10 Classic Movies Initially Banned

Origonally written for theculturecrossing.com here.

Join me on a journey through cinematic offence. With 10 movies that were initially banned, and why.

Since Thomas Edison’s company presented the first-ever on-screen kiss in 1896, outrage and censorship have been ingrained in cinema. The cinematic snog featuring Vaudeville stars May Irwin and John Rice provoked reviews of being “absolutely disgusting” and suggested “police interference”.

Whilst cinematic content has come a long way to invoke such emotion, censorship is still rife across the globe. This has seen many iconic films fall victim to re-edits to meet regulations.

Let’s have a look at some others who fell foul of the sensors.

1. Zoolander (2001)

The tale of Ben Stiller’s fashion icon with a penchant for international espionage is cult classic’ personified. Initially controversial in many markets due to homoerotic themes.

It’s unfortunate timing and one offensive character in particular landed the film in hot water.

The film was one a list of movies that were banned in Malaysia. It includes the main characters being brainwashed to assassinate of the Malaysian Prime Minister. The film was referred to as “definitely unsuitable” by Malaysia and never shown.

The US originally gave the film an R rating. This was for its sexual content, profanity, and drug references. They later re-rated the movie to PG-13 following an appeal.

Zoolander was released one week after the 9/11 attacks. For a film that centres around assassinating a world leader, the global climate was not suitable for such a subject. No matter how light-hearted the film intended to be.

Created on a $28 million budget Zoolander grossed just over $45 million in the United States. This failed to meet expectations, due to the relevant subject matter. But, two decades on and the characters, dialogue and memorable moments provide a plethora of quotable moments.

2. Back To The Future (1985)

Marty and Doc’s 1980s adventure has been banned in China due to its focus on time travel. This topic has been deemed “frivolous” subject matter. Other time-hop flicks like Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure have also been banned.

China’s State Administration of Press may have banned this trilogy of movies. But, its cultural impact around the world stands the test of time.

3. A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Perhaps the most well-known movies to be banned.

Stanley Kubrick’s ultraviolent spectacle was adapted from the 1962 novel by Anthony Burgess. It centres around a juvenile maniac who is “treated” by intense psychological techniques. This is all following a spree of physical and sexual violence. Both the violence and nudity in Kubrick’s film led to bans across many countries. These included Ireland, South Africa, South Korea and Singapore.

Whilst not officially banned in the UK, Kubrick withdrew the movie from theatres following death threats to his family. As well as a series of crimes imitating the film took place.

The film was never officially shown again following its release in 1973 until the director’s death in 1999.

A Clockwork Orange is a cult classic because of its commentary on society and how we’re controlled. Kubrick wrote in The Saturday Review, that the film is “a social satire dealing with the question of whether behavioural psychology and psychological conditioning are dangerous weapons for a government to use to impose controls on its citizens and turn them into little more than robots”.

With a powerful message, great imagery and unique soundtrack, A Clockwork Orange is deserving of its revered status.

4. A Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Tobe Hooper’s genre-defining ‘slash-terpiece’ was banned across continents. From Europe to Asia for its depiction of extreme violence, gore and sadistic content.

Many countries such as Iceland would only sanction the film if it was edited and censored. In 1976, two theatres in Ottawa, Canada were informed by local authorities that they may face morality charges’ unless they pulled the film.

Until 1999 the original uncut version in wasn’t shown in the UK due to its unsettling themes. According to the BBFC, “the film’s focus on ‘abnormal psychology’ was unsuitable for a BBFC X certificate to be issued”.

Yet, the film did slip through the cracks a decade later as the new medium of home video releases spared the film from formal certification. Back in circulation, the film established a cult status once again before being removed from shelves and banned once more in 1984.

Hooper’s tale of one farming family’s unconventional hosting skills was highly prised despite its repeated censorship. Noted by the revelation by the British censorship board, “the BBFC was impressed, rather than disturbed, by the film’s reliance on atmosphere rather than explicit violence, although it was accepted that the film still retained some of its power to shock and unsettle. Most importantly, unlike other films of the period, the film contained no element of sexual violence.”

Filming in a Texas heatwave, using real rotting animals on set and the cast experiencing real injuries from being hit with prop hammers to lacerations. This film almost borders on snuff. As we watch real people going through hell, creating a unique film.

5. The Great Dictator (1940)

Famous for being Charlie Chaplin’s first talking motion picture. The Great Dictator saw Chaplin write, direct and star in a satirical take on fascism and the rise of Adolf Hitler.

The film was banned by Nazi Germany (no surprises there). Plus, in numerous Latin American countries before its release in 1940.

This is arguably Chaplin’s greatest work, gifting the world a moving final monologue that is still as poignant today. “More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness.” A theme that runs through Chaplin’s work and presents itself during this final scene.

6. Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)

British comedy collective Monty Python’s controversial take on Christianity received banishment from many countries.

The UK’s Guardian newspaper reported that the Catholic church called The Life of Brian “blasphemy”. Adding it was a “crime against religion which holds the person of Christ up to comic ridicule.” Jewish groups were just as offended, describing the film as “grievously insulting,” and “a vicious attack on Judaism and the Bible.”

On a list of movies that were banned in Norway, Ireland, most of Britain and provoked protests outside cinemas in the US. Yet the controversy isn’t what solidified The Life of Brian as a classic.

Python made their name by inverting comedic tropes. Often interrupting their own sketches and breaking the fourth wall. But, The Life of Brian not only had a succinct ending, but it provided a satisfying comical crescendo with the musical crucifixion scene. Eric Idle’s, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life finale remains an iconic piece of British cinema. An uplifting end in poor taste.

7. Freaks (1938)

Tod Browning’s semi-autobiographical recounts his time travelling with a circus. It featured genuine sideshow talents. Including conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. Plus “human torso” Prince Randian.

It attempts to offer a sympathetic depiction of the carnival acts. yet the audiences and censors were horrified. MGM director Merrill Pye recalled that “Halfway through the preview, a lot of people got up and ran out.” A woman who attended the screening threatened to sue MGM, claiming the film had caused her to suffer a miscarriage.

The film was banned in the UK for over 30 years. It only survived in the US after being edited by a third and being preserved by the Library of Congress.

Its cult classic’ status has been achieved due to its compassionate portrait of diverse, counter-culture performers. As well as its influence on pop culture such as American Horror Story: Freak show.

By 1994, Freaks was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. Which preserves “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” films.

8. The Exorcist (1974)

The Exorcist received mass protests against around the UK by the Nationwide Festival of Light. A Christian public action group concerned with the influence of media on society.

Members of the clergy and concerned citizens handed out leaflets to those queuing to see the film. They offered spiritual support following the screening. This is why it was one of the movies banned throughout parts of the UK, and remained prohibited for 11 years. The BBFC finally lifted the ban on the movie in 1999 after concluding that the film, “while still a powerful and compelling work, no longer had the same impact as it did 25 years ago”.

Whilst the landscape of horror may have changed, the subject matter of the film is still as effective. Losing control of ourselves, the inability to protect your children and the fear of unknown forces are fears deep-rooted at the human core. The Exorcist’s legacy was built from its controversy and survived by shaping the thriving genre of supernatural horror.

9. Reservoir Dogs (1993)

Quentin Tarantino’s brutal debut remains a must-see in the director’s portfolio. It’s been named the “Greatest Independent Film of all Time” by Empire magazine. Praised by critics and grossing $2.8 million despite its tiny budget. The film received even more popularity following Tarantino’s sophomore release Pulp Fiction (1994).

Intense, captivating and truly unique, Reservoir Dogs was an instant classic. Every scene is brimming with memorable moments and unpredictable action. From the often imitated opening credits, where the colour coded criminals walking in slow motion, to the brutal torcher sequence of Mr Blonde removing a policeman’s ear.

Ultimately, the use of violence and constant profanity resulted in the film being banned in the UK on home video until 1995. Following its cinematic release in ’93 VHS tapes were traded on the black market. In a desperate attempt to appear the bloodthirsty Tarantino fans, Reservoir Dogs saw a second cinematic release in 1994. It is perhaps the only banned film to be released in cinemas twice.

10. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Steven Spielberg’s loveable sci-fi maybe a family-friendly classic now. But officials in parts of Europe didn’t agree. The film was banned for audiences under-12 in Finland and Sweden where parents had to be present, strange to see for one of Spielberg’s movies. E.T. was believed to portray “adults as enemies of children” and therefore banned for the impressionable audience.

Regardless of the Norse exclusion, E.T managed to tap into that 1980’s blockbuster recipe. It depicts genuine human emotions in outlandish ways. Spielberg always states that E.T., the character, had its origins in an imaginary friend he created as a child, following his parents’ divorce. Yet he created the alien to resemble something unconventional instead of a cute, fuzzy companion.

By tapping into the lonely side of childhood and unique design of the main character, E.T transcended all censorship and became the friend of a generation.

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