The Big Picture
- Saving Private Ryan is a gripping war film that depicts the storming of Omaha Beach during World War II.
- The film is inspired by true events, including the U.S. Army’s “sole survivor” policy, but the story of Captain Miller’s mission is fictional.
- Director Steven Spielberg’s passion for World War II comes from his father’s service, and he has since worked on other war-related projects like Band of Brothers.
Saving Private Ryan is one of the greatest war films ever made. Steven Spielberg’s uncompromising depiction of a brave mission during the climax of World War II is renowned for its gripping first sequence, which depicts the grizzly storming of Omaha Beach by Allied forces. While detractors would argue the film never tops its standout opening, the larger story poses fascinating questions on the value of individual life within a conflict that claims countless. It’s a nuanced take on heroism and patriotism from the generally sentimental Spielberg. The film has recently found a new life on streaming services, perhaps reaching new audiences who may wonder if the movie is based on real-life events.
The story follows U.S. Army Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) as he’s assigned to venture deep within Nazi territory to locate Private First Class James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon). Ryan’s three brothers also served, but were all killed during the Normandy Invasion, so the Army has decided to send him home to his family. Miller has reservations about the mission but travels alongside his squad Mike Horvath (Tom Sizemore), Richard Reiben (Edward Burns), Daniel Jackson (Barry Pepper), Stanley Mellish (Adam Goldberg), Adrian Caparzo (Vin Diesel), Irwin Wade (Giovanni Ribisi), and Timothy Upham (Jeremy Davies) on the treacherous journey. Spielberg had explored the World War II era previously in 1941, Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, and the Indiana Jones franchise, but wanted to depict the plight of combat as a tribute to his father Arnold Spielberg’s service in the war. When Spielberg won the Academy Award for Best Director, he dedicated it to his father’s heroism.
Following the Normandy Landings, a group of U.S. soldiers go behind enemy lines to retrieve a paratrooper whose brothers have been killed in action.
- Release Date
- July 24, 1998
- Steven Spielberg
- Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel
- Main Genre
- Action, Documentary, Drama, History, War
- Robert Rodat
- in the last great invasion of the last great war, the greatest danger for eight men… was saving one
Is ‘Saving Private Ryan’ Based on a True Story?
While the characters are fictitious, many of its events are inspired by actual historical records. Screenwriter Robert Rodat was first inspired to craft the narrative upon reading Stephen Ambrose’s nonfiction retrospective D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II. Rodat was fascinated by an honorary memorial dedicated to families who had lost multiple sons in the war.
Rodat began writing Saving Private Ryan after studying the true story of Sergeant Frederick “Fritz” Niland. Fritz Niland’s brothers Preston and Robert had enlisted for service, and his brother Edward had volunteered. In May 1944, Edward was shot down over Burma and presumed dead. In June, Robert was killed on D-Day and Preston was killed on Omaha Beach. Frederick had gone missing during the Normandy Invasion, and the U.S. Army commissioned him to be rescued and sent home.
An army unit under chaplain Fr. Francis Sampson identified Frederick’s location and sent him back to his parents Michael and Augusta Niland. Frederick’s brother Edward was also discovered to be alive and was rescued from a Burmese POW camp and also returned home safely. The rescues were the result of the U.S. War Department’s “sole survivor” policy, which was adopted in 1942 after the four Sullivan brothers who served in the U.S. Navy had all been killed during the sinking of the USS Juneau during the Battle of Guadalcanal. So, while Saving Private Ryan is unquestionably inspired by true events, the film’s story of Captain Miller’s risky mission to save one man is entirely fictional.
What Was Steven Spielberg’s Connection to World War II?
As a child, Spielberg had an interest in World War II that stemmed from his father’s service in combat. He called it “the most significant event of the last 100 years,” and cataloged elements of the war in his films 1941, Empire of the Sun, and the Indiana Jones franchise. The HBO original documentary film Spielberg shows some of the director’s early childhood short films, many of which were inspired by World War II combat newsreels. Spielberg’s semi-biographical passion project The Fabelmans sheds a spotlight on his relationship with his father; in the film, the stand-in character for his father is played by Paul Dano.
Spielberg had searched for a World War II story that represented his father’s journey, and upon reading Rodat’s script, he knew that he had found it. Spielberg made a transition in his career early in the 1990s with his World War II historical epic Schindler’s List. Spielberg’s research into the Holocaust during the production of Schindler’s List gave him even more respect for America’s veterans; he even rejected George Lucas’ original concept for a fourth Indiana Jones movie featuring resurrected Nazis that he felt wouldn’t be respectful to veterans.
One of our most legendary filmmakers made his first film in 1959 at the age of 13. Scout’s honor.
Saving Private Ryan wasn’t the last time that Spielberg and Hanks worked together on a World War II-centric project. They produced the game-changing HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, which depicted the exploits of “Easy Company” throughout the war. Although this was produced during a period when television shows were rarely granted the same budgets as feature films, Band of Brothers featured a nearly cinematic depiction of combat. Similar to Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers was praised by veterans for its realism.
The success of Band of Brothers inspired the follow-up series The Pacific, which followed the stories of the men serving in the “Pacific Theater” during the end of the war. Both Band of Brothers and The Pacific speak to similar themes as Saving Private Ryan; they focus on the loss of humanity during combat and the ramifications of PTSD.
How Accurate Is ‘Saving Private Ryan’?
Steven Spielberg went out of his way to ensure that Saving Private Ryan was as accurate as possible; a near replica of Omaha Beach was constructed for the opening sequence, and the film’s cast went through boot camp training to prepare them for the rigors of combat. Reflecting on the filming of the “D-Day” sequence, Hanks reflected that he wasn’t prepared for how tactile the environment would be and how emotionally grueling the film was. While Spielberg recreated some latent details, including the “ping” of actual gunfire, Saving Private Ryan is not completely accurate. Some events, such as the Battle of Ramelle, are fictitious, and there are some tactical errors made by both American and German soldiers during the final sequence that was included for dramatic effect.
Saving Private Ryan earned Steven Spielberg his second Academy Award for Best Director, but it shockingly lost the Best Picture trophy to Shakespeare in Love. The upset is considered to be one of the biggest disappointments in Oscar history. Saving Private Ryan has been cited as an influence by other great directors who have told World War II-centric stories. Quentin Tarantino praised the film during the making of Inglorious Basterds, and Christopher Nolan cited Saving Private Ryan as a favorite while making Dunkirk.
Saving Private Ryan is available to stream on Paramount+ in the U.S.