by Jack L. Walker, Jr.
The movie "Saving Private Ryan" is like a large painting with many carefully brushed hues. Where does one begin in analyzing it? Perhaps if I can touch on how it addresses an issue of current concern in society, it will prove useful. My focus is Captain John Miller, the chief protagonist, and his character's connection to today's ongoing discussion of moral character and leadership.
Although we see Capt. Miller more than anyone else in the film, he may be the most difficult character to analyze. He does not wear his passions and opinions on his sleeves as his fellow soldiers do. In fact, he intentionally reveals little about himself. Like many other leading men, we need to carefully observe his interaction with several of other principal characters to discover Capt. Miller's worthwhile character traits.
The opening battle scene provides us with a good opportunity to make to some initial observations about Capt. Miller. If men, like metal, are tested by fire, then Capt. Miller will surely reveal his base alloy in the Omaha Beach invasion.
With bullets pouring like rain on the invading forces, the overwhelming temptation for many Allied soldiers on D–Day was to simply hide behind the beach's barricades.(It has been reported that some of the soldiers were so paralyzed by fear that they hunkered down behind those barricades long enough to drown once the tide came in) Capt. Miller resists the temptation to stay shielded. He leads his men across the beach and up to the cliffs so that they will be in a better position to use their weapons. Their unit is one of those that contributes to the success of the Allies in this decisive battle. Specifically, it is field commanders like Capt. Miller that enable sound tactics to compensate for blown strategy. This scene allows us to see Capt. Miller clearly demonstrate his ability to persevere and fulfill a mission in the midst of deadly chaos.
Soon after the battle, we are told that Capt. Miller was specifically chosen to play the role in the battle that he did. Now he is given another mission. This mission comes straight from Gen. Marshall. Capt. Miller is to rescue Private James Ryan from behind enemy lines and bring him to safety. His three brothers have died in combat, one on the Omaha Beach. Gen. Marshall believes that no mother should have to lose all of her sons in war–he wants Private Ryan sent home. Capt. Miller accepts the mission, finds Corporal Upham (translator) and begins his mission with his squad.
Most of the people on the mission with Capt. Miller are those that we saw with him in the opening battle scene. As they walk through the lush French countryside, the men begin to question the purpose of the mission. They wonder if it is prudent to risk several lives to find one man. Where is the equity? The underlying question comes down to this: what is a human life worth? Perhaps all heroes in the classical mode must face this question at some point. And yet there is another theme layered in this scene. Corporal Upham (the smart but awkward coward) is trying to openly make a brotherly bond with the other men. This overt attempt to forge(force?) relationships is met with laughter.
Capt. Miller does not discourage the questions that surround the mission. But he cannot join in the complaining. He allows the spirited young men to voice their concerns. Perhaps he realizes the futility of his position. How can one convince another to go to risk for another person that he does not even know? He uses humor and directed discussion between his men to further the sense of purpose about their mission. Instead of authoritative lectures about duty or simple orders to "shut up," Miller leads his men in a mature fashion. They respond appropriately. In this way he is able to encourage closeness between the men that is not so contrived as the intellectual attempts at brother–building made by Corporal Upham. Rank aside, Capt. Miller's seasoned approach clearly makes him the leader of this outfit.
We shall now jump ahead in the film. The mission has already lost one man, Private Caparzo, to a sniper. Against the advice of his men, Capt. Miller decides that they should make an open field attack on a Nazi radar nest protected by a machine–gun. The plan for the attack is implemented with great success. The enemy is destroyed, save one. Capt. Miller's unit survives, except one. But the death of that one man provides some agonizing minutes as the group comforts him in his last moments of anguish. In horror, they watch him die in pain, calling for his mother. (Capt. Miller later weeps for Wade, but in private.)
Having witnessed the death of their comrade, they now seek to kill the Nazi who survived the raid. Corporal Upham, showing little passion for anything or anyone up to this point, now insists that the Nazi should be treated like a prisoner and be allowed to live. After much heated discussion, Capt. Miller decides to blindfold the Nazi and send him off. Knowing his mission will not allow him the luxury of caring for a prisoner, Capt. Miller hopes that another unit will capture the German.
This action infuriates some of the men. Private Reiben's open disgust leads him to the point of abandoning the mission. Sgt. Horvath becomes enraged with Reiben and orders him to stand down. Horvath even pulls out a pistol to make Reiben obey. Reiben would apparently rather risk his life than continue on the mission. Horvath seems intent on killing him if he leaves.
Just at this critical juncture, Miller intervenes. He does not tell them to break it up. Instead he tells a little about his own life. We find out that he is a school teacher and is married. Miller reveals a private side of him previously kept secret. He admits that he does not know the meaning of the war or the worthiness of Private Ryan. (He may not even be alive.) Miller's soliloquy closes with an offer to officially release Reiben from the mission. Reiben, clearly moved by the candid sincerity of Miller, decides to stay with the mission. Miller leads by example.
Before long, the squad locates Private Ryan. Once he finds that his brothers are gone, he does not want to leave his comrades, whom he now considers family. He will stay with his unit and protect the bridge to which they are assigned.
Miller's squad shows disgust at Ryan. Although, lives were lost to bring him back, he refuses to be rescued. Miller does not try to pressure Ryan into coming with him. Is his mission to fail? He consults with Horvath, his second in command. Horvath reminds Miller of what he probably already knew: saving Private Ryan might be the one worthwhile thing that they do in the war. Perhaps, Horvath indicates, it can earn them the right to go home and enjoy the private life that they all long for.
Decision–makers are often faced with difficult decisions like this one, for which all of the possible options look undesirable. The better leaders often come up with options that no one else thinks of. Miller neither wants to abandone the mission nor take Ryan back by force. He creates a third option. Miller decides that his own squad will help defend the bridge with a well–orchestrated plan.
Just prior to the final battle, Upham translates a beautiful song to the squad while Miller talks to Ryan. Miller encourages Ryan to think of his brothers in terms of a context (a literary tool) so that he may properly remember them. Although both valuable, Miller's appreciation of art has more practical application than of Upham's.
Like many well–laid plans, Miller's is not completely successful. The Germans do not take the bait. Their numbers overwhelm the two Allied units. Heavy casualties ensue until the reinforcements arrive. But if success is measured by the result of his mission, Miller makes the grade. Private Ryan is saved.
Ironically, Miller is killed by the very Nazi who he released earlier. Upham then kills that Nazi, but only after the battle is won and the danger of retaliation is over. As he dies, Miller tells Ryan to "earn this." Ryan, not to mention we the viewers, must strive to be worthy of the sacrifices made by those who have rescued him. In response to the earlier query as to what a human life is worth, Miller responds by giving up his own to rescue a virtual stranger.
Let us consider some of the observations that we made along the way. What character traits do we find that contribute to the leadership of Capt. Miller? I offer some comparisons between him and the men under his command. Miller shows a high level of intelligence—an educated common sense, unlike that of Upham. He also shows the courage that sorely Upham lacks. Other men in Miller's group show courage as well. But their spiritedness is not balanced by the self–control required to make good decisions. Miller needs to make good decisions since he is the leader. His leadership supersedes that of Horvath, who must lead with force when things become difficult. Miller leads by persuasion and example. He does find it necessary to humbly seek counsel with others when necessary, thus leaning on insights of Horvath when appropriate. Like the literary protagonists he lectured on to his classes, Miller may represent the main character in a drama where the minor principals represent some incomplete part of himself.
There is no doubt that Miller demonstrates superior leadership over his men. But our good captain does show his normal human longings and emotions. We know that he desires the private life that he refuses to put before his public duties. He displays a sense of humor. And he weeps.
Like all human beings, Miller finds it difficult to balance justice with mercy. He knows that life cannot be as fair as Reiben and the others would like—an imperfect world cannot produce perfect justice. His own judgement of mercy leads to his own death at the hand of the prisoner he released. Miller is ultimately brave and honorable. His ability to persevere in a mission is almost uncanny. He is a leader to be entrusted with the most serious of missions. It has been said that Upham's cowardice reflects how most of us would act in similar situations. If this is true, then Miller, the poet–warrior, is clearly our superior. And further, if we are correct in our assessment of Capt. Miller, then we should certainly see the need for such superior moral character coupled with practical judgment in our contemporary society. These are the components of honorable leadership.
Copyright © 1998 Jack L. Walker, Jr.