Saving Private Ryan Celebrates 15 Years As One of Top War Films of All Time

Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, and Ed Burns starred in the 1998 film.

Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, and Ed Burns starred in the 1998 film.

Movie blogger Spencer Blohm has kindly offered to guest write today’s Americans in WWII blog post, marking the 15th anniversary of the popular World War II film Saving Private Ryan, released on this date in 1998.

15 Years After Saving Private Ryan

Fifteen years ago, in 1998, one of the most influential films of our time premiered in theaters. Saving Private Ryan, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks, is still, to this day, one of the most realistic and graphic portrayals of World War II. For many, the film was an unwanted trip down memory lane – American counselors saw an immediate increase in reports of PTSD after the film premiered, and a good number of veterans confessed to exiting the theater during the opening scene.

D-Day veteran Bill Faust told a Times-Union writer after seeing the film, “I should have never gone to see that damn movie.” Faust endured the entire film, but others in their North Florida D-Day veterans group walked out. “In my mind,” said Faust, “most of the details, the memories were gone; all this did was bring them back.” For those of us who are not veterans, the film offers an opportunity to perceive the horrors experienced by our heroes for the first time.

The film is most noted for its first 27 minutes, which depicts the Omaha Beach assault of June 6, 1944. The scene was shot in Ireland (since the real location in Normandy is a historical landmark) and used over 1,500 extras in order to depict the absolute madness that was D-Day. Empire magazine named the excruciatingly accurate portrayal the “best battle scene of all time” while TV Guide ranked it number one on their list of “50 Greatest Movie Moments.” Overall, the cost to shoot just that scene was $12 million. For the many extras needed, Spielberg recruited members of the Irish Reserve Defence Forces and even participants in local reenactment groups such as the Second Battle Group. In addition, he also hired twenty to thirty actual amputees to portray maimed American soldiers. Most importantly, Spielberg chose not to storyboard the sequence in order to produce spontaneous reactions, which he then caught on handheld cameras following the men on foot.

One of the perhaps most inspiring and heartbreaking themes of the film is that of the families torn apart. The writer, Robert Rodat, created the film’s story in 1994, after he discovered a monument dedicated to eight siblings all killed in the American Civil War. Many families knew the loss of one soldier in the family, but Rodat honed in on the grief of those who had lost more than one son, brother, or friend. Its effect, then, was the universal recognition that war is synonymous with incomprehensible loss. The film begins with the knowledge of Private Ryan’s three dead brothers, but concludes with the unforgettable casualties of brothers made during the war, those in Captain John Miller’s squad.

“A number of books were published to commemorate D-Day,” Rodat remembered, noting that it was the 50th anniversary of the event. “I was reading them when my son was born… I would take my new son for walks in the early morning hours. In the town square, there’s a monument to those from the village who died in war, dating back to the American Revolution. In almost every war, there were repeated last names – brothers who were killed in action. The thought of losing a son to war is painful beyond description; the thought of losing more than one is inconceivable.”

Spielberg and others on the project knew the lengths they would have to go in order to accurately create a rendition of World War II, down to the mindset of every last actor. The main stars, including Tom Hanks and Tom Sizemore, were all trained by former U.S. Marine Corps Captain Dale Dye. Dye forced the actors to eat rations, and crawl through and sleep in mud and dirt for ten days of actual camp before shooting began. During the training, Dye called them only by their character names and drilled into them the basics of soldiering, weaponry, and brotherhood. “I think he was trying to instill in us the idea that when you think you can’t go any farther, you can. You just have to decide to do it, which is exactly the situation in which many of the men involved in the Normandy invasion found themselves,” said Hanks.

Saving Private Ryan, starring Hanks, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper and Adam Goldberg has remained unsurpassed in the accuracy of its battle scenes and its unparalleled, meticulously precise portrait of soldiers and the harrowing combat conditions they faced during World War II. Fifteen years after its release, it still stands as one of the most educational and illuminating films of our generation.

About the Author: Spencer Blohm is a film and television blogger for Aside from being a longtime history buff, he enjoys watching and reviewing films based on actual events and historical documentaries about a variety of subjects, particularly military history. He lives and works in Chicago.