PUBLISHED 17 APR 2017
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is the story of a platoon of soldiers who try to retrieve one soldier from the front line after his brothers die in the line of duty. The most iconic part of the film is the opening scene, which depicts the battle of Normandy where thousands of American, British and Canadian troops stormed the beach of Omaha. The film has been praised by veterans as one of the most accurate cinematic expression of war. The film does not shy away from the violence of war but accurately illustrates the horrifying spectacle of it through both the visuals and audio. It is filmed in a way that is claustrophobic and jarring for the audience. It puts you right in the heart of the action and the terror. Due to this limited perspective, the sound must express so much more than is normally required. The film cannot show the true scope of the battle due to the fact that it is limited to one man’s perspective, therefore the diegetic sound must show the overwhelming scope of the battle.
The true impact of the opening scene, though, is the choice of soundtrack or, in this case, the lack thereof. With no music on top of the action, it completely grounds the audience in the film allowing them to experience the soldier’s perspective without being reminded they are in a film. On this choice, the film's sound designer Gary Rydstrom said that “what I think that opening battle scene especially does is pull you in and have you experience battle in a very direct way”. While the opening section of the sequence proceeds without the need for any music, that is not the case for the end of the scene.
Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) stares out at the remains of the battle witnessing the multitude of dead bodies as they are coated with waves of blood. As he stares on, John Williams' non-diegetic score begins to play, bringing home the true tragedy of scene. The score is what really makes the scene so emotionally jarring. With its unflinching orchestral sound, reminiscent of the US national anthem, we can really start to understand the scale of the sacrifices that were made that day. The heart-wrenching score plays in tandem with the gore so that you really feel you are experiencing this tragedy through the eyes of the soldiers. Film editor Walter Murch once said, “Although music is an effective rallier of emotions - it can provoke emotions in people - it’s best used in the film as something that directs or channels emotions that are already present”. This is no more accurate than in the aftermath of the battle. SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is a perfect example of when to use music but more importantly recognising when its absence will have a more profound effect. The fact the subject matter is such a significant event in history only heightens this and Spielberg does it a great service in keeping the scene as realistic as possible but nowhere is this more true than in the use of sound.
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