Steven Spielberg’s new World War II movie, “Saving Private Ryan,” has been almost universally lauded for painting an unusually realistic portrait of war. Moviegoers not only see what combat looks like, but they hear it as well, from the plink of gunfire on a soldier’s helmet to the boom of mortar shells to the cries of the wounded.
So it is striking, then, that many Americans who have seen the film--alternately peeking through their fingers at the carnage of battle and covering their ears to muffle artillery fire--say it has taught them about something not often associated with war: silence.
“My grandfather survived the invasion of Normandy. Now I understand why he has always been so quiet about his experience there and the four bronze stars he received for bravery,” one man wrote the other day to an Internet message board that is devoted to the movie--one of many Web sites related to D-day that have seen increased activity since “Saving Private Ryan” opened July 24.
Another man who identified himself only as Tom said the film had helped him grasp his own father’s reticence for the first time.
“For people my age, 48, WWII was the defining moment of our parents’ lives,” he wrote. “My father, who was there, never said anything about the war all his life. . . . We boomers don’t have a clue how lucky we are and have always been. Thanks, Dad.”
To be sure, “Saving Private Ryan” is not the first movie to help one generation grasp another’s experience. “Mississippi Burning” shed light on parts of the civil rights struggle, and several movies, from “Platoon” to “The Deer Hunter,” have looked back on the Vietnam War era. But even among war movie buffs, Spielberg’s latest film--which broke $30 million at the box office its opening weekend and will apparently surpass $100 million by this weekend--is proving to be unusually resonant.
Already, books about World War II are selling in greater numbers. “Citizen Soldiers,” for example, by historian Stephen E. Ambrose (who was a consultant on the film), is back on the bestseller lists for the first time since March. And online services have been overwhelmed with postings related not only to the film (America Online has had more than 20,000) but to the subject of World War II in general.
But the true cultural impact of “Saving Private Ryan” is best measured not in dollars or book sales but in conversations, and they’re breaking out all over.
A 51-year-old South Carolina banker, for example, sat down after seeing the film and wrote letters of thanks to two World War II veterans he knows. A 45-year-old Arizona financial consultant found herself suddenly discussing the Big One with strangers in a grocery store line.
“You’re desperate to talk about the film,” said Paul Rich, a 43-year-old screenwriter from North Hollywood who immediately called an uncle who had fought in the Battle of the Bulge. “The stories he told me, all of a sudden they come to life after seeing this movie. I realize what a hero my uncle is.”
Spielberg, who has repeatedly said he made the movie as a tribute to veterans, said he is pleased that the film has sparked such interactions.
“What’s gratifying is the apparent narrowing of the gap between generations that is taking place in the [theater] lobbies and on the streets after the film is over,” he said. “Twenty-year-olds are actually walking up to people in their 70s, thanking them for what they did. . . . Can an audience ‘understand’ the Holocaust from seeing ‘Schindler’s List’ or really grasp all of World War II from ‘Saving Private Ryan’? Of course not. Will those movies cause some people to ask new questions? I sure hope so.”
A Raw Experience for Veterans
For veterans themselves, the movie has been a particularly raw experience--"touchingly terrible and terribly touching,” in the words of one. During the two weekends since the movie opened, the Department of Veterans Affairs has increased staffing on its toll-free counseling line to accommodate vets shaken by the film. More than 100 have called, and scores of others have phoned or stopped in during the week at seven regional offices around the nation.
Dr. Bill Weitz, a clinical psychologist and team leader at a VA outreach facility in West Palm Beach, Fla., has counseled several veterans who have seen the film. He says World War II vets are not the only ones who have felt overwhelmed.
“We don’t have a way in this society to integrate warriors. We ask them to do a lot of things in wartime that are outside our moral standards, so when they come back--from Vietnam, Somalia, Desert Storm--they don’t feel good talking about them,” said Weitz, who added that the film has prompted feelings of confusion, discomfort and guilt in some men.
Richard White, a 51-year-old technical writer from Palmdale, knows what Weitz means. White was an army sergeant who led a mortar crew in the Central Highlands of Vietnam in 1970. His reaction to the film?
“I was a whimpering, sobbing pile of blubber,” he said. “I was very embarrassed and didn’t want to be in that state of mind, but I couldn’t help it. You feel that terror. I was in Vietnam, and [the movie] was WWII, but it was familiar.”
But according to Weitz, the VA psychologist, the film unleashes more emotion in some WWII vets than in other veterans--and not just because the movie depicts a conflict in which they fought.
“These are not help-seekers,” he said, noting that vets who are now in their 70s and 80s were children of the Depression, raised not to complain. “Such a large number of Americans participated that the vets just saw it as having done their jobs. They were brought back as heroes. And heroes are not really allowed to express what they feel.”
Vern Bengtson, a professor of sociology and gerontology at USC, is director of a study of families whose members include veterans of WWI, WWII and the Korean War. He said that even for vets who did not see battle, the movie is powerful.
“The identification of the noncombat vets with those who were in combat is very high,” he said. “That’s one of the main psychological processes going on as they see ‘Saving Private Ryan'--this epiphany of coming into contact with who you were as a very young man and how lucky you were to get out of it alive.”
Dick Winters, who was with the 101st Airborne on D-day, received the Distinguished Service Cross for knocking out German cannons at Utah Beach. The 80-year-old resident of Hershey, Pa., said “Saving Private Ryan” has helped him by making him feel that now, finally, non-veterans can begin to understand.
“It’s hard to talk to someone who wasn’t there. It’s not just the memories. They don’t know what questions to ask,” said Winters, who has sent notices to more than 100 of his friends, urging them to see the film. “I think they’ll get the feel of it. . . . After they’ve seen it, they’ll know why I came home after the war and insisted we buy a farm--for peace and quiet.”
Daniel McGovern, 88, who was a combat cameraman in WWII, said that partly as a result of the film, he has begun an oral history project with one of his sons.
“Combat men don’t like to talk about what they did,” said McGovern, who lives in Laguna Hills. “Airplanes crashing, headless bodies with helmets still on. Limbs here, limbs there. . . . You say, ‘There but for the grace of God,’ but you don’t talk about it. You relive it in your sleep. You go through recollections of pulling bodies out of airplanes--an experience you never forget.”
But lately, he said, his sons and daughter and grandchildren have urged him to speak about what he witnessed.
“I think reliving it helps,” he said. “Gets it out of the system.”
Lesson in Sacrifice for Teenagers
The film is reaching younger generations as well, as some parents take their teenagers in hopes they will learn a lesson about bravery and sacrifice.
JuliAnn Juras, a 45-year-old financial consultant in Gilbert, Ariz., first went to the movie with her brother, then went back a second time with her teenage daughter, Alexandra. The 15-year-old was “horrified” by certain scenes, Juras said, and she cried a lot. But Juras thinks she did the right thing by taking her.
“I thought a 15-year-old kid should see the high personal sacrifice that people have made for our freedom. Real people, with girlfriends and wives and dreams just like a teenager today has,” said Juras, who recalls her own mother talking about losing high school friends in the war. “Our freedom has come at a very high price, and we should be thankful.”
And that message seems to be getting through, even among some moviegoers whose parents weren’t even conceived until after WWII.
“Every time you see an older person now, you’re more observant,” said David Heller, a 24-year-old Nashville resident who works in a framing store and has seen the film three times. “You wonder, ‘Gosh, did this guy serve?’ ”
Bob Howard, 51, who lives in Columbia, S.C., was in the Army in Vietnam but never saw combat. His late father was a 20-year Air Force veteran, a pilot who flew missions on D-day in support of the landing. Howard’s mother, now 73, saw the movie and pronounced it “a three-hour cry.” Howard himself sat down and wrote this letter to two veterans he knows:
“I have just returned from seeing ‘Saving Private Ryan.’ I was very, very moved. I wish that I could bring back from the dead each of the men who gave their lives on that beach to tell them thank you. I can’t do that, but I can thank you. Thank you for your service to our country.”
Giovanni Ribisi, the actor who plays a medic in the movie, took his grandfather to the Los Angeles premiere of the film. Dr. Albert Ribisi was a young surgeon during World War II and was stationed in San Diego, where he treated casualties from the South Pacific. Then, in the Korean War, he served in a MASH unit that treated 17,000 wounded men.
The younger Ribisi said he was struck by the film’s impact on his father’s father.
“We’d never talked about [his service] until the movie. Afterward I saw this side of him I’d never seen. In the car on the way home from the film he completely opened up. I was blown away,” said the actor.
The elder Ribisi, now retired and living in San Jose, said the film “brought tears to my eyes,” adding that seeing his grandson on the screen only made it more riveting. “We talked about it after. Now he knows his old granddad did something.”
Times correspondent Richard Natale contributed to this report.
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