[I hereby declare upon my honor that I have neither given nore received any unauthorized help on this work.]
The movie Saving Private Ryan by Steven Spielberg is a story that starts on June 6, 1944, D-Day, on Omaha Beach as the United States Army’s 1st Infantry Division began its historic invasion of Normandy, France. The movie tells the story of Captain Miller and his small unit of soldiers as they first struggle to complete their mission of securing Omaha Beach for the Allies and then of their mission to save one soldier. Captain John Miller, played by Tom Hanks, is given the task of searching for a specific soldier, Private James Ryan. Ryan’s three brothers have been killed in action within a few days of each other so the Army command wants to send Ryan, the last surviving brother, home. Captain Miller and his unit, who are part of the 2nd Ranger Battalion of the 29th Infantry Division, set out across France to look for Ryan, a member of the 101st Airborne Division, who may or may not be alive. Along the way the audience becomes acquainted with Miller and his men as they all question why the Army is willing to risk their lives to save one man. The movie is possibly the most graphic depiction of the invasion of Normandy that has ever been made.
The opening thirty minutes of the movie shows the violent struggle of the American soldiers to take Omaha Beach from the Germans. It is a very vivid and graphic depiction of the actual battle that took place there. Stephen Spielberg states that “I didn’t want to shoot the picture in a way that would seem like a Hollywood production coming to Omaha beach and making a gung-ho extravaganza. This is really trying to approximate the look and smells of what battle and combat is really like.” James Berardinelli, a film critic, states that “it is certainly the most violent, gory, visceral depiction of war that I have ever witnessed on screen. Spielberg spares the viewer nothing of the horrors of battle, using every tactic at his disposal to convey the chaos and senseless waste that lies at the core of any engagement.” The chaos and horror that Spielberg displays in the opening scenes seem to be very accurate according to veterans that were on Omaha Beach on D-Day. Harold Baumgarten, a member of the 29th Infantry Division, was one of the soldiers that survived the attack on Omaha Beach that day. In his autobiography, Baumgarten described his first moments on the beach that day. He states “the lowering of the ramp [of the boat] was like a signal for every German machine gun to open up on the exit from our boat. Lieutenant Donaldson and some guys around him were gunned down in our LCA. Clarius Riggs was shot dead on the ramp and fell face-down into the water. I dove in behind him, and only my helmet was creased by a bullet. There I was, standing in neck-deep, bloody red water, with my rifle above my head.” Another soldier, Private Henry Basey, who was one of the few black soldiers that took part in the invasion, states “what I remember was Pure D Hell…there were guys falling all around me, hollering, and there was no one to help them. I didn’t think I’d live through it myself.”
Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998, fifty four years after the actual events of D-Day took place. It was based loosely on a real person, Sergeant Frederick Niland. In 1942, the war department established the Sole Survivor Policy after the death of the Sullivan brothers. The policy protects remaining family members from active combat duty. Considering the fact that the story was written around the fiftieth anniversary of the D-Day invasion, Saving private Ryan serves as a reminder of the sacrifices Americans had made to help in the fight against the Nazi Regime in World War II. Throughout the movie, Spielberg’s characters show a number of ideals that were common during the time that the movie was made. One of these ideals that was held by many was an under-lying anti war sentiment. Even though the movie shows how heroic these men were and how dedicated they were to doing their duty, they all seem to question what they are doing there and why they were sent on this mission to save one man. They all just want to go home and do what they must to accomplish that. There are also the ideals of American pride and determination. The movie vividly shows that against all odds the Americans eventually triumphed and accomplished their mission and never gave up. These ideals are clearly shown in the scene where Private Ryan has been found by Captain Miller and his surviving unit but refuses to leave his post. Ryan states that he cannot leave his unit until they have successfully defended the bridge they have been ordered to defend. Miller understands this and decides that he and his men will stay as well to help defend the bridge. Captain Miller dies as a result of the battle for the bridge.
The movie does use stock characters to portray its message. Captain Miller, played by Tom Hanks, is the mild mannered former school teacher, Tom Sizemore’s character, the second in command, is the tough as nails career army man. There is also the country boy sniper that quotes scripture as he shoots his targets played by Barry Pepper and the medic, played by Giovanni Ribisi, who cares too much about the men dying around him. These actors do a good job of playing their respective roles and creating characters that the audience can relate to. Vin Diesel’s character is killed trying to save a little French girl that reminds him of his niece back home. The characters bring a little humanity and compassion into the stark, violent story of war. John Bodnar, a historian states “ironically, while the Spielberg film reveals the brutality of war, it preserves the World War II image of American soldiers as inherently adverse to bloodshed and cruelty.” This is also vividly shown when the translator who has never seen action before begs Captain Miller to not kill the German they capture. Captain Miller reluctantly agrees even though his men want to kill him because they state if they don’t he will just join another unit and they will face him again. Captain Miller states that each time he kills a man he feels farther from home. Miller does agree to let the German go and in the end they do face that same German again and Captain Miller is killed by him.
Saving Private Ryan is one of the most accurate depictions of the invasion of Normandy that has ever been made. Spielberg does an incredible job of showing just how horrible that invasion really was and the sacrifice that was made by thousands of Americans. He also does a very good job of showing the effects of the war on the men that fought it, such as Captain Millers hand shaking uncontrollably and Private Ryan’s questioning whether he lived a good enough life to be worthy of the sacrifices made for him. The film as a primary source of World War II and especially the D-Day invasion is very accurate. The costumes and scenes depicting a war ravaged France are also very accurate. Saving Private Ryan is also accurate in depicting the sentiments of the time that it was filmed. It shows the commonly held thoughts of the late nineties that war is bad but also that Americans are brave and determined and will do what they need to do to preserve the American way of life. Spielberg also tends to romanticize his characters and shows their moral strength during a tragic time in history. There are a few inaccuracies in the movie, such as Captain Miller wearing his Captain’s bars on his helmet, but overall Spielberg tries very hard to be as accurate as possible. This movie is an excellent source for showing what war is really like and the horrors of D-Day on Omaha Beach that fateful day in June 1944 when the tide of World War II began to change.
Jim Lehrer Transcript, “Realities of War,” August 3, 1998, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment/july-dec98/ryan_8-3.html
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Harold Baumgarten, “The Landing: When Will I Die,” in D-Day Survivor: An Autobiography (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 2006), 65.
Jonathan Bastable, “Bloody Omaha,” in Voices From D-Day: Eye-Witness Accounts of 6th June 1944 (UK: David & Charles, 2004), 124.
John Bodnar, “Saving Private Ryan and Postwar Memory in America,” June, 2001, The American Historical Review, http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahn/106.3/ah000805.html.
Bastable, Jonathan. “Bloody Omaha.” In Voices From D-Day: Eye-Witness Accounts of 6th June 1944. UK: David & Charles, 2004.
Baumgarten, Harold. “The Landing: When Will I Die.” In D-Day Survivor: An Autobiography. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 2006.
Berardinelli, James. “Saving Private Ryan,” 1998. http://www.reelviews.net/movies/s/saving.html.
Bodnar, John. “Saving Private Ryan and Postwar Memory in America,” June, 2001. The American Historical Review. http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahn/106.3/ah000805.html.
Jim Lehrer Transcript. “Realities of War,” August 3, 1998. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment/july-dec98/ryan_8-3.html.
Nix, Elizabeth. “Saving Private Ryan,” 1998. http://www.history.com/minisite.do?content_type=Minisite_Generic&content_type_id=57075&dsplay_order=3&mini_id=56715.