Public backlash – films that continue to cross the line

The recent wave of violent protests in many parts of the world sparked by an anti-Muslim film has raised age-old questions regarding the issue of freedom of speech and morality in film and television. With this in mind we take a look back at some of the most controversial films of the last 100 or so years that have inspired the masses to take to the streets in defence of their moral and spiritual beliefs.

The Kiss (1896)

This 47 second-long behemoth was one of the earliest commercial films and also one of the first to cause a storm of controversy.

The Kiss simply re-enacts part of the stage musical The Widow Jones where the protagonists played by John Rice and May Irwin embrace in a closed-lip kiss, which one assumes was the style at the time. However, this was more than sufficient to rile and excite the masses into protest and calling for police action against such indecent exposure. One particularly hacked-off critic famously went on record as saying:

“The spectacle of the prolonged pasturing on each other’s lips was beastly enough in life size on the stage but magnified to gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over it is absolutely disgusting.”

Hardly a Mills and Boon endorsement.

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

DW Griffith’s adaptation of Thomas Dixon Jr’s The Clansman and The Leopard’s Spots is one of the most infamous films in American history. It’s innately racist depiction of African Americans as dangerous, mentally inferior beings and the glorification of the Ku Klux Klan resulted in a public outcry and subsequently riots in several Midwest and Northeast US cities.

Despite the film’s ground-breaking technical and cinematography achievements and that at three hours and ten minutes in length it smashed film length and box office records, The Birth of a Nation was rightfully overshadowed by the blatantly racist content. Also the fact that The Birth of a Nation was used by several generations of KKK members for recruiting purposes did the film no favours either.

The Outlaw (1943)

Director Howard Hughes successfully overturned the potential loss of millions of dollars by secretly campaigning to have his own film The Outlaw banned.

His fixation on artificially enlarging leading lady Jane Russell’s already ample bosom backfired spectacularly when Century-Fox cancelled the agreement as The Outlaw had been unable to gain approval from the Hollywood Production Code Administration. In a fit of morals Century-Fox conceded there was too much Russell cleavage on display in the film to be morally sound. Consequently the industrious Hughes got on his bike and instructed his managers and assistants to contact government officials and women’s rights groups to detail the lewd and unsavoury nature of the film.

Protests ensued with public figureheads calling for The Outlaw to be banned. This free publicity ensured enough interest to have the film played in theatres for a week before being pulled due to violations of the Hollywood Production Code. Nevertheless, The Outlaw went on general release in 1946 and became a box office smash.

Song of the South – (1946)

Song of the South, made famous in part by the song Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah, landed producers Disney in no end of Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Doo due to the film’s glorification of slavery and white-supremacist undertones.

Complaints flooded in regarding the abundance of African American clichés, stereotypes and patronising live-action sequences and The National Negro Congress set up picket lines outside theatres in major US Cities.

A massive kick in the pants the House of Mouse prefers to forget.

Dirty Harry (1971)

Don Siegel’s classic and often parodied Dirty Harry didn’t just make disdainful punks feel unlucky.

The film sparked public debate about the glorification of violence, particularly with regard to law enforcement and the issue of police brutality. Many were also irritated by the apparent right-wing bravado of protagonist Inspector Harry Callahan, played by Clint Eastwood. Feminist groups protested the chauvinistic overtones of the film, going as far as to picket outside the 1971 Oscars.

Eastwood retaliated in typical fashion retorting, “some people are so politically oriented, when they see cornflakes in a bowl, they get some complex interpretation out of it”.

Not quite the validation the protestors were looking for.

Last Tango in Paris (1972)

The multiple grievances attributed to Bernardo Bertolucci’s peculiar arthouse drama from stars and housewives alike probably continue to ring in the ears of the odd-ball director, unless of course he sees fit to pack his aural orifices with butter that is.

Despite ringing endorsements from some quarters Last Tango in Paris riled the masses of the US and UK thanks in part to the media storm that surrounded the film with the likes of Newsweek and Time lambasting its gratuitous and exploitative sexual content. Protests mounted outside theatres with movie goers being verbally abused and intimidated by outraged citizens. Women’s rights groups, religious figures and statesmen were also quick to condemn the film, but most telling of all were the later testimonies of the film’s stars Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando who claimed to have felt “raped and manipulated” through Bertolucci’s direction.

Bertolucci later stated that Last Tango in Paris was inspired by his own sexual fantasies – a cautionary tale for performers who decide not to read between the lines before rehearsals start.

Mohammad, Messenger of God (The Message) (1977)

Moustapha Akkad’s account of the life of the prophet of Islam, Mohammad met with strong resistance from radical Islamists despite the film’s careful attention to not depict the prophet visually or vocally.

In the same year that the film was released a group of Muslim gunmen held 149 people hostage in Washington, demanding, amongst other things, the destruction of Mohammad, Messenger of God on the basis it was blasphemous. Ambassadors from Iran, Egypt and Pakistan were able to subdue the siege and bring it to an end, unfortunately not before a journalist and policeman were killed by the gunmen.

Cruising (1980)

Little-known psychological thriller Cruising, starring Al Pacino caused a stir before the film even reached post production. The plot centres on a serial killer targeting gay men associated with the S&M scene.

During the year prior to the film’s launch gay-rights protestors made efforts to disrupt filming and demanded the termination of production, carrying the argument that Cruising perpetuated harmful homosexual stereotypes and was an affront to the gay-rights movement.

In an effort to calm tensions Pacino sympathised with protestors and maintained that the film was in no way anti-gay and that the film’s content merely portrayed the lifestyle of a small section of the gay community. Nevertheless, the big voice of the minority had spoken.

Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

The genuinely ghastly spectacle that is Cannibal Holocaust proved to be only too successful in the realism stakes.

Filmed cinéma vérité style by director Ruggero Deodato the film charts the misfortune of a documentary film crew who fall foul of cannibals in the Amazon. Cannibal Holocaust also used the premise of “found footage” and inspired films such as The Blair Witch Project.

The explicit violence and sexual content of the film quickly landed Deodato in trouble and drew the attention of authorities. After premiering in Italy Deodato was arrested on charges of obscenity and was later charged with murder, as prosecutors believed that several actors were killed during production, so realistic were their performances seemingly.

After lengthy court proceedings Deodato was able to prove his innocence by detailing procedures used during specific sequences in the film and the eventual appearance in public of the supposedly murdered actors. Deodato was not able to escape legitimate charges of animal cruelty however due to the genuine killing of animals during filming. The director, his producers and screenwriter were subsequently handed four-month suspended sentences for obscenity, violence and animal cruelty.

The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese 1988)

Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ controversial novel of the same name took not so much a radical step as a leap away from gospel narratives to the dismay and outrage of many Christian devotees and fundamentalist groups.

Protestors gathered outside movie houses across America while the largest party of objectors, approximately 600, descended on MCA’s headquarters to vent their anger and call for a boycott of the film.

In France tensions boiled over at the Saint Michel theatre in Paris when French Christian fundamentals unleashed a barrage of Molotov cocktails inside the building while The Last Temptation of Christ was being viewed. Several movie-goers were reported to have been severely burned while others escaped with minor injuries. The theatre was also badly damaged and forced to close for three years for repairs.

Frisco Rosso

With more tension than your mother’s suspension, I am Frisco Rosso. I’m likely to deliver a few lines worth at any given moment regarding film, music, sport, books and anything morally unsound that strikes a blow between the eyes in the name of entertainment.


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