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Saving Private Ryan

Dreamworks/Paramount . R4 . COLOR . 163 mins . MA15+ . PAL


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Caravan of courage.
As those who have seen documentaries on the Allied invasion that was the turning point in World War 2 will know all too well, the campaign that was to become known as D-Day was, for many of those who were there, one of the most horrifying and deadly moments of the war. But for the American troops who landed at Omaha Beach, that horror was indescribable. Aerial bombing raids on the German’s defences had been less than effective, and the US troops found themselves at the receiving end of a massive hail of German bullets and shells, many of them killed before they had even left their landing crafts. History records that, despite incredible losses, the D-Day troops managed to take the beach and start on their way inland towards Paris. But the experience of being part of this invasion is almost impossible to describe through words and hazy documentary footage. Indeed, much that is written today about D-Day focuses - understandably - on the heroism of the men involved and their eventual triumph.

In filming the opening scenes of Robert Rodat’s screenplay Saving Private Ryan, though, Steven Spielberg came closer than anyone before in trying to put the viewer not only on the beach, but actually into the perspective of the men of the American forces on that day. The result - an opening half hour sequence that is shattering in its realism and ruthless in its depiction of violence - is possibly the best simulation of World War 2 combat ever committed to film. We’re with the soldiers in their landing boats on the way to Omaha Beach. We’re right there when the ramps are lowered and bullets instantly cut down a half dozen soldiers. We’re there in the water with deadly pellets zinging around amongst the chaos and confusion, and when a young soldier lies on the beach clutching helplessly to keep his intestines inside him, screaming for his mother in the face of certain death. All of it is captured on film using hand-held cameras operating at incredibly fast shutter speeds, lending the footage a startlingly visceral quality that’s enhanced by the use of the “bleach bypass” process, which gives the images an almost surreal, silver-grey look. It’s jaw-droppingly compelling stuff, and all the more sobering when you stop to realise that this isn’t fiction - this massacre actually happened to these mostly young, inexperienced soldiers.

But Saving Private Ryan isn’t really a film about the D-Day landings at all. The Omaha Beach landing depicted is a necessary prelude to the real aim of the film, which is to give an insight into the way such a brutal war affects human beings. After finally taking the beach, Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) is ordered on a mission to find and return home Private James Ryan, who has parachuted further into France with an airborne division and cannot be easily contacted. Though he doesn’t know it yet, Ryan’s three brothers have all been killed in combat - one on Omaha Beach - and the Army wants him, the only remaining son, sent home to comfort his grieving mother. Captain Miller assembles a small group of soldiers and sets out to find Ryan, a journey that will not be easy, and one which not all of them will survive.

Spielberg vividly contrasts the faceless carnage of the landing with the very personal and shocking deaths of some of the soldiers during their mission. Thousands have died on the beach, including many close friends of the surviving men. Yet the nature of this mission - which many of the men see as pointless - causes them to question the value they place on their own lives as well as the lives of their friends. And as events unfold, some of the men commit acts of revenge and rage that they themselves would probably never have thought themselves capable of mere days beforehand.

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Storming the beach.

Saving Private Ryan won Spielberg the 1998 Best Director Oscar, and it’s not hard to see why. As with the remarkable Schindler’s List (sadly yet to appear on DVD), Spielberg strikes the perfect balance between visceral, confronting horror and poignant human drama, and his deft touch is evident throughout this film, particularly in his inspired use of camera framing and movement as well as sound (the soundtrack here is as important an element as the images). Rodat’s screenplay is mostly low-key and unsensational - though there are a few needlessly blatant attempts to tug at the heartstrings - and the acting is spot on across the entire cast. Hanks, a perfect choice for Captain Miller, genuinely breathes life into his character, and the rest of the cast seem inspired by that.

The near-three-hour running time of Saving Private Ryan might seem daunting, but rest assured that this skilfully-assembled movie never drags for a moment - in fact, the film seems substantially shorter than it actually is. If you’ve been avoiding Saving Private Ryan because you don’t like war movies, think again. While most certainly set against the background of a bloody World War 2 conflict, this is a human drama first and a war adventure second - though squeamish viewers should be warned that there are some very brutal scenes here (though it does seem ironic in some way that the Australian censors labelled this film with an MA rating for “graphic war scenes” - graphic they may be, but gratuitous they most certainly are not).


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The preparation begins.
If ever there was a challenging movie to transfer well to DVD, Saving Private Ryan is it. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s extensive use of high speed film, fast shutter speeds and unconventional film processing means that not only is there a fair amount of film grain visible in many scenes, but there are also several lengthy sequences - particularly the opening and closing battles - shot almost entirely with hand held cameras operating at very high shutter speeds. This means that every single frame of the film appears razor-sharp and detailed, rather than the semi-blurred images that make up a normally photographed movie. The visual result is stunning and exciting - the technique creates a sense of heightened reality that transports the viewer right into the middle of the action. But with so many sharply defined frames to encode in such a long movie, the people doing the authoring of this disc were in for a challenge.

Reportedly, the compressionists who handled Saving Private Ryan’s DVD encoding spent several long days on it, making sure they delivered as faithful a final product as possible. And looking at the R4 disc, there is no reason to think that this MPEG stream didn’t come from the same compressionists - in terms of compression quality, it’s as good as identical to its R1 counterpart (and encoded at a near-identical average bitrate). The film-to-video transfer, too, was almost certainly done by the same telecine team (with, of course, the obligatory change in frame rate for PAL shortening the film’s running time slightly).

Which of course means that R4 customers are in for a treat. Not only is the transfer to video as crisply defined and true to the director’s intentions as the R1 version, the 16:9 DVD video compression is as good as - if not slightly better than - the original US disc. The real bonus here, though, is obvious during the many slow dolly and tracking shots that Spielberg uses throughout the film. On the R1 disc, these frequently resulted in a very visibly juddering image, thanks to the evils of the “3:2 pulldown” method that has to be used in NTSC to turn 24 frames per second into 30. On the R4 disc, though, these shots are as smooth as silk, and that’s more important with this film than you’d think. One good example for comparison purposes is the scene during the film’s prologue of a slow crane-mounted pan shot across a field of white crosses - keep an eye on the foreground in the R1 version, then compare it to the new R4 disc and feel happy.

Some concern was raised at the time of the R1 release about the vertical “streaks of light” seen from time to time throughout Saving Private Ryan. These, though, are not compression artefacts - they were a by-product of the unusual film processing used for much of the movie, and were left in the final film completely intentionally.

Incidentally, the disc’s aspect ratio was incorrectly listed on the back of the Dreamworks R1 disc as 1.85:1 - the actual transferred ratio is 1.78:1, which Paramount correctly signify on their R4 back cover.


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Total Chaos!
With the legendary Gary Rydstrom as sound designer and both he and Gary Summers participating in the sound mix, this was always going to sound good. And those with big-budget surround audio will find this a veritable thrill ride - bullets ricochet around the sound stage during battles and explosions thunder from all directions, while the sound of approaching German tanks later in the film will test the hardiest subwoofer as well as the structural quality of the building you live in. But even the less chaotic sections of the film are graced with wonderfully subtle and realistic sound effects to accompany the crystal-clear dialogue. This is a truly immersive audio experience, and the audio track does as much to place the audience in the film’s world as the images do.

The Dolby Digital soundtrack is encoded at the higher bitrate of 448Kbit/sec, which seems to be standard policy for Paramount, something that’s great to see. Unlike the R1 disc, there is no Dolby Surround 2.0 track here, but the 5.1 track downmixes exceptionally well to two channels and sounds virtually identical to the 2.0 track on comparison anyway.

John Williams’ evocative orchestral score is superbly rendered throughout.

Another version of this disc was released in region 1 with a DTS soundtrack, but it’s unlikely many will be disappointed by the quality of the Dolby Digital audio here.


A co-production between Dreamworks and Paramount, Saving Private Ryan was released by Dreamworks in the US and by Paramount in the rest of the world, hence its appearance as one of Paramount’s initial batch of region 4 DVDs. But Spielberg and Dreamworks are obviously very hands-on in terms of the content of their overseas DVDs - this R4 version is almost identically featured to its R1 counterpart, with the only missing item being A Special Message From Steven Spielberg, a two and a half minute straight-to-camera plea for donations to the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans. It may be an appropriate cause, but you’re not missing anything compelling by not seeing this piece, which played back immediately after the film’s conclusion as well as being accessible on the Special Features menu.

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Saving Bournes Identity

The menus on the R4 disc are, thankfully, the same as the incredibly stylish and smooth fully animated menus on the R1 disc, though they don’t operate quite as smoothly and do seem to have blurred very slightly in the conversion to PAL. Every screen has its own fully animated transition, most have sound and the scene selection menus are full-motion. The “audio” menu has been removed for the R4, as there is only the one Dolby Digital 5.1 track on the disc (the R1 also contained a Dolby Surround track).

The other main differences are purely cosmetic - the film’s opening Dreamworks and Paramount logos are reversed in appearance order, reflecting the different principal distributor. And unlike the R1 disc, which dropped viewers to the main menu on pressing the play button, Paramount’s disc commendably goes straight into the movie after a ten-second copyright screen.

The same four-panel colour leaflet provided with the R1 disc is included here.

Into The Breach - Saving Private Ryan: A 25 minute featurette which goes into cursory detail about the production of the film as well as the D-Day invasion itself, using archival footage, clips from the film and interviews with Spielberg, Hanks and other key participants. Though hardly a definitive documentary on the making of Saving Private Ryan, there is some interesting information to be found here. Video quality is decidedly average, with a fair amount of video noise present and the interview footage looking slightly blurred. This is actually not the result of NTSC to PAL conversion - the featurette on the R1 disc looks like this as well.

Theatrical Trailer: The original pre-release trailer for the film, which focuses largely on the human elements of the story. Video quality is good, though this letterboxed trailer is not 16:9 enhanced. Audio is Dolby Digital 2.0.

Re-Release Trailer: The trailer issued to promote the film’s return to American theatres in anticipation of the Academy Awards, making much of its appearance on over 150 critics’ top ten lists for the previous year. This trailer focuses much more on the film’s battles, the choice of music slightly at odds with the director’s intentions for those scenes. Once again, this trailer is letterboxed but not 16:9 enhanced, and features Dolby Digital 2.0 audio.

Cast And Crew: Biographies and filmographies for eleven of the principal cast members and ten of the filmmakers. Nicely designed and well written, these are above average for on-disc bios.

Production Notes: An on-screen version of the text in the supplied colour “booklet”.


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It doesn't rain like this anymore.
A truly remarkable movie that captures - arguably better than any other film before it save for Spielberg’s own Schindler’s List - the horrors of World War 2. But Saving Private Ryan is much more than that - it’s a film that places human characters in the midst of this horror, lets us get to know them and then shows us the effect such brutal conflict can have on ordinary young men.

Beautifully - and often innovatively - filmed, and acted to perfection by a perfect ensemble cast, Saving Private Ryan is one of Steven Spielberg’s finest moments, and a film that everyone with a love of film should see, regardless of whether or not you’re interested in World War 2 or war movies in general.

Paramount’s disc faithfully presents the film with exceptional quality, and their R4 disc is easily on a par with, if not better than, Dreamworks’ region 1 release. Very highly recommended.

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