Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Hero's Arc - SAVING PRIVATE RYAN

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998)

STEVEN SPIELBERG - Director
ROBERT RODAT - Writer
TOM HANKS - Captain Miller
TOM SIZEMORE - Sergeant Horvath
EDWARD BURNS - Pvt. Reiben
BARRY PEPPER - Pvt. Jackson
ADAM GOLDBERG - Pvt. Mellish
VIN DIESEL - Pvt. Caparzo
GIOVANNI RIBISI - T-4 Medic Wade
JEREMY DAVIES - Corporal Upham
MATT DAMON - Pvt. Ryan

Heroes have arcs. They change. But they don't change like protagonists.

In a brief post on Nov 5, 2016, with the assistance of Christopher Vogler, I explain the difference between a Hero and a Protagonist. I promised to write a bit more about that topic by examining SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (SPR) and Capt. James Miller's (TOM HANKS) arc. In SPR Miller is the hero not the protagonist.

To most viewers it will not appear that Capt. Miller changes. If we compare Miller to a common protagonist, I would agree that he does not change...much.

From the Hero and  Protagonist post here's the relevant comparison.
A. The protagonist will start off with an obvious weakness or vice that (in a redemptive story) for example, will arc toward the polar opposite strength or virtue.  
B. By comparison, a hero, at the story's beginning, will almost epitomize a strength or virtue, but have a subtle flaw, which, in the course of the story will arc in the same direction, not the polar opposite. That is, the hero will find a way to increase his strength and deepen his virtue. 
In both cases (the protagonist and the hero) the Moment of Grace (the story's mid-point scene) will clearly fulcrum around the hero's motivational challenge. We might normally ask (for SPR's story question): "Will Captain Miller successfully rescue Pvt. Ryan?" But the question at SPR's Moment of Grace is refined: "Will Captain Miller successfully rescue Pvt. Ryan for the right reason?"

Doing the right thing for the wrong reason, is sometimes the story question in tales about heroes. One of the best known stories that deals with this theme is T.S. Elliot's play, "Murder in the Cathedral" that portrays the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.  It's fairly clear form the beginning that Becket is going to be murdered. The question remains, however, if he will seek it for the glory of martyrdom (a sin), or allow himself to be killed for what is morally right.

Captain Miller, while not seeking martyrdom, believes from the beginning that the mission (to save Pvt. Ryan's life) is NOT worth the lives of the 8 men he takes with him. And yet, Miller is a good soldier, although he has already lost over 90 men under his command in the 3 days since they landed on Omaha, Beach.

We get an opportunity to understand Capt. Miller's attitude early in Act 2 (at 41 minutes). As the men are walking through the countryside, they gripe -- indirectly -- about the orders they've been given. They discuss the senseless purpose of their mission—"for the sake of a mother." Griping is what solider's do. But Miller is a Captain for a reason. He says, "Reiben, pay attention. This is the way to gripe! Continue, Jackson." At which Pvt. Jackson (BARRY PEPPER), the sniper in the group, gripes (about their mission) in a very high-minded, hopeful way.
JACKSON: What I mean, sir, if you put me and this rifle within one mile of Adolf Hitler with a clear line of sight, sir... Pack your bags, fellas. War's over.
Then we get to the heart of what Miller is thinking. Notice the subtext. The dialogue is not on the nose. It's good script writing, and for reasons like this example, Robert Rodat's screenplay was nominated for an an Oscar.
REIBEN: So, Captain, what about you?
You don't gripe at all?
 
MILLER: I don't gripe to you, Reiben. I'm a captain. There's a chain of command. Gripes go up, not down. You gripe to me, I gripe to my superiors and so on. I don't gripe to you or in front of you.
REIBEN: I'm sorry, sir, but, uh...Let's say you weren't a captain. What would you say then?
MILLER: Well, in that case, I'd say this is an excellent mission, sir, with an extremely valuable objective, sir,
worthy of my best efforts, sir. Moreover...l feel heartfelt sorrow for the mother of Private James Ryan and will lay down my life and the lives of my men, especially you, Reiben, to ease her suffering.

A  moment after a few of the men sarcastically congratulate their Captain for his clever answer, there is a THUNDER CLAP, and a FLASH OF LIGHTING.  These are alerts to the audience to pay attention...for what Miller has just described sarcastically, will indeed be the case of his mindset at the end. It is a foreshadowing of Miller's arc.

Before we're half through, another of his men's lives is taken. And why he is killed is important, for it underscores the moral premise of the story. For not taking the mission seriously and disobeying orders,  Pvt. Caparzo (VIN DIESEL) opens himself to sniper fire. For a moment he ignores their mission and does something he deemed more noble — ironically trying to save the life of a village family's daughter. Caparzo believes saving this young girl's life is more important than saving Pvt. Ryan's life. And for that mistake Caparzo is picked off by a sniper and dies.

NOTE the experience here that Miller and his men learn from: Children of parents are important. The mother and father had asked for the soldiers to take their daughter to the better protected village up the road. This is exactly the same thing they've been asked to do by General Marshal, for Pvt. Ryan. They don't see this immediately, but it adds to the subtle evidence of the argument for the audience. If you're willing to die for a young girl, why not a brave soldier?

There are other moments about such relationships. One instance is Miller's discussion with Captain Hamill (TED DANSON) who also has a brother in the war and understands the importance of Miller's mission. Hamill tries to encourage Miller of the mission's importance. But Miller is silent, unconvinced.

At 1:05 into the  film we come to Captain Miller's MOMENT OF GRACE. You're going to see how he changes, not by changing his value system, but by reinforcing his willingness to follow orders. As a leader of men in a war, Miller has done a suburb job up to this point, but his mind is about to be changed...and he will become more deeply committed to saving Pvt. Ryan as will the rest of his men.

The Moment of Grace scene occurs moments after Miller talks with Hamill and Pvt. Caparzo is killed. The men are holed up for the night in an abandoned church. Some men sleep, Jackson copies a blood stained letter that Caparzo had written to his parents. (Note by this action how Jackson shows that he understands the important relationship between son and parents.)  Before he died, Caparzo asked Jackson to copy the letter on clean paper, because Caparzo's blood is on the original...which would be a great shock to Caparzo's mother.

In the Moment of Grace scene, the dialogue and visuals, although they seems to bounce off the walls, are really about ONE THING...the relationship of the men to their parents...and how much the parents care for their children, and how much the children (these men) care for their parents, and how Miller has to embrace that reality of Natural Law. ALSO NOTE: Don't miss the analogy of Capt. Miller as the "parent" for the men in his squad.

I've edited a transcription from "Springfield! Springfield! (movie script website) for this MOG scene. I will interrupt it from time-to-time with comments to point out how the events and dialogue in the scene change Miller's attitude about the mission.  I have also broken up scene into sub-scenes, which I will denote with hyphen separators. (I've left nothing out.)  Each section represents a propositional statement (or premise statement in the argument) that Capt. Miller needs to believe in his heart what he sarcastically intoned to his men minutes earlier in their discussion about griping.  Remember, he said:
MILLER: ...this is an excellent mission, sir, with an extremely valuable objective, sir, worthy of my best efforts, sir. Moreover...l feel heartfelt sorrow for the mother of Private James Ryan and will lay down my life and the lives of my men...
Of course, this is exactly what Miller comes to believe in this scene, which the DVD labels "CHOICES."

-------------------------------------
Scene Begins

Miller's hands shakes uncontrollably.
HORVATH: What's with your hand?
MILLER: l don't know. It started when they brought us down for embarkation. It comes and goes. 
Although Miller TELLS us that his hand was shaking at embarkation (and we do see a moment of it after he's landed on the beach), we SEE it in the close up of the shot that begins this scene. Spielberg and Rodat SHOW us that there is something inside Miller that is unsure of their mission. At no time does Miller say, "I'm nervous and unsure about the invasion but also Saving Pvt. Ryan."
HORVATH: You may have to get yourself a new job. This one doesn't seem to agree with you any more.
The "job" here refers both to Miller's occupation as a soldier, and their current mission. NOTE the subtext.

----------------------------------------
(Miller chuckles) 
HORVATH:What? (beat) What? 
MILLER: Nothing. What was the name of that kid at Anzio? He was always walking around on his hands, and singing that song about the man on the flying trapeze? 
HORVATH: Yeah, Vecchio. 
MILLER: He was a goofy kid. Remember he used to pee 'V' on everybody's jacket, for Vecchio.
HORVATH: For victory. 
MILLER: Vecchio. He was so short. Wasn't he a midget? How did he become a Ranger? 
HORVATH: Got shot in the foot once. 
MILLER: He could walk faster on his hands. He could run faster on his hands than... (trails off.) (Beat) Vecchio. (Beat) Caparzo.
Miller reflects.


We, with Miller, reflect too...about how similar Vecchio is to Caparzo. They are both Rangers. Miller as a "parent" is grieving the memory of both. Both got shot. Both find a place in Miller's heart...something he is not supposed to allow to happen. He is not suppose to "care" for his men, even someone as crazy as Vecchio. (Remember this: Miller does not respect Vecchio; he can't understand how Vecchio became a Ranger.) That Miller does care for his men....like a mom cares for her children causes a problem for him. How can he lead his children to their death if he cares for them? (As we'll see in a moment, these jocular comments about Vecchio are poignant. Don't cast them aside as filler. Nothing in a good movie is filler. )

We're beginning to see some conflict in Miller over this dilemma. So, what does Miller do? He rehearses what he's been taught by his superiors. He vocalizes the paradox that he is struggling with. He can't shake it off. 

-------------------------------------
MILLER (cont): You see, when...you end up killing one of your men, you tell yourself it happened so you could save the lives of two or three or 10 others. Maybe a hundred others. Do you know how many men l've lost under my command? 
HORVATH: How many? 
MILLER: 94. (beat) (quiet sarcasm) But that means I've saved the lives of 10 times that many, doesn't it? Maybe even 20, right? 20 times as many? And that's how simple it is. That's how you--rationalize making the choice between the mission and the men. 
HORVATH: Except this time, this mission is a man. 
Thus we see that Miller's mission conflict with everything he's been taught about leading men...don't care for them so much. Do not worry if they are killed. Carry on. BUT RYAN must not die. Miller's mission is to bring him back alive.
MILLER: This Ryan better be worth it. He'd better go home
and cure some disease or invent a longer-lasting light bulb or something. I wouldn't trade 10 Ryans for one Vecchio or one Caparzo.
NOTE: Do you see Miller's attitude, which is now expressed not just on the nose, but on Miller's sleeve?  Miller does not believe in this mission, and he's not willing to give his life for Ryan. Miller considers crazy Vecchio (a man who should not have been a Ranger) more important and Ryan.
HORVATH: Amen.
And his men clearly feel the same way.

-------------------------------------
(Miller's hand shakes.) 
MILLER: Look. There it goes again. 
HORVATH: Sir...are you all right? 
MILLER: Look, we're gonna move out in two hours. Why don't you get some sleep?
Interpretation: "Don't start caring for me, Horvath. It's against our constitution as soldiers."

CUT TO one of the men sleeping soundly.
PVT. REIBEN: I don't know how he does it. 
SOLIDER 1: What's that? 
PVT. REIBEN: Falls asleep like that. Look at him. He's lights-out the minute his head's down. 
SOLIDER 2: Clear conscience. 
The shot of the soldier sleeping is reminiscent of a child sleeping, safe in his bed at home. The men looking over him subliminally reminds us of parents...a mother...looking in on her child.
SOLIDER 3: What's that saying? 'If God's on our side, who's on theirs?' 
CORPORAL UPHAM: 'If God be for us, who could be against us?' 
SOLIDER 3Yeah, what did I say?
MEDIC WADE (transcribing Caparzo's letter): Well, actually, the trick to falling asleep is trying to stay awake. 
ANOTHER: How is that, Wade? 
MEDIC WADE: My mother was an intern, she worked late nights, slept through the day, so the only time we got to talk was when she'd get home. So I used to lie in my bed and try to stay awake, but it never worked 'cause the harder I tried, the faster I'd fall asleep.
More mother-child remembrances...and Miller hears all this.
PVT. REIBEN: That wouldn't have mattered in my house. My ma would've shook me awake, chatted till dawn. That woman was never too tired to talk.
ANOTHER: Probably the only time she could get a word in.
PVT. REIBEN: Funny thing is, sometimes she'd come home early, and I'd pretend to be asleep. 
ANOTHER: Who? You...your mom? 
PVT. REIBEN: (ZOOM IN) Yeah. She'd stand in the doorway
looking at me. And I'd just keep my eyes shut. I knew she just wanted to find out about my day, that she came home early... just to talk to me. (tears) And I still wouldn't move. l'd still pretend to just be asleep. I don't know why I did that.
 
This line by Reiben is significant to the director because we see a very slow zoom in on Reiben as he delivers it, tears come into his eyes, and the filmmakers milk the moment for every frame of emotion. It's the love of a son for a mother, and the love of the mother for a son. NOTE: Contrast this moment with the ridicule we heard earlier in the griping scene when the guys griped about getting Ryan back "for the sake of a mother." Their attitude now, in this moment of grace is pivoted 180 degrees.  Will Miller also shift? Will the hero change?

-------------------------------------
(silence - contemplation) 
MILLER: We only got a couple hours. Go to sleep.
This line is instructive for two reasons: (a) it reminds us that Miller is paying attention, and (b) he's uncomfortable with the topic and wants it to end.

But the filmmakers are not done. Miller is not yet convinced. So, we pile on more evidence for the argument that Miller needs to be willing to risk his life for Ryan, and truly believe the mission is important.
CORPORAL UPHAM: Captain? Sir? 
MILLER: Corporal?  How you doin' there? You all right?
CORPORAL UPHAM: Yeah, I think this is all good for me, sir. 
MILLER: Really? How is that? 
CORPORAL UPHAM: (quiet reflection): 'War educates the senses, calls into action the will, perfects the physical constitution, brings men into such swift and close collision in critical moments that man measures man.' 
MILLER: Yeah, well, I guess that's Emerson's way of finding the bright side. 
CORPORAL UPHAM: You know Emerson, sir? 
MILLER: I know some. 
CORPORAL UPHAM: So where are you from, Captain? What'd you do before the war? 
MILLER:  What's the pool up to? 
CORPORAL UPHAM: (taken back) You know, I think it's around 300, sir. 
MILLER: Well, when it gets up to 500, I'll give you the answers and we'll split the money. How about that? 
CORPORAL UPHAM: : Well, sir, I feel it's my duty under your command to suggest we wait until it gets to a thousand, sir.
MILLER: What if we don't live that long? 
CORPORAL UPHAM:  500? 
MILLER: 500 would be good, yeah. 
CORPORAL UPHAM: Yes, sir. 
MILLER: Yeah. Get some sleep, Corporal.
CORPORAL UPHAM: Yes, sir.
Those are the last spoken lines in the scene. But it continues for another 40 seconds as Miller walks off by himself and thinks, we suppose about Emerson's lines. Miller has to decide:
  • If war will educate his sensitivities.
  • If he can exercise his will, and not just those of his commanders.
  • If he has the physical disposition to do what is right for the right reasons.
  • If when critical decisions have to be made swiftly in close combat, he will measure up to his ideal of a man.
The camera zooms in and the swift light of explosions that bring sudden death illuminate his profile.

During the rest of the film, we see example of example of how Miller and his men come to see their mission with renewed dedication. There is no more griping, and many of them men give their lives willingly for the cause.

In the end, Miller willingly gives up his life to protect Ryan, acting out the sarcastic description early in Act 2.. As he lays dying on the bridge approach Miller tells Ryan: "Earn this! Earn this!" 

At the end of the movie,  an elderly Pvt. James Ryan comes to the graveyard at Omaha Beach to pay his respects to Captain Miller. He finds Miller's marker, and with tears in his eyes, the humble man, who probably didn't cure a disease or invent a longer lasting light bulb, delivers this soliloquy to Miller's grave:
OLDER RYAN: My family is with me today. They wanted to come with me. To be honest with you, I wasn't sure how I'd feel coming back here. Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. And I've tried to live my life the best I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that, at least in your eyes, I've earned what all of you have done for me.
Ryan's elderly wife, joined by their children, come up behind him, and tenderly grasps his shoulder. She sees he's been crying.
RYAN'S WIFE: James? 
OLDER RYAN: Tell me I've led a good life. 
RYAN'S WIFE: What? 
OLDER RYAN: Tell me I'm a good man. 
RYAN'S WIFE: You are.
NOTE: That although Pvt. Ryan (MATT DAMON) and his elder self Older James Ryan (HARRISON YOUNG) take up very little screen time, Ryan's life also has an arc...a hero's arc. At the bridge PVT. RYAN refuses to go with Miller and leave his platoon who guard the bridge. When the Germans show up and Miller is shot, Ryan experiences his Moment of Grace. Before he dies, Miller pleas with Ryan: Earn this. Earn this.

And evidently Ryan has earned it. Indeed it seems clear that Ryan has, everyday of his life, relived that Moment of Gerace on the bridge, and rededicated his life to strengthen the virtues for which Miller died. 

Therefore, the moral premise for SAVING PRIVATE RYAN seems to be:

Griping about one's mission in life, leads to questionable manhood and purpose; but
Devotion to one's mission in life, leads a man to a good and purposeful life.

Please know that your comments are welcome. 

You'll find a great deal of good instruction and come closer to mastering your storytelling skills by making use of my on-line Storycraft Training. Housed at Vimeo's VOD site, it can be accessed from http://storycrafttraining.blogspot.com/  Your rental or purchase of the training helps to fund my continued research and writing of essays like this. 

May your writing continue to Vanquish Fear, and Bestow Hope.

Stan Williams


This picture has nothing to do with this post, but I have admired this man all my adult life. It was fabulous to meet him and help introduce him at a film conference in Los Angeles a few years back. 

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