Saving the Memory of D-Day (and Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”)

June 6, 2019 marked the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the decisive ally landing off of the French coast of Normandy that ultimately led to the end of World War Two. It was the largest military invasion in world history and spotlighted an alliance and a cooperation among America, Great Britain and Canada that today in our fractured times is almost impossible to even comprehend. The numbers alone are staggering: 7,000 vessels and 12,000 Allied aircraft were used in this effort to end the Nazi stranglehold of Europe while 23,000 airborne troops and 132,000 ground troops  did the bloody and horrific lifting that finally shattered Adolf Hitler’s so-called “thousand year” Reich. Freedom was won that day, but it came at a cost. Almost 7,000 Americans paid the ultimate sacrifice to ensure an end to global tyranny. The losses of our allies, too, were staggering with 2,700 British soldiers and 946 Canadians giving up their lives as they tore down Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.

In 2009, President Barak Obama succinctly summarized the D-Day invasion and what it meant to the free world: “So much of the progress that would define the 20th century, on both sides of the Atlantic, came down to the battle for a slice of beach only six miles long and two miles wide.” And he was right; young men – boys, really – singlehandedly saved the world the day they stormed off of their landing craft, dodging (and sometimes falling to) aggressive enemy fire.

 One of the finer memorials to the men who fought and died for our freedoms came from the deft and capable creative minds of screenwriter Robert Rodat and director Steven Spielberg in their 1998 magnum opus, Saving Private Ryan. The film, which starred Tom Hanks and Matt Damon (as the titular Private Ryan) worked on two levels: One as Hollywood entertainment and the other as a genuine tribute to the Service men and women of World War Two. The story starts in the present day as a former GI visiting the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial looks back on that pivotal pre-summer day in 1944 when no less than the world was at stake. From there we are presented with a guided tour through hell by Spielberg as he hauntingly and masterfully recreates the carnage of the D-Day landing by Allied troops in twenty seven harrowing minutes. Chaos was initially the rule of that day and through one vignette after another the film hammers home just how tenuous this bloody game was in the beginning minutes and hours of the landing. “That’s quite a view,” a sergeant says passingly to Tom Hanks at the end of the battle with victory now clear. Hanks breaks everyone’s heart and makes it clear why he’s one of the best actors out there with his simple and haunting response as he looks with weary anguish at a view of the Normandy seashore scattered with the bodies of dead soldiers. “Yes it is. Quite a view.” It’s an understated moment and, fittingly, it is enough.

 Saving Private Ryan is a film with hundreds of special moments. After the D-Day landings it quickly reshuffles and finds a new tune in the form of a missing Private by the name of James Ryan (Matt Damon). Hanks and his small squadron of men (Giovanni Ribisi, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Jeremy Davies, Barry Pepper and Tom Sizemore, all terrific in their parts) are assigned what amounts to a suicide mission by the upper brass with one goal chiefly in mind: Find and bring home Private Ryan, regardless of the cost. Gray areas are flirted with and tough questions are asked by this group of men who want nothing more than to return home themselves. Why is one man’s life worth more than their own, especially after the hell they have just been through? There are no easy answers to these sorts of questions, of course, and to Mr. Spielberg’s good credit he doesn’t try to answer what is a huge conundrum.

 But it’s really that first twenty seven minutes and a small Coda with Ryan’s mother receiving a telegram informing her that three of her four sons have died during the invasion that really devastate and bring home the brutality and the cost of war and why sometimes that price is worth paying. In just over thirty minutes of celluloid, Spielberg reframed everything we thought we knew about June 6, 1944 and, in doing so, brought a newfound attention to the men who participated in the event.

 Acknowledged as one of the greatest war movies ever made, it was clear that Saving Private Ryan would stand as a constant reminder for all that we gave up and all that we gained anew on that one fateful day. Except…

 2019, the 75th anniversary of D-Day came and went not with discussion and global recognition of one of the most important dates in world history but instead with a near apathy that, in this new day and age of antisemitism and social and political unrest and over-obsession with social media is disturbing. “If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything,” writer Michael Crichton once commented. “You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.”

 As I scanned the headlines for the day I noted that such world leaders as Macron, Merkel, Queen Elizabeth and Trump had gathered to recognize the day yet the space given to this story and other items about returning soldiers to the beaches of Normandy and what the exact stakes had been with this remarkable day in history was minimal at best, being edged out by the constant news cycle on the lookout for more dire and “relevant” stories. The History Channel featured no specials on D-Day, instead choosing to focus their calendar on such popular episodic shows as Forged in Fire and Alone. Google, which every single day devotes an image prominently displayed above their search engine bar that ranges from Donut Day to Hug a Fire Hydrant Day or some other such seemingly random event featured exactly nothing commemorating June 6, ’44. Let that sink in for a moment: Nothing.

 Saving Private Ryan has over two decades behind it and the D-Day invasion exactly seventy five years. While I’ll always lament a forgotten film anniversary, I think Mr. Spielberg and company might agree with me that to forget a film is one thing, but to forget the Greatest Generation who singlehandedly gave us the lives and the freedom we celebrate now is beyond shameful and worrisome in the extreme. At least that’s the way I see it.

About Ryan Vandergriff

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