One could make the argument that the main theme of Steven Spielberg’s World War II film Saving Private Ryan is the ambivalence of morality. Much is made during the course of the film’s opening sequences about the suffering inherent in war and the sacrifices made by individuals and families. War...
One could make the argument that the main theme of Steven Spielberg’s World War II film Saving Private Ryan is the ambivalence of morality. Much is made during the course of the film’s opening sequences about the suffering inherent in war and the sacrifices made by individuals and families. War involves sacrifices.
Many of those sacrifices are idealized as made in the interest of the preservation of liberty, and that is fair and usually accurate. Many of those sacrifices take place out of love for one’s fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines. In other words, the broader national goal is subordinated out in the field to the more personal goal of getting him alive while helping one’s colleagues similarly return alive to their families.
At the film’s core, however, is the question of the morality of sacrificing one’s life for the preservation of that of another when that other is a complete stranger and the number to be sacrificed for the benefit of the one is many. Captain John Miller’s squad of reluctant but skilled soldiers repeatedly express this view. Why risk their lives for the benefit of Private James Ryan, whom they do not know and about whom they couldn't care less?
There is a key exchange midway through Saving Private Ryan that captures the theme of morality and the ambivalence of soldiers to the morality of their mission. While resting before continuing their mission, Captain Miller discusses with his senior sergeant the questionable nature of the enterprise on which they have embarked. During this conversation, Miller tells Sergeant Horvath that his priority is simply getting home to his wife:
I don't know anything about Ryan. I don't care. The man means nothing to me. It's just a name. But if...You know if going to Rumelle and finding him so that he can go home. If that earns me the right to get back to my wife, then that's my mission.
The theme of the questionable morality and wisdom of dispatching many to save one resonates throughout the film and provides the crux of Miller’s final words to Private Ryan: “Earn this,” meaning lead a life that justifies the sacrifice of multiple lives to preserve his own. Miller’s dying words force the viewer to refocus on the theme of sacrifice, but the question of morality hangs in the air.