Two of the most famous historical movies of all time left out the heroic priests who were really there.
Saving Private Ryan (1998), directed by Steven Spielberg, and Titanic (1997), directed by James Cameron, are two famous films that could have been about Catholic priests. However, the filmmakers completely omitted the priests who existed in real life and who played central roles in the historical stories retold by these two blockbusters.
Did you know that it was a priest who saved the real Private Ryan? And did you ever hear that a priest was one of the Titanic’s greatest heroes?
Film 1: Saving Private Niland
In one of the most acclaimed Hollywood war movies of all time, Tom Hanks’ character is given a mission by the U.S. military authorities to locate and rescue a certain Private Ryan in the middle of World War II. He’s the only survivor of four brothers sent to France to fight the Nazis; the other three died during the Normandy landings, a key event in the history of the conflict that is remembered as D-Day.
The letters with the news of the deaths of three of her sons arrived at the same time in the hands of the mother of the four young men, as portrayed in one of the most emotionally devastating scenes in Saving Private Ryan.
What many people don’t know is that the story of the movie was based on true events involving the Niland brothers. The fictional Private Ryan was actually named Fritz Niland, and he actually lost his three brothers on D-Day. (In truth, one did survive — Edward who went missing and was presumed dead was actually captive in a Japanese POW camp in Burma/Myanmar for a year.)
Even fewer people know that the real person responsible for rescuing what everyone thought was the last living Niland soldier was a Catholic priest: the legendary chaplain of the 101st Airborne Division, Fr. Francis L. Sampson (1912-1996), whose amazing story was recounted in his memoir Look Out Below! A Story of the Airborne by a Paratrooper Padre, published in 1958.
It was Father Sam, as the troops called him, who found Private Fritz Niland on the French beach that had been code-named Utah Beach, and had him sent home. In addition to this extraordinary episode, Father Sam lived through dozens and dozens of others which could perhaps merit movies of their own.
Film 2: Was there a saint aboard the Titanic?
Another blockbuster that has become one of the biggest pop icons in cinema history, the 1997 film Titanic, was also characterized by the absence of a Catholic priest. In reality, he was one of the most inspiring actual passengers on the “unsinkable” ship that sank on its first crossing on April 15, 1912.
As the Titanic sank, Fr. Thomas Byles gave up not one, but two opportunities to board a lifeboat. He preferred to stay on board, according to passenger reports, to hear confessions and offer spiritual support to those who had no chance of escaping the sinking ship.
About 1500 people died in the tragedy of the Titanic, which didn’t have enough lifeboats for all the passengers.
The 42-year-old British priest had been ordained in Rome ten years earlier and was traveling to celebrate his brother’s wedding in New York. Testimonies from passengers on the Titanic about his priestly action aboard the sinking ship have been collected at www.fatherbyles.com .
One such testimony is that of Agnes McCoy, a third-class passenger and survivor of the sinking. She recounted that Fr. Byles stayed on board to hear confessions, pray with the passengers, and give them his blessing in the final minutes of their lives.
Another third class passenger, Helen Mary Mocklare, tells how Fr. Byles visited the passengers after the ship started sinking, blessing them and calming them while exhibiting extraordinary control over his own emotions. Helen also describes how a sailor warned the priest about the danger and begged him to board a lifeboat, but he refused twice. She continues:
Fr. Byles could have been saved, but he would not leave while one (passenger) was left and the sailor’s entreaties were not heeded. After I got in the boat, which was the last one to leave, and we were slowly going further away from the ship, I could hear distinctly the voice of the priest and the responses to his prayers.
His cause for beatification
More than a century later, Fr. Graham Smith, who is the current pastor of a parish formerly led by Fr. Byles and is responsible for opening his cause for beatification, told the BBC in 2015 that Fr. Byles was an “extraordinary man who gave his life for others … We are hoping and praying that he will be recognized as one of the saints.”
This process follows several steps. First, it is necessary to prove that the candidate for sainthood lived Christian virtues to a heroic degree. Next, for beatification, a miracle attributed to his intercession must be recognized. Finally, for canonization, another miracle must be verified through his intercession.
“We hope people around the world will pray to him if they are in need and, if a miracle occurs, then beatification and then canonization can go forward,” adds Fr. Smith.