Saving Private Ryan is a 1998 war film directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore, Vin Diesel, Ted Danson, and many more Hollywood men.The film's setting is World War II, beginning with D-Day — namely, Omaha Beach, where "hell's doors were open" and the Allied soldiers faced the first waves of Nazi resistance. There, Capt. Miller (Hanks) and his company slowly penetrate the German defenses leading to a breakout from the beach.After the Omaha Beach invasion, General George C. Marshall receives the news that three brothers with the last name "Ryan" have all died in combat — two during the Normandy landing, the third in the Pacific — and the location of the fourth, who dropped into France as a paratrooper, is unknown. Miller receives orders to search for the fourth and last Ryan (Damon) so that Ryan can be sent home, and he quickly assembles a small squad to carry out the task.After going through many French cities and losing two men, Miller's unit finally finds Ryan — but there's a problem: Ryan is with a small group of soldiers who have been ordered to protect a bridge from the Germans, and he steadfastly refuses to leave behind "the only brothers" he has left. Outnumbered and outgunned by advancing German forces, Miller and the rest of his squad put it all on the line for the survival of just one man.The film earned the praise of audiences and critics alike; it was the highest-grossing domestic film of 1998 (second-highest-grossing worldwide), and it received eleven nominations in that year's Academy Awards (winning five). A notable fact was that Steven Spielberg won the award for Best Director, but the film itself lost to Shakespeare in Love, making Ryan one of the few films in the modern history of the Awards to do so.
This film contains examples of:
Age Cut: The epilogue, which subverts the apparent one at the beginning.
All There in the Manual: When Miller suggests using a sticky bomb, the soldiers ask him if he had just made it up. Miller points out that it's in the field manual.
Always a Bigger Fish: The sniper kills wave after wave of German infantry without fear of retribution - until he stares down the barrel of a Tiger II in the final battle. From a clocktower, no less.
America Wins the War: The focus is entirely on the American troops, ignoring the fact that Britons, Canadians and Australians also fought on the Allied side. The one time the British are mentioned, when a rescue mission to save Ryan is established at the beach, it is mostly in derogatory terms.
Anyone Can Die: "Can" hardly does it. Only 3 men survive the battle of Ramelle. Two don't even make it that far.
Armor Is Useless: A field doctor fixes up a wounded man at Omaha, only for another bullet to go through the victim's helmet as he works, defeating the purpose of trying to patch him up. This in part has to do with the fact that the steel helmets of the day were designed to stop the shrapnel and glancing shots commonly faced by entrenched infantry, not direct hits.
In what appears to be a subversion, another scene in the sequence has a soldier's helmet getting hit with a bullet. However, being a glancing hit, the bullet bounces off the helmet. Then the poor fool takes off his helmet to look at the mark left by the bullet, without putting his head down. No points for guessing what happens next.
The Omaha Beach scene was filmed at Curracloe Beach in Ireland, as filming at Normandy was not an option for several reasons. Although Curracloe resembles Normandy in most important aspects, the actual D-Day landings were timed with the low tide and thus the German bunkers were roughly◊ 800 yards◊ from◊ the water◊. It's important to stress that using Curracloe's shorter beach was a conscious and pragmatic decision by the film crew and not an "all too common trap" they fell for, as some critics have claimed.
At the time of filming the Omaha Beach scene, Spielberg's film crew was neither able to procure or reproduce the British LCA vehicles that the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions used in the D-Day landings. They instead opted to use the American-made LCM and LCVP boats, of which seaworthy replicas (and two genuine craft) were readily in supply. To keep some form of consistency, it was decided to have those boats crewed by Americans rather than the Royal Navy sailors who piloted the LCAs. Unfortunately, this has drawn criticism (especially among the British) that the movie "intentionally removes all presence of the rest of the Allies" because of this.
Badass and Child Duo: Sadly averted. Caparzo tries to take a kid to save it from war and the parents wanted it to happen, but Miller orders them not to. Caparzo doesn't listen, and gets sniped.
Badass Crew: Everyone in Miller's squad has their moments.
Bad News, Good News: Private Ryan, the bad news is that all of your brothers were killed in combat. The good news is that you got a free ticket home.
Bald of Evil: The Germans all have buzzcuts, despite the average hair length in the Wehrmacht being 1-2 inches, perhaps to make them look like skinheads. The extras who played the Germans were part of a living history group, and they all had authentic haircuts; they tried to argue about the headshaving, but were overruled by the director.
Bilingual Bonus: Not all of the defenders at Normandy in the film were German. The soldiers who are executed while surrendering are shouting, "Please don't shoot me, I am not German, I am Czech, I didn't kill anyone, I am Czech!"
Which is actually something of a Truth in Television: a number of German forces garrisoned on the Normandy beaches were non-German foreigners (usually from Eastern Europe) who were forcibly pressed into service.
Two of them were Korean.
Apart from some German soldiers speaking authentic German in this film the French family also speaks their native language.
Blood-Stained Letter: Caparzo tries to give Wade a letter to his father after he's shot, but he wants it recopied so his family won't see the bloodstains on the original.
Book Ends: The film starts and finishes with the American flag.
Boring, but Practical: At the tipping point of frustration over not being able to find Ryan, Miller simply yells out Private Ryan's name over and over as a rally of paratroopers walk by. Sure enough, one of Ryan's company recognizes the name and tells Miller Ryan was part of a troop headed to Ramelle.
Bottomless Magazines: Very minor example. In the climactic battle, Jackson shoots about 6 or 7 Germans without reloading, even though the M1903 Springfield can only hold 5 rounds at a time.
The M1903 can also have rounds fed in individually, rather than from a clip. It's possible that Jackson is reloading between groups of shots (there's not a wide enough angle to show if this is true or not).
Bowdlerize: Ryan is one of the very rare R-rated aversions. Out of respect to veterans in wake of the film's immense popularity and impact, broadcast and cable networks leave the movie untouched and air it in its original state (sometimes with commercial breaks, sometimes not, but the first commercial break never comes earlier than the end of the Omaha Beach sequence). The film is always rated TV-MA, and has a disclaimer every time it comes from break, to account for this.
Played straight in-film with the vets' choice of language, though; "fouled up" is used a lot more often than the more colorful version of the phrase.
Break the Cutie: Played hard with Upham. The movie goes through great lengths to point out how he is (almost to an adorable degree,) far more innocent and naive than his fellow squad members (which is justified considering he a not actually a ranger himself, but is rather on loan from Twenty-Ninth Infantry Division.) He is also notably the only member of the squad other than Miller who thinks that they should not execute Steamboat Willie, whom he vociferously defends, and is the only one to actually treat the German prisoner with some compassion and respect. Cut to him by the end of the film, where he has watched just about every friend he's made get brutally offed with extreme prejudice, and personally bears witness to Steamboat Willie (the very German he had defended earlier in the movie) kill Captain Miller, the very man who had shown the German mercy when his entire squad demanded blood, almost causing Reiben to desert because of it. When Upham once again takes Steamboat Willie prisoner, he executes him in cold blood, becoming the only character in the film Upham has killed.
Bulletproof Human Shield: During the Omaha Beach scene, medics use the body of a dead soldier to successfully shield a wounded man from machine gun fire.
Butt Monkey: Upham spends a sizable portion of the movie as this. Especially apparent once the rest of the squad manages to convince him FUBAR is a German word that he, as their translator, should know, only for him to relentlessly search his German dictionary to no avail. It takes him the better part of the movie to figure it out.
Mellish: (Giving Upham ammunition) Fucked up beyond all recognition.
California Doubling: The D-Day invasion scene was shot in Ireland (precisely Ballinesker Beach, Curracloe, Wexford). Also, most of the town scenes (Neville-au-Plain and Ramelle) were shot on a single (and quite small) set in Hatfield, England.
The same zone was also used in Band of Brothers, but the set was 10 times bigger.
Call Back: The German sniper who had killed Carpazo and was later killed by Private Jackson was holed up in a ruined church tower. Ironically, Jackson also met his end while perched in a ruined clock tower in Ramelle.
Chekhov's Gunman: The Nazi machine-gunner who shot Wade and was released by the Americans returns later in the final battle. The last 15 minutes of the film could be characterized as going down with Chekhov's Guns blazing.
Cherubic Choir: Heard in the soundtrack's main theme, Hymn to the Fallen.
Cluster F-Bomb: See The Medic. Wade spends a bunch of time stopping bleeding on a soldier shot in the chest. Right after he's done, another bullet goes right through the soldier's helmet. That was no ordinary soldier that Wade and the medics were trying to save either, he was the battalion surgeon. You can understand why he's cursing so profusely afterward.
Confessional: Illustrating the fact that forgiveness of sins doesn't require an actual wooden booth, the camera passes a dying soldier reciting an act of contrition to a Catholic chaplain: "Oh, my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee. I detest my sins for having offended thee, O Lord..." This is immediately followed by a shot of a different soldier reciting the Hail Mary in Latin. It should be noted that, under the circumstances, the priest almost certainly did not bother to have the dying man recount his sins individually, and was probably using the act of contrition as a precursor to both sacramental absolution and Extreme Unction.
Reiben: Hey, asshole! Two of our guys died trying to find you, all right?
Ryan: What were their names?
Also serves to humanize Ryan immediately: rather than quickly apologizing for their deaths, he wants to know who they were so that he can bear that burden.
Death by Irony: All the main characters' fates are ironic in some way. Miller is killed by the very same German prisoner he mercifully spares at the midpoint of the movie. Steamboat Willie (the German who kills Miller) is coldly murdered by Upham (the only other American to defend him) after he witnesses him callously shoot Miller fatally in the chest. Jackson, ever the religious sniper, is blown up by a tank in a bell tower because he was too focused on praying and what he was sniping to notice (it also mirrors the fate of the German sniper he killed earlier in the film.) Mellish, stated outright to be Jewish American, is killed with the same Hitler Youth knife he had picked up earlier in the film. Horvath dies because of his unyielding loyalty to Miller, whom he insists give him the bazooka so he can cover Miller and the rest of the remaining squad's retreat across the bridge. Wade, the team's medic, dies via morphine overdose at the his own behest after he realizes his squad cannot save him from his wounds. Caparzo dies with a letter to his father in his hands because he lets thoughts of home cloud his judgement and situational awareness, taking a young girl who reminds him of his niece and attempting to convince his squad to take her with them, taking his helmet off in the process, standing out in the open, and pointing his finger (which made him a prime target for a sniper, likely having even mistaken him for an officer.) Reiben and Upham, the one who vocally disagreed with the mission the most and a completely new arrival to the squad with absolutely no combat experience whatsoever, respectively, end up the only members of the squad who survive the entire movie and successfully bring Ryan home to his mother safely. Ryan, the very man they had set out to save, goes home physically unscathed, forever feeling the need to lead a good life and be a good man out of a sense of obligation to the men who gave so much to get him home.
Dirty Coward: Upham is sometimes accused of being this at the final battle when he breaks down in fear upon seeing the advancing German troops while he was supposed to bring ammunition belts to the machine-gun position in the ruined house. As usual, it's easy to judge a character's actions from the comfort of your own living room, but it is actually a realistic portrayal of the psychological issues combatants have to face in war, where not everyone is a cold-blooded killer.
He's a bit different kind of coward. When he finally decides to act, he takes few POWs. And then proceeds with cold-blooded execution of Steamboat Willie. Not only that, but the audience is supposed to cheer for him finally becoming a "brave" man.
And admittingly you can probably feel sympathy for what he did. He sided with an enemy soldier to take him captive instead of executing him, and that man later returned the favor by killing the other man who vouched for him. You would probably be unwilling to take such a man prisoner a second time.
Distracted from Death: On the beach, Miller speaks to a radio man, turns away, goes to talk to the radio operator again and sees that the guy is dead. Also, Sergeant Horvath dies like this too.
Do Not Do This Cool Thing: As an extremely bloody and realistic war movie the natural expectation is that it would work solely as an anti-war movie by showing the horror. However, there is a non-trivial section of the audience that found the (lavishly shot) action scenes exhilarating, even glamorous. These reactions are far from mutually exclusive.
Of course, your opinion may take a 180 degree turn when the medics try to stop a soldier from bleeding out, or during the Telegram scene.
And despite showing the horrors of war the Allied soldiers are still shown as heroes who need respect. Yes, some of them may be frightened at times, suffer from nervous breakdowns or seriously doubt the usefulness of the mission, but in the end they all do their duty, some of them dying during the process.
Don't Call Me Sir: Upham is warned not to salute Captain Miller, as this will draw sniper fire.
Dramatic Sit-Down: The epilogue has the old man kneeling in front of the tombstone, overcome by his emotions.
Mrs. Ryan, well aware what the official car coming to her house means, crumples to a sitting position on her front porch.
Dwindling Party: Out of the original squad sent to find Ryan as well as the entire paratrooper force defending the town of Ramelle, only two members of the original squad and Ryan himself survive when Allied reinforcements finally arrive.
Freeze-Frame Bonus: If you look really carefully, the old man at the beginning of the film is wearing a 101st Airborne pin on his jacket, which serves as a Spoiler Opening: Miller's squad is drawn from his company of the 2nd Battalion, US Army Rangers while Upham is a clerk on loan from the 29th Infantry Division. Only one major character was in the 101st Airborne: the eponymous Private Ryan.
Hand Signals: Jackson uses them to update Capt. Miller on enemy movements from his vantage point during the climactic battle. During the D-Day assault, Horvath gives a "cease fire" signal but has to shout it several times before the rest of the soldiers around him acknowledge it and stand down.
Heroic BSOD: Upham during the final battle, and Wade on Omaha Beach.
The assault on the radar tower's machine gun nest. The tactics used are historically accurate and sound for an infantry squad — it's a three-pronged attack that has pairs of runners dash from cover to cover, covered by Reiben's BrowningAutomatic Rifle until they come to grenade range. However, Miller could have employed Jackson's sniping skills instead, which he had previously used at Omaha Beach to eliminate an MG-42 nest. Not doing so is the whole point of this scene — to show that combat wariness is getting to Miller, and that he's making bad decisions.
Although bell towers are great sniping spots, they (and other obvious vantage points) were often demolished by both sides with extreme prejudice for that very reason — not to kill snipers already in them, but to deny access to them in the first place.
During the Battle of Ramelle, the Germans field lightly-armored and vulnerable tank destroyers in addition to the heavy Tiger tanks. This actually serves to demonstrate the state of Germany's forces toward the end of the war — they're using vehicles unsuited for urban combat because it's all they have on hand.
Also during the Battle of Ramelle, the Panzergrenadiers that should be ahead of them are in fact hiding behind them as cover. This kind of thing actually happened in the real war, either due to poor timing, poor training, or stark terror on the infantry's part. Captain Miller also baits the German tanks in the form of Reiben on the back of a Kettenkrad with his BAR, further adding to the disarray.
Upon viewing the Battle of Ramelle, the real Major Winters (of Band of Brothers fame) told Spielberg he would've blown up the bridge as a first resort then have Engineers replace it later. Spielberg told him it wouldn't have been dramatic enough for a movie. Instead, the Airborne and Rangers rig it to blow as a last resort if they can't hold the line.
With the exception of the Sticky Bombs; though only Miller knows about them here, they were in the soldiers' field manual, as he quickly points out. But hitting the 60mm mortar shells before throwing them fits perfectly.
Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The "whack the mortar shell to initiate the fuse and throw it like a football" gambit actually happened, but it was a year later and half a world away on Okinawa. A similar incident occurred in Italy.
Also during the climatic battle scene, Horvath encounters a german soldier whose weapon jams. The german soldier decides to throw his helmet at Horvath, which prompts Horvath to retaliate by throwing his helmet too. Both use the opportunity to draw and fire their sidearms at each other.
Kill It with Fire / Man on Fire: A flamethrower is used in the final parts of Omaha Beach (and another is seen blowing up early on and incinerating its user and several others), and several men are immolated with Molotov cocktails in the final battle.
Knife Fight: Noted for being rather psychologically disturbing.
Manly Tears: This movie is famous for the number of veterans who broke down crying watching it in theaters. The final scene, where Ryan - now an old man with his children and grand children at the Normandy Memorial — is crying at Captain Miller's grave. He asks his wife if he lived a good life, echoing Miller's comments to "earn it".
The normally reticent and stoic Captain Miller after Wade dies. Miller can't help but break down and cry at the loss of another one of his men (he remembers the precise number of every man who's died under his command,) and promptly does so, hidden away from his men so none of them can see him cracking.
Major Injury Underreaction: Played realistically, as a result of adrenaline and shock. Sgt. Horvath says "Just got the wind knocked out of me" after he's been shot several times, and a GI on Omaha Beach picks up his arm that was just severed at the shoulder by a mortar shell and walks away with it.
The Medic: Played realistically. No magically getting up and continuing to fight once one medic's arrived; we have teams of three or four medics doing all they can just to keep shrapnel-wound hemorrhaging from being lethal, or to pump the wounded full enough of morphine so they can stop screaming in agony, with no more than they could be carrying on their persons to use on a muddy, bloody beachhead. And no sooner do they congratulate themselves on saving one soldier at Omaha Beach — at the cost of a LOT of surgical dressings and drugs — does another machine gun bullet punch a single, neat hole through the dome of the soldier's helmet.
Mercy Kill: Played straight with Wade, inverted with the burning Germans on D-Day ("Don't shoot! Let 'em burn!").
Mexican Standoff: A group of American and German soldiers unexpectedly bump into each other in a bombed-out village, and each shouts, trying to tell the other side to surrender. Ted Danson shows up and blasts the Germans, ending the standoff.
Mistaken Identity: During the mission, the squad finds Private James Ryan and prepare to bring him home, telling him his brothers have been killed. The private then starts bawling and asks how his brothers died, but then mentions they're still in grade-school, prompting the squad to realize they'd run into wrong Private Ryan. Later on, on finding the right Private Ryan, Captain Miller makes sure to confirm he's actually James Francis Ryan.
One of the more memorable early scenes takes place in the emotional cooldown period following the initial Omaha Beach landings. Adrian Caparzo finds a Hitler Youth knife on the corpse of a young German soldier, and offers it to the (Jewish) Stanley Mellish, evidently in the expectation that, as a Jew, he'd feel pleased with being the first squad member to take a Nazi war prize. Mellish, apparently not the vengeful type, is instead overwhelmed with sadness; not only does the knife remind him of the terrible fate suffered by the Jews under Hitler, but also that he's just been forced to kill a brainwashed teenaged boy who was as much a victim of the Nazi war machine as his own people were. He half-heartedly jokes that the knife is now a "Shabbat challah cutter", before bursting into wracking sobs (still clutching the knife) as the suddenly-chastened Caparzo glumly watches on.
One of the more severe moments is also the most understated: after finding a crashed plane and a group of soldiers, the squad splits up bags of dog tags of KIA soldiers and starts going through them, hoping to find Ryan's so that they can end their crazy mission. They start slapping the tags around like playing cards and cracking jokes about some of the names, and they're actually pretty funny, even getting Captain Miller to laugh. Then Wade (the medic) notices what they're doing, and furiously runs over to scoop the tags up, angrily pointing out that they're making light of dead soldiers, in full view and earshot of a column of their buddies marching by. The whiplash is exceedingly strong.
Needle in a Stack of Needles: Said after the Omaha Beach landing. What are the odds of finding one soldier in a huge army in the middle of a battle?
New Meat: Upham never fought before Miller asked him to join the squad and hasn't handled a weapon since basic training.
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Private Caparzo attempts to take a little French girl named Jacqueline with the rest of the squad, at the urging of her parents, because she reminds him of his niece, with the rest of the squad yelling at him not to do it. He gets shot by a sniper for his troubles. That German that Upham convinced Miller to spare and caused the mutiny crisis? He ends up killing Miller later.
Obligatory War Crime Scene: Narrowly subverted — the patrol is on the verge of executing a captured German after his squad kills Wade, but don't (and after he comes back to battle, loses and surrenders, Upham shoots him). Also, surrendering Czechs are shot at Omaha (with One-Liner: "Look, I washed for supper!").
Also an aversion of the Unspoken Plan Guarantee: you hear all the plans the squad has for fighting the battle of Ramelle, and the get to watch them carry it out.
Oh Crap: Jackson, right before he gets blown up by a German tank.
Likewise on the part of The Squad when The Medic requests morphine. He is the only one that can help them treat his wounds, something he can't do if he is given morphine. They realized then they had moved from saving him to making his death less painful.
Which immediately follows one from The Medic himself when they tell him where the exit wound is.
"Oh my God, my liver."
It's even worse than that: they'd already given him one syrette of morphine to stop the shock from being wounded — this was standard procedure. One syrette is meant to calm the body and numb pain from being wounded, and it's VERY powerful stuff. Two is enough to make your heart stop. Keep in mind that these are all combat veterans by this point, going back to battles fought in Africa, and they all seem to know Wade very well — no doubt they already know how effective combat morphine is, probably because Wade told them, or because they'd already seen what happens when you use more than one syrette on one person in quick succession. The "Oh Crap" moment wasn't so much about that they were making his death less painful — it's because he specifically asked for another dose of morphine, and syrettes were all they had on hand; they all suddenly realized Wade was asking them to help him commit suicide instead of lingering on. Which brings Wade's reaction to knowing where his wound was all the worse — he knew he wouldn't live without an actual surgeon on hand with the right equipment. Wade knew he was going to die.
The Oner: Some long takes help the battles get more engaging.
Pinned Down: Captain Miller and the soldiers behind the obstruction on Omaha Beach.
Soldier: Sir, what's the rallying point? Miller: Anywhere but here!
Properly Paranoid: Reiben is against letting their prisoner "Steamboat Willie" walk free, in case he's picked up by the Germans and "thrown back into circulation." Which is not only what happens, but the ex-prisoner also fatally wounds Miller.
Reality Is Unrealistic: The storming of Omaha Beach. It's been praised, especially by WWII vets who were there, for its accuracy yet it looks very little like what movie audiences have come to expect from a big battle (except for the massive casualties).
Red Herring: In the beginning of the film, a World War II veteran collapses in front of a grave and apparently is reliving WWII, and pans to Captain Miller, initially implying that the veteran was Miller as an old man. It is later revealed that Miller was actually killed during the war, and that the veteran was actually the eponymous character of the film.
The Reveal: The company has a pool going on the background of Captain Miller, who never talks about where he's from and what he did before the war. Five bucks get you in the pool. The squad's general belief is that pre-war he was some kind of Badass. Before the war he was a school teacher.
The old veteran visiting the tombstone is PVT Ryan himself, and the tombstone is for CPT Miller.
Retirony: Just as the soldiers find Ryan, they need to engage in a battle for him. There's also Reiben's hilarious story about a customer in his mom's shop, just before he shipped out, showing him her boobs for comfort. And he's one of the few who survive.
Scope Snipe: Jackson nails a German sniper clean through his scope.
The Scourge of God: Jackson apparently thinks himself this. Of course a sniper's job is the sort to make people seem a wee bit odd, anyway.
Screw Your Orders, I'm Staying!: Private Ryan. Rather than leave Ramelle upon finding out that he has a free ticket home, Ryan decides to remain in Ramelle to defend the bridge.
Private Ryan: (upon finding out that he is to be sent home) Hell, these guys deserve to go home as much as I do. They've fought just as hard...You can tell her that when you found me, I was with the only brothers I had left. And that there was no way I was deserting them. I think she'd understand that.
Shell-Shocked Veteran: It's implied that Captain Miller is this from the way that his hand shakes uncontrollably when he's either anticipating the stress of upcoming combat, or concerned about his mission.
Shot in the Ass: It's not easy to see, but one of the medics helping the battalion surgeon with Wade takes a bullet to his canteen. You see it leak water... then all of a sudden it leaks bloody water. The medic starts scrambling to stuff a few bandages in his pants.
Shout-Out: Upham is chastised for saluting Captain Miller, as it identifies him as an officer to the German snipers. In Forrest Gump, the roles are reversed, as Lieutenant Dan chastises Forrest (Tom Hanks' other notable live-action performance at the time) for saluting him, as it makes him a target for the Vietcong snipers.
Shown Their Work: The film did a very accurate recreation of the D-Day landings with many veterans praising the realistic portrayal of the action.
I knew Omaha was a meat grinder, but seeing it on film, my God, it hit me right in the gut.
Soldiers at the Rear: When Miller needs a new translator, the only one available is a green Corporal who's spent the entirety of the D-Day landings at a desk drawing maps and hasn't fired his weapon since basic training.
The Squad: Played with. The camera lingers briefly on a few of the many soldiers in Captain Miller's landing craft, implying that they are going to be The Squad for the rest of the movie, but most of those men get killed in the first fifteen seconds after the shooting starts, giving a clear indication that this is not going to be your father's war movie. You meet the members of the real squad one at a time during the beach battle, but they don't become The Squad until after.
Stress Vomit: Some of the soldiers in the landing craft losing their cookies on their way to the D-Day landing. Though the sea travel likely didn't help, anxiety about invading France to retake it from the Nazis doubtless contributed to their nausea. This was parodied (along with the rest of the landing sequence) in Conker's Bad Fur Day.
Take a Moment to Catch Your Death: A soldier on Omaha Beach has a bullet go right through his helmet without touching him. He takes off his helmet and stares at it in wonder — and is plugged right in the unprotected forehead.
Take a Third Option: When the squad finally finds Ryan, he adamantly refuses to leave Ramelle, as it'll leave the defense of the bridge even more undermanned. Miller mulls over his two options: forcibly drag him off the battlefield as was ordered or just leave and say that they couldn't find him. He decides to keep the squad there and helps makes further plans to hold the bridge.
Tanks, But No Tanks: Mostly averted; the Tiger and Marder mock-ups are actually quite good, although what the Marders — self-propelled anti-tank guns — were doing taking on a small infantry unit in an urban environment was simply the Germans just using whatever they had to hand. If you know where to look, it's quite easy to tell that the "Tigers" are dressed-up T-34s. The sniper confusingly refers to the Marders as "Panzer tanks, two of 'em" but that's actually Truth in Television: to your average GI all AFVs were tanks and all German tanks were panzers; the only identification they really cared about was shoot/don't shoot. American soldiers had never encountered the Marder before Normandy.
Tempting Fate: Sniping Nazis is great and everything, but doing it in such an overconfident way that a German tank figures out where you're shooting from is bad news.
That's What I Would Do: The Squad comes under attack by a sniper in a French village. The squad's sharpshooter Jackson spots a tall church tower and says, "That's where I'd be". (Also Foreshadowing in that Jackson does later use a church tower.)
There Is No Kill Like Overkill: At one point, the characters throw mortar shells as improvised grenades. Said mortar shells have almost twice as much explosive power as a frag grenade, and most of the throws landed at the feet of single soldiers.
In their defense, the soldiers at this point are out of ammo and about to be overrun, with waves of infantry and a number of tanks literally within spitting distance. Not a time to be picking your targets too carefully.
In the same battle, the Germans use a Flak 38, a gun designed for shooting down aircraft, against infantry. The results were particularly... realistic.
Truth in Television: There are several accounts throughout the European Theater of the Whermacht improvising and using Flak 38s and Flak 88s as anti-personnel and anti-tank guns, respectively. It wasn't the most effective thing to do, but it was a clear indicator of the Whermacht's capability in the West at the time.
Throw Away Guns: Horvath during the climactic battle gets so wound up on a combination of anger and physical pain that he ends up throwing his M1911 in the general direction of the enemy while cursing loudly, despite it neither being damaged nor out of ammo at the time.
Getting shot is no small cookie — this action was far from unheard of during WWII, or even WWI, for that matter. Yeah, it's stupid, but keep in mind the handgun doesn't have a bayonet on it, and Horvath had just been shot in the leg. If anything, he sounded more pissed off than in actual pain—sounded being the key word, here.
Title Drop: "Someday we might look back on this and decide that saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole, godawful, shitty mess."
Took a Level in Badass: Upham, after his Heroic BSOD. When he snaps out of it, he singlehandedly captures four German soldiers, and executes one that he had released earlier.
Too Dumb to Live: A soldier just has to take off his helmet right away to see the damage from a bullet on it. On the battlefield. Without ducking down first. Oops.
Trope Codifier: Far from the first film to use Jitter Cam — the technique dates back to the 50's at least, and NYPD Blue had been using it to memetic levels for five years at that time, but the ubiquitous use of hand-held "Shakycam" in action sequences in movies, TV and Video Games began here and continued throughout the remainder of the 90's, 2000's, up to the present day. Widespread use of desaturated color, especially in War Movies/TV/Video Games, also followed.
True Companions: A clear cut Band of Brothers example. The squad even begins to accept Upham towards the end. Which makes it all the more tragic that he is one of only two squad members to make it to the end of the movie.
Ungrateful Bastard: Steamboat Willie. To be fair, it is likely that, after being released by the Squad and making it back to German lines, he wasn't given a choice about going back into battle. With the war effort, Germany needed everyone able to carry a weapon fighting the Allied offensive. But then again, he was the one to fatally shoot Captain Miller.
The Sullivan brothers, another sad Real Life tale, are name-dropped, explaining why the Ryan brothers were split up into different units.
War Is Hell: If the Omaha Beach opening doesn't convince you of this, nothing will. Both the Americans and the Germans regularly slaughter each other in highly grotesque and even morally-outrageous ways, and there's never any sign that there is any good to be taken from the experience, except the titular mission of mercy.
What You Are in the Dark: When Miller and his squad come across a German machine gun nest set up to ambush any approaching Americans, his squadmates point out that they can easily bypass the Germans and nobody would ever know that they were there. However, Miller decides to take out the machine gun because he can't live with himself knowing that more Americans might get ambushed by the machine gun. Also, Miller's squad could have easily just scrubbed the mission and returned to base saying they couldn't find Ryan, but they ultimately decide to stick through it to the end.
What the Hell, Hero?: A good part of the squad calls Miller out on his decision to take out the machine gun nest, even though they could have easily bypassed it or had Jackson take out the entire crew. In the ensuing direct assault, Wade ends up getting killed.
All Germans Are Nazis: The German soldiers are, by and large, Heer (i.e., the German Army), with a smattering of Waffen-SS at the very end of the film; they fight ferociously and mercilessly, but no differently than the Americans would in their situations (as is explicitly noted by Miller, Jackson, and others). The only exception is Steamboat Willie, who masquerades as a Harmless Villain but turns out to be fanatic, deceitful, and the closest thing to an Arch-Enemy in the film, despite being a mere regular Army soldier and thus not likely an actual member of the Nazi party. Several of the German soldiers faced on Omaha are not even German, but forced foreign conscripts in German uniform, a fact that the Americans are unable to recognize prior to killing them due to the Language Barrier. There's very little stereotypical "Hollywood Nazism" among the German forces faced by the squad (aside from the ahistorical skinhead haircuts).
Those Wacky Nazis: The German soldiers that we see act more or less the same way the Americans do — some of them are just as frightened and freaked out about the war as some of the Allied soldiers.
A perfect example of this one is when the squad is exploring the first French village and a wall suddenly crumbles to reveal a squad of German soldiers within spitting distance. Since they're equally matched and neither side can escape, the two groups just train guns on each other in terror and make frantic, mutually-unintelligible demands for surrender until Ted Danson arrives from above with another squad to break the stalemate and blow all the Germans away.
The American troops are also shown to be equally hostile/coldblooded towards the Germans, although not outside of what one would expect in a total war scenario. The first act of the film shows both the shooting of surrendering German prisoners (actually Czech prisoners of war, damn Language Barrier) and a vengeful request that some Germans who had previously been devastating the Americans with machine gun fire (and had in turn ended up ignited by a flamethrower) be left to burn instead of being finished off with bullets.
War Memorial: The movie is bookended with scenes of an elderly veteran visiting the American Cemetery in Normandy.