“Every man I kill the farther away from home I feel.”

Saving Private Ryan (1998) – AFI’s Top 100 Movies

Elise Bulaoro, Reporter

As my third movie review of Steven Spielberg’s films, this week I watched Saving Private Ryan (1998). The blockbuster hit and an award-winning film was also the second highest grossing film in 1998 (a close second to Armageddon). This World War II war drama tells the story of a group of soldiers on a mission to find Private James Ryan, who is being sent home from the war. Depicting realistic battle scenes and brutality of World War II, the film also conveys the significant theme of morality.  

The film opens with the Invasion of Normandy, June 6th, 1944. Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) leads the 2nd Ranger Battalion across Omaha Beach, and secures an American victory over the German lines. Following the brutal battle, the camera pans over the beach, revealing hundreds of corpses being washed away by the bloody waves. 

Following the victory at D-Day, the 2nd Ranger Battalion receives orders for a new mission, ordered directly from the General of the Army: they are to track down a mission Private James Ryan, and send him home to the United States. It was discovered that Ryan’s three brothers, fellow U.S. soldiers, had all died in battle. Rather than having to send word to their mother that all of her sons were killed in action, the War Department wanted to find and send home the last living son. Captain Miller puts together a team of soldiers to carry out the mission, and return Private Ryan to safety. The group is made up of Privates Mellish (Actor Adam Goldberg), Jackson (Barry Pepper), Reiben (Edward Burns), Caparzo (Vin Diesel), Mike Horvath (Tom Sizemore), and Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies). 

Tracking down the Private was an arduous task. The group set out for a small town near Normandy, where they ran into a German sniper. The group suffered their first casualty of the mission, Private Caparzo (Vin Diesel), who is shot while trying to save the life of a little girl the group came across in the town. The loss stems feelings of resentment within the group, because they are all risking their lives for the life of one soldier. At the village they find a Private James Ryan, but not the one they are looking for. The next stop on their search is a rallying point of the 101st Airborne, Private Ryan’s division. 

At the rallying point the group meets a multitude of lost and injured soldiers, but do not find Private Ryan. In hopes of ending their mission, Privates Mellish, Reiben, and Jackson carelessly forage through a bag of dog tags, whose owners had been found dead. Frustrated after not being able to find the Private, Miller defeatedly shouts at all the soldiers passing by, asking anyone if they had seen Private Ryan. Out of pure luck, one half-deaf soldier explains that Private Ryan was assigned to the defense of a bridge in Ramelle. Determined, the company heads to the town to finish their mission. 

On the way to Ramelle, Captain Miller and the group come across a German gun nest, and rather than leaving it to surprise the next American troop, decide to attack it. In the brawl, they lose a second member of the group, Wade, their medic. A German soldier surrenders to the group, but is beaten by the soldiers out of frustration. Miller stops the beating and lets the German soldier free, much to the anger of the group. Reiben especially is infuriated, and threatens to desert the mission. This creates a fight between him and the others, which Miller quickly intervenes and ends. The men are subsided after Miller reveals his past occupation as a school teacher, and implies how different he has become since the war began. 

Upon arriving at Ramelle, the group finally finds Private Ryan, and relays his orders to return home. However, they did not receive the answer they were expecting. Although upset at the news of the deaths of his brothers, Private Ryan refuses to return home, claiming that he doesn’t deserve the right to leave more than the others. Following the unexpected response, Miller and the battalion decide to stay at Ramelle with the Private to defend the bridge. Suffering more casualties within the group, the battle proves to be a brutal, yet victorious feat. Miller is critically wounded and is closing in on death, but not before he has the time to tell Private Ryan to earn the sacrifices that were made for him. 

Years later, an older Ryan pays his respects to Miller’s grave at the Normandy Cemetery. He talks about how he looked back on Miller’s words everyday, and lived his life to the fullest. Looking back on his life, Ryan hopes it was enough to earn what he had been given. 

Audiences are exposed to the idea of the changing morals of the soldiers, as a result of their time at the war. This can especially be seen in the character of Corporal Upham, the group’s language interpreter, and Captain Miller. 

 From the beginning of the mission, Corporal Upham was a tentative soldier, lacking much military experience. While in possession of the surrendered German soldier, Upham is the only member of the group who argues against killing him. Guided by his just principles, he persuades the others to follow the rules of surrender. During the battle at Ramelle, his morals were tested again when he was unable to defend Mellish from an attacking German soldier. Upham found Mellish and the German soldier in combat, but was immobilized by his fear as Mellish was stabbed to death. In one of the final scenes of the battle at Ramelle, Upham encounters the same German soldier who had surrendered to the group at the gun nest. Upham aims and shoots him, which accounts for his first kill throughout the film. During this confrontation with the soldier, Upham finally understands the harsh reality of war-time and the difficult choices that have to be made as a soldier. 

While Upham showed his change of morals through his actions, Captain Miller expressed them through words. He explains that before the war, most people could guess that he was a school teacher. But as a captain, his soldiers were unable to speculate his past. Miller expresses his worries of coming home to his wife as a changed man, and if she will be able to recognize him.

Saving Private Ryan is rather a long movie (has a running time of 170 minutes), but worth the time to watch the excellent storytelling of a tragic and captivating story.