Upham and Scot
Exploring The Idea of Cowardice Through Steven Spielberg’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’
“Does it really hold up once you get past the D-Day scene?” my friend asks me when I tell him I recently re-watched 1998’s Saving Private Ryan in its entirety for the first time in years. I reassure him Steven Spielberg's World War II masterpiece does indeed “hold up.” In fact, it does much more than I ever thought when my heart was first captured by what remains one of the greatest representations of the American WWII experience in contemporary cinema. It does more because it shows what many of its counterparts do not: Fear.
Tom Hanks’s Captain Miller, the subtly mysterious, wizened leader of the band of brothers sent into France to find Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) suffers from a physical trauma. The group’s sniper, Private Jackson (Barry Pepper), is seen kissing his crucifix as he dodges fire on the beaches of Normandy, where armoured men scream for their mothers. Jewish soldier Private Mellish (Adam Goldberg) breaks down after the Allies take the beach, crumpling to his knees when he’s shown a Hitler Youth knife, and finally coming face to face with the evil that has likely wiped out his family left behind in Europe. “…and now it’s a Shabbat Challah cutter, right?” he jokes through tears.
Courage, duty, and decency are the three main themes of Spielberg’s film, an ode to his veteran father (like most of his movies), but fear, and the deep humanity of it, are the bedrock on which they lie. Saving Private Ryan emphasizes that even brave men feel fear, in fact it is that fear birthed from the innate disgust and dread invoked by the loss of life, that keeps these soldiers from becoming apathetic, killing machines. Miller’s men don’t want to go kill Nazis like Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds. They want to stop suffering. Saving Private Ryan is not about the action-packed D-Day scene, it’s about the humanity of the men who fought on that beach.
However Spielberg and writer Robert Rodat give us an extremity of fear to test their thesis: Corporal Upham played by Jeremy Davies. The bookish, inexperienced Upham is the foil to the hardened men of the 2nd Ranger Battalion. He is naïve and thinks the war he’s a part of is still a distant concept laid out in field manuals. He doesn’t want to fight. He’s afraid, not least because of his lack of combat experience. “Sir, I haven’t held a gun since basic training,” he tells Captain Miller. “Did you fire that weapon in basic training?” Miller hangs over him, silently explaining that this war is going to take more instinct than trained skill to get by.
Upham is brought on as a translator for the Rangers and, more importantly, he serves as an interpreter of this world for us, the audience. In many ways he is us, and through him we are forced to live out real possibilities of what it’s like to experience war for the first time. That is the power of cinema, to see ourselves put into far less likely situations than we encounter in our day to day lives.
Too often this is done in a masturbatory way: an everyman is thrown into a dire situation and he locks in to save the day, no problem. That is entertaining, sometimes allegorical cinematic fantasy, but when it is applied to real world events, the line is blurred between fantasy and the hypothetical. How can one answer “what would I do?” when our on-screen avatars are consistently super-cop John McClane? Upham is still a fictional character, but what is extracted most from the real soldiers he’s based upon are his human elements. Once again, it’s about his intuition, not his skills.
Herein lies the ugly truth that Spielberg presents us: what if our humanity gets in the way of our duty? What if our intuition fails the test of action? Are men still heroes when their fear paralyzes them?
In the climactic battle of the film, Private Mellish becomes locked in hand-to-hand combat with a German soldier. It is an incredibly intimate and discomforting scene. Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński are able to capture the physical toil and desperation from both men who could kill or be killed if they let up just one bit of survivalist strength. What adds to the tension of the scene is Upham who stands a floor below, frozen in fear, and covered in unused ammunition belts, failing second by second to do what he was ordered to: Help.
Mellish is eventually killed in a tragic, slow, and excruciating way — with the very Hitler Youth knife he pocketed at the start of the film. Upham falls to the foot of the staircase hearing the yelling, then gargling of blood, and finally the silence of his dead comrade. His assailant emerges and spares Upham out of pity, further shaming the man who failed to act.
Does this disqualify Upham from the respect we give to WWII veterans, if not all veterans, seemingly by default? Whereas we shed tears for the film’s other fallen characters, who have been hardened by taking the life of equally dutiful, but opposing soldiers, do we scorn Upham, the survivor of the fray who has taken no lives?
As I re-watched Upham’s hesitation, and looked at the agony with which Davies portrays him, I couldn’t help but think of Scot Peterson, the security guard at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where on February 14th, 2018 seventeen people, including fourteen children, were shot and killed by a nineteen year-old boy. As if more important than the event itself, much noise was made about Peterson, who did not enter the school grounds as the shooter carried out his assault, and now he is back in the news as he faces potential prison sentencing. Not a day after the shooting, numerous news outlets petitioned for and released security camera footage of the horror, subsequently revealing Peterson did not enter the crisis zone for twenty-six minutes. The assault lasted approximately six minutes.
Dismay. Frustration. Anger. The Id runs rampant when confronted with the horror of the Parkland massacre (and the countless other American Mass shootings before and after it…). Meanwhile, our media culture enables the Ego to easily takes control instead. Anger becomes personalized hatred. Hatred drives retaliation. American aggression is symptomatic of a constant sensationalism perpetuated by the constant, muddying flood of news, entertainment, and advertising. Viewers are offered factual information like films “based on a true story”, and so Peterson was transformed into a character in a narrative instead of another human being in a real occurrence. Peterson’s non-intervention was publicly crystallized as inaction, or worse neglect. He became a scapegoat, especially for those who wished to draw the public’s attention away from the firearms debate or the fact that the shooter was a single White youth with neo-fascist leanings. Ultimately it boils down to one accusation: Fear, which we demonize, never empathize.
Peterson defended himself in court, but he could not defend himself in the film of his life. He became a character without agency (unfortunately for him, Steven Spielberg was not directing this film.) Media did not present him as an Upham, nor even as Norman from David Ayer’s Fury or Chris from Oliver Stone’s Platoon, two films that epitomize cynical, anti-establishment, “war-is-hell” cinema. Media is infested by this approach to weaponized bloodshed. Violence is always a thief of innocence, a robber of goodness, and it always wins. Anything ambiguous is as evil as the tragedy in which it finds itself. Such absolutist simplification is the methodology of both advertising and propaganda. We as viewers no longer have independence. We must always choose one of two sides.
I fear that cinema and the news it has so influenced have eliminated the cinematic avatar. The current day and age, played out especially in the election of 2016, speaks to a deeper weakness in the current American zeitgeist. Through media obsession, dialogue-less instant communication, and monetized media barrage we have culturally and socially submitted to authoritarian entertainment. It is no surprise that in a time where celebrities have more influence than other public figures, that the American people sacrifice so much decision-making power to them. No longer are characters created as vessels for entertainment through experiential simulation. Characters are declared finite, with their interpretations even fixed into prescribed interpretations. Nostalgia culture, capitalization on fandom, and an overall cynicism towards failed infrastructure have birthed overly self-aware entertainment. It is non-creative art, a culture embodied by a snake eating itself with nothing to offer us back for our ticket fee. But for a slight distraction, we gain nothing from entertainment anymore.
At the end of Saving Private Ryan, as the American bombers save the remaining Rangers from certain death, Upham and the audience’s egos sync up. In the relief of good conquering evil, we demand ultimate justice — every loose end be tied up. We want a piece of the pie. As Germans surrender, Upham fires his gun (for the first time since basic training) to kill a German soldier, nicknamed Steamboat Willie, who he had saved from a revenge execution earlier in the film, and who had subsequently fallen back into line once free.
Our instinct is to redeem Upham for his earlier inaction. Upham has now learned the true meaning that evaded him for so long — FUBAR, Fucked Up Beyond All Reason. That’s what war is, even a “good war”. Yet Spielberg is not presenting the jaded, moral ambiguity of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket or Ayer’s Fury. Spielberg’s message is that War is FUBAR, but soldiers don’t have to be. Miller’s final words to Ryan are for him to earn his return home, and the glory that will accompany it. Upham, meanwhile has failed his own standard. His morality is compromised by malice, instead of simply being tested by and victorious over duty.
We cheer Upham’s transformation into another of the cynical military archetypes, the innocent swept up in the fog of war, making their “own brand of justice” i.e. vigilantism. It’s no surprise how pervasive that is in American culture, where superheroes serve as saints and new gods while the anti-establishment culture upon which the nation was founded nihilistically mutates against its own government and infrastructure from inside and out. Steamboat Willie fell back into rank like a good soldier must. For this he is murdered. He is murdered by a young man who craves moral validation in the wake of his own insecurity around his fear, unawares that that human side of him, shared by the rest of his battalion, is what validated him all along. How many young police officers seemingly fall victim to this same phenomenon — this submission to the Id — consequently abusing their power or using excessive force, particularly on African Americans in the United States?
We are released from our trial run at warfare at the end of Saving Private Ryan. Upham commits his sin and completes his devolution, releasing the audience back to their own bodies. We recall, as an elderly James Ryan asks his wife if he’s led a decent life, that we were not always in Upham’s place. Spielberg put us with Miller first and we were handed off. At the start of the film, Captain Miller literally serves as our eyes, watching the horrors of D-Day and the monstrosity of war. Still our moral compass within the chaos is calibrated when we see two American soldiers shoot surrendering Germans and laugh. Miller’s disgust is all we need to know to establish that Upham’s repetition of this act is not a side-effect of war, but a symptom of amorality. Whereas they seem morally equal at the start of their journey together, Upham becomes the antithesis of Captain Miller and the only true villain in the film. He is the only man who kills for revenge, not duty.
A young soldier shrinks in the face of true fear and he is considered a failure. A security guard freezes in the midst of unexpected terror and he is publicly shamed. That same soldier kills an unarmed prisoner in an act of guilt and revenge. Current society dubs him a hero. What must that security guard do for absolution of his non-sin? This is the chain of logic currently imposed upon the plugged-in public from the American political-entertainment industrial complex.
As romantic and simplified as Steven Spielberg’s body of work has been accused of being, his ability to explore human ethics and morality is among the finest in the history of film-making. With Upham, Spielberg gives us a chance to say “what would I do?” and realize that “I too would be scared” and “I would fight” are both correct answers. Saving Private Ryan is is an example of a crucial, yet dying style of cinema and entertainment that returns agency to the viewer after an ordeal is played out. Watching Scot Peterson on that CCTV footage, we were not given that same opportunity and we are all the weaker for it.