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'Ryan' Ends Vets' Years of Silence

Spielberg film sparks dialogue with men who kept quiet about horrors of WWII and were modest about heroism. Younger people say they understand for first time the sacrifices that were made.


Steven Spielberg's new World War II movie, "Saving Private Ryan," has been almost universally lauded for painting an unusually realistic portrait of war. Moviegoers not only see what combat looks like, but they hear it as well, from the plink of gunfire on a soldier's helmet to the boom of mortar shells to the cries of the wounded.

So it is striking, then, that many Americans who have seen the film--alternately peeking through their fingers at the carnage of battle and covering their ears to muffle artillery fire--say it has taught them about something not often associated with war: silence.

"My grandfather survived the invasion of Normandy. Now I understand why he has always been so quiet about his experience there and the four bronze stars he received for bravery," one man wrote the other day to an Internet message board that is devoted to the movie--one of many Web sites related to D-day that have seen increased activity since "Saving Private Ryan" opened July 24.

Another man who identified himself only as Tom said the film had helped him grasp his own father's reticence for the first time.

"For people my age, 48, WWII was the defining moment of our parents' lives," he wrote. "My father, who was there, never said anything about the war all his life. . . . We boomers don't have a clue how lucky we are and have always been. Thanks, Dad."

To be sure, "Saving Private Ryan" is not the first movie to help one generation grasp another's experience. "Mississippi Burning" shed light on parts of the civil rights struggle, and several movies, from "Platoon" to "The Deer Hunter," have looked back on the Vietnam War era. But even among war movie buffs, Spielberg's latest film--which broke $30 million at the box office its opening weekend and will apparently surpass $100 million by this weekend--is proving to be unusually resonant.

Already, books about World War II are selling in greater numbers. "Citizen Soldiers," for example, by historian Stephen E. Ambrose (who was a consultant on the film), is back on the bestseller lists for the first time since March. And online services have been overwhelmed with postings related not only to the film (America Online has had more than 20,000) but to the subject of World War II in general.

But the true cultural impact of "Saving Private Ryan" is best measured not in dollars or book sales but in conversations, and they're breaking out all over.

A 51-year-old South Carolina banker, for example, sat down after seeing the film and wrote letters of thanks to two World War II veterans he knows. A 45-year-old Arizona financial consultant found herself suddenly discussing the Big One with strangers in a grocery store line.

"You're desperate to talk about the film," said Paul Rich, a 43-year-old screenwriter from North Hollywood who immediately called an uncle who had fought in the Battle of the Bulge. "The stories he told me, all of a sudden they come to life after seeing this movie. I realize what a hero my uncle is."

Spielberg, who has repeatedly said he made the movie as a tribute to veterans, said he is pleased that the film has sparked such interactions.

"What's gratifying is the apparent narrowing of the gap between generations that is taking place in the [theater] lobbies and on the streets after the film is over," he said. "Twenty-year-olds are actually walking up to people in their 70s, thanking them for what they did. . . . Can an audience 'understand' the Holocaust from seeing 'Schindler's List' or really grasp all of World War II from 'Saving Private Ryan'? Of course not. Will those movies cause some people to ask new questions? I sure hope so."

A Raw Experience for Veterans

For veterans themselves, the movie has been a particularly raw experience--"touchingly terrible and terribly touching," in the words of one. During the two weekends since the movie opened, the Department of Veterans Affairs has increased staffing on its toll-free counseling line to accommodate vets shaken by the film. More than 100 have called, and scores of others have phoned or stopped in during the week at seven regional offices around the nation.

Dr. Bill Weitz, a clinical psychologist and team leader at a VA outreach facility in West Palm Beach, Fla., has counseled several veterans who have seen the film. He says World War II vets are not the only ones who have felt overwhelmed.

"We don't have a way in this society to integrate warriors. We ask them to do a lot of things in wartime that are outside our moral standards, so when they come back--from Vietnam, Somalia, Desert Storm--they don't feel good talking about them," said Weitz, who added that the film has prompted feelings of confusion, discomfort and guilt in some men.

Richard White, a 51-year-old technical writer from Palmdale, knows what Weitz means. White was an army sergeant who led a mortar crew in the Central Highlands of Vietnam in 1970. His reaction to the film?

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