The Cinema Behind Star Wars: Saving Private Ryan

Steven Spielberg's World War II masterpiece has influenced Star Wars films and animation.

When a director like Steven Spielberg tackles the subject of World War II in contexts outside of the Indiana Jones films, it’s almost sure to be something special. With 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, he brought the most heartbreaking reality to the landings in Normandy ever committed to screen. He redefined what a war film should look and feel like, setting a new standard that can be seen in virtually every war film from then on.

Although the gritty hand-held style, staccato frame rates, realistic gore, and desaturated colors don’t lend themselves to the sort of thing you’d see in a Star Wars film, Saving Private Ryan certainly influenced what would become possible with the battles in Star Wars.

George Lucas would bring hints of this handheld style into Attack of the Clones when the Grand Army of the Republic makes landfall on Geonosis. These are some of our first handheld sorts of shots in war sequences in Star Wars, as the clones battle against the droids in dust clouds. Lucas was able to take the inspiration of the way war films were viewed by contemporary audiences and adapt that to the style of Star Wars. The Battle of Geonosis had many of the documentary-style elements of filmmaking that made Saving Private Ryan so visceral, from the shaking cameras to crash zooms and whip pans. The billowing sand was able to bring some of that desaturation to the war sequences in Attack of the Clones, but Lucas was able to add that Star Wars flair, having the color of blaster bolts contrast starkly against the sand and almost popping off the screen.

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The crew of Star Wars: The Clone Wars took this inspiration a step further in “Landing at Point Rain,” which is the fifth episode of Season Two. Anakin, Ahsoka, Obi-Wan, and Ki-Adi Mundi lead a desperate assault to destroy one of the main droid foundries on Geonosis. The whole battle echoes that feeling from Attack of the Clones (and Saving Private Ryan before it), but doubles down on the feeling. In fact, there are moments in the episode that would be impossible to tell the difference between Attack of the Clones and The Clone Wars, so high is the quality of animation. In another echo from the Normandy landing in Saving Private Ryan when a flame-throwing soldier flames a German pillbox, so too do Ki-Adi Mundi’s clones wield them in caves, attacking Geonosians and droids alike.

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Another major sequence in Saving Private Ryan features Vin Diesel’s character, Private Caparzo, trying to help a little girl in a rubble-strewn street. The film works hard to show us the cost of war on the innocents caught up in the conflict as well as the consequences that having very human emotions in such an amoral place can have. This was reflected on The Clone Wars in the episode “Innocents of Ryloth.” Clones Waxer and Boil come through a bombed out city on Ryloth and find Numa, a little girl that may as well be a stand in for the little girl Caparzo wants to save in Ryan.

You’ll see some of the most direct references that can’t be coincidences in Revenge of the Sith. The beach landing of Kashyyyk mirrors some of the same shots from Saving Private Ryan in very interesting ways. There’s a shot of a clone trooper looking down on the battle from a sniper’s nest in the same way Spielberg shot the German soldiers looking down on the Americans climbing up Omaha beach. Is this Lucas telling us something about the clones at this stage of the conflict and what side they’re on? I wouldn’t put it past him.

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Star Wars shares many crossovers with Saving Private Ryan as far as the crew is concerned. Naturally, Ryan shares its composer, John Williams, with Star Wars, but that’s not the only one. Gary Rydstrom won an Academy Award for Best Sound for his work on Saving Private Ryan and went almost immediately to work on the sound team for The Phantom Menace and earned an Academy Award nomination for that film, as well. Rydstrom returned to work on Attack of the Clones and The Force Awakens. On The Force Awakens, Rydstrom was primarily responsible for Rey’s flashback, one of the most haunting sequences of the film, primarily for the audio beneath it.

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The Force Awakens won’t be the last we see of Saving Private Ryan’s influence on Star Wars, though. Neil Corbould, the special effects supervisor from Saving Private Ryan, will handle the same duties on Rogue One.

Saving Private Ryan is a powerful film that shows us the haunting effects of war on the soldiers who fight it. The film is a gut-punching reality check about how awful war can be and how jaded soldiers can become. It is R for “intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence, and for language.” I re-watched it for this column with my son, Anakin, who is 14, and it was affecting in all the right ways and was horrifying, which I think is the intention of the film. In our discussion afterward, we talked about the terrifying cost of war and it was nothing short of enlightening. There should be nothing glorified or pretty about war and Saving Private Ryan shows us the struggle soldiers go through in order to maintain some piece of their humanity in the most inhuman of circumstances. Spielberg is at the top of his game with this film and it should be high on the viewing list of Star Wars fans, cinephiles, and World War II buffs.

Availability: Saving Private Ryan is widely available on DVD and Blu-ray and is available on most streaming platforms for a modest rental fee.

Bryan Young is an author, a filmmakerjournalist, and the editor in chief of BigShinyRobot.com! He’s also the co-host of the Star Wars podcast, Full of Sith.

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