On the occasion of next week’s D-Day 75—the 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion of German-occupied France, via the beaches of Normandy—it’s appropriate to revisit Saving Private Ryan. Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film remains not only one of the definitive portrayals of D-Day on screen (along with The Longest Day and Band of Brothers), but among the best war films ever made. If you have not seen it on the big screen, don’t miss your chance this June 2 and 5, when Fathom Events will show the epic film in 600 theaters across the United States.
Significant in film history for the way it took battle scenes—particularly the D-Day beach landings—to new heights of immersive realism (think blood splatters on lenses and handheld cameras that feel as shell-shocked and jittery as any other soldier in combat), Ryan also tells a story that packs a theological punch.
Quite a View
Sometimes theological readings of popular culture are forced and overwrought. But when there are works that easily lend themselves to such readings, without it feeling like a stretch, it can be fruitful to engage them in this way. Saving Private Ryan is one such work.
The film’s big idea is the cost of liberation—the bloody, weighty, seemingly irrational cost. For nearly three hours the film hammers this point home to such a degree that audience members might wonder, as most of the film’s characters do, Is it worth it? Is the liberation of France worth the lives of tens of thousands of dead Allied soldiers? Is saving Private Ryan (Matt Damon) worth the deaths of the men tasked with finding him?
The terrible, blood-soaked cost of liberation is made clear in the film’s famous opening sequence—a relentless, 25-minute depiction of Allied soldiers landing in the Dog Green Sector of Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. From the horror of anticipation (trembling hands, vomiting, men crossing themselves) to the hellish chaos on the beach (flamethrowers engulfing bodies, men picking up their own severed arms, a soldier with exposed entrails crying for his mother, medics working to dress wounds as blood sprays from arteries and bullets zing by), the D-Day sequence launches the film’s thesis with a bang that resonates theologically: Our liberation comes at a significant and violent cost.
The D-Day sequence launches the film’s thesis with a bang that resonates theologically: Our liberation comes at a significant and violent cost.
Near the end of the D-Day sequence, as the surviving soldiers gain some high ground and can breathe for a moment, Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore) says to Captain Miller (Tom Hanks): “That’s quite a view.” The camera zooms in on Miller’s eyes as he says, “Yes it is. Quite a view.” Then the score by John Williams swells and the camera takes in “the view” in question, panning along the beach in its apocalyptic aftermath: blood-red waves crashing against countless dead bodies and dead fish strewn all over the beach. It’s the sort of “view” that forces us to contemplate the beauty and reckon with the horror of hard-won freedom. It’s the sort of terrible glory Christians see, for example, when we look at the cross.
Central to the tension of Ryan is the asymmetry of the cost (many men dying) verses the mission (one man being saved). To many characters in the film, the former outweighs the latter.
Private Jackson (Barry Pepper), a Psalm 144-quoting sniper, sees the mission to save Ryan as “a serious misallocation of valuable military resources,” arguing that his own sniper skills could be better used for taking out Hitler.
In a memorable scene that takes place—notably, inside a church—Captain Miller himself expresses doubts about the cost-benefit logic of the mission. “This Ryan better be worth it,” he says. “He’d better go home and cure some disease, or invent the longer-lasting light bulb or something.”
Throughout the film, the question of “worth” is central. Miller and the others ponder whether Ryan’s life will be as precious and valuable as the lives spent to purchase his freedom. But of course it won’t be. That’s how grace works. It’s offensively asymmetrical.
Miller and the others ponder whether Ryan’s life will be as precious and valuable as the lives spent to purchase his freedom. But of course it won’t be. That’s how grace works. It’s offensively asymmetrical.
And that’s a heavy burden for Ryan to bear, which Damon captures well when his character struggles to understand why he, of all people, is sought and rescued.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” he says after hearing that two of Miller’s men already died trying to find him. “Why do I deserve to go? Why not any of these guys? They all fought as hard as me.”
He struggles to accept the illogical but amazing grace of being lost and then found in this way. Why him? What did he do to deserve it? The answer is nothing, but that’s a tough pill to swallow. Salvation can’t really be that free, can it?
The Burden of ‘Earn This’
As if the burden of Ryan’s undeserved rescue isn’t heavy enough on him already, Captain Miller’s dying words to him are a devastating call to worthiness: “Earn this. Earn it.”
Thank God those weren’t the dying words of Christ on the cross. Instead, Jesus offered words that (should) release us from any lingering sense that we must somehow contribute to our salvation: “It is finished.”
‘Earn this. Earn it.’ Thank God those weren’t the dying words of Christ on the cross. Instead, Christ offered words that (should) release us from any lingering sense that we need to contribute anything to our salvation: ‘It is finished.’
With “earn it” ringing in his ears for the rest of his life, Ryan must live a life worthy of his rescue. What a tragedy.
In the film’s final scene, elderly Ryan (Harrison Young) is standing in the American cemetery in Normandy, among somber rows of countless white crosses. With the blank backside of one of the crosses framing the shot, Ryan addresses the cross: “I’ve tried to live my life the best I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that at least in your eyes I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.”
Is he talking to God in those words? Or is he talking to Miller (whose grave it is revealed to be)? Perhaps both. Either way, it’s tragic. Indeed, Ryan turns to his wife in desperate need of justification: “Tell me I’ve led a good life. Tell me I’m a good man.” She replies, “You are,” and the film ends with those sweet but unsatisfying words.
We are left, as Ryan doubtless is too, with the sinking suspicion that “good” can never be good enough for the sort of liberation we are given, in Christ.
Only Appropriate Words
Saving Private Ryan ends, as it opens, with a sepia-toned shot of a waving American flag. The bookends frame the film—and its questions of sacrifice and worthiness—in terms of national patriotism and sacrifice on “the altar of freedom,” to quote Lincoln’s Bixby Letter. The patriotism might leave audiences with a feel-good release, but for me it does little to resolve the film’s theological tensions. For as much as there is a “Mission: Accomplished!” resolution in the film’s titular objective, it’s unclear whether the saving of Private Ryan has actually occurred by film’s end, in the spiritual and most important sense.
Whereas he could have been broken at the foot of a literal cross (Miller’s grave), speechless but for the only two appropriate words (“thank you”), Ryan instead ends the film with these burdensome words: “Tell me I’m a good man.”
Oh that these are never my words when my conscience is pricked by the cost of my deliverance.