Sometimes the difference between what you mean to do and what you wind up with lands on the sweetest part of the bat. Case in point: David Samuel Peckinpah, who packed the The Wild Bunch’s gunfights with exploding squibs and blood-bags because he thought an outburst of graphic screen violence might make a useful object lesson for Vietnam-era audiences. We now know, thanks partly to his example, how naïve it is to think that our violent tendencies can be manipulated, or maybe even switched off—or that a mere movie could accomplish either of these things. The fluke, though, came when Peckinpah’s miscalculation was exposed by his own innovations: the slow-motion interruptions which worked as dazzling parenthetical asides, and the forced changes in perspective which dragooned viewers and made them proxies in the action in a way no movie had done before.
Today this view of the movie—which received its fullest articulation in Paul Seydor’s bedrock study Peckinpah: The Western Films, A Reconsideration—is commonplace, even unavoidable; and while Peckinpah himself never explicitly discussed it in these terms, he clearly realized he’d cooked up something stronger than a spoonful of castor oil. Before the booze and coke took hold of him, he was a liberal only a touch to the left of Norman Jewison, and a man who felt he’d most fully expressed himself, not in any of his famous works of suffering and destruction, but in the tenderhearted The Ballad of Cable Hogue. (In fact, something went out of him after Cable Hogue bombed.) But he was enough of an artist to keep his cool when the violence in The Wild Bunch turned out to be something disturbingly beautiful. Along with his editor Lou Lombardo, Peckinpah had made a fundamental contribution to cinema’s basic vocabulary—a no-shit, honest to god Eisenstein-Kuleshov-Griffith moment. He ran with it, and continued to mine the vein he’d uncovered (with wildly varying results) for the rest of his career.
One thing he never did, though, was return to the idea of portraying violence straight-up—“realistically”—as a social corrective. But 14 years after Peckinpah’s death Steven Spielberg stepped up to the plate and tried again to “resensitize” audiences with another iconic battle scene: the D-Day landing that opens Saving Private Ryan. A 24-minute catalog of hellish details—human torsos rent apart, shrieking men stumbling about in flames, a head with only a smoking crater where its face ought to be—it sounds like the latest provocation from Cannes, yet Middle America took it instantly to heart. This was partly due to the subject matter and the movie’s rigidly respectful treatment of it, but it was also an expression of America’s appreciation for Spielberg, a near-addiction which is itself paradoxical: known, and in some quarters despised, as a leading member of “Hollyweird”, he remains largely revered for his pop hits, and mainstream audiences work to keep the two figures separated in their minds. Spielberg doesn’t make the task hard for them. Saving Private Ryan bundled together his professional popularity with Tom Brokaw and Stephen Ambrose’s PR-driven drool about the “Greatest Generation”, and fashioned from the combination some absolutely bullet-proof body armor for the movie; as a result his astonishingly violent motion picture was received, not as the product of a sick mind (or, worse, a pacifist, like Peckinpah), but as a salute to our veterans’ sacrifices. Even in the hands of the pop magus Spielberg, the only way Saving Private Ryan could exist at all was if it reinforced our most cherished myths and values.
The special dispensations continued when ABC agreed to air the film uncut on Veterans Day of 2001, a courtesy that’s been extended to only one other movie with a hard R rating: Schindler’s List—of course. The decision was hailed by the VFW, the Parents Television Council, and people desperate for a break from Touched by an Angel, but it didn’t make a lick of moral sense. The powers-that-be okayed the violence and salty language in the name of honoring our veterans, all of which was a clear admission that mangling reality is what Hollywood is all about. Broadcasting Spielberg’s two big movies blew holes in the ideas that the censors must help parents control what their children watch, and that four-letter words and pubic bush are inherently corrupting things. If the word “fucking” is bad at all, it’s bad all the time, no matter how super-solemn the context is, and the broadcast should have infected the country with an epidemic of profanity. But it didn’t. Indeed, the broadcasts raised such little stink that ABC reran Ryan for the next three years—like It’s a Wonderful Life, except for Veterans Day—until the fine slapped on CBS for Janet Jackson’s wardrobe prank reclenched everyone’s sphincters for them.
ABC’s experiment with Saving Private Ryan was a courtesy that would never, not in a million years, be extended to, say, Taxi Driver, a movie with more actual relevance to our lives than either of Spielberg’s opuses; movies like that are still seen as morally iffy adjuncts of the problems they explore. But outlawing movies about ugliness leaves only the ugliness itself, and anyone who thinks that Spielberg’s attitude towards violence is more objectively responsible than his peers’ has another think coming. If Peckinpah’s original point going into The Wild Bunch was that violence is an awful, degrading thing, Spielberg’s is that it’s an awful, degrading thing which is sometimes necessary. That’s a legitimate position to take, but the movie, bookended as it is by shots of the American flag and focused on an elemental engagement with a despised foreign power, encouraged domestic audiences to come away feeling first and foremost reenergized as Americans. It failed to make us see warfare as a last resort to be entered into only with sorrow, and without chauvinism or bombast, and the acid test came during the very years when Ryan was being televised, as the Bush administration massaged the case for a sour and unnecessary invasion, and a fresh round of war whoops went up which has yet to fade from our ears.
Saving Private Ryan is what a conservative movie looks like when it’s made by a liberal people-pleaser, and it practically chokes on its force-fed cornbread when George Marshall reads Lincoln’s letter with a lump in his throat or the Ryan family’s farm is rendered as an absurdly bucolic Eden. But nowhere is it more conservative than in the final exhortation Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller croaks out with his dying breath: “Earn this”. Truth be told, the so-called Greatest Generation was just a damned unlucky one; it’s prized for its pluck in outlasting a depression and a world war but, really, what other choice did it have? The double whammy created a survivor’s mentality which made them duck and cover throughout the McCarthy era, and which for years afterward could curdle their personalities on a moment’s notice. “Earn this”—a key attitude in the Generation Gap of the Sixties—is a call for bottomless guilt and indebtedness, and Saving Private Ryan reveals the stress fractures in its reasoning when the aged Ryan, who once gave up safe passage home in order to stand by his comrades, is still so stricken by doubt that he tremblingly implores his wife, “Tell me I’ve led a good life.”
“Earn this” refers not just to Captain Miller’s death or the deaths of the men in his unit, but to every sacrifice we’ve witnessed over the course of the movie, and it doesn’t take an Einstein to understand that by its end the movie views us as “Private Ryan”—that we’re the ones being called on to redeem the losses of every American war by leading lives worthy of all that death. Well, that’s a totalitarian and impossible demand to place on any human being. I’d rather consider the words that close out The Wild Bunch (a movie about the cost of impossibly high ideals), words which stir the embers of life in another old man facing darkening horizons: “It ain’t like it used to be, but it’ll do.” That’s as far removed from “Earn this” as the two movies’ depictions of violence are: where Miller’s advice is crippling, its eye fixed on the rear view mirror, the other is optimistic, forward-looking, and striving to make us free. That’s just how the men on Omaha Beach wanted us to be.