Killing the war myth 'Saving Private Ryan' skips the romantic-hero routine and shows the field of combat in all its ugliness and horror.

July 19, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Director Steven Spielberg and star Tom Hanks are pretty much in sync when it comes to "Saving Private Ryan," a film they both proudly insist shows combat during World War II for what it was, not what Hollywood wanted it to be.

In sync, that is, except on who should be allowed to see the film.

"One of the reasons I wanted to go on the road was to caution parents not to let their kids see the movie," says Spielberg, insisting the film - which opens Friday - and its realistic depictions of battle are unsuitable for young minds.

"As old as 14 should be restricted from this particular film," says Spielberg, a father of seven himself who's embarked on a rare press tour in part to drive that point home. "I think once you can drive a car and fight in a war, there's no problem."

But Hanks, whose portrayal of the enigmatic Capt. John Miller should only enhance his reputation as an actor at the top of his game, isn't so sure.

"There's a percentage of 10-year-old boys who should see this movie," Hanks says, "because every day they come home and turn on 'American Kickboxer Bloodsports 5,' and watch that as entertainment, and then laugh because all the bad guys lose and all the good guys win against all odds. Or they play 'Mortal Death's Head' video games, in which people get their heads kicked off, and that's how you win the game. They need to go off, perhaps, and see this kind of movie, which is so graphic and so violent and so unglamorous and so scary that they become confused, and [it] might even make them weep a little bit."

But age-appropriateness aside (and even Hanks admits he won't let his 8-year-old son see the film), the two men were singing from the same page. Holed up inside Georgetown's Four Seasons Hotel, they spent Wednesday fielding questions from media types who had descended on Washington from throughout the East Coast. With historian Stephen Ambrose along to proclaim loudly and repeatedly that "Ryan" is the best war film ever, Spielberg and Hanks hammered home the message that all war is hell, even so-called "just" wars.

"People, when they think about Vietnam, say, 'OK, that was the heinous war, that was the war where you did not die pretty,'" Spielberg says. "Because that war was on television, and we all watched it in our living rooms.

People then turn to World War II, and they say that was the black-and-white war, that was John Wayne's war, that was the war that was worth fighting, the war where people were killed, but they did die pretty.

"One thing 'Private Ryan' intends to do is to debunk the mythology of the Second World War as a romantic event in history," says Spielberg, who has used the conflict as the setting for four previous films: "1941," "Empire of the Sun," "Always" and "Schindler's List" (five if you count the Nazis in "Raiders of the Lost Ark").

Spielberg's film should certainly do that; it's the most graphic war film since "Platoon," and possibly the most graphic ever. People get shot and die hard, not quickly and quietly. Men's insides spill onto the ground as they watch, helpless. Civilized men are forced to do things barbarians would have hesitated doing.

Beginning with the landing of American troops on Omaha Beach during D-Day (a magnificent, gut-churning battle sequence that Spielberg hopes will immediately announce that this isn't a typical World War II film), the movie follows a squad of eight battle-ravaged soldiers sent behind enemy lines to retrieve Private Ryan - whose three brothers have all recently been killed in battle. The Army brass has decreed that the last surviving Ryan brother belongs home, even if it means risking the lives of eight more soldiers to get him there.

These eight soldiers are not comic-book heroes. They squabble among themselves. They question orders. But somehow, they push on; it's that "somehow" Spielberg and his crew try to get at. There are no larger-than-life figures who always came through in the end - so many American soldiers in World War II were young men fresh out of school, with no combat experience and little idea what they were in for.

"They had never seen Europe, [or even left] their own cities for another state," says Spielberg, who was born two years after the war ended. "These 17-, 18- and 19-year-olds were all shipped from the bastion of naivete - America in the 1940s - right to a foreign country, where people tried to kill them for four years, and they attempted to kill people."

Hanks, working with his friend Spielberg for the first time, says the original script was more of a conventional war film.

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