Fearing sanctions from the Federal Communications Commission, more than 20 ABC affiliates in Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix and elsewhere chose not to air "Saving Private Ryan" on Veterans Day last week. Not because of the violence, apparently, but because of the profanity. Under our new "moral values" standards, you can show war is hell, but you must leave out the word "hell."
The film's depiction of the Allied landing in 1944 is the most commanding and gripping piece of cinema I hope to see. Soldiers puke from fear, get torn in half, search for arms that have been blown off and drown under the weight of their equipment without even reaching the shore. It is strong stuff. And the accompanying dialogue is true to form.
But this kind of raw language isn't necessary and is offensive and gratuitous, say some of the spokesmen for the new moral-values voters. TV execs asked the FCC for a ruling, but the FCC wasn't going to play that game. It seemed to be saying, "We respond to complaints. We don't limit free speech." Unsaid was, "Of course, if you don't show it at all, you will have no problem."
But what screenwriters can write, other screenwriters can rewrite. The remake of "Saving Private Ryan," I can now report, is in the works.
Tentatively titled "Praying for Private Ryan," the story cleans up some of the gore and all of the language. Here are some examples:
Off camera, a howitzer tears Tom Hanks' friend in two. "Well, double hockey sticks to that," exclaims Tom, speaking from the heart.
Up the beach we go, through enemy fire, crawling over bodies and wrecked materiel. Finally unable to stand any more carnage, Tom cries out: "Darn these Germans, anyhow!"
In one of my favorite scenes, Tom is approached by a fresh-faced young corporal. "I'm worried, sir," the soldier says. "We've run out of ammunition!" "Fudge!" Tom says.
"What?" asks the young lad, appropriately shocked.
"I mean fiddlesticks!"
It's not easy writing this stuff, trying to be accurate and yet OK for prime-time TV. But I and my fellow script doctors have done our homework, and we've based the best lines on actual soldiers' memoirs. Some of these lines are just great, punctuating the fire and smoke of battle with pithy, yet morally valuable, sentiments. For example, "Drat, there goes my leg!"; "I'd like to kick Hitler in the pants!"; and the searing, "By Jiminy, we're all going to die."
Finally, Private Ryan is located, ("There you are, you son of a biscuit!") and a happy ending is appended. The audience is happy, the FCC is happy and the execs at the ABC affiliates are happy.
Most important, the true picture of men at war is provided to a country now somewhat fearful about the nature of armed conflict, even when led by men of towering faith. The lesson is that if soldiers are fighting for freedom and democracy, they can get the job done without a lot of bad words.
Jeff Danziger is a political cartoonist. He wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.