Banning a film always seems like something that’s done somewhere else, not here in America, land of the free. But America is a big country full of lots of states and towns, each one with its own moral code and belief as to what is acceptable cinema. Over the years, there have been many films that specific localities (or sometimes the government) deem unacceptable. Here are five that were deemed too extreme for American viewing.
HAXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES (1922)(Cover photo)
This 1922 Swedish silent horror movie is presented in a documentary-style and explores how superstition and scientific ignorance can lead to panic and witch hunts. Directed by Benjamin Christensen, it was based on his study of the MALLEUS MALEFICARUMM, a German playbook for witch-finders written in the 15th century by Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer. The film’s displays of torture, nudity, and sexuality got it banned all across the United States, while other countries released censored versions of the film. In 1968, the film finally had a release in the US, but the version was cut from 104 minutes down to 77 minutes. The original length was released on Criterion DVD in 2001.
LOST BOUNDARIES (1949)
Directed by Alfred Werker, this is the story of an African American doctor who cannot find work in segregated America until he decides to pass himself off as white. When America enters into World War II, he joins the Navy as an officer. However, when a background check reveals his real identity, his world falls apart. In the end, there is a message of hope sung by a church choir:
“Once to ev’ry man and nation,
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood.
For the good or evil side.”
The film was seen as a turning point in Hollywood’s portrayal of African Americans. NAACP director Walter White stated, “Hollywood can never go back to its old portrayal of colored people as witless menials or idiotic buffoons.” The film was banned in Atlanta and Memphis. In Atlanta, they stated that they would show no a film that may “adversely affect the peace, morals, and good order of the city.” The Memphis censor board simply stated, “We don’t take that kind of picture here.”
I AM CURIOUS (YELLOW) (1967)
A Swedish drama by Vilgot Sjoman, I AM CURIOUS (YELLOW) is the story of a young girl with a strong desire for social justice. She spends her days studying books and papers on men and religion. She has files on the 23 men she has had sex with, as well as pictures from the Jewish holocaust adorning her walls. She interviews people about social classes, gender equality, and various other social issues. She then falls in love with a young man who cheats on her. Hurt, she runs to the country where she begins a meditative lifestyle. The young man finds her, they make love, and then she tells him about a dream where she ties him to a tree, cuts off his penis, and then shoots him. The film then goes all meta as the filmmaker begins interacting with his characters.
I AM CURIOUS (YELLOW) was banned in Massachusetts for being pornographic. Boston police seized copies of the film which resulted in a Supreme Court hearing which ruled the film was not obscene. Although not officially censored, in Houston, a vigilante protestor set fire to the Heights Theatre which was showing the film.
TITICUT FOLLIES (1967)
TITICUT FOLLIES is a documentary by Frederick Wiseman about the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Although strangely titled for a film with such a heavy subject matter, it actually comes from the name of the talent show that the inmates put on at the hospital (which got its name from the Wampanoag tribe name for the Taunton River). The film is an unapologetic examination of mental health during the time.
Before its release, the Massachusetts Legislature attempted to get an injunction that would ban the release of the film, claiming that the documentary crew violated patient privacy rights. However, film crew fought back by stating they had permission from everyone featured in the film. In 1969, the film was allowed to be only shown to doctors, lawyers, judges, health-care professionals, social workers, and students in related fields. The filmmakers then went before the US Supreme Court to appeal this decision. The Court refused to hear the case. The state continued to intervene in order to save its reputation, but the filmmakers continued to push the need and right to show the film. Then in 1987, seven families sued the hospital after family members died while in custody. The incident once again shined light on the film which became instrumental in shutting down mental institutions like Bridgewater. In 1991, the court finally ordered that the film could be shown to the public.
An Italian film based on the James M. Cain novel THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, OSSESSIONE is the neorealist work of director Luchino Visconti. The film is the story of a drifter who begins a love affair with the wife of a restaurant owner. The two conspire to kill her husband, but the act drives the drifter insane with guilt and eventually they are found out.
The film encountered troubles even before production began. Although the script was said to be a masterful adaptation of the novel, Italy’s fascist government rejected the film because of its subject matter. Visconti then worked with several writers from the neorealist movement to produce a script that, on the surface, looked like a simple murder mystery. Upon its release, Fascist authorities as well as church officials were outraged by what they saw on the screen. The film was banned in its own country and all prints were destroyed. All except for a duplicate of the negative which Visconti kept hidden.
In America, Visconti ran into another problem which lead to the film being banned. He had never obtained the copyrights to the novel in the USA. Also, MGM had their own adaptation in the works. Due to issues with the copyright the film could not be distributed in the United States until 1976.