Is there any genre in film that can evoke the entire spectrum of human emotions in 90 minutes quite as readily as a war movie? To be honest, probably not. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll seethe with anger and you’ll slump into your seat in despair. You’ll cheer and you’ll mourn, all in equal measures. Well, as long as it’s a half decent one, that is.

More recently, Christopher Nolan’s critically AcclaimedDunkirk– which film buffs called the best war film in decades – has been decimating box offices around the world.

But why does this particular title have so much weight to it? Well, it’s probably down in part to the fact that it’s based on real events, as was arguably the greatest war film of all time (although many people don’t know it):Saving Private Ryan.

Steven Spielberg’s genre-defining classic truly is something to behold. It won the Hollywood legend his second Academy Award for best director and achieved universal acclaim among critics.Saving Private Ryanwas even selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, being deemed ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’.

But how much do you know about the story behind the film? Chances are, probably not a lot.

The plot of Spielberg’s 1998 Oscar-winning film revolved around the search for the sole survivor of four young brothers sent off to war, but decades earlier, a very similar story had already played out.

Fritz, Bob, Preston and Edward Niland were four New York brothers of Irish heritage who all served in the second world war and three of whom served over D-Day.

Credit: Andrew L. Bouwhuis Library
Credit: Andrew L. Bouwhuis Library

Three of them were believed to have been killed in battle and so a search was launched for the last brother so that the boys’ mother could have one son returned to her safely.

Edward Niland was reported missing in action when his plane was gunned down over the jungle in Burma. Meanwhile, his three brothers were landing at Normandy to participate in one of the bloodiest battles of modern times.

Lt. Preston Niland was killed leading a platoon of the Fourth Infantry Division and defending the wounded on Utah Beach and Robert Niland parachuted into France, but was killed in heavy fighting at the village of Neuville-au-Plain.

Fritz, the brother on which Private Ryan was loosely based, was the last of the four believed to be alive, but he had become separated from his troops and lost behind enemy lines. He eventually found his way to safety and after learning about the deaths of his brothers he was shipped back to his mother.

Credit: Paramount
Credit: Paramount

Incredibly, Edward Niland was also still alive and had been held in a Japanese POW camp in Burma. He was released and returned home in 1945.

In a heartbreaking letter from Bob to his mother during the war, read by his son, the sergeant said: “All of your boys will come home safe. Don’t worry, this war will be over soon.

“Some night we will all be together again and it will seem like it was just a great big dream.

“At least no one can say that Mr and Mrs Niland’s four sons were draft dodgers.”

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