War Writing Across Mediums: Saving Private Ryan through the lens of Tolstoy

Joseph Pearce

Historic fiction exists, as all things do, on a spectrum. On one end exists works which may not be historically factual, but which nevertheless capture some amount of “truth.” On the other end are works that can be described as little more than propaganda. But how can one determine where the line between truth and propaganda—fact and fiction—exists? Realistically, the line between the two is so infinitely blurred that certain works can occupy both spaces simultaneously. Specifically, the infamous war movie Saving Private Ryan, examined through the lens of Tolstoy’s Sevastopol Sketches, could be considered counterpropaganda. This film has been debated as both pro- and anti-war on the grounds of its realistic depictions of war but senseless glorification of its subject’s actions. I will argue that the supposed glorification is instead thinly veiled criticism mirroring Tolstoy’s early anti-war rhetoric.

In “Sevastopol in December,” Tolstoy does not shy away from describing the realities of the Crimean War. We are transported personally into Sevastopol via a guided tour. Tolstoy’s narrator gives us immense detail on the injuries his fellow soldiers suffer and an equally grizzly visualization of their care. In the medical tents where surgeons cast amputated limbs into piles in the corner, there is little room for romanticization. Despite this, Tolstoy still espouses his patriotism, saying men would only accept these conditions in pursuit of lofty ideals, namely love of one’s country. Similarly, Saving Private Ryan begins with seemingly patriotic-signaling imagery but quickly jumps into brutal, de-glamorized warfare. The immediate correlation is a heavy-handed means of agreement with Tolstoy’s sentiments on patriotism. Neither of these incidents is accidental, as both later become great sources of disillusionment for their respective characters, forcing them to reconcile their ideology and their personal reality.

Throughout “Sevastopol in May,” Tolstoy’s ideology gradually evolves, commenting instead on the stark distinctions between the commanders and their men. The officers are either incompetent, malicious, or both. Top-ranking officers do little more than jockey for position, outwardly discussing their desires to participate in constant conflict. They are willing to send men by the hundred to their deaths to satisfy their own ambition for medals, promotions, and accolades. This exact trait for which Tolstoy labels these men petty monsters is the central topic of intercharacter dialogue throughout Saving Private Ryan. If many dying for the glory of one is inexcusable, can it be possible to excuse these deaths in any moral context? The answer provided by Saving Private Ryan is a repeated and resounding “No.” Ignoring that this fact is tied to the core of the plot, the movie offers multiple additional examples. One such example is the crashing of a plane, which, overloaded by additional armor to protect a high-ranking officer, is unable to carry its own weight. Attempting to weigh the value of lives against each other harms and, in this case, kills everyone involved.

It is worth noting that the callousness Tolstoy criticizes extends beyond the general who initially sent the orders or background coincidences. Tom Hanks’ character, Captain Miller, initially refuses but in the end folds, risking and eventually ending the lives of his six subordinates. This is not in pursuit of morality, but because he missed his wife and was promised an early trip home from the front lines. In fact, the entirety of the plot hinges on Tom Hanks’ character having all of the worst traits of Tolstoy’s officer class, despite being portrayed as a likeable person. At one point, Captain Miller attempts to explain sending dozens of men to their deaths. His logic is that by completing his missions he must have saved 10, maybe even 20, times that many men. The solider he’s talking with quickly retorts that this time “the mission is the man,” highlighting the Captain’s hypocrisy.

Saving Private Ryan comes so, so close to escaping Tolstoy’s final criticism centered on the idea of a heroic death. Tolstoy describes a fictional account of two brothers in “Sevastopol in August”—one an experienced officer and the other a fresh conscript. In this account, Tolstoy touches on both seemingly courageous and cowardly actions in the pursuit of such heroism. Yet again, Captain Miller takes center stage. Having figuratively laid the bodies of his men at Private Ryan’s feet and stared down a German tank, the Captain orders Ryan to “earn this” with his last breath. This sacrifice is just as futile as Mikhail’s. Nothing is to be gained by this selfish martyrdom, yet men continue to make these same mistakes decades, even centuries later.

Both narratives, through varying degrees of fiction, shed light on the realities of war. However, in Tolstoy’s story, there is no hero or single objective that could be considered the central narrative focus. Instead, the hero of the Sevastopol Sketches is truth itself. The truth is, as Tolstoy alludes during “Sevastopol in May,” that war itself is not a spontaneous madness, but is one perpetuated endlessly by the madness of men. Truth, on the other hand, is the villain of Saving Private Ryan. The entirety of the movie happens within a flashback of an old man come to visit the grave of someone he never knew. Ryan has come to ask if he has fulfilled his orders and “earned” all of the lives given in exchange for his. He cries and begs his wife to tell him that he is a good man. This isn’t because he believes her words will absolve him; were it that simple, he wouldn’t be carrying the burden decades later. He does this because he already knows the truth: that this is impossible. In the end, this shows that war never changes, only the weapons and battlefields do.

Joseph Pearce is an advanced undergraduate student at the University of Kansas.

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