On this day in 1998, the director Steven Spielberg’s World War II epic, Saving Private Ryan, is released in theaters across the United States. The film, which starred Tom Hanks and Matt Damon, was praised for its authentic portrayal of war and was nominated for 11 Academy Awards. It took home five Oscars, for Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Film Editing and Best Sound Effects Editing.
The film’s lengthy opening scene was a bloody re-enactment of American troops landing at Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944. Following this violent D-Day scene, Saving Private Ryan centered 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), 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 battle-scarred French countryside they suffer several casualties before eventually locating Ryan in a bombed-out village, where he is helping to defend a strategically important bridge from the Germans. Ryan refuses to leave his comrades, even after Miller gave him the news of his siblings’ deaths. Miller reluctantly agrees that he and his squad will stay to defend the area. When the Nazis attacked, the captain and many of his men are killed, but Ryan survives.
Private Ryan was a fictional character, but there was a historical basis to his story. Following the deaths of the five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo, Iowa, on the USS Juneau in November 1942, the U.S. War Department established the Sole Survivor Policy to protect remaining family members from combat duty. Saving Private Ryan was partially inspired by the real-life story of the Niland brothers. During World War II, Sergeant Frederick “Fritz” Niland, a member of the 101st Airborne, was accidentally dropped behind enemy lines. He eventually made it back to his unit, where he was informed that two of his brothers had died at Normandy and the third had gone missing in Burma. Niland was sent home to Tonawanda, New York. His family’s tragedy had a somewhat happier ending, however, when the brother who was believed to have died in the Far East was liberated from a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.
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