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September 20, 2022

Film Breakdown: Saving Private Ryan

Certain films in the canon have changed the landscape forever and inspired countless imitators afterward. For example, in the popular and ever-shifting genre of the war film, Saving Private Ryan, released in 1998, was a watershed moment. Though plenty of films had shown war in a grim light before, none had done it in such a shocking way that it reached such a wide audience. 

Yet, despite the sweeping scale war films can embody, the story structure behind Saving Private Ryan is easy to get your head around.

Let’s break down the different beats in Saving Private Ryan and get a sense for the film as a whole.

Free Saving Private Ryan screenplay

Before we get into this blog be sure to check out our free script of Saving Private Ryan. This can be invaluable in helping you follow along and to see how the different parts of the narrative link together. Click here to view it.

What is Saving Private Ryan about?

Saving Private Ryan is a historical war film directed by Steven Spielberg. It takes place in 1944 during and after the D-Day landings that marked a distinct turning point in the war against the Axis powers. Though taking place at critical point in world history, the film focuses on ground-level soldiers, their experiences of these events, and their encounters with the morally dubious situations war can provoke. 

The small squadron the film follows are on a unique mission to track down a paratrooper deep behind enemy lines called Private Ryan. All of Ryan’s brothers have been killed in the war, and as an act of mercy, the US Government has decided that Ryan can be honorably discharged from the service so that his family is not wiped out entirely.

 As soldiers from the squadron die on their dangerous mission to save one life, the question arises about whether the mission makes any practical sense, and whether it’s worth sacrificing several lives to save one. 

Tom Hanks leads the cast of Saving Private Ryan
Captain Miller (Hanks) and Private Ryan (Damon) in the ruins of France during the Normandy Landings of WWII.

Main characters 

Captain Miller

Captain Miller, played by Tom Hanks, is a thirty-something US conscript who leads a small squadron during the D-Day landings. He is stony-faced and refuses to share his past with his fellow soldiers to try and distance himself from the horrors of war. 

Private Ryan

Private Ryan, played by Matt Damon, is a young US conscript soldier who parachuted far behind enemy lines in advance of the D-Day Landings. He’s brash and determined to make his mark, especially after hearing his brothers died. 

Corporal Upham

A prominent side character, Corporal Upham, played by Jeremy Davies, is a young and inexperienced soldier on Miller’s team. He has never shot another person and embodies a realistic depiction of the fear conscripts felt during the war. 

There are many more characters in the story, but these three are the only main characters who receive distinct arcs throughout. In a war film, there are going to be lots of soldiers, so not all of them need an in-depth arc to be effective. 

Breakdown of Saving Private Ryan

Act 1

Opening and Set-Up

Saving Private Ryan opens in the present day, contrary to what you may expect. We follow an elderly veteran walking through a cemetery with his family. He and stops at a particular grave where he remembers his time during WW2 and the D-Day Landings. What follows is a visceral, violent, and disturbing action sequence as the soldiers try to take the beach.

Inciting Incident & Debate

After the US soldiers successfully take the beach, we cut away to US army command who decide that Private Ryan, the youngest of four brothers, needs to be extracted from the battlefield as all of his brothers have been killed during the war. Captain Miller, the man we followed during the landings on the beach, is tasked with locating Private Ryan and extracting him safely from the battlefield. 

Break into Two

Miller rallies his squadron, including the inexperienced and bookish Corporal Upham, and decides on his plan of action. Private Ryan had parachuted behind enemy lines, so the squadron will need to proceed along dangerous territory in order to locate him. 

Tom Hanks and Matt Damon as WWII soliders standing in the rubble of a building in Normandy in  Saving Private Ryan
Captain Miller and his fellow soldiers stand in the ruins of buildings in Normandy, inspecting the scene.

Act 2

Promise of the Premise

In a war film, you expect to see war, action, and fighting during this part of the film, and you get plenty of it in Saving Private Ryan. Miller sets out with his squadron and makes his way to a contested town where Caparzo, one of his soldiers, is killed by a sniper. After a tense encounter, Miller’s squadron dispatches the enemy sniper, they get a good lead on Ryan’s location, and they continue on their journey into occupied France. 


The men make their way to another French town, where they find Private Ryan and tell him that his brothers are dead. However, Private Ryan says that his brothers were only children. This doesn’t add up with what they were told. It turns out that this is a different Private Ryan, and not the one they were looking for, and the squadron proceeds on their path.

On their way to where they think the real Private Ryan may be, they stumble across a German machine gun nest. It is not their mission to destroy it, but Miller argues it’s their duty to do so. 

In the fighting, another one of Miller’s men is killed and they take a German soldier prisoner. Miller’s men want to kill the prisoner, but Miller finally tells his squadron about his past of being an English teacher at home, humanizing himself, and implicitly humanizing their prisoner.

Miller’s men take mercy on the German soldier and allow him to escape. 

Darkest Moment

Finally, Miller’s squadron arrives in Ramelle, a French town. Here they find Private Ryan they were looking for. However, Ryan is not cooperative and refuses to abandon his post as the Germans are about to try and take the town. However, the odds are against the US soldiers, as the Germans vastly outnumber them.

Break into Three

Miller could theoretically take Ryan by force, but he decides that it is his duty, rational or not, to help try and defend the town from the Germans. Despite the overwhelming odds, Miller assumes command and starts making preparations for the defense of the town.

Act 3


After a tense wait, the Germans arrive in full force. The US soldiers make use of their preparations and manage to ward off the initial waves, but soon the Germans vastly outgun and outman them. Upham is in charge of ammunition, but when a German soldier is about to kill one of his fellow soldiers, Upham is too terrified to help and collapses into tears.

Meanwhile, Miller has had a key bridge in the center of town rigged with explosives. If the worst comes to worst, he can blow up the bridge and make it difficult for the Germans to get across the river. Wounded, Miller holds the bridge as a tank rolls across towards him. 

Just as Miller is about to die, a squadron of American planes bombs the German positions and halts the attack in its place. However, it’s too soon for Miller, who tells Ryan to “earn this” before dying.


We cut back to the graveyard in the present day. Here it becomes clear that the elderly veteran we had seen is actually Private Ryan, not Miller as the beginning implies. Ryan salutes the grave of Miller in tears and hopes that he “earned it”. 

What can we learn from the beat structure of Saving Private Ryan?

Saving Private Ryan may have a large-scale scope with lots of characters. However, like most other films, it follows a pretty easy formula to deduce. Think about how these key events play into the narrative pacing and character arcs.  Then you’ll be able to write large-scale epics like this without problems.

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Film Breakdown: Saving Private Ryan
Alex D. Reid

Alex is a professional screenwriter who loves writing horror. He won the horror category at Austin Film Festival for his screenplay Delirium in 2019 and is currently studying for a Ph.D in English Literature with a focus on the horror genre

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