Lessons from the Battlefield

February 5, 2002

Comparing the Movies
"Saving Private Ryan", "Bridge on the River Kwai",
"Run Silent, Run Deep", "A Bridge to Far",
and "Hell is for Heroes"

It is an all too common stereotype that portrays soldiers as emotionless, gun-wielding macho men whose only passions are drinking and killing. Unfortunately, enough movies portray soldiers that way to convince the public that anyone can be broken down and rebuilt into a killing machine with the right drill sergeant. However, after watching a few movies focused more on the characters than the process of war, I was able to gain new insights and lessons I could apply to myself from the characters on the screen. Credit must be given to the film-makers, and often the authors before them, for adding valuable lessons to the all-too-often flat characters in war films. Bridge on the River Kwai, Saving Private Ryan, Run Silent, Run Deep, A Bridge to Far, and Hell is for Heroes all managed to portray the soldiers as real people with real experiences, and real lessons to teach.


Of all of the lessons in these films, determination was displayed more often than any other. Determination is the ability to achieve goals against either internal or external difficulties. Whether at war or at the office, perseverance is often the only answer when dealing with a difficult problem, as it is human nature to shy away from difficult situations. Due to it's equal applicability to war and to home, I suggest that taking out an enemy machine gun nest and writing a large essay are equivalent in their need for determination to 'get the job done'. A good example of determination was the main plot of the movie Saving Private Ryan. Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) had to push his squad forward through all sorts of difficulties in order to reach the goal that had been given to them, for which the movie is named. In this example, both external pressures, in the form of enemy soldiers, and internal pressures, his squad's failing morale and disapproval of the mission, plagued Miller's ability to achieve his objective. However, it was his job to accomplish the orders that had been given to him, and he knew how important it was to 'get the job done'. His determination to carry out his orders is what pushed him and his men forward, and eventually saved the life of their target.

Part of what made Miller's job easier was his ability to forget about his personal problems with his mission and instead focus on completing it. However, Commander Richardson (Clark Gable) in Run Silent, Run Deep did the exact opposite. The very focus of his determination in fact was a target that he pursued out of past frustrations. He let his emotions control his judgment, and was thus directing his men to achieve his own goal, rather than an order that had been passed down for strategic importance like the other movies. The captain was motivated by his previous loss in the Bongo Straits to acquire an almost zealous determination to, against orders, return to the straits and sink the mighty battleship that had destroyed his and countless other American submarines. Although the Commander's obsession was of questionable judgment, his men were still able to determinedly fight in their commander's private war. Hell is for Heroes and A Bridge to Far both shared the 'get the job done' type of attitude with Saving Private Ryan, the leaders in both movies being forced to deal with dire situations while surrounded by enemy troops and failing morale. The mentality those movies share is effective not only in the dangerous scenario of war, but at the pressure-filled offices and schools as well. Bridge on the River Kwai was also full of determination, but the type of determination it displayed falls better under the category of conviction.


Conviction is similar to determination, but differs in respect to the fact that conviction is based on moral code rather than orders or necessity. Conviction is about pursuing what you believe to be fair and just, and the dogged effort of trying to change situations that compromise what you know to be right. Bridge on the River Kwai was a good example of conviction over determination, as the very idea of a POW camp is to crush the spirit. Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness) in particular was a great source of conviction. He fought the Japanese General running the camp, demanding the treatment promised in the Geneva Convention. Even though the General was cruel, putting Nicholson and his officers through atrocities that took their bodies to the edge, Nicholson eventually won his promised rights thanks to his conviction. He knew what the General was doing was wrong, and he was not willing to just go along with it. He took it a step further and made sure never to compromise his own moral obligations while fighting back, the same obligations the General was dismissing in his unlawful treatment of the prisoners. Conviction tends to be a stronger push than determination, as it is the very essence of the person that is being challenged, a type of attack that gets noticed very quickly by people who value their morale code. It is when you are being put through the worst situations, whether doubting your ability to handle a situation, or something like Nicholson's adventure with 'the box', that conviction is the most important. Even though that is the point where it is easiest to waiver, knowing you are the only one who can continue your fight is a very powerful incentive to keep at it.


Another lesson contained within these movies was the importance of trusting your own intelligence and judgment, also known as self-confidence. Self-confidence is the knowledge that you can handle what comes your way, and that you will be able to handle the consequences of whatever decisions you make. Saving Private Ryan had a scene which depicted this trait very well. While following the trail of Pvt. Ryan, the squad came across a machine gun nest that had caught a number of other soldiers by surprise. The men, not wanting to take an extra risk, suggested that they just go around the waiting enemies. Cap. Miller, however, decided that it was their job to take out the nest before some other men stumbled into it and were caught in it's fire. In the process of destroying the nest, the squad's medic was hit and killed. While the rest of the men saw this as a reason they should have just left the nest alone, Miller knew that if anyone else had stumbled in, they would have lost a lot more than one medic. When he had made the decision to attack the nest, he had known that some of his men might die, but he had weighed the options and decided it was important enough to attempt anyway. Although he was certainly saddened by the loss of his man, he knew that taking out the nest was the right thing to do, and that his previous calculations had proved the risk was worth it.

Hell is for Heroes had a similar situation involving a pillbox covering the squad's position, but the outcome was wholly different. Contrary to the popular opinion, Sergeant Larkin (Harry Guardino) felt that his squad shouldn't attack the pillbox, seeing the danger and judging it not worth the risk when compared to the possible gain. He was able to explicitly order his men to leave the pillbox alone based on the decisiveness he received from being confident about his own judgment. However, he was killed soon after he gave the order, and the attack was made. The operation was a costly failure, as Larkin had predicted. Unlike Larkin's decision, which was based on weighing the situation, the decision to attack was based on the feeling of dire necessity. In truth, what matters isn't the decision, but rather the confidence that you can handle whatever repercussions there are for the decision.


Individuality was another commonly displayed trait among the characters in these movies. Individuality refers to a person's ability to come up with his own ideas, original plans, and designs, rather than just reusing skills that were previously learned. Historically, American soldiers are trained to be individuals, inventing new plans in new situations, and using their own cunning and intellect to defuse difficulties. As compared to the armies of some other cultures, where everyday soldiers are trained only to follow orders. When a situation arises where a leader is not present, those who have not been trained to act as individuals become lost and disarrayed. Saving Private Ryan's Cap. Miller  was once again a prime example of the importance of this trait. After Miller's squad had found Pvt. Ryan, they were caught in a an abandoned town on a bridge that was soon to be overrun by German soldiers and tanks. With very little ammunition and only his few men, it was up to Miller to come up with a plan to get as many of his men, and specifically Ryan, back home alive. He remembered "sticky bombs", a tactic found somewhere in the field soldier's handbook. He soon devised a plan with his general knowledge of tactics, and was able to hold off the German attack until help could arrive. Individuality is a trait common to all successful entrepreneurs, along with determination. Proving yourself to be different, better in some way, is the cornerstone of competitive business.

Although Commander Richardson in Run Silent, Run Deep was full of individuality, he never attempted to reinforce that trait in his men. The commander put his men through drills form the very day the ship went to sea, demanding speed and accuracy that was unprecedented at the time. He secretly practiced maneuvers, never letting on to his men what he was doing. It wasn't until they reached the Bongo Straits, against orders that the captain dismissed, that the crew started to understand what was going on. The captain had secretly been training them to do what others would consider a suicide mission against a destroyer. He never told the crew his plan, and never asked for opinions on it. He did not want individuals working together to promote all of their skills, but rather everyone working under him so he alone could achieve his own goal, rather than a goal that everyone commonly shared. The furthering of his plan ran into a problem, however, when an accident put the commander into unconsciousness. Since he had never shared his plans or his motives with the men under his command, there was no one left to continue the attempt. Lt. Jim Bledsoe (Burt Lancaster), the second in command, was quite ready to turn the ship around and speed away from what he considered to be a crazed vendetta. Only after a miraculous recovery, the captain was able to explain his motive to the Lieutenant, and convince him to continue with the attack. However, if the captain had not been as fortunate, the mission would have been called off immediately. Although he was certainly not required to explain his plan to anyone, it would have aided his situation immensely if he had. In truth, his men did not even have to agree with the plan, for they only had to have known what their orders were. The fact that some might have bought in to his ideas would have only increased his chances for the mission's success after his untimely incapacitation.


All of the lessons I picked up from these character based movies are applicable not only on the battlefield, but on the home front as well. The stress of the battlefield provides a great chance for the positive traits and lessons of the characters to flourish, and for us to gain insight from them. The deep characters in these movies provided excellent lessons that were marvelously entwined with plots that kept us watching. The film makers succeeded in not only entertaining us, but enriching us as human beings as well.

Copyright, 2002, all rights reserved

Original Web Upload February 2002
Last Update: February 8, 2002