Revisiting Saving Private Ryan – The True Story Behind the Movie
Updated: Aug 21
With the 76th Anniversary of D-Day quickly approaching and with having more free time at home, my husband and I recently re-watched the movie Saving Private Ryan with our two boys. They had never seen the movie, and we wanted them to see the sacrifices that were made for their freedoms during World War II.
Saving Private Ryan begins with a stunning and heart-stirring D-Day battle scene. For about twenty-five minutes, viewers watch soldier after soldier storm Normandy’s Omaha Beach in France in what seems like an impossible feat. The portrayal is so grim and brutal that director Steven Spielberg told the L.A. Times that he feared people would be turned off from the movie. This was not so as it became one of the top-grossing films of 1998. The movie is still beloved today by many who appreciate what thousands of American soldiers went through that fateful day.
While the battle scenes are brutally and historically accurate, the film’s main characters themselves are fictional. The story of Private James Francis Ryan is based on the real-life story, however, of American soldier, Sargent Frederick “Fritz” Niland. Fritz was one of four brothers serving in the U.S. Military during World War II. In May 1944, Michael and Augusta Niland received word that their son, Edward, who served as a pilot in the U.S. Army Force was shot down over Burma in the Pacific. Soon after, their son, Robert with the 82nd Airborne Division, died on D-Day on June 6, 1944, and their son, Preston with the 4th Infantry Division, died the following day near Omaha Beach.
The U.S. War Department’s 1942 “Sole-Survivor Policy” saved Fritz’s life. The Army wanted to prevent the Niland family from the death of another son, and Father Francis Sampson, a chaplain with the 501st Regiment, found Fritz and put in the paperwork for him to be sent home. Fritz returned home and served as a MP for the rest of the war.
There is a wonderful twist in the Niland family story that is not in Saving Private Ryan. To the family’s great surprise and delight, Edward Niland, the son who was shot down over Burma, survived the crash and being a POW in a Burmese camp. He also returned home before the war ended!
During one of the film’s final scenes, another main character gives Fritz Niland two profound words – “Earn it.” These are haunting words for all of us who benefit every day from the freedoms that more than 400,000 American soldiers died for during World War II. That is the part of the movie that sticks with me the most, and the part of the movie that I hope will also stick with my boys. My youngest son, Eli, did a Lego build of D-Day. You can see it pictured below! If you haven’t seen Saving Private Ryan in a while, maybe it is time to revisit it yourself.
“During the next few days, more and more reports began feeding the country’s insatiable appetite for information, and everyone’s vocabulary changed with place names like Utah Beach, Pointe du Hoc, and Omaha Beach. Ava still turned with her father to Ernie Pyle’s articles for the personal, more human story. What he wrote gave one eyes to see the details of what was far away and unimaginable. He didn’t attempt to illustrate the entire face of the battle. Instead, he gave readers the little pieces that made up and helped to understand the whole.”
Songbird, Chapter 47