By Matt Martin
Almost from its very inception, like every other art form, film production has been riddled with censorship. Long before there were Hollywood studios, even before there were movie theatres, the raw power of this new art was being edited, controlled, and sometimes even outlawed.
In America this first appears in 1894, when the state of New Jersey banned the erotic short Dorlita in the Passion Dance after it was shown on a bare wall at several peepshows and burlesque houses. Almost a decade later, in 1903, the short film Reenactment of the Massacre at Wounded Knee by Buffalo Bill was banned nationwide due to “a sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans” in the film. These early, questionable incidents would set an uncomfortable standard; long before society had even been exposed to this art form, what would be deemed “acceptable” was being decided. Most artistic censorship is based on politics or morality. It would seem the following 100 years of cinema would not be immune.
In 1915, director D.W. Griffith created America’s first piece of cinematic genius, truly exploring the new possibilities of this form of storytelling. The film Birth of a Nation would create the standards of modern filmmaking in terms of narrative structure, editing, lighting, character development, and cinematography. And it would be one of the first films to be released around the country, making it the most profitable movie of the silent film era, bringing in over ten million dollars. At the same time, the film, which chronicled the “heroic” rise of the KKK out of the ashes of the Civil War, was a racist, bigoted, and offensive film. Several states moved to ban it, including Illinois, Colorado, and Kansas. Arguments began to form over a state’s right to ban something that the federal government considered acceptable. Birth of a Nation is still a requirement in any film class, studied not only for its technical and narrative breakthroughs, but also for its lesson in controversial material and the public acceptance of it.
By the 1920s, the financial potential of this new art form was obvious. Newly formed film studios in Hollywood had begun mass film production and were becoming increasingly influential on the growing movie scene. After several drug, sex, and murder scandals involving various movie stars and studio brass (as chronicled in Kenneth Anger’s book Hollywood Babylon), America’s opinion of Hollywood soured, and political officials began to doubt the studio’s ability to control themselves or their art form.
Out of fear that the US government would establish a federal censoring agency, the film industry began a form of self-censorship in 1928 called the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code after its founder, Will Hays. Instantly, Hollywood reworked its image as squeaky clean, and controversial material disappeared from American cinema for decades. Early attempts to touch on racy material were quickly snuffed. And the few risky films that did get released, like Howard Hughes’ 1932 crime saga Scarface, still faced heavy opposition on a city by city basis.
In the wake of the massive cultural shift in 1960s America, movie tastes were shifting as well, showing more and more desire for challenging, adult material. Hollywood wanted it both ways: to give people the edgier films they wanted and to satiate the moral panic of others about touchy subject matter. To do this the film industry altered their production code into a new form of self-regulation: a film rating system designed by the newly-formed Motion Picture Association of America, or MPAA. This meant all films would have to be viewed by Hollywood before it was given the green light to be released at all. Agreements between the studios and local movie theaters (many of which were actually studio-owned) allowed them to retain control by denying release to any film that did not have a rating code. This practice continues to this day, and the MPAA has become as much a moral watchdog as it is a guardian of acceptable age limits for films. Countless controversial masterpieces have disappeared in their judgments. Check out the amazing documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated for more details.
Since the advent of the MPAA in the sixties, a growing number of controversial films have been released, although always edited before release to theaters. Only a handful of major directors have control of the final cut of their films. And although hundreds of films have been debated, decried, and attacked for their subject matter, in the last 45 years only a few films have come under explicit bans for content reasons, as opposed to copyright infringement. All of these were made outside of the Hollywood studio system.
VIVA MARIA! – French director Louie Malle’s sexy comedy starring Bridgette Bardot was banned in Texas in 1966 for “sexual and anti-Catholic content.” In 1968, the US Supreme court struck this ban down, becoming the first legal case to set federal standards limiting a state’s right to ban a film.
TITICUT FOLLIES – This 1968 documentary covering the abuse of inmates at a Massachusetts prison mental hospital was banned because it was decided that “the film violated the inmates’ right to privacy.” Ironic and bizarre, seeing that the point was to show the abuse of their private lives. This film is still incredibly difficult to find, even in the internet age.
I AM CURIOUS (YELLOW) – The 1967 Swedish film about the self-destructive, sexual relationship between a teenage female political activist and an older man was immediately banned as “pornography.” Although its nudity and sexuality is well done and integral to the plot, it was deemed too much and was denied entry into America for decades. The 1979 film The Tin Drum ran into similar problems, even though it won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the 1979 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN – Due to its “blasphemous view on Christianity,” this 1979 masterpiece from the British comedy collective known as Monty Python was immediately banned in many states, particularly in the south. This held for several years till the cable/videocassette age rendered these bans pointless in the mid-eighties.
THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST – In 1988, countless American cities and states attempted to ban Martin Scorsese’s brilliant adaptation of the celebrated novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, which chronicles the last moments of Christ on the cross as he sees what his life would have been like had he just been a normal man. Although these bans delayed its release, all attempts eventually failed and sealed forever the ability of a city or state to ban a film outright.
THE PROFIT – This film is the only modern and still-standing ban on a film in America. Made in 2002, this film loosely chronicles the life of L. Ron Hubbard and the creation of the religion/self-help group/dangerous cult called Scientology. In order to prevent its release while side-stepping censorship laws, the church claimed the film would taint the jury pool of a wrongful death suit of a former member. Once the court case was settled, the injunction was lifted only to have a former investor suddenly side with the church and block its release. Hmmm. Curious. The film is currently relatively easy to find online, yet is banned from any form of standard release in this country as well as several others.
Around the world censorship standards vary widely by country and can change within an individual country over time due to political shifts and cultural changes. Many countries have private or government-appointed groups that rate, censor, or ban films for public exhibition. This has resulted in some pretty bizarre bans over the years. In South Korea obviously controversial works like A Clockwork Orange and Last Tango in Paris are banned, but so is the inept horror movie Scream. In Iceland they went to the trouble of banning Halloween 5 and Halloween 6, but not the preceding four films, even though parts 5 and 6 are the least violent of the series. In Burma, The Simpsons TV show and movie are banned, not for any cultural or political reason but rather because the colors red and yellow are banned in all of their cinema (hence the character’s yellow skin color was the issue!).
As for which country has banned the most films over time, Iran and Malaysia take the award, each having hundreds of films that are illegal to screen. For many films, the reason for their ban was obvious, either for political reasons (Schindler’s List, Fahrenheit 9/11) or cultural (South Park, Borat). But often the bans evade any rational thought, including Austin Powers, Pinocchio, Pineapple Express, Talladega Nights, and Zoolander (Iran found this harmless, comic look at the world of modeling to be “troubling and disturbing”). Malaysia found Barney’s Big Adventure to be “unacceptable for children.” I guess we can’t argue that one.
And what are the most banned films across the globe and across history? Just by counting the number of countries that banned them, there are five films that have been banned in over 50 countries. All five are from America, and none are so shocking or controversial that they should ever have been banned anywhere. They are: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Cannibal Holocaust, Last Tango in Paris, The South Park Movie, and The Da Vinci Code.
But what films in history are so shocking and disturbing that they might actually merit some form of censorship? Well, that’s another story…
Matt Martin has written movie reviews for the St. Louis Post Dispatch and is co-owner of Black Lodge Video, located on the corner of Cooper and Evelyn. Black Lodge is the largest video store in the eastern US and is a faithful CYCA membership sponsor.