Case Studies

Film and Censorship: Five Case Studies, by Stephen Hill (first published in Media Magazine)

Defining Censorship

The censorship of film is about a complex network of social values that categorise one thing as Art and another as obscenity. Consequently, the arguments for and against stricter censorship of film change over time and have to be considered within the cultural and social contexts specific to the film. For example, Ben Hur (1959) was banned in China for the “propaganda of superstitious beliefs” namely Christianity. Likewise, the Charlie Chaplin film The Great Dictator (1940), which satirised the leadership of Adolph Hitler was banned in Nazi Germany. Yet, neither of these films was considered controversial in either the UK or the US at the time of their release. In attempt to bring some focus to bear this article focuses on British and American films that have caused controversy in either Britain or America. Nevertheless, the films I have chosen are diverse in selection and stretch back to the birth of the ‘talkies’, including Tod Browning's Freaks (1931), Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971), Oliver Stone's Platoon (1986), David Cronenburg's Crash (1996) and Sasha Barron Cowen's Borat (2006). Even within this restricted selection of well-known ‘case studies’, however, it is important to remember that the reasons for their censorship at the time are not always the same as the reasons for their ongoing historical significance.

Institutions: BBFC and the Hayes Code

From an institutional perspective it is important to note the difference between censorship and classification. While censorship implies state intervention to prevent the public exhibition of a cinematic work, classification is about empowering the audience to make appropriate consumer choice. Consequently, while the British Board of Film Classification has clear guidelines that denote the content of forthcoming releases the power to ban the screening of a film in cinema rests with individual town councils. The duality of this system has resulted in some notable inconsistencies. For example David Cronenburg's Crash (1996) was banned in some metropolitan areas and not in others. However, the advantage of this system is that it distances central government from issues of censorship. For example, when a minister from the home office wished to attend a screening of A Clockwork Orange in 1971 the BBFC arranged for it to take place off the premises; the organisation wished to protect its integrity as an independent operation whose guidelines have been developed in consultation with the public. The positive benefits of this dialogue were demonstrated in the appeal to lower the classification of Platoon from an 18 to a 15 on the grounds that the film was of educational significance to audience members in that age bracket.

While film classification in the UK has a history of pragmatism, in the US there has been a tendency towards ideological intervention. For example, from the early 1930s the Hayes Code offered Hollywood studios advice on how to ensure their films promotes positive moral values. Influenced by the Catholic controlled Legion of Decency in retrospect it is uncertain to what extent adherence to the code was a product of ideological conviction or financial expedience; the Legion had the power to call for nationwide boycotts if films threatened Christian values. Nearly eighty years on, the reasons for the controversy surrounding MGM's Freaks seem confusing. From a contemporary perspective the representation of physical disfigurement seems an obvious point of debate. However, as the revisions to the film's ending demonstrate, it was actually the audience's sympathy for the perpetrators of crime that is problematic.

Representations of Sex and Violence

One of the key issues in the arguments for and against censorship is the representation of violent and or explicitly sexual material. For example, during the village scene in Platoon we see an American solider bludgeon to death a partially disabled Vietnamese civilian in cold blood. Likewise, in the rape scene from A Clockwork Orange the audience bears witness to the violent assault of a middle-aged woman by Alex and his gang of Druigs. On the one hand both of these films offer graphic depictions of brutal crimes that invite the audience to confront their own humanity: neither Stone nor Kubrick is celebrating these atrocities but asking the reader to question their own responses. Both films assume a degree of sophistication and intelligence on the part of the audience when interpreting the messages and values encoded in such graphic depictions. On the other hand, no director ever has complete control over how the representation of violence will be received by the audience. Some critics have argued that Stone's critical commentary of the Vietnam War is lost in the pyrotechnics of his high budget mainstream Hollywood production values. Likewise many feminists have taken exception to the way in which sexual violence against women is objectified through the eyes of the male characters in Kubrick's film. In the rape scene in particular the camerawork conspires to generate sympathy not for the victim but her male partner as the onlooker.

Forms and Conventions: Mimetic Styles

Clearly, the forms and conventions of a particular directors style are central to the arguments for and against the censorship of their work. In the case of Kubrick it could be said that the highly stylised quality of A Clockwork Orange neutralises the impact of the most violent scenes. By the same token, however, the heavily choreographed nature of the piece creates a certain mimetic quality that could potentially induce ‘copy cat’ behaviour. Likewise, while the messages and values encoded in Freaks may have resonated with the counter-culture sensibility of Hippy era in America, the dated quality of Browning's Freaks distracts from the film's ability to shock a modern audience; today Freaks seems more noteworthy for its exploration of physical disability than issues of law and order. By contrast central to the ability of a contemporary film like Borat (2006) to shock is the way that its pseudo-documentary format blurs the distinction between the real and the simulated; the forms and conventions rework the forms and conventions of other texts, generating discomfort for an audience undecided whether it is permissible to laugh. The films ironic sensibility challenges both engrained prejudice and political correctness. While such playfulness is characteristic of many post-modern texts, the problem for censors is the ambiguity of meaning it creates for the audience.

Audience: Freedom or Protection?

The audience response to a film is perhaps the key issues in the debate for and against censorship. For example, while Platoon may well contain violent and graphic images, the historical pertinence for an under 18 audience was deemed sufficient to have the certification of the film re-evaluated. Likewise, while Freaks courted controversy for both its shocking subject matter and the dubious moral framework, the film was ultimately withdrawn by MGM for fear of tarnishing the studio's reputation with film audiences across America. By contrast though A Clockwork Orange cultivated a moral panic concerning issues of law and order, the film was given a certificate by the BBFC and screened in cinemas in the UK; Kubrick only withdrew the film in the UK due to personal fears for the safety of his family who resided in a remote location similar to the house depicted in the rape scene.


In conclusion the arguments for and against censorship reflect the complex network of values that that shape an audience's response to a film; these vary across cultures and over time. Looking back over the history of cinema, quite often the issues that cause the most controversy seems archaic in retrospect. From an institutional perspective censorship is different from classification. Traditionally attitudes towards film and censorship in the UK have been more liberal and the system of film classification has been developed in consultation with the audience. By contrast the American film industry, particularly during the Studio System was more ideological, influenced by the Christian right. While those wishing to censor films may take exception to certain issues of representation within a film, the problem for those administering certification is that the audience response is very subjective. To a certain extent an audience's response to particularly graphic scenes depends on the forms and conventions of the film: the visual style of the director and the discrete grammar of the camerawork. Nevertheless, contemporary audiences are extremely sophisticated and quite often engage in ironic readings of the films they watch. Indeed, it would seem that contemporary value systems are contingent, reflecting more fluid ideas about the self and this makes the case for and against censorship very difficult to answer.

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