Blown away by the experience of seeing "Saving Private Ryan," 21-year-old Cody Dicken of Texas A&M University decided he had to see for himself what the Normandy beaches looked like. He flew over to join his friend Angie Georgelas and her parents here on the bluff overlooking Omaha Beach.
He and his friends strolled silently amid the field of gravestones of Americans that stretch out, just as in Steven Spielberg's opening and closing scenes, to many shifting vanishing points. "You realize what these guys really went through," said Dicken, a student and Air Force ROTC member at A&M.
A few thousand gravestones away stood F. Harper Griswold, who was 18 at the time of the D-Day landings and on a convoy ship off the coast. "Spielberg told it like it was," said Griswold, now of Catonsville, Md., decked out in a D-Day jacket and his VFW headgear. "If it wasn't for what those guys did, today we'd all be walking the goose step."
Down by the memorial chapel, visitor Robert Merrick said he was struck by "the randomness of death. No matter how much preparation and training you did, it came down to luck." He looked out across the graves. "Everyone lost their innocence that day," Merrick said.
Seeing the movie, said Merrick, a D.C. police officer and a former Army infantryman, had "pushed me over the edge" on a longstanding travel temptation and led him to join thousands of Americans, and now a wave of Europeans, flocking to Normandy to see the place for themselves. "Saving Private Ryan" came out in European theaters Sept. 30, and almost immediately awakened a desire to fix the experience of the movie in the palpable reality of a historical place.
Spielberg's Normandy beaches may have been in Ireland and his French villages on a set outside London, but the American cemetery in the movie is the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial here on D-Day's bloodiest beach, where nearly 10,000 battle casualties are buried.
At the U.S. cemetery the number of visitors was up by a third, to 36,000, last month over the previous September. Visits by relatives of those buried here were up 50 percent.
The middle of autumn usually is a slow time for tourism in Normandy. But the parking lots this fall are full of tour buses, and the hotels and restaurants along the coast are jammed. Tour groups and guides are reporting bookings well into mid-1999, unheard of even in these well-touristed parts.
The film has been a major box-office hit in France, sitting at number one for the second week in a row and outpacing "Zorro" in its first week -- notably in Normandy.
French critics have been pretty positive, although the reviewer of the daily newspaper Liberation found the story line misty-eyed and imbecilic, the wrenching realism of the opening scene overdone and unnecessary. "Saving Private Ryan," he wrote, was "nationalism in heat."
One French viewer, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, said "it would be impossible in Europe, or in any case France, to make a patriotic film like that. Europeans are much more skeptical and critical -- they wouldn't pay that kind of homage." The former French president saw "Saving Private Ryan" at the residence of Felix Rohatyn, the U.S. ambassador to France, who had a few people (including Gregory Peck) over for a private screening.
Although Giscard d'Estaing was around and in uniform at the time -- he was bicycling across Paris to his high school when he heard the news on June 6, 1944 -- he was struck all over again by the courage of the first wave of Americans, Canadians and Britons who landed on the beaches. "They were condemned to die in large proportions. Most of them didn't know where they were or what they were doing," he said in a telephone interview.
Phil Rivers, who has managed this 172-acre cemetery since 1982, has never seen anything like the local hubbub over "Ryan." At the local municipal hall that doubles as a theater, the first showing started 45 minutes late because of the lines and commotion.
Along with the fundamental interest in D-Day, the new wave of tourists has another agenda: checking "Saving Private Ryan" against reality. Although the conceit of the military expedition in the film -- finding the surviving son of a mother robbed of three other sons -- is pure fiction, Rivers keeps running into people looking for the gravestone of John Miller, the Tom Hanks character in the film. Rivers has to explain there was no such person.
Perhaps to console the disappointed pilgrims, however, Rivers recounts the similarities of the Ryan family story and that of some real boys named Niland. The superintendent walked across the pattern of headstones and stopped at a place where two Niland brothers from upstate New York, killed on June 6 and on June 7, are buried side by side. Another brother was killed in the Pacific. The survivor became a dentist and died at 50, Rivers said.
Rivers, who has hosted presidents and ex-presidents, has a few reverent Spielberg tales, too -- how the director's first act was to tell his crew to respect the sanctity of the cemetery, and how they left the place spotless; how the cemetery commissioned four marble headstones, including John Miller's, just like the ones in the cemetery; and how Spielberg, arriving on the evening of the single day's shoot, immediately changed the angle his assistants had prepared to face the camera toward the sea.
Spielberg strode that evening among the headstones, Rivers recalled, looking for just the right spot for the scene of an aging Ryan falling to his knees at John Miller's gravestone. At last he stopped and pointed down to the place where he wanted the camera. Rivers checked the name on the next headstone over, which Spielberg couldn't have seen, and saw that it was the tomb of a man, a real man, named Miller. CAPTION: A family, left, tends a tombstone at the Normandy American Cemetery in May 1994. Tom Hanks, right, stars in the movie that has sparked new interest in the D-Day invasion. ec