What is the theme of the movie Saving Private Ryan (1998)?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One could make the argument that the main theme of Steven Spielberg’s World War II film Saving Private Ryan is the ambivalence of morality. Much is made during the course of the film’s opening sequences about the suffering inherent in war and the sacrifices made by individuals and families. War involves sacrifices.

Many of those sacrifices are idealized as made in the interest of the preservation of liberty, and that is fair and usually accurate. Many of those sacrifices take place out of love for one’s fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines. In other words, the broader national goal is subordinated out in the field to the more personal goal of getting him alive while helping one’s colleagues similarly return alive to their families.

At the film’s core, however, is the question of the morality of sacrificing one’s life for the preservation of that of another when that other is a complete stranger and the number to be sacrificed for the benefit of the one is many. Captain John Miller’s squad of reluctant but skilled soldiers repeatedly express this view. Why risk their lives for the benefit of Private James Ryan, whom they do not know and about whom they couldn't care less?

There is a key exchange midway through Saving Private Ryan that captures the theme of morality and the ambivalence of soldiers to the morality of their mission. While resting before continuing their mission, Captain Miller discusses with his senior sergeant the questionable nature of the enterprise on which they have embarked. During this conversation, Miller tells Sergeant Horvath that his priority is simply getting home to his wife:

I don't know anything about Ryan. I don't care. The man means nothing to me. It's just a name. But if...You know if going to Rumelle and finding him so that he can go home. If that earns me the right to get back to my wife, then that's my mission.

The theme of the questionable morality and wisdom of dispatching many to save one resonates throughout the film and provides the crux of Miller’s final words to Private Ryan: “Earn this,” meaning lead a life that justifies the sacrifice of multiple lives to preserve his own. Miller’s dying words force the viewer to refocus on the theme of sacrifice, but the question of morality hangs in the air.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There are multiple themes in Saving Private Ryan, including sacrifice, patriotism, and self-doubt.

Sacrifice is a major theme in the movie; almost everyone on the mission to save Private Ryan ultimately dies during the mission. They go into danger both to send James Ryan home and also to protect the bridge that Ryan's unit is protecting when they find him.

Private Ryan, himself, is willing to sacrifice his life for what he believes in. Despite the danger of his mission, he refuses to leave when he's told that his orders are to do so. Even though his brothers are dead, he is willing to put his own life on the line to fulfill what he sees as his moral duty.

The movie also has the theme of patriotism. There are two major things in the movie that create this theme. The first is the American flag, which is shown at the beginning and the end of the film. The second is the heroic actions of Captain Miller's unit as they search for Private Ryan as well as the choice of Ryan to stay at the bridge. These men are patriots who stand for their country with bravery.

Self-doubt is another theme that bookends the movie. At the beginning, Private Ryan is standing in front of Captain Miller's Grave. At the end of the movie, when it returns to this scene, Ryan questions whether he was worth the sacrifice of Miller and the other men. Despite the good life that he likely lived, he still isn't sure that they made the right choice because he doesn't know whether he measures up. Though his wife assures him that he was worth it, it's possible that he'll never know for sure.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There is more than one theme in the movie Saving Private Ryan. One that particularly stands out though is the theme of duty. The soldiers in Captain Miller's squad certainly do not like the idea of risking their lives on a mission to rescue just one man, but they do it anyway. As Captain Miller says at one point, "We all have orders, and we have to follow ’em. That supersedes everything. . . ." But the movie does not just address the duty that soldiers have to follow orders. It is also about the duty that these soldiers have to each other as comrades in arms. When the squad finally locates Private Ryan, he refuses to leave with them. He still feels that he has a duty to fight alongside his fellow soldiers. He simply cannot leave them while they are in danger. When Captain Miller asks Private Ryan what he would tell his mother for failing to bring Ryan home, Ryan responds by saying, "Tell her that when you found me, I was here and I was with the only brothers that I have left. And that there was no way I was going to desert them. I think she’ll understand that." In the end, the characters have to make a choice that allows them to fulfill their duty as soldiers, but also as brothers in arms.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The theme of "sacrifice" is an important one in the movie. In war, sacrifice is something a soldier is implied to be able to do at a moment's notice.  In Saving Private Ryan, it is the sacrifice of a squad of soldiers for one soldier.  The squad spends the majority of the movie tyring to find one young soldier because his family has sacrificed enough for the cause during WWII.  Many of the squad are sacrificed in order to find Ryan, and at the end, a captain is sacrificed for a private.

"Self worth" is another theme.  What Captain Miller says to Ryan at the end, "James, earn this...earn it," caps the end of the movie where the older Ryan tells his wife, "Tell me I'm a good man."  For over forty years, Ryan has been living with the question of whether or not he has earned the sacrifice of those men.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial