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Duty and Belief
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Duty and Belief

A look back at ‘Saving Private Ryan’ on the 25th anniversary of its release.

Tom Hanks in 'Saving Private Ryan'. (Photo via IMDb)

When it was released twenty-five years ago, Saving Private Ryan won five Oscars, grossed nearly $500 million, and thrilled audiences. A quarter of a century later, it remains one of the most and least believable war movies ever made.

Told from the point of view of a group of American soldiers under the command of Capt. John H. Miller (Tom Hanks), Steven Spielberg’s film depicts the hell of war and the bravery of the men who stormed the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944. When it opened in 1998, many World War II veterans remarked that the movie was the most realistic portrayal of D-Day they’d ever seen. Most applauded, but some were disturbed (the Department of Veterans Affairs had to add staff to its counseling hotline). The Washington Post described the movie’s 25-minute Omaha Beach battle scene as “surely one of the great tours de force of world cinema.”  

But what comes after Omaha Beach in the film is harder to believe. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall orders a fictionalized eight-man squad to rescue James Ryan (Matt Damon), a paratrooper from Iowa who’s behind enemy lines and whose three brothers were recently killed in combat. To explain this mission, Gen. Marshall reads aloud from a letter President Abraham Lincoln wrote in 1864 to Mrs. Lydia Bixby, a Boston widow who reportedly lost all five of her own sons fighting for the Union during the Civil War. In sending Miller and his men on their perilous quest, Marshall vows not to let Mrs. Ryan become another Mrs. Bixby. 

It’s a moving premise, but it’s unbelievable. That Gen. Marshall would have Lincoln’s Bixby letter on hand strains credulity. It’s highly unlikely that a nearby typist would have noticed, out of numerous condolence letters, three addressed to the same mother and informed the general. The Bixby letter itself is unbelievable. The historical Mrs. Bixby did have five sons, and two—perhaps three—died in the Civil War. But one deserted and another died six years after the war from tuberculosis. Historians have since posited that President Lincoln made the mistake of writing to Mrs. Bixby because of confused wartime recordkeeping.

Notwithstanding the tall tale about Mrs. Bixby, the men tasked with saving Pvt. Ryan can’t believe their assignment either. “You wanna explain the math of this to me?” asks one flummoxed private. “I mean where’s the sense in risking the lives of the eight of us to save one guy?” A corporal quotes Tennyson in reply: “Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die.” Then another soldier shoots back, “What the f— is that supposed to mean, Corporal?”

The matter is settled by Capt. Miller. Although he questions the orders himself, he tells his men to follow them. The mission, he observes, is “about our duty as soldiers.” 

The men listen to Capt. Miller, but they’re not the only ones who are confused about their mission, and by extension the premise of Saving Private Ryan. A critic for The Economist thought the movie was next to pointless, commenting, “If Mr. Spielberg wants to say something big about war, his virtuosity would be better spent on the far grimmer stories of Srebrenica or Rwanda.” A decade and a half later, on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, a writer at The Atlantic quipped, “When [Saving Private Ryan] was released sixteen years ago, I didn’t get it.” 

Perhaps the most scathing critique came from John Podhoretz, who lambasted the film in a Weekly Standard piece titled “All Guts, No Glory.” “Spielberg has no idea what to make of what he is showing us,” he wrote, adding that the director had “everything an artist ought to have – everything except wisdom, vision, and soul, which is to say that he isn’t really an artist.”

Nuts. Pushing back to Podhoretz, the late Charles Krauthammer granted that, in the nearly-three-hour-long film, the soldiers never discuss the “wider panorama and purpose of their fight.” But he found that omission not just believable but “perfectly defensible.” “World War II speaks for itself. It needs no spin,” Krauthammer contended. Saving Private Ryan, he argued, is “not a movie about glory.” It is “a movie about duty. And in duty there can be glory.”

Spielberg, who won his second best director Oscar for the film, didn’t let World War II speak for itself. He let the men who fought speak for it. Capt. Miller and his squad are confused, sometimes afraid. They respect their officers, but their motto is not, as both Krauthammer and Stephen Hunter at the Washington Post, suggested, that one should “never question authority.” When they cannot believe what is being asked of them, they ask questions. When they come across a machine gun nest that they could have avoided, they decide—after more questions—to take it out to keep Germans from ambushing “the next company that comes along,” risking their lives and their mission, and losing the squad’s medic to enemy fire in the process.

Capt. Miller’s men do honor their duties, but more often they talk about their homes and their loved ones as the reasons that they fight. They are soldiers today, but tomorrow they want to return to their lives as teachers, baseball coaches, fathers, husbands, and sons. Two hours into the movie, when Capt. Miller and his squad find Pvt. Ryan, they don’t save him as instructed. Instead, they fight alongside him in a ruined French village in order to hold a bridge that the Allies will need to break out from Normandy, liberate the rest of Europe, and one day return home themselves.

What the fictional squad in Saving Private Ryan was asked to do was unbelievable, but so was the very real story they were a part of. The D-Day landings were the largest amphibious invasion in history, involving over 7,000 ships and landing craft and 195,000 naval personnel from eight allied countries. Within a week of June 6, 1944, on the other side of the world, the U.S. Pacific Fleet invaded the Mariana Islands with a combined force almost as large as the one that stormed the beaches of Normandy. World War II continued for another year. 

There was nothing like it, before or since. Few now living remember it. Twenty-five years after Saving Private Ryan’s opening weekend, only around 1 percent of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are still with us. 

As young men, they were asked to do unbelievable things. Those of us who’ve come after should be grateful that they believed they could.

Wilson Shirley served as a speechwriter to the secretary of state in the Office of Policy Planning from 2020 to 2021 and is a former U.S. Senate staffer.