Saving Private Ryan

Photo from Wikipedia

Photo from Wikipedia

It’s almost the 70th anniversary, and it’s also Memorial Day. This is a good time to post the movie review. I have the Blu-Ray disk, and I have viewed it a number of times. It’s difficult to do so without a deep feeling of remorse for those who sacrificed so much in those times.

The script is by Robert Rodat. Wikipedia describes his inspiration for the story:

Rodat conceived the film’s story in 1994 when he saw a monument dedicated to eight siblings killed in the American Civil War. Rodat imagined a similar sibling narrative set in World War II. The script was submitted to producer Mark Gordon, who handed it to Hanks. It was finally given to Spielberg, who decided to direct.

Saving Private Ryan received universal critical acclaim, winning several awards for film, cast, and crew as well as earning significant returns at the box office. The film grossed US$481.8 million worldwide, making it the highest-grossing domestic film of the year. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated the film for eleven Academy Awards; Spielberg’s direction won him a second Academy Award for Best Director, with four more awards going to the film. Saving Private Ryan was released on home video in May 1999, earning $44 million from sales.

The basis of the plot is a hunt for Private James Ryan, of the 101st Airborne Division. Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) is assigned to take a squad of troops into hostile territory a few days after the D-Day landing, locate Ryan, and extricate him from the battle. He is to be returned to the United States after the War Department learns his three brothers have just been listed as killed in action.

The opening scene is present time, as a survivor of the invasion visits graves in Normandy. The veteran recalls the day, and the following scene is one of the most dramatic in motion picture production history. It shows Captain Miller of the Second Rangers landing on Omaha Beach. Drama builds, and when the ramps of the landing craft are dropped the defending Germans open up with machine gun fire, killing many before they can exit the landing craft. What ensues is 27 minutes of pure hell for the men as they fight to gain the advantage over the defenders, all the while being cut down by gunfire and exploding shells.

Reality on Omaha Beach was much worse than depicted in the movie, and it lasted the better part of a day, rather than just a few minutes. One depiction is accurate, in agreement with accounts of many survivors of such a battle. Once American troops gain the upper hand they kill without remorse.

Grenades are thrown into a concrete bunker occupied by German troops. Then a man with a flame thrower hoses the inside, forcing many survivors to crawl, on fire, out the gun ports. American soldiers open fire on the Germans, but an American soldier yells for them to stop shooting. “Let ’em burn.”

Americans who have gained the tops of the defenders’ trench system now use the trenches against the Germans as they dash along the tops firing into the Germans until one noncom tells them to stop. They are wasting their ammunition.

Two Germans throw down their weapons, raise their hands and attempt to surrender. Two Americans shoot them at point blank range. One makes a joke. Vengeance for the morning’s slaughter is sweet.

One of those killed on the beach has “S. Ryan” stenciled on his back back. He is one of two brothers killed in the D-Day assault. Another brother has been killed in New Guinea. Their mother is about to receive three telegrams from the War Department on the same day. A character in the film, supposedly General George C. Marshall, orders the Army to find the remaining brother and bring him home.

The hunt for and rescue of James Ryan occupies the remainder of the film. It’s a small contingent of Army Rangers, and some in the group complain they are being sent on a fool’s errand rather than being allowed to do what they were trained to do. In the end Private Ryan is rescued, but most of the rescuers are killed in action against the enemy. This result would seem to validate the complaint about a misdirected mission, but the end actually validates it. Along the way a German sniper is killed, with a loss of one of the group. They encounter half dozen or more German soldiers inside a building and eradicate them all with no losses. They knock out a German machine gun position defending a radar station, with the loss of one. Finally they locate Ryan and assist in the defense of a vital bridge.

In the opening scene of the movie it has been Ryan at Captain Miller’s grave in Normandy.  Remembering such sacrifice is what Memorial Day is all about.

The movie is fiction, featuring people who never existed. However, the events are closely, not completely, historical. In the movie the General Marshall character notes the previous loss of five brothers in the war. The Sullivan brothers were killed when the Japanese destroyed the light cruiser USS Juneau:

The Sullivan brothers were five siblings who were all killed in action during or shortly after the sinking of the light cruiser USS Juneau (CL-52), the vessel on which they all served, around November 13, 1942, in World War II.

The Sullivans, natives of Waterloo, Iowa, were the sons of Thomas (1883-1965) and Alleta Sullivan (1895-1972).

[Some links removed]

Perhaps not coincidentally, Private Ryan and his fictional brothers are from Iowa. So much for fiction.

But wait! There really was a “Private Ryan.” Only his name was not Ryan. In Band of Brothers Stephen E. Ambrose tells the tale of Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (101st Airborne Division):

A few minutes after Niland left, Muck came to Malarkey, “his impish Irish smile replaced by a frown.” Had Niland explained to Malarkey why he was going home? No. Muck told the story.

The previous day Niland had gone to the 82d to see his brother Bob, the one who had told Malarkey in London that if he wanted to be a hero, the Germans would see to it, fast, which had led Malarkey to conclude that Bob Niland had lost his nerve. Fritz Niland had just learned that his brother had been killed on D-Day. Bob’s platoon had been surrounded, and he manned a machine-gun, hitting the Germans with harassing fire until the platoon broke through the encirclement. He had used up several boxes of ammunition before getting killed.

Fritz Niland next hitched a ride to the 4th Infantry Division position, to see another brother who was a platoon leader. He too had been killed on D-Day, on Utah Beach. By the time Fritz returned to Easy Company, Father Francis Sampson was looking for him, to tell him that a third brother, a pilot in the China-Burma-India theater, had been killed that same week. Fritz was the sole surviving son, and the Army wanted to remove him from the combat zone as soon as possible.

Fritz’s mother had received all three telegrams from the War Department on the same day.

Father Sampson escorted Fritz to Utah Beach, where a plane flew him to London on the first leg of his return to the States.

[Band of Brothers, pages 102 – 103]

The idea that Robert Rodat got the idea for the story completely from a Civil War monument requires some skeptical analysis. The Ambrose book came out in 1992. It’s sure that Rodat knew the story by the time he started writing two years later, however, the story of Fritz Niland lacks entirely the drama for a Hollywood movie.

3 thoughts on “Saving Private Ryan

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