotions, but we're out of here right now.
Next cut, they are leaving the village. Next cut they are crossing the bridge. Next cut, walking in the countryside-and then a close up of Hanks and he stares and guess what?—

—The Germans are coming, They're here, it's too late to leave.

Next cut, exactly what we have now, and go on as be¬fore, only with more urgency. And without the awful manipulation.

The Ugly Tree

The most damaging speech of the movie comes next. Hanks and Matt Damon are waiting for the attack. Damon says he cannot summon up his dead brothers faces and Hanks says, think of something specific. Hanks, when he thinks of home, thinks of his hammock or his wife pruning the roses wearing his gloves.

And Matt Damon starts into this long—two minutes, folks—remembrance of the last time he and his brothers were together. A sexual escapade when one of his brothers was trying to fuck this girl, a girl who "took a nose dive out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down."

The speech—ad libbed by Matt Damon is the only time we get to spend any private time with Ryan. And the speech does not exactly endear him to us. It also rips a lot of the emotional fabric of the film to pieces. I would love to know what the real script said at this point. And I wonder only this: how could Spielberg allow something this atrocious to happen?

The Shooting of Tom Hanks

A bunch of Germans come running toward camera. They get into prone position, start to fire. We are drawn to¬ward one particular German bad guy. Want to know why? He's the only one without a helmet. And, gasp, we realize he is that very same Nodzi who Hanks let live in the earlier sequence. (Spielberg has just discovered irony.) And, shock of shocks, he is the very one who plugs poor Tom.

Now of course, this is manipulation to the nth power. But that's ok, lots of movies do that. But it is not ok here. And why?

Because it gives the lie to the great part of the film.

That wonderful twenty-four minute sequence? What did that tell us about war? That it is awful, yes, of course that. But it also told us this: war is nonsensical, illogical, totally beyond human comprehension.

But here it is all totally understandable. Let a bad guy go, guess what, he will return, relentless and helmetless to kill you. (And hang around conveniently so the cowardly lion of the flick, the translator, can become a man by killing the very man who shot his captain.) In order for this sequence to be in balance with the entire film, that opening battle sequence would have to be altered so that it was about John Wayne fighting his way to glory and saving all his raw recruits around him. Then this bullshit with the German soldier is in keeping with the film.

But it doesn't fucking matter who kills Tom Hanks. His death is what matters. His death is the tragedy.

The Death of Tom Hanks

Hanks is dying, Ed Burns runs for a medic, Matt Damon is alone with Hanks. And do you know what Hanks' last words were? Of course you don't, no one does, not the first time they see the movie. Because not only are they whispered so softly, they have never before been spoken on this or any planet. "Earn this . . . earn it." Those are the words.

I have zero idea what that can possibly mean. My only explanation is this: Spielberg was up half the night before reading Philosophy for Dummies and he wanted to inject that nugget into his flick.

Ed Burns at the Cemetery

Hanks is dead, the awful pretentious voice of the actor playing General Marshall is treacling away, we hear ole Honest Abe's letter again and I am now waiting for the shot of Ed Burns with the big boobed girls back at the cemetery. Why do I know that is coming? Well, only two members of the squad are left, Burns and the cowardly translator and I know it can't be him because he was not with Hanks and the squad during the twenty-four minutes of glory at the start of the film. So it has to be Burns standing there among the graves.

Now the morphing shot comes -and I am looking at the old face of Matt Damon at the cemetery.

Well, you can't do that. Don't you see, he wasn't fucking there. He knew nothing of the attack on the beach, knew nothing of the odyssey that followed, and he never had a chance to hear about it. The only spare moment he had was when he was telling us all about his brothers and the ugly girl and setting the barn on fire.

When he was great, and he was great, Spielberg was a phenomenal storyteller. All gone. That, or he doesn't care.

How's about Spielberg's version of Moby Dick: "Call me Ishmael. I'm going to tell you a story of this ship and this one legged captain and this whale. Actually, I don't know if the guy was one legged. Never saw him, never saw the ship, never saw the whale, never talked to anybody who ever saw anything."

"Who better than I to tell you what happened?"

The other disgrace of this storytelling is this: there is no pregnant moment to the story. (I'm not going all intellectual on you—remember, the Zipper scene and Matt Dillon trying to electrocute the dog back to life were my happiest moments this year in a theatre.) But all stories do and must have them. They are the reason the story is being told. The pregnant moment of Shakespeare in Love is this: Will has a block. We do not tell of Joe and Gwyneth after he's written King Lear—the whole point is the guy can't write anything. Armageddon happens when it happens because the meteor is on its way.

There is absolutely no reason for this story being told now since Matt has no specific reason for visiting the cemetery.

Didn't have to be phony. Say it was Ed Burns. Who has the flashback legitimately. Say he had a reason for coming pick any one you want. Try this: Ryan has just done something splendid. Or Ryan has just died but had a good life.

"Remember that little shit you died for?" Burns might say. "Guess what? He turned out okay. Not worth your dying, Captain, but at least it's something. Thought you'd like to know."

The Ending

Just when you think Spielberg has stooped as low as even he can, new thresholds are reached. Four agonizing minutes of pretentious syrup, climaxing when Matt asks his wife has he been a good man? What is she going to answer? Her husband is clearly having a breakdown. She says yes and Matt—wait for it—he salutes!

Then Old Glory returns, waving at us for half a minute. I guess reminding us that God and Steven Spielberg are on the same side.

Medicinal Level—A.

Can't get much higher. Patriotism and the flag and easy answers galore. Phony and manipulative, all in the sense of Country.

What to say about Spielberg at this stage of his career? He will win his second Oscar for this work, and probably a third when he finds another 'importante' subject to hide be¬hind. (Religious persecution, racial injustice, patriotism.)

I have never met him, never been in a room with him, but no person can come so far in such a killingly competitive business without having a reservoir of anger and rage and dark-ness hiding in there somewhere. I just wish once he would let it show.

There is no reason for him to do anything else than what he has been doing. The movies are wildly successful at the box-office, the critics bow.

And if he had directed Bambi, guess what? Bambi's mother would never have died.

Matthew Colville