Today: February 28, 2024

Banned Films

By Edward Boff – The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. And while most would agree that film classifications help people to make informed decisions about what may or may not be appropriate viewing, censorship itself is a topic that always brings along its pal controversy.

By – Edward Boff

The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC)
celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. And while most would agree that film classifications help
people to make informed decisions about what may or may not be appropriate
viewing, censorship itself is a topic that always brings along its pal
Questions like “Can a film go too far?” and
“Is it right to compromise artistic intent for reasons of public
consumption?” have no easy yes or no answers, especially when the BBFC
occasionally goes beyond simply granting a certificate and actually gets the
scissors out. Edward Boff takes a look at the murky world of film censorship
and those films that the BBFC – or other classification boards – once damned as
unfit for public consumption but are now freely available to buy …

Island Of Lost Souls
Universal had the monopoly
on horror in the 1930s but they weren’t the only ones making it. Paramount made this adaptation of HG Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau in
1932. Being made before the Hays Code (the first major American
censorship initiative) came into force, the film goes into areas most classic
horrors of the time wouldn’t dare to tread. This tale of the definitive mad scientist Moreau (Charles Laughton) making people out of
animals touched on matters like human and animal rights, religion and a
sexuality not present in the original novel. British censors, until relatively
recently, have never got on with horror and this was a major example. It was refused a certificate three
times over as many decades and only released in a heavily cut version in
1958. One major issue against it
were the scenes involving vivisection and the theme of animal cruelty. Indeed, a specific act of theirs,
Cinematic Films (Animals) Act, 1937, resulted in a large number of films being
cut specifically for this reason. Island of Lost Souls was finally been
released uncut last year, in the Master of Cinema range’s Blu-Ray edition, with
a PG certificate. It’s an
interesting choice of certification as, although the on-screen events are tame
by today’s standards, the themes of the story are a whole other matter. It’s very much worth seeing though,
unlike the Marlon Brando 1996 remake

The Trip
Fun fact: Jack Nicholson hasn’t just starred in
films, he’s also written a few.
Written for the director that gave him his big break, Roger Corman, the title should give a
pretty big hint as to the subject matter.
The whole film essentially chronicles one long LSD trip taken by Peter Fonda while being supervised by Dennis Hopper, one year before the two made Easy Rider. The film does provide an
appropriate range of psychedelic images, from the usual groovy-painted club
scenes to stuff that looks suspiciously like left-over props from Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe movies (all the stuff
an LSD trip isn’t actually like).
It’s all linked in with Fonda doing his best spaced out explanations for
what he’s seeing. Of course, it’s
the theme of glorifying drug use that the BBFC weren’t keen on, even though the
film does make a great deal out of the negatives as well as the positives. This was denied a certificate four
times, and only released on DVD in 2002, with the time that the film was banned
for proudly displayed as a badge of honour on the cover. Far out!

Another Pre-Code horror
film, this time from MGM and far more notorious. This tale of betrayal,
manipulation and murder behind the scenes at a circus shocked audiences to the
core. The reason? The film didn’t use actors in make-up but real people with
physical deformities – actual carnival performers. This could have been far
more exploitative then it actually was but director Tod Browning had a lot of sympathy for the characters, and makes
every effort to humanise them.
This was probably a very personal project for him since, before becoming
a filmmaker, he was a contortionist at a circus. The ‘freaks’ are all shown to be good people, simply trying
to make a living. It’s the ‘normal’ people who are the real villains. Freaks was banned in the UK for nearly
30 years until 1963 but the cuts to the film didn’t start with the
censors. The studio itself had
major issues with it and tore into the film before release, with nearly a third
of it lopped away, so now the thing is just over an hour long. In terms of what was cut, while the
grotesque final fate of acrobat Cleopatra remained, that of her partner in
crime Hercules was removed, in a somewhat misogynist touch. If you’re wondering what said cut was,
let’s just say you’d be certain to at least to want to cross your legs … Yeah, this film is still a strong
experience today, even though it only now somehow rates a 12 certificate.

A Clockwork Orange
Now here’s an
interesting case. For many years,
since its 1971 release until 1999, Stanley
most violently satirical work was entirely unavailable in the
UK. It was often assumed that it was
the BBFC who had banned it, given the films content, but in actual fact, it was
the director’s own doing. After
its release, there were several claims of copycat violent acts, virtually
recreating scenes from the film, which is ironic given the “Ludovico”
treatment shown in film and the overall message. This, combined with protests and even death threats against
Kubrick and his family, led to him having Warner Brothers pull the film from
distribution entirely. A situation that continued until shortly after his
death. Kubrick himself didn’t
reportedly believe that the film really caused these crimes but he didn’t like
the claims that it did either. The ban was pretty much absolute in the UK, with
the sole exception of a few scenes shown in a Channel 4 documentary on the
film, Forbidden Fruit, in 1993. Also that year, the legendary Scala Film Club in King’s Cross, a
notable alternative London cinema, had a showing to flaunt the ban. This summoned down the full wrath of
Kubrick and Warner Brothers’ lawyers, which nearly bankrupted the venue to the
dismay of many a film buff. Shame.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
When director Tobe Hooper set out to make a film
inspired by the infamous Ghoul Of
Plainfield, Wisconsin, Ed Gein,
he actually sought out censors’ advice
before starting. From what he was
told, he assumed that simply not showing too much blood and gore directly
onscreen would be enough to earn the film only a PG rating. Wrong! Critics, censors and audiences across the world were shocked
by not only the grim subject matter but the grimy aesthetic; the homemade
props, the dilapidated locations, the crude soundtrack, effects and the crude
16mm photography. To borrow a
phrase from Mystery Science Theater 3000,
“Every frame of every scene is like somebody’s last known
photo”. As such, the censors
faced a problem – it would have to be cut but there weren’t any tangible
details to cut that would make a difference. Texas Chainsaw happened to run
into the BBFC just as it got in a new director, James Ferman. Ferman’s
time as director marked a particularly strict period at the board and although
actual cuts to films were less frequent, bans and blanket actions against
content were much higher. For
instance; after a brief play in London, TCM was banned outright by the BBFC and
that ban lasted right up until 1998 when Camden got a licence to show it,
follow by a full release the next year, when Ferman retired. This had many knock-on effects, not
least on the film’s sequels. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 in 1986
would, under the then guidelines, need to be cut by over twenty minutes to get
a rating. So while it wasn’t
exactly banned, the distributors decided not to fight the BBFC on it. Part
3, Leatherface
, however was rejected outright. One final amusing point about this was that the BBFC didn’t
want the word “chainsaw” used in any titles from that point on
either. Which is why, over here Fred Olen Ray’s delightfully tasteful
piece of family fare – Hollywood Chainsaw
– had to be called just Hollywood Hookers with a picture of a
chainsaw in the middle! More than
a few probably got the wrong impression as a result.

These are just a few
examples of films the BBFC didn’t allow. Next time, it’s time to look at the
biggest, and most well known controversy of its kind, the Video Nasties …

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