Saving Private Ryan (SPR), initially released in 1998, is a story of heroism and selfless sacrifice and helps us to understand the courage of the World War II generation. The movie is centered around Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) of the 2nd Ranger battalion from his landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944 to his journey through the Normandy countryside to fulfill a mission to find a soldier missing behind enemy lines.
Captain Miller is first seen riding in a landing craft (LCVP) as it approaches the Dog Green sector of Omaha beach on D-day. His exhorts his men to remember their training and optimistically tells them that heíll see them all on the beach. What awaits his men is a maelstrom of German fire and heavily fortified defenders. Historically at Omaha Beach, over 1200 American soldiers died in their ultimately successful attempt to gain a beachhead on Hitlerís Fortress Europe. In particular the Dog Green sector faced directly onto the Vierville Draw, a narrow passage between the cliffs on Omaha beach, where the landing US forces suffered extremely heavy casualties.
Although compressed into twenty minutes, (the actual breaching of the beach defenses took the better part of the day), little details make the invasion scene highlight key historical facts about the landing, from the LCVP landing short of the beach, forcing its occupants into water above their heads to the accurate German machine gun fire from fortified bunkers overlooking the shore. As Captain Miller wades to shore and finds shelter behind German deployed beach obstacles, he is forced to leave the temporary shelter by a naval beach battalion engineer who is trying to blow the obstacles up in order to make way for tanks to land on the beach. Specially equipped Duplex-Drive (DD) tanks were assigned to Omaha beach for the landing but the vast majority foundered and sank with their crews in the stormy seas. Despite Captain Miller telling him that all the tanks had been sunk in the channel, the naval engineer tells him that he's got his orders.
Surviving D-Day, Captain Miller also shows that he too can follow orders as he is assigned a special mission to find and bring back Private James Francis Ryan of the 101st Airborne division. The reason behind Captain Millerís mission is to avoid further tragedy for the mother of James Ryan, who has already lost three other sons in combat. The U.S. Army headquarters staff was notified when they found out that Mrs. Ryan would be receiving all three telegrams on the same day. Receiving his orders, Captain Miller gives a withering look at the relaxing rear area headquarters staff, who are enjoying warm sandwiches, while he has been engaged in combat on the front lines, without complaining, Captain Miller realizes his duty.
An earlier World War II tragedy, that of the Sullivan brothers on the cruiser Juneau, is why the US Army is so duty-bound to find James Ryan. Five brothers from the same family, all serving on the cruiser Juneau died when their cruiser Juneau was sunk during the battle of Savo Island in 1942. In order to avoid such future tragedy, the US military put into place regulations restricting the assignment of soldiers from the same family to the same unit.
For Captain Millerís men, their mission doesnít seem to make sense either, risking the lives of several to save the life of one. Ultimately finding Ryan but not without cost to themselves, Captain Miller and his men must consider why they are fighting this war and ultimately realize that saving private Ryan might be the only good thing to come out of this war for them. Miller and his squad begin their travels through the countryside on foot. The squad as they walk also show a lack of marching discipline, being bunched too closely together and talking freely, but this slight flaw is needed for movie making purposes to allow the characters to interact effectively and concisely. Some reviewers have wondered why Captain Miller and his squad were not equipped with a vehicle for this mission, since US forces had plentiful supplies of vehicles. In fact, according to the novelization, they were assigned a jeep, but lost it to a German land mine as they left the beachhead.
In an encounter with a US Airborne Captain played by Ted Danson, Captain Miller voices concern over the British sector of the invasion and mentions the lack of aggressiveness of British overall commander Monty (Bernard Montgomery), a nice historical touch. The grinding nature of the Normandy battle is already apparent to both Captains as they discuss the towns that need to be captured to bring victory. Their sole focus on Normandy only towns (Caen, Carentan, Cherbourg) shows narrowness of their thinking caused by the stress of close quarters fighting.
Historical touches such as this conversation show the accuracy of Steven Spielberg's production from a technical perspective. In the movie, the Tiger tank chassis atop of T-34 running gear and treads do look quite realistic, as does the gear and kit of the individual soldiers. However some liberties were taken with the situation. The climactic battle of the movie is loosely based on the stand of US airborne paratroopers at the La Fiere bridge, although historically the US forces there did not face Tiger I tanks and SS panzer grenadiers but a more pedestrian regular German army (Wehrmacht) force stiffened by captured French tanks from 1940. Another inaccuracy is the use of P-51 Mustangs as ground support aircraft by the Americans. Most ground support aircraft by D-Day would have been either British Typhoons or American P-47 Thunderbolts. Although the US airborne landings all took place behind Utah beach, it would seem to make more sense for American units in that vicinity to search for Private Ryan. Utah Beachís defenses were breached more easily than Omaha and would not have provided the drama of an initial heavily opposed beach landing scene.
As a movie, SPRís high production values and its strong acting, makes it a masterpiece. Featuring a strong ensemble cast, SPR is told exclusively from the American perspective. No other nationalities have a major role and the lone German character, who does plays a significant role is insufficiently detailed. The American squad members are all memorable especially the outspoken Reiben (Edward Burns), the BAR gunner who displays his favorite baseball team, the New York Yankees, on the back of his jacket, to the quiet Mellish (Adam Goldberg), who proudly wears his Jewish Star of David around his neck, despite US Army regulations suggesting that Jewish soldiers not list their religion on their dog tags during World War II for fear of German treatment if they were captured.
SPRís release in 1988 rekindled interest in World War II topics for filmmakers and is a worthy film to introduce the uninitiated to the sacrifices of the World War II American generation.
Historical Notes: Sgt. Fritz Niland, a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne, was successfully returned home from Normandy after the death of his two brothers in Normandy and his third brother was declared missing over Burma (subsequently returned alive). His account forms the basis of the fictional Private Ryan and is detailed in Steven Ambroseís book, Band of Brothers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993).
In the movie, George Marshall reads a letter from Abraham Lincoln written to a Mrs. Bixby, whose five sons were killed in action during the Civil War. Although the sentiment is appropriate, the historical Mrs. Bixby actually protested against the enlistment of her sons and not all 5 died on the battlefield, only 2 of her sons were killed, the remaining ones being captured., deserting to the enemy, and the third deserting and fleeing the country. This is recounted by M. Lincoln Schuster in "A Treasury of the World's Great Letters" (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1940).