Saving Private Ryan

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
"Someday we might look back on this and decide that saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole godawful, shitty mess.''
Sgt. Horvath

Saving Private Ryan is a 1998 war film directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore, Vin Diesel, Ted Danson, and many more Hollywood men.

The film's setting is World War II, beginning with D-Day -- namely, Omaha Beach, where "hell's doors were open" and the Allied soldiers faced the first waves of Nazi resistance. There, Capt. Miller (Hanks) and his company slowly penetrate the German defenses leading to a breakout from the beach.

After the Omaha Beach invasion, General George C. Marshall receives the news that three brothers with the last name "Ryan" have all died in combat -- two during the Normandy landing and the third in the Pacific -- and the location of the fourth, who dropped into France as a paratrooper, is unknown. Miller receives orders to search for the fourth and last Ryan (Damon) so that Ryan can be sent home, and he quickly assembles a small squad to carry out the task.

After going through many French cities and losing two men, Miller's unit finally finds Ryan -- but there's a problem: Ryan is with a small group of soldiers who have been ordered to protect a bridge from the Germans, and he steadfastly refuses to leave behind "the only brothers" he has left. Outnumbered and outgunned by advancing German forces, Miller and the rest of his squad put it all on the line for the survival of just one man.

The film earned the praise of audiences and critics alike; it was the highest-grossing domestic film of 1998 (second-highest-grossing worldwide), and it received eleven nominations in that year's Academy Awards (winning five). A notable fact was that Steven Spielberg won the award for Best Director, but the film itself lost to Shakespeare in Love, making Ryan one of the few films in the history of the Awards to do so. The movie was named to the National Film Registry in 2014.

Tropes used in Saving Private Ryan include:
  • Age Cut: The epilogue.
  • All of Them: Subverted, as Captain Miller gives Private Ryan the bad news regarding his brothers.

Captain Miller: Your brothers were killed in combat.
Private Ryan: Which... which ones?
Captain Miller: All of them.

  • Anyone Can Die: "Can" hardly does it. Only 3 men survive the battle of Ramelle. Two don't even make it that far.
  • Armor Is Useless: Averted but also played straight; a soldier's helmet is grazed by a bullet, he takes it off to see it... and gets a second bullet in the forehead. A field doctor fixes up a wounded man at D-Day, only for another bullet to go through the victim's helmet as he works, killing him. The aversion is the helmet that stops the bullet; regular-issue helmets were only designed to stop shrapnel and not bullets, which is why the soldier is so amazed.
    • A subversion with Wades death. Before engaging the machine gun, they took off their only form of protection.
      • Back in WWII, however, combat vests merely provided a place to put things, not ballistic protection. Better to take off the extra dead weight when running into machine gun fire.
  • Badass and Child Duo: Sadly averted. One of soldiers tries to take a kid to save it from war and the parents wanted it to happen, but were ordered not to. He didn't listen, but was shot as he was taking the girl in hands.
  • Bad News, Good News: Private Ryan, the bad news is that all of your brothers were killed in combat. The good news is that you got a free ticket home.
    • Ryan chose to stay.
  • Bald of Evil: The Germans all have buzzcuts, despite the average hair length in the Wehrmacht being 1-2 inches, perhaps to make them look like skinheads. The extras who played the Germans were part of a living history group, and they all had authentic haircuts; they tried to argue about the head-shaving, but were overruled by the director.
  • Big Badass Battle Sequence: Omaha Beach comes to mind in all its gory glory.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Not all of the defenders at Normandy in the film were German.

"Please don't shoot me, I am not German, I am Czech, I didn't kill anyone, I am Czech!"

  • Book Ends: The film starts and finishes with the American flag.
  • Bottomless Magazines: Very minor example. In the climactic battle, Jackson shoots about 6 or 7 Germans without reloading, even though the M1903 Springfield can only hold 5 rounds at a time.
    • The M1903 can also have rounds fed in individually, rather than from a clip. It's possible that Jackson is reloading between groups of shots (there's not a wide enough angle to show if this is true or not).
  • Bowdlerize: Ryan is one of the very rare R-rated aversions. Out of respect to veterans in wake of the film's immense popularity and impact, broadcast and cable networks leave the movie untouched and air it in its original state (sometimes with commercial breaks, sometimes not, but the first commercial break never comes earlier than the end of the Omaha Beach sequence). The film is always rated TV-MA to account for this.
    • Played straight in-film with the vets' choice of language, though; "fouled up" is used a lot more often than the more colorful version of the phrase.
  • Brooklyn Rage: Reiben.
  • Bulletproof Human Shield: During the Omaha Beach scene, medics use the body of a dead soldier to successfully shield a wounded man from machine gun fire.
  • Bulletproof Vest: The helmet case above.
  • California Doubling: The D-Day invasion scene was shot in Ireland.
  • Call Back: The German sniper who had killed Carpazo and was later killed by Private Jackson was holed up in a ruined church tower. Ironically, Jackson also met his end while perched in a ruined clock tower in Ramelle.
  • Camera Abuse: Dirt on the lens; blood in the Omaha scene.
  • Captain Smooth and Sergeant Rough: Literally, with Capt. Miller and Sgt. Horvath.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The knife Mellish obtains at Omaha.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The Nazi machine-gunner who shot Wade and was released by the Americans returns later in the final battle. The last 15 minutes of the film could be characterized as going down with Chekhov's Guns blazing.
  • Cherubic Choir: Heard in the soundtrack's main theme, Hymn to the Fallen.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: See The Medic below. Wade spends a bunch of time stopping bleeding on a soldier shot in the chest.Right after he's done, another bullet goes right through the soldier's helmet. You can understand why he's cursing so profusely afterward.
    • That was no ordinary soldier that Wade and the medics were trying to save. He was the battalion surgeon, which is why Wade was so pissed after managing to save his life.
  • Cold Sniper: Jackson. Although it's worth noting that while he's emotionally cold when he's actually sniping, murmuring Bible verses to himself while calmly lining up his shots, when it comes to his interactions with the rest of the squad he's one of the friendlier and more courteous soldiers in the team.
  • Contemplate Our Navels: The film ruminates a lot on the purpose of heroism, duty and valor, like many war films.
  • Cunning Linguist: Upham.
  • The Dead Have Names

Reiben: [shouts at Private Ryan] Hey asshole! Two of our guys died trying to find you all right?
Ryan: What were their names?

    • Also serves to humanize Ryan immediately: rather than quickly apologizing for their deaths, he wants to know who they were so that he can bear that burden.
  • Death Notification: A montage early on as Mrs. Ryan receives a series of death notices for all but one of her sons.
  • Decoy Protagonist: We're led to believe that the man entering the cemetery in the present day is Captain Miller, and that the 95% of the film set in World War II is his flashback. Then Miller dies in the final battle, and it's revealed that the man in the cemetery is actually Private Ryan, who has spent the whole movie recalling the story of how Miller saved his life.
    • Although by the end, it feels more like Upham's story.
  • Distracted From Death: On the beach, Miller speaks to a radio man, turns away, goes to talk to the radio operator again and sees that the guy is dead. Also, Sergeant Horvath dies like this too.
  • Drugs Are Bad: Tom Sizemore (Sgt. Horvath) was battling drug addiction while filming the movie. Spielberg knew about this and had Sizemore tested for drugs every day during filming, with the condition that Sizemore would be fired and his character recast should he tested positive for drugs just once.
  • During the War
  • Dwindling Party
  • Elites Are More Glamorous: The main characters are Army Rangers and Ryan is a member of the 101st Airborne.
  • Everybody's Dead, Dave: Of the squad sent to find Ryan, only Upham and Reiben survive.
  • Famous Last Words: "Earn it."
  • A Father to His Men: John H. Miller, especially during the desertion scene.
  • Framed for Heroism
  • Friendly Sniper: Outside of battle, Jackson is very friendly. In battle, however...
  • Gag Boobs: A character in one of the soldier's stories before the big battle.
  • Genre Blind: Caparzo quickly learns why it's a bad idea not to listen to your more Genre Savvy squadmates.

Miller: And that's why we don't take children!

  • Gorn: Several instances in the film, but most of it is found in the Omaha Beach sequence. Since that's the way it was, it's just honest film-making.
    • Scenery Gorn: The urban battle scenes set in bombed-out, burning French towns.
  • Grenade Hot Potato: Mellish has to do this when a German "potato masher" lands right in his lap.
    • Also done by the German MG42 crew during the machine gun nest assault.
  • Gunship Rescue: The Cavalry at the ending.
  • Heroic BSOD: Upham during the final battle, and Wade on Omaha Beach.
  • Hollywood History: Unfortunately, this film falls for the same traps as most films involving D-Day: showing the beaches as being only a few dozen yards from the water to the bunkers. In reality, with the landings timed and executed at low tide, the bunkers were roughly 800 yards from the water, with the entire few yards from water to bunker an invention of Hollywood.
  • Hollywood Tactics: During the final battle scene, the Germans send a Tiger (a very immobile tank with a terribly slow turret speed) and some mobile artillery (with exposed crews) up the center of a rubble-strewn village. The Panzergrenadiers that should be ahead of them are in fact hiding behind them as cover,although such. Charging the machine-gun post with the Medic would qualify, were it not for the fact that the whole point of the scene is that Captain Miller is emotional and making bad decisions.
    • Not so much. The attack on the gun nest is conducted as a three-pronged attack that has pairs of runners run form cover to cover, covered by fire until they come to grenade range. The Germans weren't going to advance on the bridge in the manner they did in the movie, as the paratroopers pointed out to the captain during their preparations, but then he sent the Germans an invitation in the form of Reiben on the back of a small vehicle with his Browning Automatic Rifle.
    • Though there are plenty of instances of infantry following tanks into action during the real war, either due to poor timing, poor training, or stark terror on the infantry's part, as well as heavy tanks, self propelled artillery and tand destroyers being used in urban situations due to the Germans using anything they had on hand.
    • Then there's the whole Battle of Ramelle. The bridge was strategically unimportant; their mission was just to stop the Germans from using it. Upon seeing it, the real Major Winters (of Band of Brothers fame) told Spielberg he would've blown up the bridge, and had Engineers replace it. Spielberg told him it wouldn't have been dramatic enough for a movie.
  • Homage Shot: Omaha Beach includes citations to Gallipoli, Catch-22 and Ran.
  • Improvised Weapon: The final scene.
    • With the exception of the Sticky Bombs; though only one person knew about them, they were in the soldiers' field manual, as he quickly points out. But hitting the 60mm mortar shells before throwing them fits perfectly.
      • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The "whack the mortar shell to initiate the fuse and throw it like a football" gambit actually happened, but it was a year later and half a world away on Okinawa.
    • Also during the climatic scene, two people are shown throwing helmets at each other, including one of the main characters (rather than, say, just shooting the German soldier with his rifle).
  • Insert Grenade Here: Fighting the tanks in the final scene.
  • Jittercam: During war scenes.
  • Just Following Orders: "We're not here to do the "decent thing"! We're here to follow fuckin' orders!"
  • Kill'Em All: Played straight without mercy.
  • Kill It with Fire/Man On Fire: A flamethrower is used in the final parts of Omaha Beach (and another is seen blowing up early on and incinerating its user and several others), and several men are immolated with Molotov cocktails in the final battle.
  • Knife Fight: Noted for being rather psychologically disturbing.
  • Ludicrous Gibs: The entire film has many instances, including the famous D-Day scene, and the failed result of the aforementioned Improvised Weapons.
  • Made of Plasticine: Although the carnage is realistic.
  • Major Injury Underreaction: Played realistically, as a result of adrenaline and shock. Sgt. Horvath says "Just got the wind knocked out of me" after he's been shot several times, and a GI on Omaha Beach picks up his arm that was just severed at the shoulder by a mortar shell and walks away with it.
  • Manly Tears: This movie is famous for the number of veterans who broke down crying watching it in theaters. The final scene, where Ryan - now an old man with his children and grand children at the Normandy Memorial - is crying at Captain Miller's grave. He asks his wife if he lived a good life, echoing Miller's comments to "earn it".
  • The Medic: Played realistically. No magically getting up and continuing to fight once one medic's arrived; we have teams of three or four medics doing all they can just to keep shrapnel-wound hemorrhaging from being lethal, or to pump the wounded full enough of morphine so they can stop screaming in agony, with no more than they could be carrying on their persons to use on a muddy, bloody beachhead. And no sooner do they congratulate themselves on saving one soldier - at the cost of a LOT of surgical dressings and drugs - does another machine gun bullet punch a single, neat hole through the dome of the soldier's helmet.
  • Mercy Kill: Played straight with The Medic, inverted with the burning Germans on D-Day ("Don't shoot! Let 'em burn!").
  • Mexican Standoff: A group of American and German soldiers unexpectedly bump into each other in a bombed-out village, and each shouts, trying to tell the other side to surrender. Ted Dansen shows up and blasts the Germans, ending the standoff.
  • Mistaken Identity: During the mission, the squad finds Private James Ryan and prepare to bring him home, telling him his brothers have been killed. The private then starts bawling and asks how his brothers died, but then mentions they're still in grade-school, prompting the squad to realize they'd run into wrong Private Ryan. Later on, on finding the right Private Ryan, Captain Miller makes sure to confirm he's the right one.
  • Moe Greene Special: A sniper gets a bullet through his scope.
  • Mood Whiplash: All over the place. Example: one of the more memorable early scenes has Vin Diesel's character find a Hitler Youth knife on a German corpse; he cracks a joke while handing it to the (Jewish) Stanley Mellish, who starts cracking wise and then bursts into tears.
    • One of the more severe moments is also the most understated: after finding a crashed plane and a group of soldiers, the squad splits up bags of dog tags of KIA soldiers and starts going through them, hoping to find Ryan's so that they can end their crazy mission. They start cracking jokes about some of the names, and they're actually pretty funny, even getting Captain Miller to laugh. Then Wade comes over, points out that they're making light of dead soldiers, in full view of a column of soldiers marching to the front. The whiplash is exceedingly strong.
  • Multiple Choice Past: The Captain, due to the wild speculation of his men.
  • My God, What Have I Done?
  • Naive Newcomer: Upham.
  • Needle in a Stack of Needles: Said after the Omaha Beach landing. What are the odds of finding one soldier in a huge army in the middle of a battle?
  • New Meat: Upham never fought before Miller asked him to join the squad and hasn't handled a weapon since basic training.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Private Caparzo attempts to take a little French girl named Jacqueline with the rest of the squad, at the urging of her parents, because she reminds him of his niece, with the rest of the squad yelling at him not to do it. He gets shot by a sniper for his troubles. That German that Upham convinced Miller to spare and caused the mutiny crisis? He ends up killing Miller later.
  • No One Gets Left Behind: A large aspect of the movie, which was based on a real event where a 101st soldier was called home after two of his brothers were killed and a third (a fighter pilot) was missing in the China-Burma-India theater of war.
  • Obligatory War Crime Scene: A German is mentally tortured and nearly executed after his squad kills Wade (and after he comes back to battle, loses and surrenders, Upham shoots him). Also, surrendering Czechs are shot at Omaha (with One-Liner: "Look, I washed for supper!").
  • Obstacle Exposition: The planning of the Last Stand up to the blowing up of the bridge.
    • Also an aversion of the Unspoken Plan Guarantee: you hear all the plans the squad has for fighting the battle of Ramelle, and the get to watch them carry it out.
  • Oh Crap: Jackson, right before he gets blown up by a German tank.
  • One Steve Limit: Averted when they find the first Ryan.
  • The Oner: Some long takes help the battles get more engaging.
  • Pinned Down: Captain Miller and the soldiers behind the obstruction on Omaha Beach.

Soldier: Sir, what's the rallying point?
Miller: Anywhere but here!

  • Red Herring: In the beginning of the film, a World War II veteran collapses in front of a grave and apparently is reliving WWII, and pans to Captain Miller, initially implying that the veteran was Miller as an old man. It is later revealed that Miller was actually killed during the war, and that the veteran was actually the eponymous character of the film.
  • Retirony: Just as the soldiers find Ryan, they need to engage in a battle for him. There's also Reiben's hilarious story about a customer in his mom's shop, just before he shipped out, showing him her boobs for comfort. And he's one of the few who survive.
  • The Reveal: The company has a pool going on the background of Captain Miller, who never talks about where he's from and what he did before the war. Five bucks get you in the pool. The squad's general belief is that prewar he was some kind of Badass. Before the war, he was a school teacher.
    • The old veteran visiting the tombstone is PVT Ryan himself, and the tombstone is for CPT Miller.
  • Scope Snipe: Jackson nails a German sniper clean through his scope.
  • The Scourge of God: Jackson apparently thinks himself this. Of course a sniper's job is the sort to make people seem a wee bit odd, anyway.
  • Screw Your Orders, I'm Staying!: Private Ryan. Rather than leave Ramelle upon finding out that he has a free ticket home, Ryan decides to remain in Ramelle to defend the bridge.

Private Ryan: (upon finding out that he is to be sent home) Hell, these guys deserve to go home as much as I do. They've fought just as hard...You can tell her that when you found me, I was with the only brothers I had left. And that there was no way I was deserting them. I think she'd understand that.

  • Sergeant Rock: Horvath.
  • Shell-Shock Silence: Happens twice, and is a possible Trope Codifier.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: It's implied that Captain Miller is this from the way that his hand shakes uncontrollably when he's either anticipating the stress of upcoming combat, or concerned about his mission.
  • Shout-Out: Upham is chastised for saluting Captain Miller (played by Tom Hanks), as it identifies him as an officer to the German snipers. In Forrest Gump, the roles are reversed, as Lieutenant Dan chastises Forrest (also played by Hanks) for saluting him, as it makes him a target for the Vietcong snipers.
  • Shown Their Work: The film did a very accurate recreation of the D-Day landings with many veterans praising the realistic portrayal of the action.
  • The Siege: Holding the bridge.
  • The Squad: Played with. The camera lingers briefly on a few of the many soldiers in Captain Miller's landing craft, implying that they are going to be The Squad for the rest of the movie, but most of those men get killed in the first fifteen seconds after the shooting starts, giving a clear indication that this is not going to be your father's war movie. You meet the members of the real squad one at a time during the beach battle, but they don't become The Squad until after.
  • Sticky Bomb
  • Surgery Under Fire: In a notable scene at the beginning, a medic is trying to stabilize a fallen soldier on Omaha Beach, seemingly without concern for the sheer number of bullets flying around.
  • Tanks, But No Tanks: Mostly averted; the Tiger and Marder mock-ups are actually quite good, although what the Marders -- self-propelled anti-tank guns -- were doing taking on a small infantry unit in an urban environment was simply the Germans just using whatever they had to hand. If you know where to look, it's quite easy to tell that the "Tigers" are dressed-up T-34s. The sniper confusingly refers to the Marders as "Panzer tanks, two of 'em" but that's actually Truth in Television: to your average GI all AFVs were tanks and all German tanks were panzers; the only identification they really cared about was shoot/don't shoot. American soldiers had never encountered the Marder before Normandy.
  • Tempting Fate: Sniping Nazis is great and everything, but doing it in such an overconfident way that a German tank figures out where you're shooting from is bad news.
  • That's What I Would Do: The Squad comes under attack by a sniper in a French village. The squad's sharpshooter Jackson spots a tall church tower and says, "That's where I'd be".
  • There Is No Kill Like Overkill: At one point, the characters throw mortar shells as improvised grenades. Said mortar shells have almost twice as much explosive power as a frag grenade, and most of the throws landed at the feet of single soldiers.
    • In their defense, the soldiers at this point are out of ammo and about to be overrun, with waves of infantry and a number of tanks literally within spitting distance. Not a time to be picking your targets too carefully.
    • In the same battle, the Germans use a Flak 38, a gun designed for shooting down aircraft. The results were particularly... realistic.
  • Title Drop: "Someday we might look back on this and decide that saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole, godawful, shitty mess."
  • Took a Level In Badass: Upham, after his Heroic BSOD. When he snaps out of it, he single-handedly captures four German soldiers, and executes one that he had released earlier.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: "Steamboat Willie".
    • YMMV: it's likely that, after being released by the Squad and making it back to German lines, he wasn't given a choice about going back into battle. There's a war on: Germany needed everyone able to carry a weapon fighting the Allied offensive.
      • But then, he was the one to fatally shoot Captain Miller.
  • Urban Warfare: Especially the climax.
  • Verbing Nouny
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Based on the Niland brothers.
    • The Sullivan brothers, another sad Real Life tale, are name-dropped, explaining why the Ryan brothers were split up into different units.
  • War Is Hell: If the Omaha Beach opening doesn't convince you of this, nothing will.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: A good part of the squad calls Miller out on his decision to take out the machine gun nest, even though they could have easily bypassed it or had the sniper take out the entire crew. In the ensuing direct assault, Wade ends up getting killed.
  • What You Are in the Dark: When Miller and his squad come across a German machine gun nest set up to ambush any approaching Americans, his squadmates point out that they can easily bypass the Germans and nobody would ever know that they were there. However, Miller decides to take out the machine gun because he can't live with himself knowing that more Americans might get ambushed by the machine gun. Also, Miller's squad could have easily just scrubbed the mission and returned to base saying they couldn't find Ryan, but the ultimately decide to stick through it to the end.
  • Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?: The Squad had a sniper with them, and a clear shot of the nest, yet no one suggests he just shoot them then and there and avoid running directly at the nest.
  • Your Princess Is in Another Castle: Captain Miller, the James Ryan you are looking for is from Iowa, not from Minnesota.

And averts:

  • All Germans Are Nazis: The German soldiers are, by and large, Wehrmacht, and act just like the Americans would in their spots, though a number of SS soldiers show up at the end.
  • Bloodless Carnage: So very, very much.
    • Considering it's a film based on a real war, they're going to subvert so many stories that we hear about the glory of war.
  • Bullet Sparks, Every Bullet Is a Tracer, and pretty much every other thing listed in this page.
  • Instant Death Bullet: The only thing that's shown to immediately kill anyone it hits is the main gun of a tank.
  • It Never Gets Any Easier
  • Only a Flesh Wound: Usually quickly followed by one that is not.
  • Steel Ear Drums: Tom Hanks' character is temporarily deafened several times by nearby explosions, another character shouts everything he says because a grenade going off close to his head has likewise deafened him.
  • Suspiciously Small Army: The film was lauded for having the D-Day beach look like it was crowded.
  • Those Wacky Nazis: The German soldiers that we see act more or less the same way the Americans do -- some of them are just as frightened and freaked out about the war as some of the Allied soldiers.
    • A perfect example of this one is when the leads are in a village in France, where they later find the wrong Ryan, and while in a ruin a wall crumbles to reveal an equally-sized group of German soldiers. The two groups just train guns on each other and yell at each other until Ted Dansen arrives to blow all the Germans away.
  • Translation Convention