12 American Hit Movies That Caused International Controversy

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If you thought Pacific Rim was merely a mash-up of Godzilla, Transformers, and Independence Day with an international cast and a variety of really awesome robots, the Chinese Army would like to have a word with you. The Hollywood Reporter reports that Zhang Jieli, an officer in the People’s Liberation Army, took to the pages of the People’s Liberation Army Daily (and just when my subscription lapsed) to warn Chinese moviegoers that Guillermo del Toro’s monsters-fighting-robots epic is, in fact, a big ol’ slab of American propaganda that “exported the U.S.’s rebalancing of its Asia-Pacific strategy.” He warns that Hollywood movies “have always served as a propaganda machine to convey American values and their strategies in the world,” and in that concern, he’s not alone; for decades now, American movies have set off controversies, battles, and outright bans around the world. Here are a few prominent examples.

The Great Dictator

Unsurprisingly, Charles Chaplin’s satire of the Third Reich was banned by Hitler (not exactly renowned for his sense of humor) from screening in Germany and all Nazi-occupied countries when it was released in 1941. But even a tyrannical dictator would presumably wonder what exactly the world’s greatest clown had done to satirize him. The story may be apocryphal, but rumor has long held that Hitler had a print brought to him via Portugal, and that he watched it not once, but twice. Told of this, Chaplin responded, “I’d give anything to know what he thought of it.”

Rock Around the Clock

Bill Haley and His Comets scored one of the first giant rock and roll hits with “Rock Around the Clock,” and its inclusion in the inner-city melodrama The Blackboard Jungle drove up box office on that film considerably. Producer Sam Katzman quickly made a jukebox musical centered on Haley and his crew, named after their ubiquitous song. It would’ve quietly disappeared, as most quickie ‘50s rock movies did, but it struck quite a chord with an audience of “Teddy Boys” in London when it screened there in May of 1957. Its showings resulted in “the worst wave of hooliganism that Britain has known since the war,” according to The Daily Reporter, with thousands of youths participating in riots (“including teen-age girls”) and over 100 arrests. The film’s British distributors quickly pulled the film from larger cities in order to prevent further rioting. These kids and their rock and roll!

Ben-Hur

When it was originally released in 1959, China refused to screen William Wyler’s epic, and held firm on that ban ever since. It wasn’t due to some strange ban on chariot racing, and it wasn’t due to the picture’s controversial gay subtext. No, the Communist government reportedly 86’ed the Biblical film to keep audiences far away from its Christian themes.

Goldfinger

Gert Frobe, the actor who played the title villain in this 1964 James Bond adventure, had an unfortunate past of his own; he had been a member of the Nazi Party from 1929 to 1937. When this information was revealed a few weeks into the film’s run in Israel, it was pulled from cinemas due to a law forbidding the exhibition of films made in Germany or featuring wartime Nazis. However, several months later it was put back into circulation, after a Jewish man named Mario Blumenau told officials at the Israeli Embassy that Frobe hid Blumenau and his mother from the Gestapo, possibly saving their lives.

Can-Can

Who knows why anyone at 20th Century Fox thought a set visit from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to this second-rate Frank Sinatra/Shirley MacLaine musical was a good idea. But they did, and Khrushchev was reportedly not pleased by the raised skirts and general hedonism of the scenes in production. According to Wiley T. Buchanan, the State Department’s chief of protocol, “when the male dancer dived under [MacLaine’s] skirt and emerged holding what seemed to be her red panties, the Americans in the audience gave an audible gasp of dismay, while the Russians sat in stolid, disapproving silence.” Khruschev would later denounce the film as “pornographic exploitation.”

Last Tango in Paris

Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1972 drama was both praised and denounced in the U.S. for its emotional candor and graphic sexuality. But the response abroad was even more divided. It was banned outright in Chile, Portugal, Singapore, and Spain, though curious Spanish moviegoers reportedly traveled hundreds of miles to French cinemas to see it. But the most severe reaction came from Bertolucci’s home country of Italy. One week after its successful opening, a local prosecutor denounced the film as pornography and demanded police seize all copies from cinemas. Bertolucci was put on trial for obscenity, and the Italian Supreme Court found him guilty of the crime, ordering all copies of the film to be destroyed. Bertolucci’s four-month suspended sentence was supplemented with a five-year suspension of his civil rights, during which time he was unable to vote.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

Tobe Hooper’s grisly and brutal horror masterpiece was, to put it mildly, not well received in Britain. The British Board of Film Classification banned it from theaters upon its 1974 release; ten years later, when it was released on videotape, the BBFC banned its home video release as well. (There were so many horror films prohibited in England that they gained a nickname — “video nasties” — and were much-desired among collectors.) It finally received an “18” certificate and was approved for British release in 1998 — nearly 25 years after hitting American screens.

Back to the Future

Sure, making out with your mom is a little creepy, but is that any reason for the Chinese government to ban Back to the Future? Oh, turns out that’s not the reason; they don’t allow any films that include time travel. Yes, really. According to the guidelines of the State Administration of Radio Film and Television, “Producers and writers are treating serious history in a frivolous way, which should by no means be encouraged anymore.” Thus, they’ve banned any films that contain “fantasy, time-travel, random compilations of mythical stories, bizarre plots, absurd techniques, even propagating feudal superstitions, fatalism and reincarnation, ambiguous moral lessons, and even a lack of positive thinking.” Great scott!

Schindler’s List

Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Oscar winner won accolades all around the globe — mostly. But in Indonesia, screenings of the film were prohibited; the official reason (as in Thailand and a few other countries) was the fleeting glimpses of explicit sex. The head of the Committee for World Muslim Solidarity told UPI, “from the beginning we opposed the film being shown to the public in Indonesia because it had no big advantage to the country.” In private, the group reportedly pushed for the ban because they felt the film would cause sympathy for Jewish people and harm their cause. Director Steven Spielberg ultimately refused to make the requested cuts, and the film was banned in Indonesia.

Zoolander

Ben Stiller’s 2001 comedy concerns a male model who is brainwashed into assassinating the Prime Minister of Malaysia, an improvised country whose economy is dependent on sweatshop labor. Hey, guess who disapproved of the movie? Yes, Malaysia, whose Home Affairs Ministry Film Censorship Board deemed the picture “definitely unsuitable.”

2012

Okay, this is one of the weirder ones. 2012 focused, as seemingly everything in popular culture did for a little while there, on the idea of the world ending in the titular year. But in North Korea, 2012 holds a more sacred value: it is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the country’s founder. So their government not only banned the showing of a movie depicting horrific events within that year — they arrested citizens caught with pirated copies of the film. One man who obtained a Chinese bootleg was threatened with five years in prison and told that viewing the movie constituted “a grave provocation against the development of the state.” But really, doesn’t that go for all Roland Emmerich movies?

Borat

Obvious, sure. But true: After Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan became a worldwide hit in 2006, the country in question took great pains to separate themselves from the film’s portrayal of them as horse urine-drinking, Jew-running bigots. Foreign Ministry spokesman Yerzhan Ashykbayev told the New York Times that Borat would not appear in the country’s movie theaters, adding that “law-enforcement agencies would do everything within their power to restrict the film’s import into the country, as well as legal distributions of DVDs.” But this one, at least, has a happy ending: six years later, Foreign Minister Yerzhan Kazykhanov officially thanked Cohen for the film, admitting in parliament, “With the release of this film, the number of visas issued by Kazakhstan grew tenfold.” Ah, the peculiarities of tourism.