Places Private Ryan Can't Take Us

by John G. Spragge

In my seventeenth year, browsing my school library, I came across a book called The Forgotten Soldier. I remember the cover, with its stark picture of a soldier, wearing battered combat fatigues, holding, not wearing a helmet. I remember the name of the author, Guy Sajer, and his story.

He had grown up in Alsace, son of a French father and a German mother. After the battle of France, the Germans conscripted him and sent him to fight in Russia, at first helping guard the convoys supplying Stalingrad, then training and fighting with the elite German Army panzer grenadier division Gross Deutschland throughout the long hopeless struggle in Russia. He describes the fighting in horrific detail, including an incident where a Russian T-34 tank kills two German soldiers by driving onto their foxhole, then throwing one tread into reverse, then forward, then reverse, and literally grinding them to death.

He also describes the social life in the war: comrades and friends getting drunk, falling in love with whores, and generally trying to grow up in a meat grinder. And I remember most clearly his injunction to his readers that they ought not to enjoy the story of war in comfort. An armchair, he warns us, makes a very poor place to appreciate the nature of combat.

I once had a copy of The Forgotten Soldier, but I lost it in a shipwreck, something I think Sajer might have approved of. But I thought of it after I went to see Steven Spielburg's Saving Private Ryan. I wanted to like the movie; all the reviewers told me I ought to like it. Yet I left the theatre feeling a dissatisfied with the film. The technical excellence of the film, the reason so many reviewers liked it so much, troubled me the most. Spielberg made the most realistic movie possible; but despite the superb the film making, despite the clever special effects and despite the compelling direction, we still watch it from the armchair Sajer warns us about. A film can make its scenes of combat as ghastly as modern special effects allow, but it cannot  mortally terrify us, or kill  our friends all around us. The screen, in this case, literally screens us; it provides an impermeable barrier behind which we can safely view any horror. But we can't experience it.

Instead, we experience excellence in film making.

In 1993, the BBC produced a film called A Foreign Field, about survivors  visiting the graves of their comrades and relatives who died in the battles for Normandy. The film follows three soldiers looking for their comrades, and a woman looking for the grave of her brother. They deploy no special effects; just the acting talents of Leo McKern, Alec Guinness, John Randolph, Jeanne Moreau, Lauren Bacall, Edward Hermann and Geraldine Chaplin. And they bring the audience as close to understanding what the battles in Normandy meant to those caught up in them as a film can get.

Whatever moral lesson an understanding of the wounds of war can teach us, we learn as we watch these superb actors show us the healing that has taken fifty years, as well as demonstrating the scars that nothing can heal. By setting the film firmly in the present, the makers of A Foreign Field place the barrier of years between us and the horror of the beaches and hedgerows the characters remember. By doing this, the film makers also remind us of their limits, and ours: of what we can and cannot comprehend from an armchair.

John G. Spragge