Inside Story: Hollywood: when the killing had to stop: This summer, family entertainment takes the place of celluloid gore. Have we seen the last of the action hero? Phil Reeves reports from Los Angeles

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The Independent Online
WHEN Arnold Schwarzenegger first saw prototypes of toy products promoting his latest blockbuster, The Last Action Hero, he was not pleased. There he was in miniature, a muscle-bound doll bristling with machine guns and flame-throwers just as in his previous movies. This time, he said, the weapons would have to go.

They represented the old Arnold of the Eighties, he explained. The Nineties Arnold no longer wished to be seen as a murderous robot, striding through one blood-spattered scene after another, blowing away people as if they were fugitive ants on the screen. Another model was commissioned, an unarmed one that merely throws a punch and shouts 'Big mistake]'.

Film stars are notorious for developing a social conscience only after they become rich, but when the biggest box office draw in history - an action man who has slaughtered some 275 fictional enemies - has a change of heart, we may wonder what is going on. The answer is: a trend. After years of being heckled by the anti-sex and violence lobby, Hollywood has begun to clean up its act.

After feeding audiences a diet of destruction for decades, the film industry is moving away from ultra-violent movies in favour of a genre that has often seemed to be as extinct as one of Steven Spielberg's soon-to-be unveiled dinosaurs. Family entertainment is back. Suddenly, Hollywood's favourite four-letter words are 'love' and 'kids' - words long considered unprintable.

WHEN it opens in the United States next week, Spielberg's Jurassic Park will still have some graphic dinosaur scenes, but the most blood-thirsty parts of Michael Crichton's best-selling thriller have been edited out in an effort to get a family rating. Warner Brothers, which last year had no family films on its slate, has four on the blocks this summer including the children's classic The Secret Garden and Free Willy, a film about a little boy who befriends a whale.

Michael Jackson, whose choreographed groin-rubbing brought parents out in a cold sweat, has signed up with 20th Century Fox to produce family- orientated films. This year children have big roles in half a dozen summer films. The best example is Schwarzenegger's The Last Action Hero. Schwarzenegger was an icon of the Reagan-Bush era, starring in films where his enemies had little purpose beyond dying in large numbers to remind the audience of its cultural supremacy. Now, the actor, a staunch Republican, tells Premiere magazine: 'In our business, it is like the political arena. You have to find out what the audience really wants. The country is going in an anti-violence direction. I think America has now seen enough of what violence has done to the cities.'

When Columbia's The Last Action Hero was first written by two unknown young graduates, it was labelled 'extremely violent', and reportedly lived up to its title. After a rewrite by two others, the eminent screenwriter William Goldman (of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), was handed dollars 750,000 to soften the script and add an emotional dimension. He removed much of the violence, excised most of the bad language and scrapped a large number of anal jokes, thus securing a PG-13 rating (in which parents are merely 'cautioned' that some of the material may be 'inappropriate' for under-13s). Mark Canton, the chairman of Columbia Pictures, was heard talking merrily about a 'new mood' in Hollywood, pointing out that 'you don't need blood or gore to have a good action movie'.

The result was an action film that epitomises this new mood. Schwarzenegger plays Jack Slater, himself a cinema hero, who is magically ushered from his celluloid existence into 'reality' by an 11-year-old boy. There, he discovers how ineffectual his swashbuckling and bravado is. 'I don't want to be the goddamn hero]' he says. 'I'm tired of getting shot and kicked and thrown out of planes. It hurts. You try it.'

Not that the film lacks blood and thunder - the gun battles and car chases have been retained for die-hard action fans - but the message is quite different. Like Clint Eastwood's Oscar-winning western Unforgiven, last year, the movie becomes a statement against glamourising violence. In their advancing years, both Clint and Arnold appear to being saying that enough is enough, for the time being, at any rate.

The films that Schwarzenegger churned out in the Eighties for up to dollars 15m a time contained, according to one assessment, between 35 and 148 violent acts an hour. And that was without the jokes. In Predator (1987) he impaled an extra on a tree, advising him to 'stick around'. In Total Recall (1990) he used an elevator to tear off an opponent's forearms and held up the bleeding stumps, saying, 'See you at the party'.

This black humour was apparently intended to reinforce the films' surreal style, underlining that it was the stuff of comic book fantasy and should therefore not be confused with reality. But critics of Hollywood violence and obscenity, such as Michael Medved, author of Hollywood vs America, did not see it that way. Medved argued that the films fostered an irresponsibly detached and sadistic attitude to suffering in a society that already had an alarmingly high crime rate.

'Even on those occasions when he isn't supposed to be playing killer robots, the Big Guy deals death with mechanical, deadpan precision,' he wrote. 'In many instances, the only twinges of humanity allowed to creep into his characterisations are those murderous bon mots with which he rids the world of the human rubbish arrayed against him.'

These days the seemingly reinvented Schwarzenegger admits being bothered by the small boys who approach him, autograph books in hand, asking the Terminator to say 'Fuck you, asshole'.

Other Hollywood people express similar worries. The actress Debra Winger recently delivered a withering indictment of Hollywood executives, describing them as cut-throat 'killers', mixed-up characters who were 'doing things out in the world that are very, very questionable'.

Even Rupert Murdoch, whose Sky channel has been accused of broadcasting excessively violent films to Britain, has been muttering about there being 'limits', and putting the word around that his studio, Twentieth Century Fox, would never have produced anything as sleazy as Basic Instinct - the Sharon Stone thriller that starred her upper thighs.

WHAT are the reasons for Hollywood's new mood? One senior executive was recently quoted as saying that Hollywood was full of 'self loathing'; the films being produced, said the unnamed mogul, were 'a lot of formulaic, by the numbers, cliche-ridden, high concept garbage'. In other words, Hollywood was boring itself; it was casting around for change.

But no one should imagine that it has accepted the Medved view. According to the American Psychological Association, the average child in the US will have seen 8,000 on-screen murders and 100,000 acts of violence before finishing elementary school. In a report last year, reviewing 3,000 research studies, the association concluded that there was a clear correlation between viewing violence on screen and aggressive behaviour.

'Children and adults who watch a large number of aggressive programmes,' it stated, 'also tend to hold attitudes and values that favour the use of aggression to solve conflicts.' Some recent cases appear to confirm this. Last August, Nathaniel White, a confessed killer of six women, blamed Robocop for his deeds. 'With the person I killed, I did exactly what I seen in the movie,' he said, describing his first act of butchery.

This argument is not new. Twenty-four years ago, Charles Manson told a courtroom that a killing spree was inspired by songs from a Beatles' album. And 15 years have elapsed since the late Leslie Halliwell, author of the renowned film guide, warned that the movie industry had 'overreached itself and is well and truly on the verge of disaster', adding that 'it is all very well to say in defence of such films that large numbers of people flock to see them: so they did once to bear- baiting and public executions and witch hunts, but the human race long ago prided itself on having passed that stage.'

The entertainment industry's reply, then and now, is that people who are predisposed towards violence will naturally watch violent movies, and that millions of cinema-goers emerge from Robocop to continue their law-abiding lives. In other words, psychopaths will be psychopaths, no matter what they see at the flicks. Normal people will remain normal, unaffected by the ludicrous exploits of Chuck Norris, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger or any others of the small, wilting, band of US celluloid action men. (Willis, incidentally, would hold the prize for sick humour, if one existed. In Hudson Hawk he decapitated an opponent, then said to the headless corpse: 'I guess you won't be attending that convention in July.')

John Hinckley's repeated viewing of Robert de Niro's performance in Taxi Driver may have caused him to shoot Ronald Reagan in an effort to get the attention of the actress Jodi Foster. More likely, argues the industry, had the film not been made, he would have arrived at the same, lunatic act by another route.

Last year, a delinquent called William Andrews was executed in Utah after he and an accomplice forced five people to drink drain- cleaning fluid during a hold-up - an idea apparently borrowed from Clint Eastwood's Magnum Force. But, again, it could be argued that the men were always intent on committing an evil crime and that, at worst, the film simply suggested one means of doing it.

So why have the movie moguls decided to act now, rather than years ago, when the public first expressed its outrage? Some commentators argue that its executives are parents these days, and that they have begun to worry about what their children see - Schwarzenegger himself is a doting father. But the truth is that Hollywood has only one real creed: money. And the industry has concluded that family entertainment is an under-exploited area of the market.

According to a recent report by Paul Kagan Associates, a media research company, a PG (parental guidance suggested) film is three times as likely as an R-rated (under 17s require accompanying adult) film to make more than dollars 100m at the domestic box office. Yet only 16 per cent of the American movies released in 1991 were rated as suitable for children under 13 by the Motion Picture Association of America, the body that governs the self-regulating ratings system.

The high profit figures for family entertainment have much to do with Disney's Aladdin and The Beauty and the Beast, which have reminded Hollywood that both animation and family films are potential money-spinners. Nor do they need super-stars, whose contracts are apt to carve off large slices of profit.

Along with the box-office income comes another rich seam - the millions of dollars to be made from the retail spin-offs, the home videos, TV, cable, and foreign sales of good family fare. Children like seeing their favourite films more than once, and love collecting film-related odds and ends.

This has not been lost on the makers of Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park, which is the subject of one of the most elaborate merchandising efforts in movie history. It has a multi-million dollar tie-in with McDonald's and a hotel chain, and more than 1,000 trade marked products including dinosaur video games, plastic models, clothes, play houses, bedspreads, stationery, colouring books, and much more. The truly helpless fanatic will even be able to buy a 'Jurassic Park Flavoured Lip Balm with Dinosaur Topper'.

GOOD, fairly clean fun - but will it last? Will Hollywood be like the delinquent boy who shows up at school with a scrubbed face and new uniform for the first few days of term, before reverting to grime and crime? Old industry hands do not agree on much, but they do agree that not one jot of morality or social responsibility motivates their trade.

The shift to family entertainment is commercially driven, and could vanish into thin air the moment Hollywood can think of a better way of generating dollars. 'If someone comes along with a violent script that has big bucks written all over it, someone will make it,' said Dick Brooks, a veteran Hollywood publicist. 'If studio A doesn't, then studio B will. You can be sure of that.'

Expectations among onlookers are not high. There are those who dismiss the trend as a sham, an attempt to head off criticism by making a few superficial concessions, and to avoid the problem now facing television. In 1990 Senator Paul Simon sponsored a bill that gave TV companies three years to clean up their act. If they have not put their houses in order by later this year, they face the prospect of seeing excessively violent shows blocked under federal regulations.

And Hollywood's transformation is incomplete. That other action hero, Sylvester Stallone, has just come out with Cliffhanger, rated R for its violent content, and the big hit of recent months has been the Michael Douglas vigilante vehicle, Falling Down.

'I don't think that the studios' hearts are really in family entertainment,' said Michael Tolkin, author of The Player, whose satire on Hollywood became a Robert Altman film. 'I think they will try, but the movies are a black art in which studios are better at practising simulations of human sacrifice than utopian family life.'

So rest assured, human sacrifices will resume - after the intermission.

Quentin Curtis on 'Falling Down', overleaf

(Photograph omitted)