The story of two controversial movies and their rather different experiences at the hands of film censors who seem to make up the rules as they go along.
When, on the 27 of September 2002, the British Board of Film Classification passed Straw Dogs uncut for video, several eyebrows were raised amongst more clued-in observers. Because although the long-overdue release of this seminal movie was something to celebrate, it once again seemed to reveal the inconsistencies, cultural bias and rather dubious practices of the board.
Straw Dogs was originally passed for theatrical release back in 1971, without cuts (although director Sam Peckinpah had made pre-cuts before submission on advice from then BBFC head Stephen Murphy and would also edit the film after the UK release, something that would invariably lead to confusion over different versions over the decades). Nevertheless, the film was considered unsuitable for home viewing after the Video Recordings Act introduced state censorship in 19841, joining a handful of other films (most notably The Exorcist but also including Death Wish and Last Tango in Paris) that had played British cinemas for years (and, in the case of the Michael Winner film, had been shown on TV) without problem but which were now forbidden on video. In any other country, this outrageous state of affairs wouldn’t be tolerated, but the British have always been deferential to authority, and only too willing to be told that restrictions on freedom of expression are for their own good. The BBFC was always happy to follow the letter of the VRA when it suited them while reinterpreting it when it didn’t – after all, the inference of ‘suitable for viewing in the home’ is surely that anything unsuitable for family audiences should be forbidden. Otherwise, what does it mean?
Straw Dogs was re-released in cinemas during the mid-Nineties, this time in the slightly cut American print that reduces the strength of the rape scenes – once again, the BBFC passed the film intact. But when it was submitted for video certification in 1997, the Board was not happy. In the wake of the scandal surrounding the R18 liberalisation, a new regime had taken over at the top, and for them, Straw Dogs represented everything that was dangerous about home video. The problem lay with one of the pivotal scenes where Amy (played by Susan George) is raped. Midway through the rape, she appears to respond positively, therefore breaking one of the BBFC’s most sacred rules: thou shalt not glamorise rape or make it look as though it is something that women enjoy. It’s worth quoting the Board’s own press release from the time:
“There are a number of difficulties here. The first is the fact that the rapes are clearly effected by violence and the threat of violence. The second is the extent of the erotic content, notably Amy’s forcible stripping and nudity. The third element of concern is the clear indication that Amy comes to enjoy being raped. It is Board policy not to condone material which endorses the well-known male rape myth that ‘women like it really’.”
The film was eventually rejected, after much hand-wringing, in 1999 – twice, in fact, as a second distributor submitted the longer original cut soon afterwards – again without success.
The Board also decided that, despite the age of the film, “the rape scene in Straw Dogs retains most if not all of its power today” and concluded that “the video was potentially harmful because of the influence it may have on the attitudes and behaviour of a significant proportion of its likely viewers.” This is worth remembering because although the Board’s guidelines regarding sexual violence did not change in the next three years, and despite a lack of evidence suggesting that British society has suddenly matured beyond the ‘monkey see, monkey do’ mentality that ensures watching anti-social videos results in anti-social behaviour, the Board then passed the film uncut.
Let’s pause to consider this: in 1999, Straw Dogs‘ visceral impact and potential dangers had not diminished one jot in 28 years, making it a threat so potent that it could not be seen at all2. But just three years later, it was considered entirely safe for home viewing. The situation becomes even more bizarre when you discover that the approved version is actually longer than the print banned in 1999. It contains a second rape scene, one that was previously cut for the American release back in 1971.
The BBFC could, of course, simply admit to having been wrong back in 1999. We’d all applaud if they were to ever hold their hands up and say, ‘Sorry, our information was wrong.’ But that’s not Board policy. Mistakes do not happen. So in order to justify this about-turn, the Board has come up with several convoluted and unconvincing arguments.
Firstly, they claim that the second rape scene somehow cancels out the impact of the first, because Amy clearly does not enjoy this one. It’s a clumsy argument. After all, the oft-quoted reason that video is treated more harshly than theatrical is because of the ability for the viewer to rewind, pause and generally savour favourite their moments over and over again, out of context. So there is nothing to stop potential rapists from being aroused by the first scene and then simply turning the TV off while they go and pleasure themselves. Even if seen all the way through, surely the message viewers will receive – if we are to assume the BBFC’s arguments are sound – would be that women only enjoy some rape, depending on who the rapist is. This hardly seems the sort of message that the BBFC should be encouraging. Claiming that viewers are so simple-minded and easily influenced as to be corrupted by one rape scene yet also sophisticated and discerning enough to understand the context of two such scenes feels very much like an organisation clutching at straws to excuse their inconsistencies.
The Board also fell back on its two favourite arguments: expert and public opinion. The former involves the Board showing videos to hand-picked ‘experts’ who – remarkably enough – almost always tell the Board what it wants to hear. When it comes to the effects of media, the jury is still definitely out, but the Board does not take into account opposing views or conflicting evidence. Much of the research that they have relied heavily on not only dates from the 1980s but was often carried out by pro-censorship bodies and researchers – it has included the politically skewed and widely-discredited findings of the Meese Commission on Pornography that the Reagan administration set up in the early Eighties for instance. The board also consults the work of Andrea Dworkin-acolyte Catherine Itzin, an arch radical feminist anti-porn campaigner3. Much of this research has been thoroughly dismantled (the much-referenced study into ‘violent pornography by academics Donnerstein, Malamuth and Mould has even been critiqued by its own authors), but the Board still uses it as ‘evidence’ to justify banning and cutting films.
To the surprise of no one, the ‘leading clinical psychologists’ who watched Straw Dogs found it to be “not harmful and not likely to encourage an interest in rape or abusive behaviour towards women.” Similarly, a focus group of 26 people also found the film acceptable, only one favouring rejection. Where, you might wonder, was this research three years earlier? Given that it took the BBFC two whole years to finally reject the film, what exactly were they doing during that time?
To counter this rather embarrassing revelation, the Board’s press release constantly referred to the fact that it is ‘this version’ of the film that was found acceptable, quietly ignoring the fact that they had also rejected the longer cut in 1999. Notably, there was nothing to show that the earlier version had been shown to anyone – expert or woman on the street – and it seems highly unlikely that any sensible person would have reached a different conclusion if it had. Amy’s reaction to the first rape may be ambiguous (and I’d suggest that her ‘enjoyment’ is, in fact, more of a numbed acceptance that fighting was useless, and faking some pleasure was the easiest way to get the ordeal over with) but within the context of the film, it is clearly an unwelcome violent assault. Straw Dogs is a film full of moral ambiguity but at no point does it seriously suggest that rape is acceptable or pleasurable.
Feeble excuses aside, the Board should be congratulated on finally doing the right thing and passing the film. It was the latest in a series of previously forbidden movies that were released around the turn of the century. Britain has a shameful record in film censorship, but let’s be fair – the situation has improved markedly. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, for instance, had been banned outright in 1975, and when a cinema club screened it shortly afterwards, the police raided. The film was also a favourite target of HM customs, who gleefully impounded all copies whenever collectors attempted to import videos. This continued right up to the BBFC rather surprisingly passing it uncut in 2000. I say ‘surprisingly’ because Salo is little more than a catalogue of cruelty, degradation and sexual violence. Art it may well be – for the record, I think Salo is a masterpiece – but the film also seemed to transgress most of the Board’s policies. Based on De Sade, and updated to WW2 fascist Italy, the film tells the story of a group of Nazi libertines who kidnap a group of teenage boys and girls and spend 120 days abusing and torturing them. Most of the dehumanised teenagers spend the film naked; they are psychologically tortured, raped, beaten, forced to eat shit, piss on people, and finally tortured to death, with graphic nipple-branding, scalping and genital burning – all while the libertines wax lyrical about the pleasures of pain. Of course, Salo is a subtitled film by a respected director and apparently, that is enough to render it safe – it is unlikely to be watched by the hoi-polloi.
Also passed in recent years; Herschel Gordon Lewis’ infamous gore movies, including The Wizard of Gore and The Gore Gore Girls. The latter film includes footage of a woman’s buttocks being beaten to a pulp with a meat tenderiser and nipples sliced off… but as milk squirts out, it’s clearly played for laughs and therefore okay (the Board have always had the rather strange belief that realistic violence is dangerous, but trivialised, humorous violence is harmless). Walerian Borowczyk’s wonderful La Bete is now available, complete with the outrageous ending, where a bear-like animal (not a real animal, we should make clear) is literally screwed to death by a frisky young woman. Previously, shots of the beast’s prosthetic erection and excessive ejaculation were considered beyond the pale.
Hardcore has crept out of the sex shop and into the World Cinema section of video stores, with vintage classics like In the Realm of the Senses rubbing shoulders with modern art-core like Romance and The Idiots, giving the chattering classes a chance to watch real-life fornication without compromising their social status. Again the excuse is Context and Artistic Validity – it seems that subtitled art porn is suitable for general sale, whilst no-nonsense hardcore is still banished to the licensed premises.4
In fact, looking around video stores these days, with a plethora of previously banned or cut films available intact, you might think we’re living in some new Golden Age of liberal freedom. Sorry, you’d be wrong.
Censorship may have loosened in certain areas, but it’s still alive and well. You might be able to buy Zombie Flesh Eaters uncut but other notorious Video Nasties like The New York Ripper, House on the Edge of the Park and I Spit on Your Grave are all still extensively cut.5 Films are still banned, often with less explanation than ever.
This happens because distributors simply accept their fate without a murmur. Most film distributors in Britain are notoriously bad at fighting back against censorship – look at how distributors meekly accept whatever rating they are given. And who can blame them? Fighting back seems pointless if the experiences of Blue Underground is anything to go by when they appealed against cuts to another notorious film from the early Seventies, The Last House on the Left.
The story of The Last House on the Left and its journey through the BBFC is a long and depressing one. Shot in 1972 by Wes Craven (later to direct Scream and A Nightmare on Elm Street), the film is a particularly grim-faced and difficult rape/revenge drama. Two teenage girls heading for a rock concert are kidnapped, abused, tortured and murdered by a gang of particularly loathsome escaped convicts, who in turn are then butchered by the parents of one of their victims. It’s brutal stuff, made all the more effective by that gritty, almost documentary 16mm look that low budget films of the time had. This is a film that was always going to be problematic for the British censors. When the film was first submitted to the Board in 1975, it was banned outright and a video release in the early Eighties saw the film joining the select band of titles successfully prosecuted as Video Nasties. By any standards, this was a censorship hot potato.
The Last House on the Left was resubmitted for a theatrical certificate in 1999, presumably in the hope that like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – which had also been banned in the mid-1970s and remained strictly forbidden until James Ferman was ousted as BBFC head in 1999 after the R18 controversy – it would be looked at more kindly by a new regime. Just like Straw Dogs, the film had lost none of its impact over the years as far as the BBFC were concerned – if anything, it was even more problematic than it was back in 1975. Major cuts were demanded, totalling 90 seconds6. Would-be distributors Feature Film were – to their credit – unwilling to make the cuts, and so the film was again officially banned in February 2000. The film rights were then picked up by Blue Underground7, a small video label specialising in cult horror. The company had already suffered unduly at the hands of the BBFC, having had both Maniac and Deadbeat at Dawn refused certificates (and told informally not to bother even submitting The Texas Chain Saw Massacre a year or so before it was passed uncut). But despite this, they felt confident that the Board could be convinced that The Last House on the Left was acceptable – and planned to go to the Video Appeals Committee if they couldn’t.
The Video Appeals Committee (VAC) is an independent body made up of the ‘great and good’ who will adjudicate disputes between the BBFC and distributors. It was such an appeal that led to the relaxing of R18 guidelines in 2000, effectively legalising hardcore porn in Britain. However, such an appeal is both time-consuming and expensive (and in recent years – thanks to some dubious rule changes that the BBFC should not necessarily be allowed to make, given that the provision for appeal is set in law – it has become even more difficult). Before any appeal could take place, the film had to be submitted to the Board for certification and Blue Underground decided – following in the footsteps of the Board’s own ‘research’ – to gauge public opinion prior to any submission. A print of the film was toured around the country on a double-bill with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (and with stars David Hess and Gunnar Hansen in attendance), and far from causing offence or public disorder, went down well with audiences. Admittedly, these audiences were self-selecting and made up of people interested in the film – but then, so would any home video audience. For public cinemas to be able to show the film, local councils needed to give their permission8. Leicester City Council granted the film a local 18 certificate, as did Southampton and other councils. Blue Underground kingpin Carl Daft then debated the film with BBFC head Robin Duval at the Bradford Film Festival, where Daft made it clear that he would appeal against any level of cuts that the BBFC demanded. Soon afterwards, a new list of cuts was sent to Daft. And this is where it gets weird.
Although they’d previously asked for 90 seconds removed for theatrical release, the Board now demanded just 16 seconds for video – where censorship is supposed to be more stringent. More bizarrely, only five of those seconds were the same as cuts previously requested. The Board had waived previous cuts to ‘forced stripping’ but now demanded a scene where a woman is forced to “piss your pants” be removed, a moment previously not seen as a problem. The reason given for the cuts was unambiguous: Obscenity. The BBFC was claiming that an uncut version of the film would fall foul of the Obscene Publications Act, the very act that it was prosecuted under during the Video Nasty days.
Blue Underground, true to their word, immediately gave notice of appeal. The Board then wrote back to the company, now stating that the actual reason for the cuts was ‘harm’, as defined in the Video Recordings Act. Daft was understandably perturbed by this, as he possessed a letter that had been sent to all distributors from the BBFC sometime before stating that all reasons for cuts would be listed at the time they were requested. Now the Board seemed to be coming up with new reasons out of the blue. Nothing to do with the forthcoming appeal, surely?
For most outside observers, Blue Underground seemed to have an ironclad case. Securing the services of legal heavyweight David Pannick QC – who had successfully represented Sheptonhurst during the R18 appeals and later won cases against the prorogation of Parliament by Boris Johnson – their argument that The Last House on the Left was not legally obscene and not harmful was well researched, and in the opinion of most people attending the appeal hearing (which operates very much like a court case), demolished the BBFC’s rather desperate and contrived arguments completely. The BBFC reliance on studies and surveys was revealed as misguided and flawed, and the attempts to move the goalposts from the issue of obscenity to one of harm was attacked as an act of bad faith (not to mention desperation).
Blue Underground also wanted the VAC to watch a tape of clips from other BBFC approved films such as Salo and A Clockwork Orange, which showed that they had passed far stronger images of sexual violence in other films. The VAC declined to do so, however, saying that not only would it be unfair to view clips ‘out of context’ but also that watching the films would in effect see the Committee making a judgment on those movies – something they couldn’t do. It seemed an odd argument – the clips represented a sense of inconsistency and cultural snobbery from the BBFC (passing arthouse movies by respected directors while censoring similar material from ‘exploitation’ movies) and felt very relevant to the argument and the claim that The Last House on the Left was being unfairly singled out. Still, everyone was confident of victory for Blue Underground.
In fact, the BBFC won and Blue Underground lost. And they lost badly. In a unanimous decision, the VAC – which included former Blue Peter editor Biddy Baxter – not only agreed with everything the BBFC claimed but even suggested that the Board had been unduly generous in only cutting the film by 16 seconds. While the appeal was simply about the uncut vs 16-second cut version, the VAC overstepped their mark by suggesting that the BBFC revisit it and make more cuts. They also dismissed testimony by journalist Mark Kermode regarding the film’s importance, saying that ‘intellectuals’ like him could easily see the film anyway – it’s the great unwashed out there (that’ll be you lot) who needed protecting. Most people were, upon hearing the decision, reminded of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial, where the jury was asked if they wanted their servants to read such filth… or former BBFC head James Ferman telling a National Film Theatre audience that it was okay for middle-class intellectuals like themselves to watch The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but what effect would it have on the car worker in Birmingham?
A week or so after The Last House on the Left lost, the BBFC made further cuts to the film – an additional fifteen seconds on top of the previous sixteen seconds, but not exactly matching the cuts asked for in 1999 – three years, three sets of cuts, with three different reasons given: and these people are supposed to be experts? At the same time, the uncut release of Straw Dogs – which had been sitting awaiting a decision for a year – was announced. Coincidence? Had the Board been aware that to pass another sexually violent film before the appeal would damage their case? Or did they think that by cutting The Last House on the Left, they would be able to deflect any criticism over allowing the still-infamous Peckinpah film to be released, essentially showing that they were still protecting us from the really bad stuff? I really couldn’t comment.
In 2008, just six years after the BBFC were willing to take the cuts made to The Last House on the Left as far as a quasi-legal hearing because they believed the film was either obscene or harmful, it was resubmitted – and was passed uncut. There was no word from the BBFC about what changes had taken place in society in that brief time period to make this dangerous film now harmless. To the surprise of no one, neither Straw Dogs nor The Last House on the Left has been quoted as a factor in any crime since release. Both films have subsequently had glossy remakes released – neither new version caused any BBFC issues.
This might feel like ancient history but it’s not. It’s an example of the hubris and arrogance of those who decide what we can or cannot watch and who continue to ban films even now. Just remember all this the next time you are told that a film has to be banned or cut for the good of society. It’s all bullshit and the whim of people who have no more expertise or understanding than anyone else and who will change their minds at the drop of a hat.
(1) In 2009, it was discovered that, due to an administrative oversight, the Video Recordings Act had never officially made it into law. A few enterprising distributors – including porn legend Ben Dover – took advantage of this to release uncertified titles during the time it took Parliament to hurriedly rush through a new version of the Act, which was passed in 2010. For the sake of clarity – and given the fact that it did act as a de facto law for a quarter of a century – we’ll refer to the law as the VRA in any discussion.
(2) In fact, the BBFC finally agreed to pass the film in 1999 with three and a half minutes of cuts – a huge amount that would have significantly damaged the narrative structure. Remarkably, the distributor agreed to the cuts but so much time had passed from the original submission that they had lost the rights.
(3) Catherine Itzen was most recently the co-author of a government-commissioned ‘rapid response document’ that offered ‘evidence’ – in reality, a fact-free, one-sided opinion piece – to support the law banning the possession of ‘extreme pornography’. It’s rather like hiring the head of a moralising Christian organisation to report on an issue they were already campaigning against. Which the UK government has also done, of course.
(4) In the ensuing decade, such ‘artcore’ films – and even less respectable productions – have been frequently passed with hardcore scenes intact. However, the BBFC still makes a somewhat random distinction between ‘sex works’ (porn that they don’t approve of) and ‘non-sex works’ (porn that they do approve of), with entire scenes and sex acts cut from the former – which are restricted to sale in sex shops with mail order banned – that would be allowed in the latter. We’ve discussed this double-standard here.
(5) There is more flip-flopping here. House on the Edge of the Park was cut by almost twelve minutes in 2002, with the cuts confirmed in 2009. In 2014, the cuts were reduced to 43 seconds. Resubmitted in 2020, I Spit on Your Grave is still cut by almost two minutes, which is a minute less than in 2010. As of 2020, The New York Ripper is still missing around 30 seconds.
(6) Back in the 1970s and 1980s, cuts of ‘unimportant’ films could stretch to several minutes or beyond – but such cuts were hugely damaging and would rarely be applied to major movies that would simply be refused certificates rather than censored. By 1999, the idea of a minute and a half of cuts seemed excessive and unusual.
(7) Carl Daft and David Gregory of Blue Underground now run Severin Films.
(8) As tiresome people like to point out whenever people talk about films being banned – for theatrical releases, BBFC certificates have no legal standing and local councils in Britain actually have the final say. During the 1960s and 1970s, some councils would use these powers to either pass or (more often) ban films in contradiction to BBFC decisions – famous examples include The Devils and Monty Python’s Life of Brian, with the most recently infamous one being the ban on David Cronenberg’s Crash in Westminster. The powers are rarely used these days – councils no longer have censorship committees and all now accept BBFC decisions without question. Of course, home video censorship is statutory law and so a ban on video is most definitely and unambiguously a legally-enforceable ban. The BBFC is now effectively a government department.
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