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Rating the Big One

Filmmaker launches a tough defense of the R-rated 'Saving Private Ryan,' which contains grisly images of war, such as the scenes of D-day, above.

July 15, 1998|JUDITH I. BRENNAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Just 24 minutes. That is all it takes for Steven Spielberg to blast apart the propaganda of previous World War II films--not to mention his audience's perception of him as a filmmaker.

He does it in graphic and relentless detail. And he has done it very deliberately.

In fact, Spielberg says his deepest conviction is to have "Saving Private Ryan," which opens July 24, stand as a respectful testament to the bloody, horrific truth of what really happened to the foot soldier in the Last Great War. He knows audiences will leave the film shaken by the experience.

The film, which stars Tom Hanks and Edward Burns, tells the story of the D-day invasion of Normandy, and the subsequent mission of Hanks and a small group of soldiers to go behind enemy lines to save a private, played by Matt Damon, whose brothers have been killed in combat. Yet the story itself takes a back seat to the graphic depiction of combat, especially in the opening scenes of the invasion--something fans of Spielberg, and those who have seen the film's muted trailer--are likely not to be prepared for.

Because of the disturbing, extreme nature of the violence, Spielberg is going cross-country to talk up the film--and to caution audiences about what they may not be expecting from him.

"I have not gone on a road tour to promote a film in the last 16 or 17 years," Spielberg said in an interview last weekend from a plane traveling to San Francisco to meet with local media. "The reason I'm going across the country on this one is to warn parents and young people that this film may not be their cup of tea. I have a real responsibility to do that, especially because of the first 24 minutes of this film."

The film is rated R, which will exclude a large portion of his usual audience. The MPAA has also added a stringent caveat to the rating: "Includes intense, prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence, and language."

Some Hollywood insiders and exhibitors say they believe Spielberg may have gotten off easy because he is one of the most powerful players in the industry. Any other filmmaker, including Oliver Stone, they contend, would have been given an NC-17 because of the extreme violence.

Spielberg, however, and MPAA Chairman Jack Valenti, believe the filmmaker's enormous popularity would, if anything, have worked against him in the ratings process.

"I sell a lot of tickets, and I understand what that means to parents. I want people to know that the R rating has a very important warning attached, to let them know what is there. But I believe in this film, and I am very passionate about it.

"The board certainly could have given it an NC-17," he said. "I know it is pushing the NC-17 envelope. I believe that anybody under the age of 14 could not see this movie. But I also believe that if you can drive a car and fight in a war you should see it. Had the board said this is an NC-17, I would have worn that like a Purple Heart, with pride and dignity, because I felt that the truth about what happened on Omaha Beach was long overdue. I would have gone out with an NC-17. Had they given me one, I would not have amended this film."

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Valenti, who has not seen the film and was not part of the rating board's vote, said: "War is brutal and inhumane. Everyone in this country should understand what it does to young men. President George Bush was barely 18 when he was shot down in the Pacific.

"Showing war as it really is is a different kind of violence. Kids cannot go out and really imitate it," Valenti said. "Imitable violence is where people who are mentally unbalanced may try to imitate the violence they see in a film, and that is what we want to guard against. But it's pretty tough to reenact a war."

Valenti denies the MPAA went easy on Spielberg. "This board knows good and well if they give any special favors to anyone it's going to stand out. Who sees this film depends on the maturity of the young person and only their parents can make that judgment. We are just giving an advance warning."

Dismemberment, horrific wounds and rotting corpses typify battle scenes in any war. Spielberg noted that even Ken Burns' award-winning "Civil War" television documentary, as well as historian Stephen E. Ambrose's books "D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II" and "Citizen Soldiers" chronicled wars' ghastly butchery.

"You know, in this age of disclosure, it would have been irresponsible for me to undercut the truth of what that war was like," Spielberg said. "There have been 84 World War II films that showed something else. This would have been the 85th slap in the face to the men who died knowing the truth.

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