Being Corporal Upham

The practice of self-honesty

An empty beach at sunset, with a cliff in the distance and large dashes along the horizon that look like elongated train cars

Remnants of the floating harbor off Gold Beach, facing northwest on the coast of Arromanches-les-Bains, Normandy. October 2014

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August 25th, 2020 at 12:23am

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Sometimes I wonder if I would be a coward.

I think about Saving Private Ryan a lot. The second scene of the 1998 movie - the invasion of Normandy - is some of the most gripping, intense filmmaking ever produced, and it lasts twenty-five minutes.

I love the film, I love the opening battle - but it's not D-Day that has been on my mind lately.

For reasons unnecessary to enumerate here, I entered, a few years ago, a period of genuine honesty about myself and my life. It now seems as if I've shed a lot of the bullshit which family, society, and Previous Me stuffed into my head. For the first time ever, I actually feel like myself.

It now feels as if I've shed a lot of the bullshit which family, society, and Previous Me stuffed into my head.

I've therefore become quietly preoccupied with a different scene of the movie, one which I find the most disturbing: Corporal Upham's meltdown on the stairs. It's difficult to watch for the violence, the pathos, and the way Jeremy Davies flirts with overacting. In all of its ignominy, the scene exists to horrify us. And it succeeds.

Who is Corporal Upham?

After the prolonged invasion, we learn about Private Ryan and why the Army decides to bring him home - thereby explaining the title, and mapping out the story.

In the next scene, the hero, Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), finds a unit of translators and asks for Corporal Upham. "I understand you speak French and German?" Miller says.

"Yes, sir."

"How's your accent?"

"Just a slight one in French. My German's clean with a touch of Bavarian, sir."

"Very good, you've been re-assigned to me. Grab your gear."

And just like that, the bumbling Upham is part of the quest.

Initially, as one might expect, the other soldiers distrust Upham and mock him. Because of this "outsiderness," and because he has no combat experience, he also serves as the conscience of the film. In a scene where the men plan to kill a German who surrendered, he protests to the captain about saving the man's life - even though the Nazi had just shot their medic.

Large concrete blocks, covered in barnacles and moss, sitting on the beach

Remnants of the Mulberry harbor on Gold Beach. Oct 2014

By the time the team finds Private Ryan in the fictional town of Ramelle, Upham has seen death, demonstrated his worth as a translator, and taken up smoking. But he has not been transformed. While a few soldiers are more accepting of him, he's still an outsider. In one scene, a fellow private calls him a "strange bird" for translating an Edith Piaf love song. (Point of order: Is that really so weird? )

Meltdown Recap

Ramelle has one of only two bridges left standing in the region, and the Germans need to cross it. They're coming with tanks and big guns.

Most important, the scene, in all of its ignominy, exists to horrify us. And it succeeds.

There's no interpreting to do, and Upham can't shoot, so his job will be to replenish ammunition during the battle. Before all hell breaks loose, Private Mellish - who has warmed to Upham - pulls him aside and says, in unmistakable foreshadowing: "You gotta be johnny-on-the-spot with the ammo or we're dead."

Later, Mellish, shooting from inside an apartment, predictably runs out of ammunition and sends Upham to find more. The streets are filled with debris, tanks, and soldiers. Bullets are flying. Upham finally returns, but now Mellish and a German are fighting alone, hand-to-hand.

Upham crouches in the stairwell and listens to the struggle in horror. Holding a weapon and bandoliers of ammunition, he does nothing except cry silently. Soon thereafter, Mellish is stabbed slowly through the chest.

Display of a metal span, tall in the middle, short at the ends, wide enough for a vehicle to drive over it

A Mulberry "whale" roadway, instrumental to the success of floating harbors. Jeeps, trucks, and tanks drove over these. Oct 2014

The German emerges from the upstairs room, sees our corporal with arms raised, and walks casually past him down the stairs.

I'm not sure if his reaction to Upham is:

  • You didn't shoot me then, you won't shoot me now
  • You're a coward, I won't waste a bullet on you
  • You get a pass, it was really intense back there and I need a minute

Or some combination thereof.

Initial Reactions

When I first saw that devastating scene, I understood that Upham's reaction represented the paralyzing monstrosity of war. Even then, as young and as dumb as I was, I completely agreed. War is hell, I'd never want to be involved in it, and I have nothing but compassion and respect for those who've seen combat.

Yet as Mellish looked at the knife over his heart and tried to reason with the German - "Stop! Listen to me!" - I became angrier with Upham. More aggressive. What the hell are you doing!?! I screamed internally. Get in there and save Mellish! That's what I would do! It's what anyone would do! Screw the semiotics and the thinky shit, this is a movie! Blow that fucking Nazi's head off!

I could easily be a coward. Just saying that makes me wince.

Now I realize I had it all wrong.

All those years ago, even though I acknowledged similarities with Upham, I chose to identify with the pretty boy wiseass Private Reiben (Ed Burns) or the talented sharpshooter Private Jackson (Barry Pepper).

The reason isn't surprising. In high school and college, I was decent looking and a good athlete. I saw Saving Private Ryan when I was 29 and hadn't lost much of that physicality; I still felt invincible.

If 9/11 had happened in the 90s, and if anyone had asked me how I'd have handled it (strangely, no one did), I would've sounded a lot like Mark Wahlberg: a hero who left blood on the floor of the first class cabin, defied gravity, kicked ass, and saved the world.

An empty beach at sunset, with large dashes along the horizon that look like elongated train cars

Remnants of the floating harbor off Gold Beach, facing northeast on the coast of Arromanches-les-Bains, Normandy. Oct 2014

In my head, then, I was the deadly assassin or the popular guy. (The latter turned out to be a typical jock asshole, he was the one who called Upham a "strange bird.")

In New Light

The truth? Despite my athleticism, I was a wiry little guy who was more awkward and nervy than he cared to admit. I couldn't fight. Other men did not accept me easily. I often felt marginal. I often was marginal. And I could recite poetry. I even spoke French and German.

I didn't just have "similarities" with Upham. I was the guy.

It's one thing to say, Okay, you're not the popular kid and you're not the badass. But if I was Upham - and I definitely was - the question became: What would I have done on the stairwell?

If 9/11 had happened in the 90s, and if anyone had bothered to ask me how I'd have handled it, I would've sounded a lot like Mark Wahlberg.

That's what haunts me.

In horrible circumstances, some people rise to the occasion, some don't, and others make the effort but screw everything up.

I don't know how I would act in Upham's circumstances. If I'm being honest, if I strip away all the false heroicism, I suspect it wouldn't be pretty. I'm not a hero and probably wouldn't be. I could much more easily be a coward. Just saying that - like most candid admissions about myself - makes me wince, but it's the truth.

 "Hidden Gems": It's Mortifying Postcard: Flüeli-Ranft 

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