Why Schindler’s List won Best Film and Saving Private Ryan didn’t (in 27 words or less)

by on May 10, 2010

in Film analysis

Schindler's List poster

Spielberg won Best Director Oscars for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan but his Holocaust film won Best Film and Best Screenplay while his other WW2 film won neither. Why?

I just read Drew Yanno’s screenwriting book, The Third Act, and one of the films he uses to demonstrate his theories is Saving Private Ryan. Unfortunately, this Tom Hanks film isn’t a favourite of mine while Schindler’s List absolutely is. So I was interested to explore two films, both by the same Oscar-winning director and both set in the same war, and discover why one left me sobbing while the other didn’t trouble my emotions in the slightest. Ultimately, the disparity, as is so often the case, can be traced to the premise.

The fundamental reason that I love Schindler’s List and not Saving Private Ryan is that the former has a sensational character arc and the latter, for all the gritty realism of its landing scenes, fails to deliver on this absolutely vital element of storytelling.

In Schindler, there is that fantastic opening scene where Liam Neeson’s character uses his charm, charisma and chutzpah to inveigle his way into the Nazis and pave the way for his naked war opportunism. As the anti-Semitic Germans talk about the Jewish problem, Schindler agonises over the wine selection. He later employs Jews in his factories, not because he cares a fig for their fate but because he won’t have to pay them as much as will “normal” Poles. Then he’s confronted with his shadow, Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), and slowly he begins to turn.

When he discovers the workers with whom he’s now formed a close personal bond are to be sent to death camps, he begins compiling the eponymous list and he’s prepared to confront the psychotic Goeth to save their lives. In the end, he’s willing to sacrifice all the money he’s accumulated during the War to try to add more names and then he berates himself for not having done more. “I could have got more out … This pen, it’s gold. He would have given more two more people, at least one, I could have done more … “.

That is character growth.

What does Saving Private Ryan give us by comparison? Zippidy doo dah. Tom Hanks character doesn’t grow and neither does Private Ryan. So when Hanks dies and Matt Damon is saved, I don’t feel a thing. It’s all sound and fury without emotion. It’s plot not story.

As you will possibly already be aware, I am a huge believer in submitting to the discipline of condensing your film concept to 27 words or less. Interestingly, when you look at the premises of these 2 films, the advantages of Schindler and the problems with Saving Private Ryan are apparent in these most abbreviated versions of the stories.

Let’s look first at the premise for Schindler’s List:
When a materialistic, womanising, amoral Aryan industrialist discovers his Jewish workers are being sent to Nazi death camps, he risks his life and fortune to save them.

The character growth isn’t a tributary to the main narrative. It is the main narrative. The whole film is about how a nasty piece of work discovers his humanity.

By contrast, let’s look at the premise for Saving Private Ryan:
After 3 brothers from one family are killed in WW2, a US Army Captain is sent into Germany to save the last son who’s missing in action.

In his book, Drew mentions more than once about how great this premise is and it has some superficial appeal. However, the problem is that the most remarkable thing about the concept happened before the story takes place. Capt Miller has to do this because Ryan’s 3 brothers have died. But that’s back story. That creates a dramatic context for what’s being done but nothing in the way of personal motivation for Capt Miller. What’s at stake for him if he’s unable to pull this off? Professional pride? Doesn’t really cut it does it. What’s missing from the premise is any indication of, or need for, character growth.

There is no reason why there couldn’t have been character growth in this story. Capt Miller could have been altered by his journey. He could have been trying to redeem past failings. But I think if I’d been working on this project, I think I’d have looked to grow Private Ryan.

Imagine you have gone to these enormous lengths to reach the missing last brother, you’ve risked your life and the lives of your men, and you finally find him only to discover he isn’t worth saving. Perhaps he’s a cowardly deserter who abandoned his comrades. To make this work, I’d have got Miller to Ryan much earlier and made the story about the journey back out, during which the older soldier does more than save the skin of Private Ryan. He could have made a man of him, losing his own life in the process. The film could have had a structure similar to Dead Poets Society or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest where one character drives the action but ultimately lays down their life to release another who has grown. It could have. But it didn’t.

Both of these films are held in high regard. Saving Private Ryan comes in at 45 on IMDb’s Top 250 with a rating of 8.5 from nearly 260,000 votes so clearly it’s working a lot better for others than it did for me.

But Schindler’s List is in the Top 10 – at number 6 – with a rating of 8.9, and while Saving Private Ryan was nominated for Best Film and Best Screenplay, Schindler won both of these key Oscars. I also wouldn’t mind betting that Schindler is dearer to Spielberg’s heart than Ryan, and not for the obvious reason that Spielberg is Jewish.

Schindler’s List is the superior film because it delivers character growth that Saving Private Ryan does not and you don’t need to see the film’s to know that. Schindler’s advantages began with the premise.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

stacy September 2, 2010 at 3:17 pm

thank you for writing this article. i watched schindlers list this summer and was blown away. everthing was perfect about it. then i watched saving private ryan. yes, the war scenes were unmatched in their directorial brillance- but that was all! i kept waiting for the story punchline, the growth of the characters the point of the film! but it never came! so this really cool captain saves this truly patriotic soldier, not even directly by the way! so what was the point?? there was nothing gained whatsoever! its the worst storyline ever in one of the most well made films ever. mindboggling! maybe the captain and his crew should have gotten the assignment begrudgingly and they could have seen no point and griped and complained about the war. and at least when they met the private learned something before all their lights went out- they could of become men and learned about patriotism from ryan and when they gave up their lives it would have been for this greater cause they never felt for but learned from this soldier. so at least we would have felt it was worth saving him or them losing their lives. or your way is perfect too.
thank you for letting me vent. at least i learned what a terrible thing war is and to avoid it at all costs. some character growth for me!

Peter February 16, 2011 at 8:23 am

A young soldier, whose three brothers have been killed in action, witnesses a group of fellow soldiers lay down their lives so that he may survive.

26 Words

I think Saving Private Ryan works because Private Ryan is the one who ends up growing, both metaphorically and literally. We don’t even meet him until the end of the second act, but it’s his story, his transformation that we are witnessing. The shot at the end when he morphs into his older self is both incredibly moving, and incidentally, the entire point of the movie. Never in cinema have I seen such an amazing amount of story telling achieved in one moment. We, the audience, really look at him differently as an old man at the end than we did at the very beginning. We’ve changed too, palpably.

Seeing Captain Miller, and others, die for his sake changes the young Ryan, and we see that written all over the face of the older Ryan as one image morphs into the other. The course of Ryan’s life, and his attitude to his life, is altered irrevocably at the moment of Miller’s death, and that’s what’s so extraordinarily moving. Ryan is loved. Miller laying down his life for Ryan is in effect an act of love, an abstract but ultimately nurturing gesture, and the effect on Ryan is seismic.

Allen Palmer February 16, 2011 at 8:37 am

The reason loglines are important in the industry – for both writers and producers – is that they define the dramatic engine – the conflict at the core of the story. Your logline, Peter, does not do that. That is not an accurate description of the story at the spine of Saving Private Ryan. It might ultimately be what moves you – and I get that. But it points to the exact problem with the film – that the character who does the growing isn’t introduced until the very end when it’s too late for us to feel anything for him or care whether he grows or not. And I thought you didn’t like films that crucify the main character?

Peter February 16, 2011 at 11:02 am

You sound a little bit annoyed, please don’t take it personally, it isn’t meant personally. I like your blog in general and have only chosen perhaps to make the comments about things I disagree with.
On many things, Chris Vogler for instance, I am in complete agreement.

I have nothing against a lead character being crucified, unless the film is so completely pretending to put individualism on a pedestal while actually punishing the hero, and everyone else around, for stepping out of line.

I actually like Brubaker very much, Cockoo’s nest is okay and Dead Poet’s has me running for the remote. My point was that they follow an established form, and people in general I think found Shawshank engrossing because it completely broke with their expectations in a particularly rewarding way. But it’s a very sutble movie, and one with a very deep meaning that isn’t that obvious at first.

As for Saving Private Ryan, I made a mistake, you do meet Ryan very early, the older Ryan that is, he’s the first major character we do meet. The film, and maybe I am laboring the point here a bit, also ends on him. It is his story. He is the title character, and he is indeed saved, both literally and emotionally, from a life of bitterness and grief among many other things by the actions of a man he barely knew, but will always love and honor. The initial conflict, or dramatic question, is why has this old man traveled to France with his family and fallen to his knees at the grave of one particular soldier. The film then answers that question after which it brings us back to Ryan as an old man, and it is impossible to look at him in the same way again, on indeed any old man of that generation.

I really think my log line is better than yours. I’m not being arrogant, I just really think this is ultimately Ryan’s story.

If however the film didn’t grab you in the same way, then yes, Spielberg failed. I have a policy of never blaming the audience if they didn’t like or understand something. I also like Schindler’s List better than Saving Private Ryan. Except of course for the product placement.

Allen Palmer February 16, 2011 at 2:48 pm

I’m not annoyed, Peter, but I’m afraid I can’t agree with your assessment of Saving Private Ryan.

I disagree that it’s Ryan’s film. They might want it to be his film, but that’s not the way it plays.

Yes, we start the film with him, but we don’t connect to him. Just because an old guy looks at a grave, we have no reason to continue to watch him. When we say, “‘What is the dramatic question?’, it’s not a dry academic proposition. It’s what is the burning question that we want to have answered that will keep us in our seats? And the pro-forma graveside bookend in Ryan is not going to do it. It’s a narrative device but just because the writer engages a device, doesn’t mean it does what he intends. If it was the writer’s intention for us to connect with Ryan from that opening scene, then in my opinion, he hasn’t pulled it off.

And, yes, we end the film with Ryan and the writer intends that we feel for him. Yet most of us don’t feel the enormous surge of emotion that we do in a great film. Why? Because we haven’t gone on the journey with him. Whatever you might think about Dead Poets or Cuckoo’s Nest, they deployed a structure where a passive hero was sustained by an active protagonist. Neither Todd nor the Chief drives the drama in those films but their arc is clear and they rise up at the climax. (You see this as a celebration of individualism but there are more generous interpretations). Saving Private Ryan didn’t do that. It abandoned its supposed hero for the greater part of the film and then invited us to feel for him at the end. I declined the invitation.

Thanks for the discussion, though, Peter. Hopefully it makes each of our positions clearer.

Jonathan Birch August 12, 2013 at 9:54 am

Well I must say that I wholly disagree with your review. It’s very well written but largely biased. What makes SPR special is that Ryan isn’t a coward, nor a poor soldier. The whole point of the film is that Millers squad gradually lose faith in the mission an start to think of Ryan as some ungrateful sad sack who isn’t worth saving. But when they finally encounter him, he turns out to be a very brave and virtuous man who is himself indifferent to being saved, and takes the news of his brothers death in a very noble way. Rather than breaking down he reminisces with Miller on his last good memory of them, and thus let’s his guard down and shows the Captain the real human being that is Ryan, not just the enigma that he wAs built ip to be. He is just like any other normal kid.

The moral of the story is very similar to Schindlers List, in that even in the darkest of times when all hope seems lost, one single act of goodness can seem to redeem a thousand evil acts. Whoever saves one life… You get the picture. It is not Ryan that is saved but it is humanity. To show that even a single life has worth. Just because SPR has a different character arc than Schindler doesn’t mean there isn’t one, it’s apples and oranges. So if you missed the boat on that one, then I’m afraid you missed the point of the film entirely.

Allen Palmer August 12, 2013 at 10:10 am

Jonathan,
We have differing views on what constitutes a character arc.

Jonathan Birch August 12, 2013 at 10:38 am

Thanks for the response, I guess this is where opinion divides us.

I do have one slightly off topic question though. You seem to be a staunch advocate of the heroe’s journey. Are you as enamoured with the concept of the anti-hero’s journey? For example, in Raging Bull, Jake LaMotta never really learns anything, he just becomes a worse person until he’s a shell of his former self. Or in There Will Be Blood, Daniel Plainview is able to isolate himself completely from human connection by the end. So if we gravitate towards certain powerful stories that move us and reach us to enjoy life and inspire, then what is the significance of the Greek tragedy? Is it just the appeal of the cautionary tale?

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