“Saving Private Ryan” directed by Steven Spielberg is one of the handful of movies I’ve seen during my life that really had a big effect on me. My great uncle John served in World War II in the 101st Airborne and participated in D-Day. He was every soldier in this movie. I grew up listening to his amazing stories of parachuting into Bastogne, France, roughly 20 miles from where he was supposed to be, and far behind enemy lines. He thought h heard men splashing as they reached the ground so, thinking he was about to drop into the English Channel, he cut away all of his heavy gear. When he hit the ground he realized he had been hearing a small stream, nowhere near the English Channel. He was alone in the wilderness with nothing but a hand grenade for over two days. He spoke of hiding, scared beyond belief, under a small wooden bridge while Nazi troops walked in formation across the bridge above him. He was 17 years old. He told me before we went into the theater to see this movie “You’ll know this movie is accurate if they show men drowning right when they got off the boats on Omaha beach. The sons of bitches didn’t bring them in far enough.” Sure enough, that was one of the first shots in the movie. Uncle John, the toughest man I knew, cried.
Rewatching “Saving Private Ryan” made me remember not only what an amazing and profoundly moving film it was, but remember what it was really about – the men who served this country during World War II. I remembered my uncle and all my other relatives who left home at a very young age to travel halfway across the world and fight for their country. Tom Hanks plays Captain Miller, a teacher turned soldier who leads a group of men on a mission to find Private James Ryan from Iowa. Private Ryan was one of four brothers who all joined the Army at the same time. Three of the brothers were killed within a short period of time in different areas. The War Department recognized the situation and launched the mission to find the last Private Ryan as a consolation to their mother. Along the way the men deal with Nazis, death and the human cost of the war, all the while grappling with whether or not their mission was worthwhile in the first place. Their sniper, Private Jackson – played by Barry Pepper – remarks that with his skills, he could shoot Hitler if he had the right opportunity and line of sight, effectively ending the war. Instead he was walking through France looking for one soldier so they could send him home to his mommy. Was his sentiment a little harsh and egotistical? Yes. But he sort of had a point. Aside from their moral dilemmas, they do everything they can to fulfill their mission and find Private Ryan.
Once they locate him and deliver the somber news, Ryan wonders why he deserves to live. Why, out of all of his brothers (blood and army) does he deserve special treatment and preservation? Tom Hanks tells him to “Earn it,” meaning, use the gift of life that is being given to him and lead a good life. At the end of the film, James Ryan visits the graves at Normandy Beach and gets emotional wondering if he did lead a good life. His large, happy-looking family behind him indicates the film maker’s suggestion that he did have a good life and raised a healthy family. He took Private Miller’s advice and “earned it”.