American soldiers land on Omaha Beach on 6 June 1944 as part of the D-Day landings in Normandy during World War II, with multiple deaths from German fire.
The film opens with some of the most devastating footage of combat ever committed to film.
For twenty minutes, the audience is assailed by subjective sight and sound in an attempt to recreate the feeling of being in the midst of the D-Day battle.
Much of this terrifying effect is due to the camerawork of Janusz Kaminski.
Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) of the 2nd Ranger Battalion has been assigned to take his squad of seven men into France to find Private James Ryan (Matt Damon), whose three brothers have been killed in combat, and get him home to his grieving mother back in the States.
The squad comprises T/Sgt. Mike Horvath (Tom Sizemore), Pfcs. Richard Reiben (Edward Burns) and Adrian Caparzo (Vin Diesel), Pvts. Stanley Mellish (Adam Goldberg) and Danny Jackson (Barry Pepper), medic Irwin Wade (Giovanni Ribisi), and Timothy Upham (Jeremy Davies), a cartographer and interpreter.
The group have to travel through treacherous German-held territory until they eventually find Ryan and a small group of paratroopers trying to hold on to a key bridge in Ramelle, which is about to be attacked by a German Panzer Group.
Though bereaved at the loss of his brothers, Ryan refuses to be led back to safety, so Miller joins his team with the paratroopers to defend the bridge, setting up defences throughout the town.
Tanks and infantry from the 2nd SS Panzer Division duly arrive, and the American soldiers put up a valiant ﬁght – but the majority of the paratroopers, along with Horvath, Mellish, and Jackson, are killed.
Miller makes an effort to blow up the bridge, but he is shot. Reiben and Ryan are close to Miller as he dies, saying: “James . . . Earn this. Earn it!”
Flash-forward 50 years to the late 1990s, and the elderly James Ryan, accompanied by his family, visits the American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-Sur-Mer, Normandy, and discovers Captain John Miller’s gravestone among the thousands of others.
A tearful James Ryan explains how grateful he is to Miller and his unit for saving his life and wonders whether he is worthy of their sacriﬁces. Ryan’s wife comforts him and conﬁrms that he is indeed a “good man”. Ryan then salutes Miller’s grave.
The D-Day landing sequence was shot over three weeks on Curracloe Strand in Ballinesker, Ireland, about 70 miles south of Dublin. The ruined French village of Ramelle was built at a former British Aerospace factory in Hertfordshire, about 20 miles north of London. The set was later reused for Spielberg’s 2001 TV miniseries Band of Brothers.
The Iowa farmstead where Mrs Ryan receives news of three of her sons’ deaths was built near West Kennet in Wiltshire, 85 miles west of London. The skirmish with the German machine-gun nest near a ruined radar installation and the German half-track’s ambush were filmed in the grounds of Thame Park, about 15 miles east of Oxford.
During its initial 17-week domestic run, the movie earned $190.6 million at the box office. After Saving Private Ryan garnered 11 Oscar nominations in February 1998, the movie was re-released to take advantage of its enhanced profile. It ran until 27 May 1998 and earned another $25.7 million, bringing the total domestic gross to $216.3 million – the highest-grossing film of 1998 in the United States.
Foreign ticket sales came in even higher, at $268.7 million. Overall, the movie grossed $485 million versus a $70 million production budget, making it a blockbuster hit.
Though widely regarded as historically authentic, Saving Private Ryan is problematic in many areas, including its famed Omaha Beach sequence. Though it uses fictional names, the movie accurately depicts the carnage and chaos at Dog Green, Omaha Beach, where elements of the US 116th Regiment, 29th Infantry Division, and the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions took extremely heavy casualties from German automatic weapons fire and artillery and the sea ran red with blood, as the film shows.
What the film doesn’t indicate is that this was the absolute worst sector of the landings and not typical of the invasion as a whole. Overall, D-Day was no walk-over, but the operation’s 3,000 fatalities were far fewer than the 10,000 anticipated.
Military historian Antony Beevor (D-Day: The Battle for Normandy) points out that the “real fighting and the real casualties came in the Battle of Normandy” further inland in the weeks following D-Day.
Captain John H Miller
Sergeant Mike Horvath
PFC Richard Reiben
Private Danny Jackson
Private Stanley Mellish
PFC Adrian Caparzo
T/4 Medic Irwin Wade
Corporal Timothy Upham
Private James Ryan
Old Mrs Ryan