When Saving Private Ryan came out in the summer of 1998, a few years after the 50th anniversary of the crucial D-Day landings in Normandy, France, the entire culture was soaking in Greatest Generation nostalgia that honored the humble folk who were raised during a Great Depression but answered the call to fight tyranny in order keep the world free.
The film was a paralyzing experience — from the harrowing assault on Omaha Beach to Tom Hanks’ Capt. Miller’s last gasping words to Matt Damon’s titular G.I. When I first saw the film, there were audible sobs from the audience beginning with the initial beach assault, but the film ended in absolute silence. When the lights came on, it became clear that no one had moved from their seat. We were recovering from an emotionally exhausting experience that delivered perhaps an inkling of the horror and heroism that was on display on June 6, 1944 and the weeks that followed, as Allied forces began to push the invincible Nazi war machine back towards Berlin.
I certainly wasn’t the only person who was moved by Steven Spielberg’s film, but in the weeks and months that followed, I became obsessed with D-Day. Obsessed with the what-ifs, obsessed with the boys of Pont-du-hoc, obsessed with the deadly hedgerows. So obsessed that I bought a plane ticket and planned a trip to Normandy for the 1999 anniversary.
I went alone, so as not to be compromised by anyone who wasn’t nearly as consumed as I had become, and spent June 5-6 on the beaches and at the cemetery. My first impression of Normandy was its placid beauty. Not just the manicured cemetery, but the lush, overgrown wildlife that dominates the bluffs overlooking the beaches. You couldn’t imagine a more peaceful setting. Dipping your feet in the Channel during low tide, you could convince yourself you were in heaven. But then you turn around and see those imposing bluffs, where German guns awaited the invasion force, and the reality hits home. What a terrible mission. A near-impossible mission. Would you have the courage to get from the boat to the hill? It’s a terrifying question to fathom, much less answer.
I met many veterans on my trip, mostly Brits, who traveled in packs with their own band of brothers. They willingly shared their stories — like the group of sappers who de-mined the beach while under fire — with a grin and shrug, recognizing the unfair randomness that they’re still here talking while some of their friends fell at their feet. After their stories end — always told humbly, as if D-Day had been something they did on a random weekend because they had no better plans for spring-break — the two most insufficient words in the English language suddenly become “thank you.”
Do you remember seeing Saving Private Ryan for the first time? Have you watched it recently? Is there another film that inspired you to purchase a plane ticket to learn more about history or geography?