I profile the origins and making of Saving Private Ryan for the film’s showing on TCM this month.
After years of revisiting the national shame of Vietnam in the war films of the seventies and eighties, Steven Spielberg steered Hollywood back to the pride and accomplishment of “the greatest generation” with Saving Private Ryan (1998). It was the first major World War II film in decades and the timing was right. The 50th Anniversary of D-Day in 1994 brought the cultural conversation back to the sacrifice of American soldiers. The World War II histories by Stephen Ambrose (notably Band of Brothers and D-Day) were major non-fiction best-sellers. In addition, Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation was released in 1998, the same year as Saving Private Ryan, signaling that America was once again ready to eulogize the good war.
“I’ve had an obsession with World War II,” confessed Spielberg in an interview conducted during the production of the film. His father fought in the Burma campaign in World War II as a radio man in a fighter plane. As a young teen, Spielberg and his friends created World War II adventures on super 8 film. He’d previously touched on the war in such films as 1941 (a homefront comedy, 1979), Empire of the Sun (a child’s-eye view of survival in an internment camp, 1987) and his acclaimed Holocaust drama Schindler’s List , but Saving Private Ryan was his first classical war film, a platoon drama about the experience of American soldiers in combat.
Read the complete feature here. Plays on Turner Classic Movies in Friday, June 5.