BBC Culture

Ten controversial films that were buried

About the author

Christian Blauvelt is deputy editor of BBC Culture.

  • The Day the Clown Cried by Jerry Lewis

    Editor’s note 17 December 2014: In light of Sony’s decision to cancel the release of The Interview following terrorist threats, we are re-posting this list of 10 other films buried by their studios.

    Cinephiles love to discuss films by famous directors that were planned but never made. But if there’s one area of cinematic speculation even more tantalising it is the subject of buried films – movies that were shot, more or less, and maybe even released before being locked away by their makers, their studio or because of lawsuits. Jerry Lewis’ The Day the Clown Cried was the American comedian’s first foray into dramatic filmmaking in 1972. He was to play the role of Helmut Doork, a German clown imprisoned in a concentration camp for political reasons during World War II, who performs for Jewish children before they’re led off to the gas chambers. Upon its completion Lewis decided it should never be released. “In terms of that film, I was embarrassed,” he said. “I was ashamed of the work, and I was grateful that I had the power to contain it at all, and never let anyone see it. It was bad, bad, bad.” (Rune Ericson)

  • Alfred Hitchcock’s Memory of the Camps

    “Some films are slices of life, mine are slices of cake,” Alfred Hitchcock once said. But one documentary he produced in 1945 confronted reality head-on: Memory of the Camps. Directed by Sidney Bernstein and produced by Hitchcock, the film was edited together from footage of the Nazi death camps shot by the British Army Film Unit after liberation by the Allies. Hitchcock’s big contribution was in suggesting to Bernstein that he emphasise the close proximity of the camps to population centres – making the case that the general public in Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied territories were aware of the slaughter. Though a conjurer of horrific images himself, the Master of Suspense was so affected by these images of the Holocaust that he disappeared from Pinewood Studios for a week in a deep depression. The British Film Board ultimately chose not to release Memory of the Camps for fear it would stir up such fervor against Germany that post-war reconstruction would be derailed. It finally made its debut at the Berlin Film Festival in 1984, but has rarely been shown since – though a version of it can be found on YouTube. (Central Press/Getty Images)

  • The Brave by Johnny Depp

    The actor’s first directorial effort was also his last to date. For The Brave, a modern-day Western about a man who agrees to be killed on camera to raise $50,000 for his family, Depp called upon his A-List friends. Iggy Pop composed the score and Marlon Brando, in one of his final roles, played the snuff film’s producer. When it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997, the critics were not kind – Geoff Andrew of Time Out summed up the general feeling by calling The Brave “tediously slow and hugely narcissistic”. Depp was so startled by the backlash that he prevented the film from getting a US release and home video distribution – though it did play in European cinemas. (Jeremy Thomas Productions)

  • Walt Disney’s Song of the South

    Journalist Joel Chandler Harris first compiled the Uncle Remus stories – African-American folktales with a distinct moralistic tone, almost a kind of Aesop’s Fables for the American South – in 1881 to great acclaim. With their mix of human and animal characters, the stories were perfect fodder for Walt Disney’s experiments combining live-action photography and animation in the 1940s. But Song of the South ended up earning the condemnation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which issued a statement: “Song of the South unfortunately gives the impression of an idyllic master-slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts.” Though Disney reissued the film to cinemas several times over the ensuing decades, by the late 1980s it had disappeared from circulation – and has never been released to home video. Disney CEO Robert Iger has called the film “fairly offensive” and there are no plans to make it available to the public again. Despite its invisibility, Song of the South gives us one of the Disney Studios’ most enduringly popular songs: Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah. (Walt Disney Productions)

  • Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story by Todd Haynes

    Music has played a central role in the films of Todd Haynes. His 1998 film Velvet Goldmine imagined glam rock characters loosely based on David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, and his 2007 reverie I’m Not There featured six characters playing Bob Dylan. The film that first brought him into the spotlight was no exception. His Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story charted the rise to fame and eventual downfall of the singer – played, like all the characters in the film, by a Barbie doll. Haynes chipped away at the doll’s plastic to convey Carpenter’s struggle with anorexia, which ultimately caused her death by cardiac arrest in 1983. Though sympathetic to the title character, everyone else in her life is portrayed as monstrous. Karen’s brother Richard Carpenter, reportedly deeply angered by the movie, found a way to suppress it by suing Haynes for not acquiring the music licences to use The Carpenters’ songs included in the movie. It has never been released since. (Ice Tea Productions)

  • Nailed by David O Russell

    Before he achieved major success – and Academy Awards recognition – for The Fighter (2010), Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and American Hustle (2013), David O Russell’s career was in limbo. His 2004 comedy I Heart Huckabees was a critical misfire and his planned follow-up was to be Nailed, a political satire about a woman (Jessica Biel) without medical insurance who gets impaled in the head by a nail, causing bizarre psychological effects. She takes her fight for health insurance and treatment to Washington, where a sinister congressman (Jake Gyllenhaal) exploits her for political purposes – and takes full advantage of the extreme sexual urges that have resulted from her brain damage. The film was completed but production shut down four times during the shoot due to financial problems,which ultimately prevented it from being distributed. Russell has stated he has no plans to release the film anytime soon. (K Jam Media)

  • Who Killed Bambi? by Russ Meyer

    20th Century Fox wanted to make a punk rock version of A Hard Day’s Night starring The Sex Pistols in the late 1970s. Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious were adamant, though, that the film would have to be made by the filmmaking team of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, their favourite film: director Russ Meyer and screenwriter/film critic Roger Ebert. The low-budget film, titled Who Killed Bambi?, went into production, though accounts vary as to how much was actually completed. Enough was shot and edited, though, to make Fox realise that the entire project was so incendiary that it could not be released nor salvaged in the editing. Jimmy McDonough, Russ Meyer’s biographer, claims that Fox board member Grace Kelly personally intervened to prevent its release. In 2010 Ebert posted his entire screenplay to his website to give a glimpse at what might have been. (Graham Wood/Evening Standard/Getty Images)

  • Richard Pryor’s Uncle Tom’s Fairy Tales

    Wayne’s World director Penelope Spheeris was to have made her debut straight out of film school in 1969, directing this provocative comedy starring Richard Pryor. The plot of the movie concerns a wealthy white man abducted by a group of Black Panthers and symbolically tried for white Americans’ history of racism. The film was finished and the footage edited, when Pryor actually tried to destroy it. According to Spheeris’ account in the Pryor biography Furious Cool, he and his wife had a huge argument, which ended with him saying “You think I love this film more than you? Watch this!” as he tore the celluloid to shreds. Some of it was salvaged, but having lost a year’s worth of work to his rampage, Pryor sold the footage to Bill Cosby in the hope that he could finance its re-edit. Cosby never did. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

  • One AM by Jean-Luc Godard

    After he declared “The end of cinema” with the title card of 1968’s Weekend, Jean-Luc Godard returned to filmmaking quite quickly. He teamed with documentarians DA Pennebaker and Richard Leacock to make a film about the revolutionary political underground in the US. It would be comprised partly of documentary footage and partly of staged dramatisations – almost exactly like the structure of Godard’s Rolling Stones film Sympathy for the Devil. The final product was One AM, which may have stood for “One American Movie”. Godard abandoned Pennebaker and Leacock regarding the film’s distribution to pursue the Maoist agitation that would lead to him founding the Dziga Vertov Group. Drowning in debt, Pennebaker and Leacock declared bankruptcy and were unable to fund One AM’s exhibition – though Pennebaker has screened it a few times at film festivals, with a few reedits of his own making, under the title One PM – which possibly stands for “One Pennebaker Movie”. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis)

  • Dark Blood by George Sluizer

    River Phoenix’s death at age 23 shocked Hollywood – and left his final film suspended in limbo. When he suffered a fatal overdose on 31 October 1993, he’d completed most of his work on Dark Blood, a film by Dutch director George Sluizer. He played a young widower mourning the loss of his wife due to radiation poisoning from nuclear testing. Fearing that the film would be unsalvageable without the last few scenes Phoenix was to have shot, the production’s insurer seized the movie’s negatives, prompting studio Fine Line Pictures to cancel its release. Sluizer did gain access to the footage in 2012 and was able to screen Dark Blood at several European film festivals, but a proper theatrical release still seems impossible. (Fine Line Features)