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

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“Saving Private Ryan”, a harrowing account of the physical, mental and moral trauma suffered by American GIs in 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 film, in which the actor at the top of his powers Tom Hanks was in the main role as Captain John Miller.


The introspective military officer, suffering shell shock in the hours after surviving the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, in 1944, is asked to lead a suspicious (fictional) mission to find an American paratrooper behind enemy lines.

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

Ryan's Private Rescue

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

More influential to the nation, “Saving Private Ryan” shocked Americans into confronting the horror, largely untold for five decades, that their parents and grandparents—the greatest generation—experienced in the fight to end World War II overseas tyranny.


Moviegoers wept openly at the carnage displayed on screen – some crying throughout the 2-hour, 49-minute drama.

“‘Saving Private Ryan’ makes the impression that it is the greatest war movie of all time.

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

“And they’re breaking out all over.”

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

Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan

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

Americans, and moviegoers around the world, were eager to learn more about World War II, and the silent heroes who fought in it, after emerging from theaters cast in silence.

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


It was released during the glorious Pax Americana, the “end of history” decade between the Cold War victory of 1991 and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when even Hollywood united behind a heroic version of the US triumphalist narrative.

“Saving Private Ryan” showed boys who were scared and the ocean vomited on ships coming ashore before the ocean water washed red with their blood.

Soldiers drown in agony before they reach the beach, while others scream in fear on land while the bodies of their friends are torn to shreds by enemy fire.

Ryan Omaha Beach Private Rescue

American troops and materiel land and establish a secure position in Normandy on June 1944, as seen in the movie “Saving Private Ryan.” screen capture; A very important picture. (CBS via Getty Images)

“Spielberg’s camera makes no sense of the action,” wrote the late legendary film critic Roger Ebert in his contemporary review of the film.

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

In one thrilling moment, a soldier’s arm is torn from his body at the shoulder by shrapnel on Omaha Beach.

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The young GI turns around frantically to pick the broken limb off the sand with his other arm – and continues under fire.

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

The film was so powerful, especially the opening and closing battle scenes, that many veterans reported PTSD relapses after watching the film.

Matt Damon played Iowa paratrooper Pvt. James F. Ryan.

He didn’t know when he was cast in the title, but he emerged as a star after winning an Oscar for “Good Will Hunting” just four months before “Saving Private Ryan” was released.

Barry Pepper in "Ryan's Private Rescue"

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

Private Ryan becomes the target of a morally confusing mission after the top brass in Washington learns that his three brothers have been killed in combat.

“If the boy’s alive we’re going to send somebody to find him – and we’re going to get him the hell out of there,” Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall (played by Harvey Presnell) tells his superiors after reading to them Abraham Lincoln’s famous real-life memoir “Bixby Letter.”

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The letter was written by President Lincoln in 1864 to Boston mother Lydia Bixby, who is thought to have lost five sons in combat in the Civil War.

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

Tom Sizemore joined Hanks’ character Captain Miller as Sgt. Horvath; with Edward Burns (Pvt. Reiben), Vin Diesel (Pvt. Caparzo) and Adam Goldberg (Pvt. Mellish) as dubious but dutiful GIs who question their mission but bow to their brothers in arms; and with Barry Pepper as fire-and-brimstone Christian sniper Pvt. Jackson.

Iron Mike Monument

Iron Mike monument outside Sainte-Mere-Eglise in Normandy. It marks the scene of a heroic fight by more American paratroopers to hold the bridgehead at La Fiere and prevent the amphibious landing forces at Utah Beach. (Kerry J. Byrne/Fox News Digital)

Ted Danson, Dennis Farina and Paul Giamatti have cameos.

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

The film, in particular, combines two of the most heroic but far-fetched stories to emerge from D-Day.

Miller’s unit lands at Omaha Beach for a surprising reason: to display the horrific human flesh of the deadliest assault divisions.

“After they saw [the film] they will know why I came home after the war and asked that we buy a farm – for peace and quiet.” – Maj. Dick Winters

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

In a real situation, commanders would have just sent a rescue mission to a GI who landed the same morning, with less resistance, at Utah Beach, a short distance from the paratrooper drop zones.

Ryan's Private Rescue

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

The rescuers found Pvt. Ryan in the fictional town of Ramelle, where a climactic battle takes place against the Germans.

It’s as awesome as the early scenes from Omaha Beach.

The battle at Ramelle is largely based on the real-life resistance put up by more American paratroopers against a German attack at the bridge at La Fiere in the hours after D-Day.

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

Despite some discrepancies with the real events, WWII veterans called “Saving Private Ryan” the most realistic war movie ever made.

Tom Hanks and Dick Winters

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

It unleashed the determination of entertainers, authors and ordinary Americans to capture the stories of the Greatest Generation.

Among the most famous efforts, Hanks and Spielberg teamed up to create the 10-part HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers”, which was released in 2001.

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

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

Tom Hanks and Matt Damon broke up in Saving Private Ryan

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 appeared as a spokesperson for World War II veterans after the success of “Saving Private Ryan.”

He encouraged hundreds of friends, family members and acquaintances to watch 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 asked to buy a farm—for peace and quiet.”

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