Saving Private Ryan is an iconic war movie, deeply moving and powerfully composed. Unfortunately, it’s also the sort of film that were I to recommend it at all, I would do so only with the most extreme reservations (at a minimum, one should skip the entire 25-30 minute opening sequence where about 90% of the violence is concentrated, though other problematic issues such as pervasive foul language still remain). However, I would like to share and discuss the movie’s (non-violent) closing moments today, because they are very beautiful and offer fertile discussion ground for Memorial Day.
To briefly fill in the background for those who are unfamiliar with the film, it tells the story of a small unit tasked to find the youngest and last of several sons in the war. All of his brothers have died in action, and the army has decided to find him and bring him home so that his mother won’t lose all her children. It is only towards the end of the film that they finally find Ryan (Matt Damon), so the main character is actually Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks), the leader of the unit. In an honest moment, he’ll admit that he doesn’t relish any part of what he does, and he wants to get the war over with as quickly as possible so he can get back to his wife and her rosebushes and continue being an English teacher.
The quest to find Ryan is slow and painful, as they know only that he is MIA somewhere in Normandy with no further specifics. Miller loses two of his six men in the process, causing him to opine bitterly that Ryan had better “cure some disease, or invent a longer-lasting light bulb, or something…” to make this all worth it. But when they find the young soldier, they’re surprised to find that he refuses to leave his brothers in arms (“the only brothers I have left”) until they have carried out their orders to defend a bridge against an approaching German mechanized unit. So Miller makes the choice to stay with Ryan and take command of the operation. In the brief calm before the storm, he gets to know the kid a little better and even seems to find it in his heart to start liking him.
When the final battle hits, most of the rest of Miller’s unit dies, including (ultimately) Miller himself. As Ryan comes and sits with him in his final moments, Miller draws the boy to himself and whispers, “James… earn this. Earn it.” While on the surface this just seems like a continuation of his bitter early rants, the earnestness with which he makes this last request indicates both that his meaning is deeper and that it comes from a deeper place within himself. Then he dies. The camera focuses on Ryan’s face as we hear George C. Marshall in voiceover, informing Mrs. Ryan that her son is coming home. Then it cross-fades to the old Ryan at Miller’s grave. Instead of continuing to describe how the last few minutes of the film unfold, I’ll let you watch it for yourself(or re-watch it if you’ve seen it before). It never fails to put a lump in my throat. If you are unfamiliar with the scene, you should take a minute to do so here (Godtube link) before continuing to read my thoughts on it (the clip begins with Miller’s death and continues to the end).
I don’t see how you can’t be moved as the aged Ryan looks his wife in the eye and pleads with her, “Tell me I have led a good life… tell me I’m a good man.” She doesn’t understand the question. She looks at him, confused for a moment, then firmly responds, “You are.” What else would she say?
We walk away unable to forget the doubt and urgency in Ryan’s eyes, because we know he’s lived his whole life trying to measure up to Miller’s challenge, and he’s still unsure whether he’s done enough. And the question lingers—has he? Or did Miller give him an impossible command? Is Ryan uncertain because deep down he believes he will never be able to “earn” this gift? As the camera lingers on the cross marking Miller’s grave, our minds are inevitably drawn to the unspoken but subtly implied parallel to another sacrifice which seems impossible to earn. I have far too much respect for Spielberg as a film-maker to believe that this is pure accident. (And this, by the way, is an excellent example of a case where it is profound and meaningful to think about a film’s Christian applications.)
It would be very easy to answer definitely, “No, Ryan will never earn the gift, just like we will never earn Christ’s gift, and so it would be unbiblical to use the illustration like some Christians have to ask whether we have ‘earned this.’ ” I’ve seen more than one person take exactly this approach. It’s a natural, reasonable reaction.
Still, if the alternative approach that’s being criticized feels shallow and incomplete, this one seems somewhat shallow in the other direction. Is it true that we cannot earn our own salvation? Yes, of course. But we shouldn’t rush to discard Miller’s final words as completely flawed and misleading either. Consider the challenge posed in Twila Paris’s excellent song, “What Did He Die For?”
I believe we will answer each to heaven
For the way we spend a priceless liberty
Look inside and ask the question,
What did he die for
When he died for me?
It seems like the word “earn” is the sticking point for people, so let’s take it out of the picture for a moment and re-phrase Miller’s last words like this: “James, don’t waste this. Make our sacrifice mean something.” And when you put it that way, you see that Ryan did just that. He recognized his life as a gift, and he lived it well and honorably. He lived a life that bore fruit instead of throwing it away. He honored the sacrifice that had been made on his behalf.
I don’t think one has to adopt a works salvation approach to see that this can still apply to the Christian life. Jesus said that if we love him, we will keep his commandments. And if we keep his commandments, he will welcome us as good, faithful servants. Why “good and faithful”? Because we lived our lives in such a way that the cross was not wasted on us. We took our stand beneath the cross. We seized its offer of grace with both hands, and we followed in Jesus’ footsteps all our days. This doesn’t mean that we deserved the sacrifice in the first place. But once it was given for us, we accepted and honored it.
So join me today in honoring. Join me today in remembering. And join me today in resolving that we will not throw away the priceless legacy of freedom that has been left to us.