This Is the Greatest World War II Movie Ever Made

War movies go back almost as far as the beginning of film. Much of D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” released in 1915, was about the Civil War. World War I aviation movie “Wings” (1927) marked one of the earliest roles of Gary Cooper. It won the first Academy Award for Best Picture. “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930) was also based on World War I. It was the first sound film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

It would be another six decades before the greatest World War II era war movie was released. The film arguably included the work of the most outstanding actor and outstanding director of their generation. Tom Hanks was in his mid-40s when the film was made. Steven Spielberg was in his mid-50s. Spielberg has received seven nominations for Best Director. He has won twice, for “Schindler’s List” (1993) and “Saving Private Ryan” (1998). Hanks has been nominated for the Academy Award six times. He won for “Philadelphia” (1993) and “Forrest Gump” (1994). Among the films for which Hanks was nominated was “Saving Private Ryan,” one of his collaborations with Spielberg. FiveThirtyEight described their work together as “the cinematic equivalent of teaming Tom Brady up with Bill Belichick, or Starscream with Megatron.”

“Saving Private Ryan” runs two hours and 50 minutes. The first 24 minutes are a reenactment of the Allied landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day. Those minutes have been described as among the most accurate at depicting actual events in the history of combat films. The uniforms were identical to those used at the landing. So is the terrain. The weapons, which included the carbines and rifles used in the actual battle, let off a click when their cartridges are ejected, a sound identical to those the soldiers heard on the beaches on June 6, 1944.

The Omaha Beach action gives way to a search. U.S. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall finds out that three of the four sons of the Ryan family have been killed in battle. Against the advice of his subordinates, who say the quest to find the surviving son is impossible in a massive war zone, Marshall orders that James Francis Ryan be found and brought home.

Spielberg, who directed the film “Lincoln” (2012), uses what may be the most famous letter written by a U.S. president to begin the heart of “Saving Private Ryan.” It is Abraham Lincoln’s letter to widowed Lydia Parker Bixby, who lost five sons in the Civil War:

I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.

I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.

Tom Hanks plays Captain John H. Miller, who leads seven men on the quest. While much of the action over most of the balance of the film contains scenes that might be taken from any movie about World War II, the entire film begs the question of whether one life is worth many others. Ryan, played by a very young Matt Damon, is found near the end of the movie. Hanks and most of his men die in the process of locating him.

The bookends of the movie are scenes of Ryan, as an old man in the present, visiting Normandy Cemetery with his family and asking whether his life has made him worthy of the sacrifice of Miller and his men.

“Saving Private Ryan” ranks as one of the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Films of All Time. Other war films are ahead of its 74th spot. “Apocalypse Now” (1979) ranks at number 30. “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) ranks 36th and is staged in World War II but in the Pacific Theater. These two movies are about the effects that war has on men. Neither is about wars as they are fought, battle by battle, death by death, as “Saving Private Ryan” is.

“Saving Private Ryan” also ranks high in other film ratings. Metacritic gives it a score of 91 out of 100. A collection of critics on Rotten Tomatoes rates it 93 out of 100. The same service gives it a 95 rating among audiences.

Among all the best films about any war, “Saving Private Ryan” will be remembered as the result of teamwork between two of Hollywood’s greatest talents.

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