On this day in history, July 24, 1998, the World War II epic ‘Saving Private Ryan’ debuts in theaters

Norman Ray
Norman Ray

Global Courant

“Saving Private Ryan,” a haunting account of the physical, mental, and moral trauma suffered by American GIs during World War II, debuted in theaters on this day in history, July 24, 1998.

“Saving Private Ryan,” writes the website CinemaScholars.com, “claims to be the greatest war movie of all time.”

Steven Spielberg directed the movie, starring Tom Hanks, one of the best actors, starring as Capt. John Miller.

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The introspective army officer, suffering from shell shock in the hours after surviving the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France in 1944, is assigned to lead a dubious (fictionalized) mission to find an American paratrooper behind enemy lines.

The war epic was a commercial and critical success. It made $482 million at the box office and won five Academy Awards, including a Best Director Oscar for Spielberg.

“Saving Private Ryan”, directed by Steven Spielberg, was released in July 1998. Seen here from left, Tom Hanks (as Cptn. John Miller), Edward Burns (as Private Reiben, in the background), and Matt Damon (as Private James Francis Ryan). screen recording; an all-important photo. (CBS via Getty Images)

With more impact for the nation, “Saving Private Ryan” shocked Americans to confront the horror, largely untold over five decades, experienced by their parents and grandparents – the greatest generation – in the struggle to end tyranny abroad during World War II.

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Moviegoers openly wept at the carnage shown on screen – some cried during the 2 hours and 49 minutes of drama.

“‘Saving Private Ryan’ claims to be the greatest war film of all time.”

“The true cultural impact of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is best measured not in dollars or book sales, but in conversations,” The Los Angeles Times reported two weeks after the film’s debut.

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“And they’re breaking out everywhere.”

The film was released when millions of World War II veterans were in their 70s and just beginning to share their traumatic war experiences for the first time.

Tom Hanks, as Captain John Miller, amidst the chaos on Normandy Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944, in “Saving Private Ryan.” (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

Americans and moviegoers worldwide proved eager to learn more about World War II and the silent heroes who fought against it after they emerged from theaters stunned.

“Saving Private Ryan” marked the American cultural pinnacle in many ways.

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It was released during a glorious Pax Americana, the “end of history” decade between Cold War victory in 1991 and the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, when even Hollywood was united behind a heroic version of the triumphant American story.

“Saving Private Ryan” showed terrified and seasick boys vomiting on landing craft before the ocean waters flushed red with their blood.

Soldiers drown in fear before reaching the beach, while others on land scream in fear as their friends’ bodies are ripped to shreds by enemy fire.

American soldiers and equipment land in Normandy in June 1944 and gain a foothold, as seen in the movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’. screen recording; an all-important photo. (CBS via Getty Images)

“Spielberg’s camera doesn’t understand the action,” wrote the late famed film critic Roger Ebert in his contemporary review of the film.

“That’s the purpose of his style. For the individual soldier on the beach, the landing was a chaos of noise, mud, blood, vomit and death.”

In a memorable early moment, a soldier’s arm near the shoulder is ripped from his body by shrapnel on Omaha Beach.

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The young GI turns in a daze to pick up the severed limb from the sand with his other arm – and continues to march forward under fire.

“For the individual soldier on the beach, the landing was a chaos of noise, mud, blood, vomit and death.”

The movie was so powerful, especially the opening and closing battle scenes, that many veterans reported a relapse of PTSD after watching the movie.

Matt Damon played Iowa paratrooper Pvt. James F Ryan.

He was unknown when he landed the title role, but he emerged as a star after winning an Oscar for “Good Will Hunting” just four months before the release of “Saving Private Ryan.”

Barry Pepper (as Private Jackson) in the movie “Saving Private Ryan.” (CBS via Getty Images)

Private Ryan becomes the target of a morally muddled mission after Washington top executives learn that his three brothers have been killed in combat.

“If the boy is alive, we’ll send someone to find him — and we’re going to get him out of there,” Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall (played by Harve Presnell) tells his commanding officers after reading them from memory Abraham Lincoln’s famous, real “Bixby Letter.”

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The letter was written in 1864 by President Lincoln to Lydia Bixby, Boston’s mother, believed to have lost five sons in fighting in the Civil War.

An ensemble cast of Hollywood heavyweights was charged with rescuing Pvt. Ryan.

The Hanks character Capt. Miller was joined by Tom Sizemore as loyal non-com Sgt. Horvat; by Edward Burns (Pvt. Reiben), Vin Diesel (Pvt. Caparzo), and Adam Goldberg (Pvt. Mellish) as dubious but dutiful GIs who question the mission but bow to their brothers-in-arms; and by Barry Pepper as fire-and-brimstone Christian sniper Pvt. Jackson.

The Iron Mike Memorial outside Sainte-Mere-Eglise in Normandy. It marks the site of a heroic fight by outnumbered U.S. paratroopers to hold the bridgehead at La Fiere and prevent amphibious landing troops from being slaughtered at Utah Beach. (Kerry J. Byrne/Fox News Digital)

Ted Danson, Dennis Farina and Paul Giamatti have cameos.

Spielberg took poetic license with battlefield geography in “Saving Private Ryan.”

Notably, the film combines two of the most heroic yet distant stories to emerge from D-Day.

Miller’s unit lands on Omaha Beach for dramatic purposes: to show the gruesome human carnage of the deadliest invasion sectors.

“After they see (the movie) they will know why I came home after the war and insisted we buy a farm – for peace and quiet.” – Major Dick Winters

American paratroopers, such as those represented by Pvt. Ryan, landed alone in the dark hours earlier in Utah Beach, about 30 miles to the northwest.

In a realistic scenario, commanders would have simply assigned the rescue mission to GIs who landed that same morning, with much less resistance, at Utah Beach, a short distance from the paratroopers’ drop zones.

Tom Hanks (as Captain John Miller) takes a moment alone after nearly suffering a mutiny under his command in “Saving Private Ryan”. (CBS via Getty Images)

The rescuers find Pvt. Ryan in the fictional bridge town of Ramelle, where a decisive battle against the Germans takes place.

It’s as heartbreaking as the early Omaha Beach scenes.

The Battle of Ramelle is loosely based on the fierce real-life resistance of the outnumbered American paratroopers to the German counter-attack at the bridge at La Fiere in the hours after D-Day.

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A statue to American paratroopers today stands by the bridge near the famous D-Day town of Sainte Mere Eglise.

Despite some discrepancies with the real events, World War II veterans almost universally proclaimed “Saving Private Ryan” the most realistic war film ever made.

Major Dick Winters, who was played by actor Damian Lewis in the “Band of Brothers” miniseries, and departed executive producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, accept the award for Best Miniseries at the 54th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards. (Michael Caulfield/WireImage)

It sparked a renewed determination among entertainers, authors and everyday Americans to capture the stories of the greatest generation.

One of the most notable efforts was Hanks and Spielberg co-producing the 10-episode HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers”, released in 2001.

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The production was based on the 1992 book of the same name by historian Stephen Ambrose.

“Band of Brothers” made 101st Airborne officer Major Dick Winters a much-anticipated national hero. It also cemented the legacy of the greatest generation for future Americans.

Tom Hanks, left, as Captain John Miller, and Matt Damon, as Private James Ryan, in the World War II epic “Saving Private Ryan.” (Getty Images)

Winters emerged as a spokesperson for World War II veterans following the success of “Saving Private Ryan.”

He encouraged hundreds of friends, relatives and acquaintances to see the film.

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Winters said shortly after the film’s release, “After they see it, they’ll know why I came home after the war and insisted we buy a ranch – for peace and quiet.”

Kerry J. Byrne is a lifestyle reporter at Fox News Digital.

On this day in history, July 24, 1998, the World War II epic ‘Saving Private Ryan’ debuts in theaters

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