From ‘ET’ to ‘Monkey Business’, many unlikely movies and TV shows have come under the censors’ knife
Delving into the bizarre world of censorship: 6 times films got cut or banned
Disney’s Christopher Robin could be the latest victim of China’s ongoing battle with Winnie the Pooh, the portly, honey-loving bear created by A A Milne. The film has been denied a release in Chinese cinemas, with censors in the country giving no official reason for the decision.
China does operate a strict quota on how many foreign films are allowed to be released in cinemas each year, which could explain the film’s absence, but equally, the film could have fallen victim to an ongoing campaign to keep the bubbly yellow bear out of the media ever since memes began to surface comparing Milne’s loveable ursine buddy to Chinese President Xi Jinping.
In 2015, political analyst Global Risk Insights declared a photo of President Xi in a motorcade, with Winnie in a toy car riding alongside, as “China’s most censored photo”, and China’s opposition has since taken to comparing the two figures with some gusto, resulting in a de facto ban from Chinese state media on images of the bear, including on China’s equivalent of Twitter, Weibo.
Disney has also declined to comment on the decision, perhaps understandably – the company has already taken billions at the Chinese box office, which briefly overtook the US to become the world’s biggest earlier this year, with its tent-pole properties such as the Marvel franchise. Avengers: Infinity War alone took US$360 million (Dh1.32bn) in China in May, so it’s predictable that the studio wouldn’t lose too much sleep over a niche film dealing with century-old British characters that are probably unknown to Chinese audiences outside of the emergent political discourse.
We will probably never know the full story behind Christopher Robin-gate, but if “Pooh-ranoia” is involved, it wouldn’t be the first time a movie or TV show had been censored or restricted for unusual reasons. Here are some examples from around the world.
'ET: The Extra-Terrestrial’ – Sweden, Finland and Norway
Most people consider Steven Spielberg’s 1982 classic ET: The Extra-Terrestrial to be not only a children’s movie, but also one of the greatest children’s movies of all time. Spielberg’s tale of a stranded alien who befriends a group of children in his efforts to return to his home planet had the audience at its Cannes premiere on their feet for a 15-minute standing ovation, and none other than Princess Diana reportedly had to have her make-up fixed after witnessing the movie’s weepier moments.
Nordic censors are not “most people,” however. In Sweden, the film was given an 11+ rating, not because of those weepy bits, or because young viewers might perhaps be scared by ET’s wrinkly alien features, but because, according to the censor’s report at the time, the mission to outwit government agencies and return ET home “portrays adults as enemies of children.”
Sweden’s chief censor at the time, Gunnel Arrback, elaborated further to AP following the decision, citing the film’s “threatening and frightening atmosphere”. Sweden wasn’t alone. Norway’s censors went even further, rating the film as suitable for children ages 12+, while Finland opted for an 8+. Much of the rest of Europe gave the film a more predictable “universal” rating, and the Nordic press at the time was awash with reports of children sneaking into screenings with their parents by pretending to be of the requisite age.
‘Leave It to Beaver’ – United States
There’s an urban myth that has gained popularity with pop-culture geeks and fans of personal hygiene alike that 1950s family sitcom Leave It to Beaver was the first show on US TV to show a toilet.
Even as recently as the 1970s, just a bathroom, let alone an actual toilet, was a rare site on US TV, thanks to the major networks’ standards and practices groups. Right up to 1974, The Brady Bunch all bathed in a bathroom that was strangely devoid of such a device. It’s no surprise that the Leave It to Beaver claims aren’t entirely factual then. They have some basis in truth, but the toilet in question was actually censored.
The intended first episode of the long-running show, in 1957, was pulled from the air, then reshot because of its original plan to show a toilet in which the show’s protagonists, Wally and Beaver, were keeping a baby alligator hidden from their parents. After much debate with the network, CBS, and in light of the limited viable alligator hiding places in the average American home, the scenes were reshot with the alligator hidden in the cistern, and only the top of the tank shown.
Every movie not made in Uganda – Uganda
Of the many atrocities of Idi Amin’s regime, it’s probably fair to assume that banning foreign films is low on the list of the average Ugandan who lived through the era. Nonetheless, in 1972, Amin did just that, ruling that only films made in Uganda could be shown in the country’s cinemas as the rest were full of “imperialist propaganda”. Given that the first Ugandan film is generally cited as Ashraf Ssemwogerere’s 2005 Feelings Struggle, cinema didn’t exactly thrive during the era.
An unexpected side effect of Amin’s decree was that theatre began to flourish in the country, though presumably working on the basis that all art is political, it wasn’t long before Amin and his supporters then embarked on a string of killings and exiles of playwrights and actors, beginning with Byron Kawadwa, after his tale of high-level corruption, A Song of a Chicken, in 1973.
‘Monkey Business’ – Ireland
The Marx Brothers’ classic 1931 comedy Monkey Business sees the bumbling quartet causing mayhem aboard an ocean liner, having stowed away on board for reasons unknown. There’s no real plot to speak of, and the brothers’ characters aren’t even given names, aside from “The Stowaways”, as they embark on an hour-and-a-half of surreal comic mayhem in their own inimitable style.
Harmless enough, you would think, but not for the Irish Film Board, who banned the film on the grounds that it would “promote anarchic tendencies”. Admittedly, it was a time of high tensions in Ireland, with fascism and communism both on the rise across Europe, and both the Irish Civil and Independence wars still a recent memory, but the idea that four grown men acting like children on the open seas might spark an armed insurgency seems a little extreme. The ban was eventually lifted in 2000, by which time the competition for comedy audiences included Scary Movie and O Brother, Where Art Though? Times, and audiences, had moved on.
Every movie starring Claire Danes – The Philippines
Brokedown Palace stars Claire Danes and Kate Beckinsale as two western tourists who are arrested in Thailand for drug smuggling. The film was fairly critical of the Thai government, and producers couldn’t obtain permission to shoot there. So they opted for the neighbouring Philippines instead. No one was surprised when the film was banned in Thailand on its release in 1999, but more surprising was then-Filipino president Joseph Estrada’s decision to ban the film, and all other films starring Claire Danes, from his country’s cinemas, in perpetuity, for a series of negative remarks she had made about Manila leading up to the release.
Danes described Manila as a “ghastly and weird city”, and her time staying in a five-star hotel while shooting on a tropical island as “just so hard” in interviews with Vogue. Danes issued a half-hearted apology that was clearly drafted by 20th Century Fox’s PR team, and Estrada didn’t buy it. A government spokesman stated: “We know if an apology is true or not... We will lift the ban only if we are satisfied.” That was in 1999, and the ban appears to remain in place, although Terminator 3 did sneak on to screens in 2003. Danes also remains banned from entering the Philippines.
‘Special People’ – UK
The UK currently has one of the most liberal film censorship regimes in the world, a far cry from the censors’ 1980s heyday, when public panic over “video nasties” led to mass bans on some great horror films.
In contrast, today’s censors allowed Tom Six’s 2011 exploitative torture-fest The Human Centipede 2 to pass with a mere two-and-a-half minutes of cuts, while it was banned in much of the world. Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi’s 2000 revenge flick Baise-Moi, too, was allowed to screen with 12 seconds of cuts, unlike in its homeland. The usually liberal French censors initially outright banned the film.
In place of bans, the very British censors seem to like to issue polite warnings about what you’re about to see. Usually, this makes sense, with labels warning of violence, bad language, drug use and so on.
We’re bewildered by what happened with 2008’s Special People, though. The film features a majority disabled cast, and aimed to promote the inclusion of disabled actors in films. The British Board of Film Classification’s response to this noble effort? They issued the film with a warning that it contains “disability themes”. We have no idea what that is even supposed to mean.