he opening scene of Steven Spielberg"s Saving Private Ryan finds us in an American military Cemetery in present-day Normandy, France. An older Ryan accompanied by his family, searches for one particular grave -- Captain John Miller. When he finds it, he"s overcome with emotion and his memory sweeps back in time to D-Day, the Sixth of June 1944.
It"s 6:30 a.m. in a landing craft heading for the Dog Green section of Omaha Beach. The boat is packed with a section of Rangers -- wet, cold, seasick and wound as tight as they can get. The motor noise rises as the boat makes its final approach to the beach. You can hear the patter of the German machine gun bullets as they ricochet off the raised ramp and splash in the water around the boat. Finally, the ramp goes down and a German machine gunner takes down the packed-in Rangers row by row. Those in the back of the boat bail out over the sides before they are added to the carnage. But the water is too deep and their heavy equipment drags many downward.
The shocked survivors huddle behind whatever little cover there is at the waters’ edge. The Germans have the beach zeroed in with every kind of fire imaginable -- rifles, machine guns, mortars, artillery. There"s confusion, death and destruction everywhere. The roar of the battle is overwhelming. Finally, a small group of Rangers reach a tiny sand dune. Led by the C.O. of the unit, Capt. John Miller, they manage to blow a hole in the barbed wire and fight their way to the top of the bluff. They clear the German bunkers one by one and at last the fight for this strip of beach becomes quiet.
Meanwhile back in Washington, D.C. a discovery is made in the condolence section of army headquarters. Three brothers of the Ryan family have been killed almost at the same time. A fourth brother, James Francis Ryan, is somewhere in Normandy with the 101st Airborne Division. The Chief of Staff of the Army, General George Marshall, orders him found and "get him the hell out of there."
The order reaches Normandy on D plus 3. Miller and a small patrol of his Rangers are ordered inland from the beach to the drop area of the 101st to find Ryan. After Miller picks up a translator, a non-combatant type --Technical Corporal Upham -- the patrol sets off. Upham tries, unsuccessfully, to join in the camaraderie of the unit. The troops “raz Upham” and bitch about the mission. What kind of deal is this? Eight of us for one of him?
When they reach a shelled out French village they encounter their first unit of the 101st -- and they find a Ryan, but the wrong one. They also attempt the rescue of a little French girl, but it goes bad as they lose one of their men to a German sniper. Our sniper, a scripture quoting marksman, takes out the German.
After spending the night in a bombed out church the patrol continues the next day. They come upon a wrecked glider from the 101st landing. As the medic, Doc Wade, treats the wounded, the troops search among the dog tags of the fallen for evidence of Ryan. Finally, Miller finds a paratrooper who knows where Ryan is -- defending a vital bridge. The patrol sets out to find him.
They come upon the bodies of several fallen paratroopers, taken down by a machine gun defending a German radar site. There"s some debate about bypassing it, but they finally decide to take it out. In the rush, Doc Wade is mortally hit. In retaliation, they abuse the German POW that they had taken. After they force him to dig the graves, they are going to shoot him. But a confrontation erupts about that and Miller decides to blindfold him and let him go.
At last, after taking out a German half-track, they find the right Ryan. But in the village, where remnants of the 101st are defending the bridge, Ryan refuses to abandon his duty and his buddies to leave. Reluctantly, Miller decides to stay and join in the defense. The prospects are bleak. Nevertheless, Miller organizes the men and plans the defense.
The Germans show up with two Tiger tanks, several armored vehicles and infantry. The fight for the town is vicious. The Americans fall, one by one. Upham fails in his duty to deliver ammunition but later captures a squad of Germans, including the POW that they had released earlier. Miller falls in the end too. He won"t give in, even as the German Tiger approaches the bridge. But the tank is blown up at the last minute by a P-51 just as American reinforcements arrive.
Miller, at the end, gives Ryan a life mission – "Earn this.