Specs & The City: Deus Ex Machina and Saving Private Ryan

When you boil it down, the core of your script – the delicious caramel and nougat center of your story – is about your characters, and the journey you send them on.  It’s a bit sadistic, really. You take these people and put them in the most stressful, horrific, mental and physically taxing situations your twisted little writer brain can think of.  You grind them under your heel,  breaking their spirits to the point where it seems like they can’t possibly succeed at their goal.

But then they do.

They dig down deep, to that inner reserve of fortitude, instinct, and resourcefulness, and they pull themselves out of the pit. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Unfortunately, too many writers shirk their responsibility to their characters, and their audience, by skipping over this step. These writers basically take a shortcut to FADE OUT, and it’s one of the most frustrating things I come across when reading a script.

It’s called Deus Ex Machina. Literally meaning ‘God from the machine’, in the world of film it refers to something – it can be an item, a person, anything really – that shows up out of nowhere, with no previous mention, at the end of a script and saves the day.

And if you think it’s only something you see from beginning screenwriters, well, you’d be wrong.

Let’s look at…

Deus Ex Machina and Saving Private Ryan

Everyone knows Spielberg’s World War II opus. The attention to detail used for the recreation of the Normandy invasion is spectacular, the acting from Tom Hanks and company is stellar (yes, even from Vin Diesel), and the ending is one gigantic cop-out.

Here’s the climax of Saving Private Ryan – Miller and Ryan are on the ropes.

 

MILLER SCRAMBLING UP THE EMBANKMENT, back onto the bridge, hears something over the SOUNDS OF FIRING.
                                     MILLER
                         HOLD IT!  HOLD IT!
Ryan and Reiben cease firing.  Now they hear it, too.
A RUMBLE, DEEPER AND MORE OMINOUS than any they've heard yet.
                                     MILLER
                         Goddamn it!

                                     REIBEN
                         More tanks...
                                     RYAN
                         Lot's of them.
The fear on their faces turns to resignation.  They know that they are dead men.  They settle into their positions, and prepare to fire and die.
They wait.  The RUMBLE GETS LOUDER AND LOUDER.

THEN MILLER'S FACE STARTS TO CHANGE...a hint...of a smile...then a real smile...

AN AMERICAN SHERMAN TANK APPEARS from over the rise.  Then ANOTHER...AND ANOTHER...AND ANOTHER...

MILLER, REIBEN AND RYAN stand there, stunned, watching tank after tank appear, along with scores of heavily-armed American soldiers.

They keep coming and coming.  American tanks, with wave after wave of U.S. infantrymen, looking for targets.  They find a few among the departing Germans.
THE ADVANCING TROOPS run onto the bridge and start to secure the position. A SERGEANT and a few of HIS MEN look around, curiously eyeing Miller, Reiben and Ryan, battered and bloody, standing among the bodies.
A MAJOR strides up.
                                     MAJOR
                         Report, Captain.
                                     MILLER
                         Miller, Company B, Second Rangers,
                         that's Private Richard Reiben and
                         that's Private James Ryan, Hundred-
                         and-First Airborne.

The Sergeant and several other soldiers overhear.

                                     SERGEANT
                         Ryan?

One of the soldiers speaks quietly to another.
                                     SOLDIER
                         That's him. That's Ryan.
The Major puts his hand on Ryan's shoulder.
                                     MAJOR
                         Command is looking for you, son. You're
                         going home.
Ryan looks up, tired.  He nods.

The cavalry literally shows up to save the day, having never been shown or mentioned at any point earlier in the script. Now, I could overlook the cliché of it all – after all, the scene is dripping with patriotism and it does choke you up – but what I can’t get over is that the arrival of the tank battalion completely robs the characters of any kind of personal triumph. They’re saved from their situation – plucked from danger – instead of earning it through their choices and actions.

Now, as a general rule, the events in your script should be motivated by your characters. We want them to be active participants in the story and, after two-and-a-half acts of doing just that, Saving Private Ryan brings out the rolling Deus Ex Machina and transitions to passive storytelling.

To me it’s a jarring moment, and for all the wrong reasons.

And so here’s the advice: When you’re writing your next script, or sitting down for the next round of rewrites, take a look at your story’s ending. Give your characters the dignity of solving their own problems. Show your audience the respect of an earned third act. And most importantly, have enough belief in your ability as a writer to tough it out and solve the problems you created without resorting to Deus Ex Machina.

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