The other day a friend confirmed what I’d already read, that a scene depicting a marine invasion in Ridley Scott’s new Robin Hood owes a rather large debt to the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998). Apparently it blatantly copies some of the key visual elements, including the grainy, pixillated quality of the film and hand-held and distorted point-of-view techniques; closely recreates specific shots, as when arrows whiz by soldiers struggling in blood-soaked water; and even features dubiously authentic wooden personnel transports shaped like those used on D-Day.

None of this surprises me; Ridley Scott has been riffing on Private Ryan for years. Gladiator (2000) was the first time it was clear to me how much that one devastating sequence had changed the visual conventions of war and battle — something about the way the mud kicked up on the Germanic battlefield was frozen in the strobe-like distortion of the footage. Prior to this, technique would not have been so visible in a historical film; would have been thought to violate the audience’s illusion of witnessing history. But Private Ryan‘s use of overt technique to represent states of mind made it standard.

In fact I love Gladiator — I think it’s perfectly fine for a filmmaker to borrow from another great film. Scott continued the same trend in Black Hawk Down (2001) and Kingdom of Heaven (2005). You can see it in almost any film of any genre with a military element released in the last ten years. For example, Peter Jackson effectively used some of Spielberg’s methods to grunge up the fantasy battles in The Lord of the Rings.

I guess I should not go on about a film I’ve not seen. Truth is I don’t have a great desire to see Robin Hood. I’ll never stop respecting Ridley Scott, I enjoy watching Russell Crowe chew scenery, and I’m fascinated by British history. So why am I not interested? I guess because it looks like it’s no fun. Why is it necessary to have a grim and dour and historically “authentic” Hood? How can you authenticate a legend? Shouldn’t legends be unrealistic?

Even on its own terms it can’t be “authentic,” as any portrayal of history, however painstakingly researched, is necessarily compromised by modern attitudes. But somehow I think this will be lost on the same audiences who think of 300 as a definitive account of the Battle of Thermopylae.

I might be a bit more savvy than that but I certainly don’t exclude myself from this effect — I think it’s natural to trust any lavish and detailed presentation of history. Steven Spielberg exploited this tendency along with his mastery of cinematic narrative to widely change public perspectives on war. The opening sequence of Private Ryan is like a modern-day Odessa steps sequence: a great director takes an iconic moment in history and re-defines it with a virtuoso sequence, which then goes on to innovate filmmaking. There was no massacre in Odessa in 1905, but a lot of people don’t know that. The power of that sequence is such that it has nearly replaced the actual history. Similarly I get the feeling people identify Spielberg’s film with what happened at Normandy so much they get a bit confused. Even as I write this I can admit that when I think of D-Day, I think of Saving Private Ryan. Rightly or wrongly it has become a signifier of history.

How did Spielberg accomplish this? The power of the sequence, its ability to alter perceptions, comes from the shock it initially created. And I don’t just mean the realistic blood and carnage, which is one of the scene’s hallmarks. But Spielberg sought to disturb the audience on a much more fundamental level, by undermining cinematic conventions. He altered or did away with the rules of framing and editing and presentation of time — the devices that help us make sense of what’s happening onscreen in most movies. The result was visual chaos that was in itself a form of violence. Spielberg did violence to our ability to predict outcomes, to feel confident in the protagonists’ safety — the subtle visual cues making us assume the good guys will prevail or at least accomplish something. He took away our sense of control.

I use the past tense because the initial shock of this film has waned a good deal over the past twelve years. It’s become its own cinematic language, which is probably a reason to feel cynical about its use in a Robin Hood adaptation.

You could write a book about the 20-minute opening sequence. But just one moment at the start of it illustrates why it’s so memorable: the disembarking of the soldiers from the personnel transport. In any prior depiction of war, here you would have probably seen a medium-range external shot of the craft as it pulls onto the beach, followed by the ramp dropping and a low-angle shot of the soldiers stepping out, guns drawn, looking determined. In fact this is just what was done in The Longest Day (1962), the quintessential Hollywood D-Day epic. This visual style, in which the hero/protagonist is always at the center of things, was borrowed by film from painting and the theater; and it would have been utilized not just in the more gung-ho films, but even in those depicting war as tragic. The hero may be doomed, but he’s still a hero, still the primary subject of the camera, and his suffering or death is given narrative weight. Think of Willem Dafoe’s over-the-top death throes in Platoon.

Everything about the same moment in Saving Private Ryan is inside-out. The point of view is mostly kept claustrophobically inside the personnel transport. No enemy nor objective is seen. Handheld shots of men waiting; several of them are vomiting with seasickness. Uncomfortably close shots of men’s faces, grim or fearful; barring audience recognition of Tom Hanks, no knowing who they are with no exposition. Artillery striking in the water outside but not sure of the source. Then with alarming suddenness the ramp is opening — extreme closeup of its wheel turning. Awkward close external shot of the the ramp falling — instantly men are being cut down by machine gun fire; we aren’t sure who, water on the lens. Shaky footage inside of men hit by raining metal — several we just saw in closeup die unceremoniously. In a few seconds, several uncoordinated points of view of this chaos are edited together in a jumble. All sense of a subject is lost for the moment.

Eventually the sequence takes on a somewhat more discernible mode with Hanks as the protagonist — while still being brutally stylized and very hard to watch. And of course when this famous sequence is over, the movie becomes something more or less like a Hollywood film, though a terribly effective and heartrending one. But these shots set the tone and create an unsettled feeling that doesn’t go away.

Spielberg incorporated into a Hollywood narrative the unlovely, stubbornly unheroic shapes and forms of combat photography. Compare the famous photo of Omaha Beach below with the still from The Longest Day. The subjects, backs to us, are indistinguishable helmets and rucksacks in the water at a medium range. There is no enemy in sight. The unremarkable hull of the transport itself is the only thing in focus. I’ve always liked the detail of the plastic bag left lying on the deck.

While writing my friend about this it occurred to me as if for the first time that while Spielberg was giving up the conventions of war or action films, he actually replaced them to some degree with those of horror films. Specifically the modern subgenre of horror (which Spielberg himself helped innovate) in which the protagonist vies with a terrible force that cannot be understood or reasoned with — zombies, rampaging dinosaurs, aliens, sharks. This is subtly apparent in the same scene: the sound of the artillery getting closer, the apprehension of the men, the sense of foreboding, the spinning wheel of the ramp about to open on something we might be afraid to see.

Leaving aside the plot of the rest of the film, and looking just at this series of shots and the way they are meant to make the audience feel, the “bad guys” are not the unseen Germans firing from the beach. It’s the metal in the air itself, the destruction and calamity itself that Spielberg treats as a movie monster. Not coincidentally it was the horror genre that made blood and gore acceptable in Hollywood. And note that protagonists of horror films are much less likely to be “heroic” — they tend to be frail and human in contrast to the merciless entities they are pitted against.

Interesting that Ridley Scott was behind one of the great horror films, Alien, which innovatively employed similar visual and narrative methods to disturb audiences. So it goes both ways; and maybe he’s earned it a bit.

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