How could Spielberg sustain the the pitch established in the opening 25 minutes of his film? And how could any other director hope to approach Ryan's seemingly unreachable plateau?
As next month's Oscar nominations will surely affirm, Spielberg fielded the first question triumphantly with a film that built in moral and emotional force to a second climactic crescendo.
It fell to Terrence Malick, through no fault or choice of his own, to tackle the more intriguing second question with a film that was, if anything, even more eagerly anticipated than Saving Private Ryan among last year's major releases.
Malick is the reclusive enigma among American directors. The Thin Red Line is his first movie in 20 years - a pace that makes Stanley Kubrick seem like a one-man assembly line.
Although Hollywood thrives on nonstop hype and self-promotion, Malick, 48, has declined to say anything in public about his film. Naturally, his defiant refusal to discuss his work only heightened the frenzied curiosity.
Unlike Spielberg, who worked from an original screenplay, Malick chose to film a version of James Jones' The Thin Red Line, the 1962 novel that is widely held to be the finest fiction yielded by World War II. Jones, who died in 1977, would surely not recognize significant portions of what Malick has done with his gritty, archetypal saga of grunts struggling to survive in the hell of Guadalcanal.
And moviegoers who watch The Thin Red Line in the expectation of a conventional war story will be equally perplexed. That becomes obvious as Malick sends his landing craft toward the ominous beaches of the once-obscure island in the western Pacific. Capt. Staros (Elias Koteas) and Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn) lead the way, but there is no resistance, and not a single shot is fired. Spielberg turned the English Channel into a red sea, but here the dazzling Pacific waters remain a tranquil blue.
As Charlie Company makes its way inland, we arrive at what is surely the pivotal image in the first movie Malick has given us since 1978's wonderful Days of Heaven. The infantrymen wade through the tall jungle grass. An old native man walks by them in the opposite direction with hardly a glance. He is an ancient aboriginal figure, and his ancestors have trudged along this path for eons. Long after the Americans and Japanese have gone, Malick suggests, this man's descendants will roam unperturbed across the same ground.
It's a moment that succinctly defines the difference between Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line. Spielberg's film is about World War II; Malick's is about war.
Spielberg says that he wished to make a heartfelt tribute to the World War II generation before all old soldiers who fought the good fight faded way. Private Ryan, which follows a unit assigned to rescue a soldier whose three brothers have been killed in action, is a movie that acknowledges the necessity of the war while giving the audience a gut-level reminder of the awful sacrifices it entailed.
Because Spielberg is a born storyteller, this is a process that takes place within a taut, driven narrative. He is able to couch profound philosophical questions in the griping of soldiers who wonder why their lives should be risked to send Pvt. Ryan home to his mother and safety.
Malick - whose cult reputation rests on the limitless promise of his debut, Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven and now The Thin Red Line - studied philosophy at Harvard. It shows in ways that are both assets and drawbacks. Malick's cosmic concerns with the animal in man, the origins of evil, and the life and beauty of the natural world dominate his picture. Where your usual war film offers ``Let's go, men!'' as the charge up the hill begins, the GIs in The Thin Red Line are apt to drift into monologues that muse, ``This great evil. How did it start into the world?''
But anyone who thinks that Malick exclusively prefers mood and meditation to the entrenched traditions of the war movie that Spielberg brilliantly amplified isn't paying attention. The middle act of The Thin Red Line, which involves the capture of a seemingly impregnable Japanese hilltop position, is extraordinary and bravura filmmaking. The soldiers, played by an all-star lineup attracted by the Malick legend, try to make it and live by Penn's tough noncom credo, ``All a man can do is shut his eyes and let nothing touch him.'' But they are human beings, and not even the sergeant, who risks his life to get morphine to a comrade dying in agony from his terrible wounds, heeds his own words.
Spielberg knows that the questions faced by men in war are as profound as they are unanswerable. Malick still insists on trying to answer them in the two acts that bookend the central section. Like Francis Ford Coppola with Apocalypse Now, the attempt cannot succeed but the results are endlessly fascinating.
Made more than 50 years after the century's defining conflict, Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line address the same imponderables that troubled Gregory Peck in the 1949 classic Twelve O'Clock High, in which he plays a bomber-squadron commander tormented by the responsibility of ordering men into mortal peril.
Peck, in one of his richest roles, found that every tentative answer always led to another impossible question. Spielberg accepts the paradox, while Malick tackles it head on. In the end, we probably shouldn't be making comparisons. It's better to celebrate two very different achievements that rank not just with the great World War II movies, but the finest war films ever made.