November 19, 2004.
On November eleventh, Veterans Day, the ABC television network chose to air Steven Spielberg’s 1995 film Saving Private Ryan as a tribute to Americans who fought and died in World War II.
The film comes to grips as few other movies have ever done with the realities of modern combat. Its first 25 minutes are an unflinching depiction of the landing of our troops on D-Day, June 6, 1944, a day of rain, wind, and choppy seas, at Omaha Beach on the Normandy coast, where Germans firing from cliff-top bunkers cut our forces to pieces, many before they could even wade out of the surf. The slaughter was horrifying, and Spielberg shows it in relentless, wrenching detail. The surf is awash with blood.
Saving Private Ryan had been shown several times on network television without incident. But this year a funny thing happened. In George W. Bush country, of course. The Heartlanders got on their crank telephones and rang up their local teevee stations to say that Ryan was not fittin’ fer pram tam. The actors use the F word. They do. In this week’s TIME magazine, an embedded reporter in Fallujah, running in a crouch from street to street with our troops there, has occasion to quote them in moments of crisis. It is now sixty years since World War II, but in the terror and chaos of battle, the F word has not lost favor. Spielberg insisted on it, and in his contracts specified that it not be bleeped even on network showings. The Heartlanders don’t care. It ain’t fittin’ fer teevee. Take the movie off.
This is not surprising. What is surprising is that sixty-five outlets knuckled under meekly and showed a different movie to the just- kick-it-in-the-side-if-it-don’t-work television sets of the cotton, corn, and taters crowd. The alternative I saw mentioned was Return to Mayberry. Again, no surprise. But the language of Saving Private Ryan was not the only fault the Heartlanders found. The violence was another thing. Say what you want about them, these Born Againers keep their eyes open. There is violence. Since the movie is about a war, anyone else would have expected it. But connecting the dots is a game beyond the skills of these good folk. Hell, connecting the idea of broadcasting a film about war with Veterans Day is plainly out of their mental reach.
I suggest Steven Spielberg’s point in showing in detail the butchery of battle was to make us painfully aware that war is stupid and cruel and wasteful and solves nothing. It is conventional for the hero of a movie to survive once the guns grow silent and the smoke of battle clears. The hero of this film, a Captain sent in the interests of Armed Services public relations on the absurd and wasteful mission of finding and saving the fourth son of a widow whose other boys were killed in battle, dies of gunshot wounds in combat gear at the close of this picture. Let us say that the film does not glorify war.
And I submit that perhaps the folk who called up their local television stations had a different agenda from that of sparing the tender ears of their women and children the F word. I submit that they may have been primed by an alert from Warshnon, Dee See, and their adored Prez’dent, who after all is whining daily at all of us to support his brainless and savage assault on the people of Iraq. Events there are going badly right now. There is (gasp!) a lot of violence and bloodshed, and American troops are being killed at a record rate, some of them dismembered, cut in half, disembowelled by machine gun fire — just as shown in Saving Private Ryan. Surely George W. Bush would prefer the Faithful not to put two and two together with the help of Steven Spielberg.
That the television stations (assertedly because they feared FCC reprisal, as in the matter of Janet Jackson’s breast) dropped to their knees and knocked their heads on the floor, I find unsettling. If we don’t want to watch hideous deaths and maimings on television, we can click on the remote and find gentler matter on another channel. It is our choice. Back in the days when books were the prime source of education and amusement, Hitler’s answer was to burn the books he didn’t like. Now that (sad to say) television has replaced books, can the President decide which movies it may show and which it would be best if we did not see? Was this a one-time fluke? I hope so. But it might be wise to remember it. It could be coming soon to your local TV outlet.