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BBC Culture

Nine films that were banned

About the author

Christian Blauvelt is deputy editor of BBC Culture.

  • The Birth of a Nation

    Even at the time of its release in the US in 1915, DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation was controversial. A three-hour epic dramatising the American Civil War and its aftermath, the film depicts in a positive light the foundation of the Ku Klux Klan. Historians credit the film, which was a blockbuster success, with spurring the KKK’s revival in the 20th Century revival. The US National Association for the Advancement of Colored People staged a boycott and the cities of Chicago, St Louis, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Denver banned it, with government leaders fearing that it would lead to race riots. Those bans were later lifted, and Griffith himself tried to apologise for The Birth of a Nation with his with his next film, Intolerance (1916). (Kino)

  • Ben-Hur

    William Wyler’s epic about an enslaved Judean prince who crosses paths with Jesus was a box office smash in the US on its debut in 1959 – and set a new record for the number of Oscars it won. But it was promptly banned in China, where Mao Zedong’s government strongly opposed religious belief, for promoting a positive view of Christianity. China maintains a quota system that limits number of foreign releases in cinemas – though many films that miss out can be viewed at home. Even now Ben-Hur remains unavailable in the People’s Republic. (MGM/Warner Bros)

  • Battleship Potemkin

    Sergei Eisenstein’s Soviet propaganda film Battleship Potemkin landed in cinemas like a thunderbolt in 1925. Luis Buñuel claimed that after a Paris screening of Potemkin he and his friends began pulling up pavement stones to build barricades in the streets for revolution. Luminaries like Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks called it the greatest film they’d ever seen. Because of Potemkin’s impact, the censorship boards of several countries felt it would spread communism. France imposed a ban after a short run in 1925 (it lifted it in 1953 after Joseph Stalin’s death) and the UK prevented its citizens from seeing it until 1954. (Kino)

  • The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

    By today’s standards Tobe Hooper’s original 1974 version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is quite tame – though it has an air of eerie existential dread that few horror films since have matched. And even though the film suggests much more gore than it actually shows, it was a lightning rod for debates about violence in the cinema. Censorship authorities in many countries deemed its exhibition illegal: it was banned in West Germany from 1974-78, in Iceland from 1985-99, in Norway from 1974-97, in Sweden from 1974-2001 and in Singapore from 1974-2004. (Alamy)

  • Last Tango in Paris

    Bernardo Bertolucci’s drama about a grieving widower (Marlon Brando) and his relationship with a much younger woman (Maria Schneider) is full of raw, naked emotions – most of which are expressed in raw, naked sex scenes between the two actors. Few films at that point had been more sexually explicit, and some countries were not ready for it. It was banned in Bertolucci’s native Italy from 1972 to 1986, and remains banned in Singapore to this day. (MGM)

  • District 9

    South African sci-fi director Neill Blomkamp intended to make an allegory for apartheid with his 2009 film District 9, in which marooned extraterrestrials are kept in a sort of Bantustan by their human oppressors. But District 9 was banned in Nigeria because of what was perceived there as the film’s racism: a subplot concerns villainous Nigerian gangsters who exploit the aliens and believe that alien blood will cure them of disease. (Sony)

  • Viridiana

    Luis Buñuel’s surreal, taboo-busting film about an aristocrat (Fernando Rey) who lusts after his niece, a nun, is dripping with licentiousness and anti-Catholicism. The trailer for English-speaking audiences promised an orgy more shocking than the one that ends La Dolce Vita, and at one moment in the film itself a character brandishes a crucifix that doubles as a switchblade knife. Viridiana was actually going to be Spain’s official submission to the Cannes Film Festival in 1961 until an outcry from the Church prompted General Franco to withdraw it from exhibition completely. It remained unseen in Spain until after Franco’s death in 1975. (Criterion)

  • Milk

    The 2008 film about San Francisco official Harvey Milk and his crusade for gay rights in the late 1970s and early ‘80s won Sean Penn an Oscar – and won the wrath of Samoa’s censors. It was banned there, according to the Pacific island nation’s government, because it was “inappropriate and contradictory to Christian beliefs and Samoan culture… In the movie itself it is trying to promote the human rights of gays. Some of the scenes are very inappropriate in regard to some of the sex in the film itself, it’s very contrary to the way of life here in Samoa.” (Focus Features)

  • Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom

    The final film from Italian director and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini before his murder in 1975 remains one of the most controversial films of all time. Set in the last days of World War II in Italy, the film is a loose adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. It was banned from 1975 to 2000 in the UK, from 1976-93 in Australia, from 1976-97 in New Zealand and remains banned in Malaysia in Singapore. It was never officially banned in the US, but an undercover policeman arrested the proprietor of an adult bookstore for selling it in 1994, prompting free speech protests from Martin Scorsese and Alec Baldwin. A court ultimately dismissed the case. (Criterion)