Produced and Published by the Students and Faculty of Stephen F. Austin State University.

Saving Private Ryan


Margaret Burns


     Saving Private Ryan begins with a man, his wife, children and grandchildren at the D-day memorial in Normandy.   The man walks into the cemetery, which is full of thousands of headstones in the shape of a cross, interspersed with a few that are instead the Star of David, all lined up so that, no matter what direction you are facing, they are always in a straight row.   The man walks up to one cross, and kneels before it, crying.   As the shot closes in on his eyes, the only sound heard is the crashing of waves, and suddenly, it is June 6, 1944, as American troops cross the English Channel, approaching Omaha Beach.

     In a scene that has been voted one of the top ten movie scenes ("Press"), the harsh reality of that day is dramatically depicted, sacrificing political correctness for accuracy.   This is uncharacteristic of director Steven Spielberg, who will often censor violence in his films so as to appeal to a wider audience.   All that is heard is the sound of gunfire, the crashing waves, and the cries of the soldiers as they storm the beach.   The lack of musical accompaniment, along with the muted colors, adds to the bleakness of the story. Suddenly, the scene becomes very quiet, as Captain John Miller, played by Tom Hanks, watches the scene in disbelief, until his attention is brought back by one of his soldiers screaming, "What the hell are we supposed to do now, Sir?"   This graphic battle scene goes on for twenty four minutes, sparing no gory detail as Miller's troops move further inland, all the while dodging German fire, losing soldier after soldier on the way.   At one point, after the fighting has subsided and the German troops have surrendered, a soldier breaks into tears, clearly angry.   We later learn that this soldier, Private Mellish (Adam Goldberg) is himself Jewish.   The scene closes as Miller looks out over the beach, now covered in the bodies of American soldiers.   The shot sweeps across the beach, finally closing in on one dead soldier in particular, lying face down in the sand, his name, Ryan, printed on his backpack.

     In what could be the movie's most heart-wrenching scene, we watch as a woman stands in her kitchen of her country home, looking out the window while she does the dishes.   A car pulls into the drive, and the woman fearfully walks out to meet her visitors on the porch.   An Army representative and a preacher step out of the car, there to deliver the news that not one, but in fact three of her four sons have been killed in action.   Not a word is spoken as they walk towards the porch and Mrs. Ryan collapses to the ground, knowing exactly why they are there.

     And this is where the real story begins.   Miller and his men are sent to find Private James Ryan, the sole surviving youngest Ryan son.   They learn that he had parachuted into Normandy with the 101 st Airborne Division.   The search, however, is quite difficult, because the 101 st have scattered all over Normandy, and no one is even sure if he's alive.

     Throughout the film, as Captain Miller's squad of eight men wanders the Northern French countryside, no longer the beautiful, peaceful place it once was but a hostile war zone, they experience the perils of war and the bonding that goes on between soldiers.   This bonding could be considered the meaningful, albeit somewhat hidden underlying story of Saving Private Ryan .   But most importantly, these men have to face their own consciences as they ask themselves why eight men have to risk their lives for the sake of one.  

     After quite some difficulty and losing two men, including their medic, Miller's company does find Ryan.   As Miller informs Ryan that all three of his brothers have been killed, and Ryan tries unsuccessfully to fight back the tears for his lost siblings, he begins to be seen almost as a lost and scared little boy who is desperately trying to be a man and stay strong.   When Ryan asks why an entire squad was sent to deliver the news to him, he is told that he is being sent home.   Ryan refuses to leave "the only brothers" he has left.   A short but dramatic conflict follows as Miller's men, especially Private Reiben (Edward Burns) tell him in a not-so-gentle manner that two men already died so that his mother does not have to receive "another folded American flag."   Ryan, however, still refuses to leave his post until reinforcements arrive.   Miller's squad decides that the best thing to do would be to stay with him and keep Ryan safe as they promised.   Knowing that German troops will soon be approaching, trying to advance further into France by taking the small town, now nothing more than ruins of its former self, Miller takes charge, getting everyone ready for when the Germans do arrive.   Soon after, the snipers in the watch tower do in fact see the enemy troops approaching.

     The film's climax comes in the form of a battle sequence between the Germans and Miller's troops, now joined by what is left of Ryan's company.   After another long, but exciting, sequence, they defeat the Germans, but not before losing four more f Miller's squad, including Miller himself.   The scene closes with the survivors standing around Miller as he dies, mourning for their Captain, as a letter to Ryan's mother is read, informing her that her youngest son is alive and on his way home.   As the letter ends, the shot rests on Ryan's face.   Slowly, it transitions back to the face of the old man, and we know that he is Ryan.   Back in the present day, Ryan now stands in front of the same cross, and we see that it is Captain Miller's grave.   Ryan kneels before it, finally thanking the man who sacrificed his life for Ryan's sake.

     The concept of Saving Private Ryan is loosely based on the true story of the Sullivan brothers of Waterloo, Iowa.   The Sullivans are even mentioned in the film, near the beginning.   In the story, the Ryans, like the Sullivans, had all served together until the Sullivan brothers were all killed; the Army   then split up the Ryans , so as to not have that happen again.

     All five Sullivan brothers, Albert Leo, Francis Henry, Joseph Eugene, Madison Abel, and George Thomas served together in the Navy on the USS Juneau .   On November 13, 1942, during the battle for Guadalcanal, the ship was hit by a Japanese torpedo, causing an explosion.   Minutes later, the USS Juneau sank ("Loss").   Survivor accounts say that four of the Sullivans, Albert, Francis, Joseph and Madison were killed in the explosion.   George was able to make it to a raft, where he survived for five days ("Transcript").

     The popular myth is that the tragic loss of the Sullivan brothers led to the enactment of a law whereby family members could not serve on the same U.S. Navy ship ("Policy").   Although brought up in the Legislature a number of times, the so-called "Sullivan Act" has never gone into effect.   As for the "sole-surviving son" Statute, which was clearly the focus of Saving Private Ryan , the rule is only that anyone deemed a sole surviving child cannot be drafted, but still may volunteer for service ("Waterloo").

Works Cited

Information on Waterloo's Five Sullivan Brothers.   Waterloo Public Library, 29 Apr. 2003. .  

Press Archive 2002. 8 Jan. 2002. Yell Group. 29 Apr. 2003.

Saving Private Ryan. Dir. Steven Spielberg.   Perf. Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Matt Damon and Tom Sizemore.   DVD. Dreamworks, 1998.

The Sullivan Brothers: The loss of USS Juneau, (CL-52). 15 Aug. 2000. Department of the Navy-Naval Historical Center.   29 Apr. 2003.

The Sullivan Brothers: Transcripts of Service. 15 Aug. 2000. Department of the Navy-Naval Historical Center. 29 Apr. 2003.

The Sullivan Brothers:   U.S. Navy Policy Regarding Family Members Serving Together at Sea .   28-July 1998. Department of the Navy-Naval Historical Center.   29 Apr. 2003.

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