Art & Culture

Any resemblance to Saving Private Ryan is purely intentional in this story of five men in a tank slogging across Germany at the end of WW2 on an impossible mission. And although I started off thinking I preferred it to SPR, by the end, I was thinking more fondly of Spielberg's war movie.

Brad Pitt (somewhat elderly to be a tank sergeant at 50) is the hardbitten father figure who gives tough love to his men having promised (like so many before him) to keep them alive. He is required to be especially tough with young Norman, from the typist pool, 8 weeks into the Army, who's allocated to him as a replacement. Norman has no desire to shoot anyone, or even to be in a tank, and frankly, you can't blame him.

It's the end of the war as we know it, but the Germans just won't surrender. This may have something to do with the fact that the SS hang those who won't fight, and put the rest in uniform, whatever their age or gender. So Top (as Pitt is known) and his crew have to fight every inch of the way, ever on the alert for snipers, ambushes and booby traps. The early part of the film (apart from a somewhat baffling prologue involving a white horse) manages to look convincingly muddy, nasty and drab. There's no colour to be seen anywhere, and the sun never shines. War is hell, and you'd better get used to it, Norman.

Then there is an abrupt and disconcerting shift in tone. After capturing a town from the Germans, Top and Norman find an apartment in which there are two women, clearly and understandably terrified that they will be raped. But good old Top gets them to start making breakfast (he speaks excellent German), and reassures them of his intentions, before encouraging Norman and the younger of the two women to pop in the bedroom for a brief encounter. Then the other three guys from the tank turn up, miffed at missing out on the fun and games, spoiling the civilised party that Top is conducting. This scene is the beginning of the shift in the film from tough to sentimental. Having rubbed Norman's face in the metaphorical mud of cruelty, Top is now his good daddy, and spends the rest of the film being just as sweet as pie.

The similarities with SPR are all too obvious. For Tom Hanks read Brad Pitt (who does the thing that Hanks does of showing how stressful it is being in charge by having a bit of a sob when no one's looking). For weedy and cowardly Corporal Upham, read Norman. There's the banter and male bonding, and of course, the big showdown, where they face impossible odds – heroically. I was genuinely surprised by this ending, since the film had for the most part – up to that point – seemed to prefer realism over posturing. But I cannot imagine anyone who fought in a tank in WW2 being able to watch the climax without laughing derisively. 

I won't say more, since you might want to go and see it. I can't say I recommend it, and in the light of the ecstatic reviews which have greeted it, I feel compelled to warn you against raising your hopes too high. It seems to me a very bog standard war film – with extra mud.


Phil Raby 

Front Row Films 

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