Amidst the chaos of the first few days after D-Day, a small team is assembled and sent on a mission to find a certain private Ryan.
The story begins on the 6th of June 1944 (aka D-Day), the day the Normandy Landings took place. The events that follow span over the course of one week in several locations across Normandy, north France.
Codenamed operation Overlord, the battle of Normandy was one of the biggest operations in WWII. France had been under German occupation since the summer of 1940. Between 1942 and 1944, the Germans built a series of fortifications in the coastlines of all the Atlantic countries they had occupied. These fortifications became known as the Atlantic Wall and they spanned over hundreds of kilometres from northern Norway to south-western France. Their intention was to prevent an invasion of France or indeed any other country that would allow the ground forces of the Allies to be deployed in continental Europe. The Germans boasted that this wall was impregnable and indeed the Allies’ first attempt to invade France was a disaster. In 1942, Allied forces assaulted Dieppe with the objective to capture and hold its port. Unable to break the German defenses they finally retreated after losing more than 50% of their troops.
In 1943, for the first time things started to look bad for the Axis Powers. They had lost a terrible battle in Stalingrad, a turning point in the war, as well as being on retreat in North Africa. This is when the Allies started planning for a second invasion of France. Although the decision for this operation was taken in May 1943, it wasn’t until a year later that it finally took place. In the meantime, the Soviet army was driving the Germans further and further towards the west and the Allied forces in North Africa (mainly British and American) had captured Italy.
After several delays due to weather conditions, operation Overlord was initiated on the 6th of June 1944. Preceded by heavy bombardment from the RAF and an airborne assault (private Ryan was part of this assault in the movie), the Allied soldiers landed in five different beaches across the coastline of Normandy. These five beaches were codenamed Utah, Omaha (the landing location depicted in the movie), Gold, Juno and Sword. The Americans would land in Utah and Omaha while the British and Canadians would take the other three. After 6 days and heavy losses from both sides, the five beaches were linked establishing a foothold for the deployment of more troops. The first major objectives were the port of Cherbourg for the Americans and the city of Caen for the British. Although it took more time than expected, the Allies managed to capture these objectives by 26th of June and 21st of July respectively. From there on the Germans were unable to hold them back as they liberated the whole of France and went on to advance towards Germany.
Saving Private Ryan is without a doubt one of the best WWII films ever made. Steven Spielberg surpassed himself doing this movie and that’s saying something for a director who had already given us Jaws, E.T, Jurassic park and Schindler’s List. The film manages to capture the true feeling of a WWII battlefield like very few others do. It starts with a scene that depicts one of the actual D-Day landings and it does so in such a masterful way that it can get you shell-shocked. It hardly slows down after that, mind you. As the team led by Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) go deeper and deeper through North France trying to locate a soldier who could really be anywhere, the real magnitude of this horrifying war is unraveled in front of the audience’s eyes. In fact, watching it made me think that the whole story about Ryan was just a McGuffin, an excuse the creators needed in order to show us what they really wanted, D-Day. After all, this is one of the most famous, deadly and at the same time important battles in history. Saving Private Ryan has been a huge influence on the genre and it reportedly caused a sensation in the US where a resurgence of WWII interest was observed. Spielberg’s masterpiece has cemented its status as an absolute classic and it would not be an understatement to say that it set a new standard for the war movies that followed.
While Saving Private Ryan has its fair share of Hollywood dramatisation, it also has some moments that are incredibly accurate and are some of the best among war films. Let’s start with the film’s most shocking and arguably greatest scene, the Omaha beach landing. Here, the creators really pulled off something amazing. The scene depicts the landing as brutally and as accurately as possible, without doing any favours. Soldiers falling to the sea to escape fire only to end up drowned, soldiers shot in the head before they even had the chance to set foot on land, soldiers being so shellshocked from the enemy fire that they could hardly move. All this was a reality on 6th June 1944, aptly dubbed “The Longest Day”. Even those soldiers vomiting just before they landed is not as far-fetched as some people would think. There are several reports from participants about the extreme seasickness among the crowded vessels crossing the English Channel that day. One officer said in an interview that “The soldiers were so glad to get off the landing craft to escape the seasickness, that they were just ready to go anywhere by that time.” It must also be noted that among the five beaches where the Allies landed on D-Day, Omaha beach suffered the worst casualties and the movie does a great job depicting what a massacre had taken place there. The scene is consistently ranked among the greatest war film scenes ever.
Moving on from Omaha beach, the film gets less and less factual. While the events are inspired by a true story about a soldier who lost his brothers and was sent home, there is no account of a rescue mission for him and to be fair, such a mission would never have taken place. The idea that the army would send eight men to find one soldier that could really be anywhere and who might even be dead is dubious at best. Furthermore, the events that happen during the mission are all fictional, although the overall situation in northern France is quite accurately presented. It can be argued that the film only aims to capture the overall feeling of these days rather than accurately following historical events and this I believe it does very well. Still there are some significant inaccuracies. One of the greatest is that soldiers in the movie move in daylight and rest during the night which in reality would go down the other way around because of the many dangers. Furthermore, there is too much drama between the soldiers who in real life wouldn’t be able to disregard orders or yell at their superiors like that without being punished. This means that private Ryan wouldn’t have been given the option to stay in the battlefield even if he wanted to and this is what happened to the real soldier whose story inspired the events of the film. The movie also received some criticism for its failure to recognize the contribution of the other nations that participated in the Normandy landings, most notably British and Canadians. It’s an American film of course so this should be expected.
The unplausibility of the whole mission and the historical inaccuracies are the reasons I’m not giving the film a perfect 10. Nevertheless, it does a remarkable job in bringing WWII in the big screen and this after all was the main goal of the creators.