Saving Private Ryan and the Splendor of Truth


Saving Private Ryan, the Spielberg movie about World War II, bears an affinity to the structure and meaning of Veritatis splendor we have recently discussed. I would not at all suggest that Spielberg was influenced by Pope John Paul II, but rather, I would argue that the Splendor of Truth illuminates the human condition in its full sweep. And therefore, this movie, true to human experience, reveals the truth about morality and human existence.

The affinity I would suggest lies in the structure of the movie. It begins with the existential question about the good life (what must I do to be saved or redeemed?); it directly confronts the question of absolute moral norms and rejects the utilitarian solution as it affirms the over-riding importance of moral duty; and finally, it shows forth the beauty of the life of self-sacrifice to the point of martyrdom.

The very plot of the movie is framed by the quote from Abraham Lincoln concerning the sacrifice of the war dead as if upon an “altar” of freedom:

“Dear Madam: I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant-General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom. Yours very sincerely and respectfully, Abraham Lincoln.”

As a small footnote I must add that an association of Americans lay flowers upon every grave in Arlington Cemetery — they are called “No greater love,” dedicated to providing annual programs of remembrance, friendship and care for families who lost a loved one in the service of our country or by an act of terrorism. How fitting that they choose a passage from the Gospel of John concerning the sacrifice of the redeemer of man. Lincoln understood the close connection between sacrifice in war and the importance of reference to God and ultimate sacrifice.

The existential question occurs at the end of the movie, but it is the beginning of the narrative since the movie is presented as a flashback from that point. Ryan stands up from an act of kneeling at the grave of Captain Miller, the man who “saved” him, and asks his wife, “Tell me I have led a good life.” She is perplexed about the meaning of the question so he asks again “Tell me I am a good man.” She answers, “you are.” This is the all important question for personal existence — what is the good life?

But he is a good man only because he has been saved by Captain Miller. Captain Miller is a Christ figure, because he “saved” Ryan and because he stands for the truth of morality and he makes the ultimate sacrifice.

But as the rich young man asks at the beginning of his adult life, how can I be a good man, or what must I do to be saved, so Private Ryan reflects back on his life with grief and gratitude to ask the same question. How does one live a life that is worthy of redemption? Miller said to him, “earn it” or “Make yourself worthy of it” — make good use of your freedom is a worthy way.

The question of moral absolutes occurs in the middle of the movie when Miller’s group captures a German soldier. Some of the men wish to execute him — in part out of anger and revenge and in part out of calculation of utility. Captain Miller stands firm on the laws of war and does not allow his men to expend the life of this enemy soldier. The German returns at the end of the movie to kill more Americans. I recall a few Air Force cadets question the wisdom of this law of war (and moral precept) during a discussion in a class at the Air Force Academy. I worked through the moral argument; a few persisted and claimed that my lack of combat experience nullified my argument (Not “real world, sir” they exclaimed). So I brought into class my friend Bill Gibson, a Marine veteran of Vietnam combat, who told them that Marines do not execute prisoners and about his experience of a “real life” situation very similar to Miller’s. He released Viet Cong prisoners despite pressure to do otherwise. One must never act as an executioner or murderer. If one wishes to think through these issue I advise you to consult Elizabeth Anscombe’s magisterial article entitled “War and Murder,” found here.

Finally, the life of Captain Miller is given for the good of the men, the battle, and the country. He dies making the ultimate sacrifice. He is a hero. And his dying words are said to Private Ryan, “James, earn this. Earn it.”

We return to the cemetery with Ryan looking at Miller’s tombstone, the cross of Christ (row after row). Ryan says to Miller: “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. I’ve tried to live my life the best I could. I hope it was enough. I hope that at least in your eyes I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.”

Miller hopes that he has lived a life worthy of so great a redeemer. It took the scope of a life to manifest the dignity of the sacrifice. Is this movie, this story, not a testimony to the splendor of truth and an allegory for the redeemer of man?.

1 Comment
  1. good reviwe mate it was sure a great movie and fantastic aye ???

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