The Story Behind the Movie – Historical Accuracy

Omaha Beach - June 6, 1944

Things the movie got right:

Saving Private Ryan’s portrayal of the Invasion of Normandy seems to be very similar to the actual event. During the real battle,  the plan was for the Ranger companies to be the first wave with the goal of taking over Pointe-du-Hoc and taking the “higher ground.” The soldiers stormed Omaha Beach and that is when the horrors of war began. Similarly the movie shows the men arriving on the LCVPs and storming the beach, and also suffering heavy casualties at the same time.

The scenes from the Invasion of Normandy were correct in showing the shore just as it was on June 6, 1944. The blood soaked sand, bodies slain along the shore, and the bloody ocean tide bring the movie scene to life. The boats that were used were LCVPs just as they were on D-Day. 1 Many of the smaller details were accurate as well. The uniforms were fairly accurate, especially the 101st Airborne uniform and patch. 2 The cemetery at Normandy showed in the movie is the actual cemetery in France which is known as the Normandy American Cemetery. 3

The movie also accurately portrays the horrors of war. The brutal conditions and experiences the soldiers encountered was quite real. Losing fellow soldiers was an everyday reality, and sometimes soldiers saved their fellow fighters by asking to be left alone to die. David Kenyon Webster, a soldier in the Parachute Infantry described a situation with him and a fellow soldier with the other soldier being injured and asking Webster to leave him behind, saying: “I said this jump was going to be my last, Web, and it was. You go on. I’m staying here.” 4 Another aspect the movie portrayed correctly was the wounded soldiers. It was common for mortally wounded soldiers to scream out in pain or try and “stuff them (their organs) back in.” 5

Things the movie got wrong:

While the battle scenes were very realistic and quite accurate to the real D-Day event, most of the inconsistencies lie within the names of people in the movie as well as names of battles and cities.  There was no Captain John Miller of the 2nd Rangers either. Many of the smaller battles either went unnamed or had fictitious names. The final battle of the movie was at “Rommelle” which actually did not exist in real life. Rommel was actually a German Field Commander during World War II. 6

Another inconsistency is about Private Ryan himself. Private Ryan is a fictitious character, and never existed, nor was there a rescue mission to find him. 7 While Private Ryan was not real, there was a man named Frederick “Fritz” Niland from the 101st Airborne Division, who Private Ryan was modeled after. 8 While there is not much information on Fritz Niland, he was one of four sons. All three of his brothers were killed in World War II, two at Utah Beach and one in Burma. His mother received all three death notifications at once. 9 There is no record of a rescue mission in search of Fritz Niland, but he was sent home to the United States from the combat zone.10

Sergeant Frederick "Fritz" Niland

  1. Historic Naval Ships Visitors Guide, http://www.hnsa.org/ships/lcvp.htm, (accessed October 25, 2010).
  2. Airborne and Special Operations Patches, http://www.qmmuseum.lee.army.mil/airborne/patches.html (accessed: November 1, 2010).
  3. American Battle Monuments Commission, http://www.abmc.gov/cemeteries/cemeteries/no.php, (accessed November 2, 2010).
  4. David Kenyon Webster, Parachute Infantry: An American Paratrooper’s Memoir of D-Day and the Fall of the Third Reich (Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1994), 36.
  5. Stephen E. Ambrose, Ambrose on Saving Private Ryan, http://www.historyinfilm.com/ryan/real.htm, (accessed October 31, 2010).
  6. Ralf Georg Reuth, Rommel: the end of a legend (London: Haus Books, 2006), 1.
  7. Stephen E. Ambrose, Ambrose on Saving Private Ryan, http://www.historyinfilm.com/ryan/real.htm, (accessed October 31, 2010).
  8. Stephen E. Ambrose, Ambrose on Saving Private Ryan, http://www.historyinfilm.com/ryan/real.htm, (accessed October 31, 2010).
  9. Stephen E. Ambrose, D-Day (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), 316-317.
  10. Stephen E. Ambrose, Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagles Nest (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), 102-103.

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