As you may have noticed, we’re pretty excited about Banned Books Week here at Flavorwire — so much so, in fact, that we’ve been obsessing over prohibitions of other media. Since there’s no such thing as “Banned Movies Week” (yet!), we’ve assembled a dozen of the most famously banished movies of all time — here and abroad. Check ’em out after the jump, and throw in your own in the comments.
The original 1932 gangster classic, directed by Howard Hawks and Richard Rosson, was released in the “Pre-Code” era — a bit of a misnomer, since the Motion Picture Code was adopted in 1930, but wasn’t strictly enforced until around 1934. In that period, onscreen portrayals of sex, violence, and bad behavior were far looser than in subsequent years. But even under those lax standards, Scarface (loosely based on the life and crimes of Al Capone) ran into trouble with the state censorship boards, which objected to the film’s glamorization of crime and insisted that the titular character did not meet an appropriately grisly end. Producer Howard Hughes went so far as to shoot an alternate ending in an attempt to satisfy censors, but when that one didn’t pass either, he released the film in its original version. It was banned in five states, including New York — where Hughes filed the first of a series of lawsuits for the right to show his film. He ultimately won the case, and the state of New York lifted their ban, with the other states following suit.
The smash success of his 1931 film adaptation of Dracula got Tod Browning the leeway to choose pretty much whatever he wanted as his next project. He chose to make Freaks, the downbeat tale of sideshow performers, a project he’d been trying to get off the ground for five years. But the project was a commercial and political disaster for the filmmaker; MGM slashed the running time by nearly a third (releasing the picture at barely over an hour) after dreadful test screenings, audiences stayed far away, and Browning’s studio career was effectively ended. In England, the BBFC (the British Board of Classification) refused to issue the film a ratings certificate, resulting in a ban that lasted over 30 years. When, on a third try, the board finally granted the film a certificate in 1963, it went out with an “X.” Because of that designation, it remained basically unseen in the country until it was resubmitted for home video rating in the early 1990s; at that time, it was finally downgraded to the “15” rating.
Though the Marx Brothers’ sharp, silly, and endlessly funny war comedy is today one of their most beloved pictures, it came and went without much fanfare when it was originally released in 1933 — it performed so poorly (with both critics and audiences) that Paramount elected not to renew their contract, sending the act to MGM (and a revitalization under Irving Thalberg). But it was noticed by one particular critic abroad: Benito Mussolini, who took the film’s portrayal of clueless dictators as a personal insult and banned the film in Italy. Their films were already barred from playing in Germany — not because of specific satiric content, but because the brothers were Jewish.
When Basil Dearden’s 1961 British drama was imported into American markets, it met with some resistance — the picture was banned across the country for language. What language, dare you ask? Not four- or twelve-letter words, but for a ten-letter one: “homosexual.” This tale of blackmail among wealthy, closeted gay Brits was reportedly the first mainstream English film to use the word, and its invocation was what kept it out of American cinemas. Ultimately, the banning was probably less about the word homosexuality than about the portrayal of it; though it plays today as quaint and tortured, Victim was one of the first pictures to treat its gay characters with a modicum of dignity and humanity.
The phrase “banned in Boston” was, for centuries, worn as a badge of honor by writers from H.L. Mencken to William S. Burroughs. In 1969, it was affixed to Vilgot Sjöman’s controversial Swedish import, a film whose political messages were wrapped in the “spoonful of sugar” of candid and rather graphic sexuality. The picture’s simulated sex caused it to be declared pornographic by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (that decision was overturned); when it arrived in New York, it was seized by customs as obscene material, a case that went to the Court of Appeals before going in the distributor’s favor. All of this furor and controversy only helped the film, of course, which ended up grossing an astonishing $20 million (that’s not adjusted for inflation) and was the highest-grossing foreign film to play in America until well into the 1990s.
Wes Craven’s 1972 Manson-family-home-movie Last House on the Left and Tobe Hooper’s terrifying (if not exactly true) 1974 film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre were two of the most visceral, harrowing horror films of the 1970s — an era that didn’t exactly treat its audience with kid gloves. Though they played across America without incident, both films were refused certificates by the BBFC in England, and were thus banned from screening in that country for over 30 years — and from home video release by the Video Recordings Act of 1984, which created the so-called “video nasties” list of banned movies (which included Last House but not Texas Chain Saw, though its ban held through the “video nasties” era). Texas Chain Saw Massacre was finally, officially released in the UK in 2000, while Last House made it to DVD in a cut version in 2002 (and an uncut version in 2008).
Neither Monty Python’s 1979 satire nor Martin Scorsese’s 1988 drama ran into trouble with the ratings boards; their difficulties came with local citizenry, particularly in the South, because both films dealt (to varying degrees) with the story of Jesus Christ, and some folks don’t have much interest in a version of that story that doesn’t jibe with their own. Though Life of Brian didn’t explicitly send up Jesus (it centered on a title character born in the manger next to Christ’s), the mere inclusion of Christ in its periphery — and, presumably, its less-than-reverential view of the church — got it banned by several town councils in Britain, as well as in Ireland, Norway, South Africa, and other countries. In America, Strom Thurmond put pressure on the General Cinema chain to remove Life of Brian from all theaters in the state of South Carolina. He hadn’t seen it, of course, but that didn’t stop him from calling for its censorship — a position that would rear its head again nine years later, when Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ caused a firestorm across America. It was greeted by protests, demonstrations, hate mail, and even death threats; several theatre chains refused to book the film in response (in fact, most of its bookings were in theaters owned by Cineplex Odeon, which had helped finance the picture). Elected officials in several cities across the South approved resolutions that condemned the picture (and any theater showing it), while the county commissioners of Escambia County, Florida passed an ordinance imposing a $500 fine and/or a 60-day jail term for showing Last Temptation, (A US district judge reversed the ruling.) Later, when it ran on Cinemax pay cable, several local cable companies (including that of your author’s hometown, Wichita, Kansas) blacked it out, and Blockbuster refused to stock it. It was also banned in Israel, Turkey, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, the Philippines, and Singapore — and it remains banned in the last two countries to this day.
Volker Schlöndorff’s 1979 comedy/drama shared that year’s Palme d’or at the Canne Film Festival with Apocalypse Now, and went on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. But it met with immediate trouble in Canada, where it was banned and branded as child pornography by the Ontario Censor Board due to a scene of simulated intimacy between an underage actor and an older actress. That same scene got the film banned in Oklahoma County, Oklahoma in 1997, where State District Court Judge Richard Freeman (who was shown that scene and that scene only) ordered all copies of the film confiscated from video stores. What’s more, Oklahoma City Police took the names and addresses of customers who had rented the film, and went to their homes to take the tapes. One of those customers was Michael Camfield, a local ACLU leader, who in turn filed suit against the OKCPD. After years of hearings, the state finally ruled that the film was not, in fact, child pornography, and it was again legal to view or own The Tin Drum in Oklahoma.
One movie that might have merited mention in yesterday’s discussion of boundary-pushing stomach-churners is Cannibal Holocaust, Ruggero Deodato’s notorious 1980 Italian horror film, an early entry in the “found footage” subgenre. Director Deodato was originally targeted in Italy, where the film was pulled and the filmmaker was arrested in the wake of a rumor that Holocaust was actually a “snuff” film, and that he had murdered four of his actors for the picture. He ultimately had to produce the still-living actors (voiding their original contracts, which had forbidden them from making public appearances during the film’s original release in order to help sell the narrative) and demonstrate how the special effects in the picture were achieved. However, Cannibal Holocaust remained banned in Italy — and, subsequently, in Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Norway, the UK (where it made the “video nasties” list) and several other countries — for its onscreen depictions of animal cruelty. These were not faked; seven animals were killed in the film, and though the filmmaker has since apologized for his actions, the controversy has stuck with the movie to this day.
Though it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001, Peter N. Alexander’s religious satire was blocked from distribution by a Florida court the following year. The story of a con man and cult leader L. Conrad Powers and his “Church of Scientific Spiritualism,” it was immediately recognized as bearing something of a passing resemblance to a certain deep-pocketed religious organization. Said organization managed to get the film’s distribution blocked by contending that its Florida screenings would influence the jury pool in the wrongful death case of Scientologist Lisa McPherson (the church was indicted on two felony charges after McPherson died in the care of a branch organization). Pinellas County, Florida Judge Robert Beach issued a court order in 2002 that blocked The Profit’s distribution indefinitely (ah, Florida). A Florida state court reversed the lower court’s decision the following year.