Monday, June 06, 2005

D-Day Anniversary

I was reminded while traveling the blog world that today is the anniversary of D-Day.

Last night I was watching "Saving Private Ryan". Say what you will about the movie, but it has some of the most realistic battle scenes I've yet to see in a movie regarding the period.

I've seen "The Longest Day", "A Bridge Too Far" and a number of other movies done in the fifties and sixties on the subject. Maybe because of the realistic fighting scenes or because I'm older now and we are at war, whatever it is, I've always been interested in the period and felt how important it was to our existence today. I've always been thankful. But, lately, it's seemed so much more important.

The characters of "Saving Private Ryan" seemed to represent the gamut of real emotions and ideas, the intelligence of the men, some understood, some who had been doing it for so long they just wanted it to be over and those that new that they had a duty to perform, even if sometimes it seemed so damned hard to do.

The scenes that stick in my mind are of the beach. It seems so chaotic and disorganized, yet, specific instances still resonate. Maybe because my grandfather had shared similar stories about his time ferrying men to Iwo Jima and Okinawa on flat boats. In the beginning, several men are sea sick as the boat drives towards the shore. Then, as it hits the beach area and let's down the front of the boat, men are scrambling off, but getting shot before they can even take a step, falling into the water and drowning. My grandfather told me the same stories about the Pacific war back in '87 before he died.

The water had an overlay of pink froth from the blood and men were drowning before they could reach shore. The sheer number of dead and dying before they could even begin attempting to take the guns above is still mind boggling to me, yet the movie brought it closer to home. I can recall each scene on the beach, huddling behind the steel I beams welded in X's, the scramble from one place to the other, the attempts to get men to move forward because it was "die here or die there". There were the men screaming, parts gone, bullet holese, equipment everywhere and medics were crawling or running from man to man with bullets whizzing by them.

Seeing those scenes reminded me why we called them "the greatest generation".

The other scenes might have just been part of the backdrop, but I recall, as they gathered at the berms below the whithering fire from mortars and machine gun nests, Hanks' character is trying to gage who is left from his group, who has the equipment, and what they need to do. He realizes that he has less than half of the men he started with and virtually none of the equipment he needed. He tells the radio man to call back and say the first wave was "ineffective", implying they need more men or that the attack might need to be called off. Then the radio man dies and he, Hanks', realizes that they are all being cut to pieces behind the berm, there is no going back, there is no more assistance and moving forward again is their only chance to live, even if he knows men will die, at least some would live.

I could feel the sheer fear, the anger, the confusion asking "why", and, finally, the resignation that they must do what they have to do. After they scale the cliff area and take out the bunker, some German soldiers come out to surrender and the US soldiers shot them dead, even while they were holding their hands in the air. It was obvious by the words and actions of the men, they felt little or no remorse, but felt satisfaction at getting back some of their own for the hell they went through and the men that had been cut in half by the German guns. Hanks' character sees this. By his expression, you can tell it pains him, but you can also tell that he too has some resignation about what war can do to a man, what it will make him do.

Later, Hanks gives a report to his commander. His report is all about the action and places that his men had taken, but he doesn't give the number of wounded or killed. His commander asks him for the numbers. It's as if Hanks doesn't want to give them up. Was he protecting himself mentally from the idea that he led men into carnage? Was he reluctant to make them a statistic, but instead wanted to hold them to himself as something personal and not just a number?

That was just the opening scenes. The others that stick in my mind are when they meet up with the Airborne glider group. Yes, the scene with the dog tags and looking at the names, stick in my mind, but actually, the one that is most sticky is when the lieutenant is expalaining that, as men wondered into the rally point, officers and others would get a group together to "go cause trouble". It wasn't a linear war either.

Then, when Hanks orders his men to take the machine gun nest, even though they don't have to. His men are angry, but he yells at them that another group of men could come along and be ambushed. Finally, some of them start realizing the truth of that point and the others, who don't want to be seen as cowards, decide to join the effort, even if it is reluctantly. It makes you realize that, regardless of orders or discipline, men have their own minds and followed for a couple reasons. They were more often than not, not about glory and death, but about getting the job done so they could go home faster, saving the guy beside them or after them, sometimes about anger and a few were about idealism.

That's the movie in a nutshell. It wasn't all "idealism" that made people act. It was many other things in between. Idealism seemed to have died in the bloody water or only existed in the political minds of the people back home. Later, Hanks explains that, when his men died, he always told himself that each man was insuring that tens, hundreds or thousands of men were being saved. It seemed hard for him, so close to the battle, to keep that illusion. Now, through space and time, we know that it was true. Yet, it still didn't make it easier for the men that were there.

Just like today's war.

I think the two scenes that made the biggest impact on me were: When the army drives up to the Ryan house. You see the four blue star flag proudly hung in the window. You know what's coming already, but, when the Mom walks out on the porch, there are no words, just music and you know she knows before they even speak. She collapses.

I imagine that scene played over and over again, thousands of times.

It never fails to bring tears to my eyes.

Lastly, the scene at the end, where Hanks tells Damon's character to "earn it".

I always knew that he was talking to us, the audience.

I remember.


Earn it.


Barb said...

We all must earn it, and many people don't even try. Which just makes me want to earn it double or triple.

Kat said...

Barb..I feel the same way.

I feel like I need to earn it even more, but I'm not doing enough. that drives me crazy sometimes.