In 1933, a Hungarian Jew named Endre Friedmann was living in Berlin and working as a photographer. But with the rise of Hitler and increasing oppression and peril for Jews in Germany, he decided to flee to Paris. Unable to find much work as a photojournalist in Paris, Friedmann changed his name to an “American-sounding” name—Robert Capa. With his new, non-Jewish-sounding name, he was able to find much more work. Three years after his arrival in Paris, civil war broke out in Spain between the Loyalists (Republicans) and the Fascists (led by Gen. Francisco Franco.) The ensuing war became the prelude for World War II, and Capa was right in the middle of it.
It was during the Battle of Brunete that Capa took what became one of the greatest war photos ever taken. The photo, entitled “The Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death,” is below:
Capa’s photo which captures that raw, horrible moment was a transformative event—not just in photojournalism, but in our thinking about war itself. While other photojournalists had shown the devastating aftermaths of battle, this photo showed battle itself, in all its horrifying intensity. This was not the honored dead scattered on the battlefield. This was a single man, dying in battle, violently and alone. It was terrible and real.
Later, in 1944, Capa was the only photographer who went ashore on D-Day at Omaha Beach with US troops. Below is one of Capa’s images from that landing.
Capa’s photographs of the D-Day landing and of the falling soldier at the moment of his death form, for me at least, the visual vocabulary that Steven Spielberg tapped into in the unforgettable opening 20-minute sequence of Saving Private Ryan (1998). Capa’s influence seems quite clear in this sequence, which is rightly regarded as one of the greatest war scenes ever put on film. It is brutal, terrifyingly real, and shocking. The man who gave us E.T. (1982) used his considerable talents to make us see—the way Robert Capa did a couple generations earlier—the true horrors of war.
War pictures have been a staple of cinema since the 1920s, so the violence of war is not unfamiliar to film audiences. But the opening war sequence in Saving Private Ryan was something entirely new. Stephen Ambrose, a veteran of D-Day at Omaha Beach whose memoir was an inspiration for the film, was granted a pre-release screening of the film. At the end of this sequence, Ambrose stood up, waved his hand to the projectionist, and asked that the film be stopped. It was too real and evoked too many memories for Ambrose.
Spielberg put the audience in the middle of the melee, and made us feel the horror of war—the way Capa had done with his photos—and thereby changed how war is depicted in film. In the years since the release of the movie, Saving Private Ryan made the conventional war movie impossible. Think of A Bridge Too Far (1977), which deals with a similar part of World War II. That film made the war seem a bit too much like a glorious but complicated adventure in logistics. Granted, an adventure in which people were killed, but not in the muddy, terrifying way Spielberg portrays it. The killing is random and violent and the soldiers are determined but scared. They vomit and scream… and still move forward.
Another 1998 film that dealt with the horror of war in gory reality is Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. Based on James Jones’ novel of the same name (he was also the author of From Here to Eternity (1953), by the way). Malick’s movie is dreamier and angrier than Saving Private Ryan, a combination that Malick managed to pull off well. Visually, Malick is among the best directors over the past fifty years, and this film is no exception.
One of the most controversial movies in this group is Ridley Scott’s thrilling Black Hawk Down (2001). The controversy is not whether the story being told is accurate, which it largely is, but in the questions it raises about entering war-torn areas. The film is based on a long series of articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer which were later turned into a book about the disastrous U.S. presence in Somalia in the midst of a violent civil war. The original screenplay (and the original cut of the film) raised many more questions about the wisdom of our presence there. Nevertheless, this is still a movie worth seeing, if only as a cautionary tale about entering war zones without a clear mission and exit strategy. The sense of confusion and “where the hell am I?” feeling you get watching the invasion of Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan is echoed here in the street battles of Mogadishu.
The Hurt Locker (2008) was the surprise Best Picture winner in its release year, as well as Best Adapted Screenplay winner. This film provides an unflinching look at the psychological impact that the stress of war takes on a group of U.S. soldiers who defuse landmines and bombs in Iraq. They are targets of the insurgents. The nerve-wracking work they do and the looming sense that any of them could die at any moment has rarely been portrayed in a more honest way. Jeremy Renner is particularly outstanding. Again, we see war as raw and emotional.
Finally, we have Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017), an old-fashioned war epic, but one made in the post-Private Ryan era. This immense movie depicts one of the darkest moments of World War II—the British evacuation from the French seaside town of Dunkirk after the British had suffered a humiliating defeat to the Nazis in the battle for France. If defeat can be heroic, this story shows how. Highly recommended.
Which brings me back to Robert Capa. I would like to pitch a biopic about this remarkable man, who changed the way we see and understand war. Capa and Spielberg both perfectly executed in their work the observation of US Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman:
“War is cruelty and you cannot refine it.”
Saving Private Ryan gave us the unvarnished look and feel and sound of war. And it changed how war movies have been made ever since.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.