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

by Allen Palmer 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.

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