In Saving Private Ryan (1998) eight American soldiers are confronted with critical situations in the heat of battle. They are forced to make choices between benevolence and death. Some choose a weaker road, and lose their courage, while others take a higher path of sacrifice and strength. As we examine the narrative style of Saving Private Ryan, we see that the characters are as interwoven into the plot and conflict as any inciting incident. If we examine the twenty minute segment, beginning with Capt. Miller’s team entering the first town, which is both rainy and hostile, and ending with the unit seeking shelter in a church for the night, we can discuss, and observe many of the narrative elements.
While the plot focuses on one main goal, there are many other subplots, focused on character based events. The main plot of the twenty minute segment is the men’s search for Private Ryan. However, a parallel plot is their attempt to navigate through the hostile town. A subplot within the overall story is when Pvt. Caparzo is shot, and the team is pinned down under heavy sniper fire. The first important conflict is to escape the sniper, and save Caparzo. Afterwards, the team meets up with a mixed company, and believes that they’ve found Pvt. Ryan. While this seems to be the conclusion to the main tension of the plot, we are fooled, and find out that it is an entirely different Pvt. Ryan. The sequence is concluded as Capt. Miller’s team seeks shelter for the night in a church. While the sequence has its own plotline of navigating through the town, it is still just part of the main plotline of finding Pvt. Ryan. The issue of time is irrelevant, as the story is told linearly, with only five cuts in time, easily identifiable by the rainfall. The events in the segment take place over the course of the same day, and there is no narrator. Using this method of storytelling, the audience can easily follow the plot without feeling like they’re being talked down to.
The main characters in the segment consist of the eight members of Capt. Miller’s unit. These individuals are: Capt. John Miller; Sgt. Michael Horvath; Pvt. Richard Reiben; Pvt. Adrian Caparzo; Pvt. Stanley Mellish; Pvt. Daniel Jackson; Pvt. Irwin Wade; and Cpl. Timothy Upham. Minor characters would be characters such as the French couple who try to give the unit their child for safe keeping. Other minor characters are the other Pvt. Ryan, a decoy for the audience, and Capt. Fred Hamill, with Sgt William Hill. In this segment, we get to know the characters very well by their reactions to events in the plot. Pvt. Irwin Wade is always very concerned for human life, in the way he is distressed for Caparzo’s life, and also tends to a German soldier. Cpl. Upham is always hesitant to pull out a gun, because he tries to talk to the German unit they discover rather than pointing his weapon at them. The most important main character in this segment is Pvt. Adrian Caparzo, because he dies in the scene, and is the first one to do so. Plus, he has the most dramatic character arc. Pvt. Caparzo was a standard GI. A foot soldier from Brooklyn, he only fought because he wanted to go home. He saw no point in risking the lives of eight men in order to save one. Yet, when he was confronted with a little French child who had been bombed out of her home, his actions changed. He was more than willing to take the girl away so that he could protect her. “Why?” his fellow soldiers asked. He did it simply because of the fact that she reminded him of his niece. In one moment, Private Caparzo sacrificed his own safety so that he could help a desperate child. He could not turn his back on her, which is the irony of his character. While he did not want to save Ryan, he laid down his life to help a young girl. He realized the concept of saving a loved one, even at a cost, because it was the right thing to do. The other main characters have almost no character arc within the segment.
The conflict acts out in many different ways throughout the story. The external conflict of trying to find Private Ryan exercises the soldiers to their limits, but the inherent moral question of risking eight men to save the life of one is debated in all of their minds. The conflict is external as the unit fights for its life, but the internal conflict is also very present, particularly when Capt. Fred Hamill weighs in his support for Capt. Miller’s mission. He tells Capt. Miller that he has two brothers of his own and says, “Get him out of here. Get him home.” The most prominent conflict is Man vs. Man for most of the battle scenes. Capt. Miller’s unit is pinned down throughout the segment, first by a German sniper, then by the German unit that is discovered in the knocked down building. Unfortunately, because the segment is only a small portion of the film, neither of the conflicts are resolved.
The narrative style of the story structure comes together so as to make the audience feel we are going back into the past. It is very realistic, and also quite gory, but this gruesomeness adds to the authenticity and realism of the film. The segment is told in third person as we observe the unit on their expedition. It is not told in first person, as that format would require voice-overs and/or isolated events. The overall theme is the struggle to get home. It is referenced by Capt. Fred Hamill, and also the fake Pvt. Ryan when he says, “I’ve got to get home.” As he says this, the movie cuts to the faces of the soldiers in Capt. Miller’s unit, showing they all want to go home. Another important theme is the question, “what is the importance of one man?” The main plot of the segment (finding Pvt. Ryan) is part of this theme, and Caparzo’s attempt to rescue the one girl (which leads to his death) echoes this theme.
The elements come together to tell a story that is character driven, but always focused on the problem of finding Pvt. Ryan. This allows a great diversity to the film, and to the segment. It also always keeps the audience focused, and never bored. There are many ties between this film and other WWII movies, following in a long line of war films. For example, The Longest Day (1962) utilizes similar storytelling techniques such as the struggle for a single goal, and constant unexpected obstacles. However, Saving Private Ryan differs from other great war movies by using less humor, and more gore.
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