Saving Private Ryan
|Directed by||Steven Spielberg|
Mutual Film Corporation
Mark Gordon Productions
|Written by||Robert Rodat|
|Music by||John Williams|
|Editing by||Michael Kahn|
DreamWorks (US and Canada)
Paramount Pictures (elsewhere)
|Release date(s)||July 24, 1998|
|Running time||170 min.|
|Budget||$70,000,000 US (estimated)|
|All Movie Guide profile|
This film is particularly notable for the intensity of the scenes in its first 25 minutes, which depict the Omaha beachhead assault of June 6, 1944. Thereafter it presents a heavily fictionalised version of a real-life search for a paratrooper of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division.
Spielberg later pursued his interest in the liberation of Europe with the television mini-series Band of Brothers, which he co-produced with Tom Hanks. The movie is credited with spearheading a resurgence in America’s interest in the Second World War; with old and new novels of World War II enjoying financial success as well as the release of numerous computer and video games displaying the same style of action and often using the same battlegrounds as the movie itself.
The film begins with an elderly veteran and his family visiting the World War II Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. We see the veteran walking to a headstone, falling to his knees before it and losing his composure. His family gathers around him and the scene flashes back to a graphic recreation of the landing of the first wave of soldiers on Omaha Beach during the WWII invasion of Normandy. The film focuses on one Cpt. John H. Miller, who eventually manages to lead a group of men through the dense German beach defenses to reach the heights overlooking the beach.
The story shifts to the U.S. War Department offices where thousands of death notification letters are being typed for delivery to the families of the fallen soldiers. It is discovered that three of the four brothers of the Ryan family have all died within days of each other and that their mother will receive all three notices on the same day. The fourth son, Pfc. James Francis Ryan, a paratrooper, remains unaccounted for somewhere in France. Gen. George C. Marshall orders that he be found and sent home immediately.
The scene changes back to Europe, where Miller assembles a squad of eight men to carry out his orders: find Ryan and return him safely to the rear. Miller’s group is made up of members of his former company, with the exception of T/5. Timothy E. Upham, a mapmaker and budding novelist from the 29th Infantry Division, who is included in the squad as a French and German interpreter. Upham is shunned by the others, who see him as an outsider and a liability to the squad and a major subplot of the film deals with Upham’s introduction to combat and the change it engenders in him.
Possessing virtually no information as to Ryan’s whereabouts or the location where his unit parachuted into France, Miller and his men must move from town to town and among other American units to find him. Shortly after the unit arrives in a small village under counterattack by German forces Pfc. Adrian Caparzo, one of the Rangers, is killed by a sniper, This prompts Miller’s unit to begin questioning the wisdom of their orders.
The men learn that Ryan may be with a unit of Airborne troops fighting for control of the village. Unfortunately, he turns out to be an entirely different man, Pfc. James Frederick Ryan, whose brothers are still attending grammar schools and too young to be in service with the military.
Growing increasingly frustrated, Miller’s squad continues their search and come across a field where wounded soldiers have gathered. A glider pilot has collected the dog tags of the dead and Miller’s men search through them. Ryan’s name is not among the dogtags and in desperation Miller begins asking passing soldiers at random if they have seen or know him. Miller gets lucky and finds a friend of Ryan’s (the man has lost his hearing from a close grenade explosion and yells all his answers, in a rare moment of humor in the film). He tells them that Ryan has joined a mixed unit and is defending a strategically important bridge in the (fictional) nearby town of Ramelle.
Before arriving in Ramelle, the squad finds an abandoned radar outpost guarded by three German soldiers armed with an MG42 machinegun. Miller decides to attack the position and during the ensuing action, T/4. Irwin Wade, the squad’s medic, is fatally wounded.
The unit takes its anger out upon the only surviving German soldier, first beating him and then ordering him to dig graves for Wade and the other dead Americans. Upham interrogates the German soldier (referred to as “Steamboat Willie” in the credits, due to part of their conversation). Miller’s men plan to execute the German and Upham protests. Miller orders the man blindfolded and released over the objections of the rest of the squad leading to some tense moments.
The unit eventually arrives at Ramelle and finds Ryan. Ryan surprises them by refusing to leave his unit, calling them ‘the only brothers he has left.’ Miller and his squad decided to help defend the town from an impending German counter-attack and elicit Ryan’s promise that he will leave with them once the town is secured.
Miller leads the defense of the small town in the movie’s climatic battle. The Germans overwhelm the defenders and one-by-one the surviving members of the squad are killed until only Ryan, Upham, Rieben and Miller remain. They prepare to destroy the bridge, but a near miss from one of the German tanks knocks Miller off his feet and sends the detonator flying.
Miller attempts to venture back onto the bridge into heavy enemy fire to retrieve the detonator, but is shot and critically wounded by “Steamboat Willie”, who has rejoined the German army since his earlier release by Miller’s men. Dazed and dying, Miller vainly fires his service pistol at a Tiger tank advancing across the bridge, when it unexpectedly explodes. Seconds later, a pair of Mustangs fly over, having arrived as air support for incoming American reinforcements and destroyed the tank, providing the explanation.
Upham takes several of the remaining Germans prisoner, including “Steamboat Willie”. “Willie” tries to talk to Upham, but, having witnessed Miller’s shooting, Upham deliberately shoots him and tersely orders the other prisoners to escape.
Miller is tended to in vain by Reiben. His final words to Ryan are: “James… earn this. Earn it.” Ryan’s face morphs into that of the old man in the cemetery from the opening of the film and the grave is revealed to be Miller’s. Before saluting the grave, an emotional Ryan expresses his hope that Miller will regard the life Ryan has tried to lead as a “good man” as enough to repay the debt he owes Miller and his squad for their sacrifice.
Awards and nominations
The film was nominated for a total of 11 Academy Awards.
- Best Director (Steven Spielberg)
- Best Film Editing (Michael Kahn)
- Best Cinematography (Janusz Kaminski)
- Best Sound
- Best Sound Effects Editing
- Best Actor (Tom Hanks)
- Best Art Direction
- Best Makeup
- Best Music, Original Dramatic Score
- Best Picture
- Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (Robert Rodat)
“Private Ryan” was based on the story of Sgt. Frederick (Fritz) Niland, who, with some other members of the 101st Airborne, was inadvertently dropped too far inland. They eventually made their own way back to their unit at Carentan, where the chaplain, Lieutenant Colonel Father Francis Sampson, told Niland about the death of his three brothers, two at Normandy and one in the Far East.
Under the War Department’s Sole Survivor Policy, brought about after the death of the five Sullivan brothers serving on the same ship, Fr. Sampson arranged passage back to Britain and thereafter to his parents, Augusta and Michael Niland, in Tonawanda, New York. There was no behind-the-lines rescue mission, and his mother was not a widow, although it is believed that she did receive all the telegrams at the same time. Additionally, the brother believed to be killed in the Far East turned out to have been captured and later returned home.
In the film, the decision to order the safe return of Private Ryan is inspired in part by the General’s reading of the Letter to Mrs. Bixby, written by Abraham Lincoln to console the mother of five sons then believed to have been killed in the American Civil War.
- Tom Hanks - Captain John H. Miller.
- Tom Sizemore - Technical Sergeant Michael Horvath.
- Edward Burns- Private First Class Richard Reiben, BAR gunner.
- Barry Pepper - Private Daniel Jackson, a highly religious sharpshooter.
- Adam Goldberg - Private Stanley Mellish, a Jewish rifleman.
- Vin Diesel - Private First Class Adrian Caparzo, rifleman.
- Giovanni Ribisi - Technician 4th Grade Irwin Wade, medic.
- Jeremy Davies - Technician 5th Grade Timothy E. Upham, cartographer and interpreter.
- Matt Damon - Private First Class James Francis Ryan, a paratrooper.
- Ted Danson - Captain Fred Hamill, a pathfinder.
- Paul Giamatti - Staff Sergeant William Hill, a paratrooper.
- Dennis Farina - Lieutenant Colonel Walter Anderson, Miller’s CO.
- Nathan Fillion - Private First Class James Frederick Ryan, mistakenly identified paratrooper.
- Joerg Stadler - “Steamboat Willie” (unnamed German soldier).
- Maximilian Martini - Corporal Fred Henderson, ranking NCO at Ramelle.
- Harve Presnell - General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army.
- Bryan Cranston - War Department Colonel
Locations for the film include:
- France: World War II Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, Colleville-sur-Mer, first and last scenes of the movie; Calvados
- England: Hatfield, Hertfordshire; Former British Aerospace factory, Hatfield; London; Thame Park, Oxfordshire. Production was due to also take place in Seaham, County Durham, but Government restrictions disallowed this. 
- Ireland: Curracloe, Wexford, Ireland: D-Day scene
Other production notes
- Several of the film’s stars, including Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel and Giovanni Ribisi as well as Tom Hanks, endured several days of grueling “boot camp” training and work on the film set to prepare for their roles. 
- This film is one of a rare few that won the Academy Award for Best Director without also winning Best Picture.
- Very few World War II German armored vehicles survive in operating condition. The Tiger tanks in the film were copies built on the chassis of old, but functional Soviet T-34 tanks. The two Panzers were built on the chassis' of Czech-built Panzer 38(t) tanks.
Saving Private Ryan has been noted for its realistic portrayal of WWII combat; however some historical license was taken by the filmmakers for the sake of drama. Some of the movie’s more notable historical inaccuracies (as opposed to simple goofs, mistakes or continuity errors) are:
- The movie depicts the 2nd SS Division “Das Reich,” which historically was not engaged in Normandy until July, and at Caen, a hundred miles east.
- German soldiers of both the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS are depicted in the film with shaved heads. In reality, German soldiers generally wore their hair short on the sides but long on the top and fringe, which were then slicked back with pomade.
- The challenge and response “Thunder-Flash” is backwards. Flash was the challenge and Thunder the response. Furthermore, Flash-Thunder was only used by American forces on D-Day itself, each day thereafter had a different challenge and response which was learned before leaving for the assault.
Saving Private Ryan was released in 2,463 theatres on July 28, 1998, and grossed $30.5 million on its opening weekend. Domestically the film grossed $216.5 million and $265 million at the foreign box office, bringing its world wide total to about $482 million. The production budget of the film was about $70 million, making the film a huge success at the box office.
- ^ Ambrose, Stephen E., D-Day, Simon & Schuster, 1997
- ^ Fr. Francis Sampson wrote about Niland and the story of the 101st, in his 1958 book, Look Out Below (ISBN 1-877702-00-5).
- ^ Sunderland Echo, 11/02/1999
- ^ http://www.rzm.com/pvt.ryan/production/scenes/bootcamp.html
- ^ Academy Awards 1999
- ^ http://www.sbg1.mistral.co.uk/spr1.htm
- ^ http://www.sbg1.mistral.co.uk/spr2.htm
- ^ deutschesoldaten.com website
- ^ http://www.nationalww2museum.org/education/history_dday.html