On This Day: ‘Saving Private Ryan’ Hits Theaters in 1998

by Sean Griffin

On this day, July 24th, 1998, Saving Private Ryan opened in theaters. The movie is a World War II film that chronicles one army squad’s search for a paratrooper Private Ryan, the lone surviving brother of four.

The film, directed by legend Steven Spielberg, stars an ensemble cast. Tom Hanks stars as Captain John Miller. Matt Damon stars as Private James Francis Ryan. Other stars include Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Giovani Ribisi, Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, and Jeremy Davies.

The film received praise for its authentic portrayal of war. Saving Private Ryan earned eleven Academy Award nominations. It took home five Oscars, for Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Film Editing and Best Sound Effects Editing.

The film’s long opening scene contains a bloody re-enactment of American troops landing at Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944. The scene contains a strikingly realistic portrayal of the events at D-Day.

‘Saving Private Ryan’ Synopsis

Following this violent D-Day scene, the movie centers around the fictional story of Captain John Miller (Hanks), and his band of seven rangers, who are sent on a mission to rescue Private James Francis Ryan (Damon). Ryan is a paratrooper missing somewhere behind enemy lines. Ryan’s three older brothers have recently been killed in action, so military officials order Miller to find the young soldier and prevent a public-relations disaster.

As the men make their way across the war-torn French countryside, they suffer several casualties and question if the mission is worth it.

Eventually they find Ryan in a destructed village. There, he’d been helping defend a strategically important bridge from the Germans. Ryan refuses to leave his comrades, even once Miller gave him the news of his siblings’ deaths. Miller reluctantly agrees that he and his squad can stay to defend the area. When the Nazis attack them, Captain Miller and some of his men die in action. However, Private Ryan survives.

While Private Ryan is a fictional character, the story was steeped in reality. The U.S. War Department established the Sole Survivor Policy to protect remaining family members from combat duty after an eerily similar incident to the film’s plot. Five of the Sullivan brothers from Waterloo, Iowa died aboard the USS Juneau in November 1942.

Furthermore, the story was partially inspired by the real story of the Niland brothers. During the war, Sergeant Frederick “Fritz” Niland found himself accidentally dropped in enemy territory. The member of the 101st Airborne made it back to his unit. However, there, he learned that two of his brothers had died at Normandy. Moreover, he learned another brother had gone missing in Burma.

From there, Niland returned back home to Tonawanda, New York. However, the story holds a small silver lining. The brother believed to have died in Burma was released from a Japanese POW camp after the war.