Is “Saving Private Ryan” a true story? All about the real-life brothers who inspired the film

The Sole Survivor Policy, which prompts the mission to retrieve Damon’s Private Ryan in the movie, was a real regulation. But who is his character based on?



Every post-1998 war film owes a debt to Saving Private Ryan, a stone-cold Steven Spielberg classic that received 11 Oscar nominations and won five. From its legendary D-Day opening sequence to the smaller, intimate moments that Spielberg captures deep in the trenches, Saving Private Ryan is both an action epic and a profound study of the human cost of war.

Robert Rodat’s script was initially inspired by his reading of Stephen E. Ambrose’s bestseller, D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II, which his wife gave him as a gift. The film follows Company C’s leader, Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks), and his crew (including Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore, Giovanni Ribisi, and Vin Diesel), on a mission to locate and rescue Private James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon). Unbeknownst to Private Ryan, he is his family’s only surviving son, with each of his three brothers having been killed in different battles. The company’s task is to find Ryan and ship him back home in accordance with the Sole Survivor Policy.

While Rodat’s story is largely fictionalized, Damon’s Ryan was indeed inspired by one of the real-life Niland brothers. Here’s everything to know about the true story behind Saving Private Ryan.

Who are the Niland brothers who inspired Steven Spielberg’s film?

The four Niland brothers — Edward, Preston, Robert, and Fritz — grew up in upstate New York (Tonawanda, near Buffalo), with their parents Michael and Augusta, and two sisters, Clarice and Margaret. While all four served in WWII, Edward was the only brother who wasn’t a part of the Normandy “D-Day” landings. In fact, he was reported as “missing in action” a few months before D-Day when his plane was shot down over Burma. He was presumed dead.

Meanwhile, Robert was killed in action on June 6, 1944, in Normandy during a heavy gunfight upon parachuting into Neuville-au-Plain. Preston was killed the next day, on June 7, 1944, on Utah Beach — the code name for one of the five landing sites of the Allied invasion of German-occupied France.

Niland Brothers who inspired Saving Private Ryan
Niland Brothers who inspired Saving Private Ryan

Fritz, the loose inspiration for Damon’s Private Ryan, was believed to be the sole surviving Niland brother. After his plane took enemy fire, Fritz parachuted before reaching his target and got separated from his platoon behind enemy lines.

The Niland parents received news of three of their sons’ deaths around the same time. Another letter they got during this time was from Fritz. Unaware of his brothers’ fates, he wrote, “Dad’s Spanish-American War stories are going to have to take a backseat when I get home,” according to newspaper clippings. On the heels of these multiple tragedies, Fritz was ordered to return home. He later made it back safely in 1944 and served in the Military Police in New York for the rest of the war. Then in May 1945, Edward was discovered alive when a Burmese POW camp was liberated by British forces. He had been held captive by the Japanese for nearly a year, dropping to just 80 pounds. He returned home that month as the second surviving Niland brother.

Related: Real soldier who inspired Saving Private Ryan actually said Matt Damon's line

Was there really an order in place to save the sole survivor of a family?

Indeed, there was. The directive was put into action in 1942, approximately two years before the events told in Spielberg’s film. It started with the five Sullivan Brothers — George, Francis, Joseph, Madison, and Albert — who had all enlisted in the U.S. Navy after their mutual friend was killed at Pearl Harbor. The five requested to serve together, a practice neither common nor discouraged at the time.

Tragically, all were killed during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in the South Pacific, when Japanese torpedoes sank their cruiser, the USS Juneau, on the morning of November 13, 1942. At least one of the Sullivans, possibly as many as three, survived the initial explosion and made it to a life raft, but died sometime in the subsequent eight days. Records show that the Sullivans were not the only brothers on the Juneau — there were at least 30 sets, all allowed to serve together to keep spirits high within their families.

This catastrophe, along with a handful of similar situations, triggered the U.S. War Department to protect other families from suffering the same level of loss and grief. That was the birth of the 1942 Sole Survivor Policy, later renamed Directive 1315.15 Special Separation Policies for Survivorship.



How closely did Matt Damon’s character mirror the real-life Fritz Niland?

Though Private Ryan was inspired by Fritz Niland, many details about him and his rescue were fictional. Like Niland, Ryan has three brothers who are all killed in action. And like Ryan in the film, the real Niland reportedly wanted to remain in battle when he was ordered to be sent home. But beyond that, Spielberg’s film takes plenty of creative liberties. For starters, Niland couldn’t go against a direct order, so he was promptly sent back home. Damon’s Ryan stays behind longer, voluntarily taking part in a fictional battle late in the movie in the fictional town of Ramelle. That Ramelle set, built in Hertfordshire at the former British Aerospace factory near London, was later used in Spielberg’s 2001 miniseries Band of Brothers.

No real-life soldiers had to sacrifice their lives to get Niland back home; in fact, the entire “manned mission” to locate Niland was an invention of the film. In reality, the Army knew Niland’s location; he was back with his regiment, so no perilous “rescue mission” was required. Historical research also shows that such a dangerous operation, risking eight men’s lives, would not have been likely or plausible.

Related: Steven Spielberg reveals he showed one of his early shorts to the cast of Saving Private Ryan



All about the D-Day landing that opens the film: truth vs. fiction

If you remember one thing from Saving Private Ryan, it’s probably the film’s opening chapter depicting the Omaha Beach landings on June 6, 1944, the “largest seaborn invasion in history,” according to the Library of Congress. It’s undoubtedly one of the most impressive achievements of Spielberg’s storied career, one that not only set the bar impossibly high for war movies but also earned praise from D-Day survivors and WWII historians.

Saving Private Ryan used authentic WWII landing crafts: 10 LCVPs and two LCMs. While they weren’t the actual British LCAs used in the landings (unlike in the film, Americans didn’t drive the crafts, British servicemen did), they were still true to the period. Another production detail that added to the realism was Spielberg’s choice to use 20 to 30 real amputees in the sequence to represent soldiers who were injured in the landings. Elsewhere, all the seasickness and disorientation — down to the sound of the bullets and the code names of Omaha Beach sectors — were factually watertight.

While the movie’s focus is on American soldiers, other countries, including Great Britain and Canada, also participated in the landings. Location-wise, the production was not allowed on Omaha Beach in Normandy, which is now a historic landmark. Instead, Spielberg filmed the invasion scenes in Ireland on Curracloe Beach and Ballinesker Beach. Soldiers getting shot while underwater was another fictional embellishment used for dramatic effect. Bullets don’t operate that way; they lose momentum upon hitting the water.



Is Tom Hanks’ character based on a real person?

Hanks’ John H. Miller is entirely fictional. For starters, Company C was commanded by Capt. Ralph Goranson. And Goranson wasn’t the man who plucked Fritz Niland out of the war and sent him home. In real life, that was done by Father Francis L. Sampson, the chaplain of Niland’s regiment.

A Notre Dame graduate, Sampson, then 32, was a volunteer chaplain. Captured by German forces at one time, Father Sampson reportedly said a Catholic prayer when he thought he’d be executed and was spared because he was a priest. Later, he was nominated for the Medal of Honor and given the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second-highest award, for caring for and evacuating soldiers during the time he was captured by Germans.

Read the original article on Entertainment Weekly.