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PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 February, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 February, 1999, 12:00am

There has been so much fuss about the dreadful Saving Private Ryan that the international film-going public might be forgiven for thinking that Steven Spielberg had yet again recreated the art of cinema.

At last, gasped the critics, a film that tells the truth about the horror of war! What a breakthrough! The press did its part, of course, by printing endless stories about traumatised World War II veterans crawling from the preview theatres, overwhelmed by footage so closely resembling their own long-buried memories of combat.

In fact, apart from those extraordinary first 40 minutes or so, with limbs flying about the screen and shrieking, wailing, wounded littering a Normandy beach, this is a typical war movie in every way.

The plot revolves around an impossible mission, led by a wry, sincere, and adored commanding officer, supported by a taciturn tough guy sarge. He in turn keeps a loud mouth subordinate, and there is a weedy bookworm, a witty wise cracker, and the posh, lonely educated man, in this case the platoon medic. It is all very improbable, intensely sentimental portrait of warfare, American style.

In 1930 director Lewis Milestone made All Quiet On The Western Front, (Pearl, midnight) which, despite the black-and-white footage, and old-fashioned acting style, is a much more modern critique of war.

It is the story of a group of idealistic school boys, unable to resist the sound of troops marching by their windows. The entire class signs up, and very quickly those children become terrified, hungry men in uniform, hurling themselves to the ground as the shells roar around them.

And these are German men. Milestone made this film only 12 years after the war to end all wars had torn its way through the young male population of Europe, and America, and yet he dared to show the enemy as victims.

There are deaths, battles in which screaming hordes dash over the top straight into the rows of machine guns, or battle hand to hand in the trenches with their enemies, in muddy, desperate struggles. In some ways the most horrific moments are not watching these young soldiers die, but watching them shaking with fear of death.

Or reduced to rejoicing that so many of their comrades have fallen, when returning behind the lines after a desperate battle, they realise food has been prepared for a much bigger group, and they are going to be able to have double helpings.

In 1930, war was still a recent enough memory for mainstream film makers to be able to make this kind of bitter, anti-war statement and still attract mass audiences.

In the 1990s, Spielberg clearly has a very different agenda.