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Film case study - Saving Private Ryan

Re-classified on appeal

An appeal results in a re-classification from R16 to R15.

The film Saving Private Ryan generated a lot of debate at the time of its classification. It was the first film to be classified R15 under the current legislation, and became a benchmark decision for the classification of graphic violence in films.

The film was released in New Zealand cinemas on 22 October 1998 classified R16. Following an appeal from the film's distributor, a decision of the Film and Literature Board of Review dropped the classification to R15 on 11 December 1998.

The plot

Saving Private Ryan follows a group of American soldiers in World War II who are assigned to locate and bring back Private James Ryan who is fighting somewhere in the French countryside. Private Ryan's three brothers have all been killed in the war and military officials have decided that his mother should be spared the death of her fourth son. A group of approximately eight men search for Ryan, encountering various incidents along the way resulting in the death of most of the men.

Classification considerations

The film contains very realistic portrayals of war violence and the infliction of serious physical harm which are lengthy, frequent, and of a very graphic nature. The most notable of these is the one that occurs at the opening. The scene begins with the US forces landing at Omaha Beach on 'D-Day' in June 1944. The scene, which lasts for approximately 25 minutes, is very graphic and realistic in terms of its portrayal of the horrors of war, particularly the resulting injuries and fatalities. The reality of war is presented in a very graphic and realistic manner as the men are massacred by enemy fire:

Everywhere men are depicted dead or dying. The injuries are horrific. Particularly memorable are images of a man holding onto his arm which has been blown off, a man who is still alive lying on the ground with his entrails spilling out, and a man dragging an injured man up the beach and then turning to see that the man's legs have been blown off.

Office of Film and Literature Classification, 1998

Classification Office decision

The Classification Office classified the film R16.

The Classification Office concluded that the film had significant social and educational merit in that it provided a frank and horrifying look into the harsh and brutal reality of war:

Such presentations are thought-provoking and are considered likely to engender discussion and debate amongst viewers. The way in which the film presents war is quite different to traditional presentations which have had a tendency to glamorise and glorify the experience... In view of the extent and degree of the violence, but bearing in mind the social and educational merit associated with this film, the Classification Office finds that the availability of the film is likely to be injurious to the public good unless its viewing is restricted to a mature audience.

Office of Film and Literature Classification, 1998

The Office classified Saving Private Ryan as R16 with the descriptive note 'depicts graphic and realistic war scenes'.

Classification Office decision for Saving Private Ryan (PDF, 21KB

The appeal

The film's distributor appealed the R16 classification.

On 23 October 1998, the film's distributor, United International Pictures, appealed the classification to the Film and Literature Board of Review. Any person who is dissatisfied with a decision of the Classification Office may seek a review by the Film and Literature Board of Review. The Board of Review must conduct its review of the publication afresh, without regard to the Classification Office's decision.

The Board of Review

The Board examined Saving Private Ryan and applied the criteria set out in the Classification Act. It also considered written and oral submissions from the Classification Office and the film's distributor.

The Classification Office thought that Saving Private Ryan established a new benchmark for depictions of violence permitted in films on general release. In its submission to the Board of Review it wrote, '...the graphic nature and extent of the scenes of violence warranted restriction, and a higher restriction may have been necessary were it not for the balancing strength of [other depictions in the film].'

Given the time elapsed since World War II, it is probable that parents or guardians of younger secondary school pupils would themselves have limited knowledge or experience of war. They may be unable to provide their children with a suitable context for the frank and horrifying look into the harsh and brutal reality of war which Saving Private Ryan portrays.

Classification Office submission to the Board of Review, 1998

[The representative of the film distributor] submitted that the film had significant social and educational merit, and supported his statement with copies of many favourable reviews of the film. He also argued that teenagers would benefit from seeing Saving Private Ryan because this would impress upon them the enormous sacrifice made by their grandparents' generation who fought in World War II.

Film and Literature Board of Review, 1998

Board of Review classification

The Board of Review felt that the film's merits warranted a less restrictive classification.

The Film and Literature Board of Review was satisfied that the violence portrayed in the film was an honest and genuine attempt to convey both the horror of war and the enormous sacrifice made by a generation of young men and women. This sets the film apart from other films that may show significant violence.

The Board was of the view that the public good would be served by making the film as widely available as possible, but not to audiences who could be negatively affected by the portrayals of violence or those for whom the educational and historical benefits of the film would be overwhelmed by the power and emotional impact of the scenes of violence.

The Board decided that the public good would be injured if this film were made available to persons under 15 years of age as they would be less emotionally equipped to cope with the depictions of violence and not as knowledgeable about the historical context in which events in the film take place. They gave Saving Private Ryan the classification 'R15: depicts graphic and realistic war scenes'.

Board of Review's decision for the film Saving Private Ryan (PDF, 69KB)

Other film case studies

Saving Private Ryan poster

A war film that, entirely aware of its genre's conventions, transcends them as it transcends the simplistic moralities that inform its predecessors, to take the high, morally haunting ground.

Richard Schickel, Time

Useful links

Stills from the film

A still image from the film of soldiers' bodies on the beach, washed by the blood-red tide
Bloodbath at Omaha Beach
A still image from the film of a group of soldiers sheltering from enemy fire
Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) and his men
A still image from the film of Private Ryan sheltering in a bomb crater with his gun as a tank rolls by
Private Ryan (Matt Damon)
A still image from the film of a soldier who has taken cover behind a large car with his buddy, comforting a small girl who is crying in the rain
Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies) comforts a terrified little girl
A still image from the film of a group of soldiers in a town destroyed by war
Captain Miller with his men and Private Ryan in the bombed-out town of Ramelle


R15 classification label
R15: depicts graphic and realistic war scenes