Film Censorship - Some Notes

Nigel Watson

Talking Pictures alias






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The subject of censorship can be broken down into six main sections:

1. What is censorship? 

2.  Censorship in the cinema

3. Is censorship really necessary?

4. Censorship and genre

5. The context of censorship and the role of social change

6. Censorship and technology

Here these topics will be considered in more detail and group/classroom activities will be suggested.

1. What is censorship? 

Censorship can be broadly defined as the suppression of knowledge or ideas. 
Used by Governments or organisations to prevent the circulation of material. In wartime information about troop activities, future battle plans etc., will be censored. In peacetime censorship can be more problematic and controversial. 

Activity: List the elements of films that that you would want to censor? E.g. in terms of language, plot, subject matter. This should help determine the main areas and features of censorship. Give reasons why we would censor films - e.g. to protect minors, minority groups, etc. Give reasons why we would object to or restrict censorship - e.g. issue of free speech.

2.  Censorship in the cinema

We can now compare how films have come to be censored in real life with the elements we have identified in the activity above.

In the US with the coming of sound in 1927 there was a call for stricter censorship. The Production or Hays Code of film classification was introduced in 1934 to control the depiction of religious groups, foreign countries, foreigners, sexual and criminal activity, and other repellent subjects. This held sway until the early 1950s. In 1968 a classification system was established that all Hollywood movies adhere to on a voluntary basis. It is run by the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America).

In Britain we have the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification). This also classifies films and certifies them for public distribution.

Group Activity: Discuss whether classification is just a self-imposed method of censorship. Is it there for the benefit of the motion picture industry, government or viewer? What groups or organisations have most influence on it? What pressures are on it? Is classification paternalistic, patronising and a reflection or establishment of standards.


British Board of Film Classification website:

Motion Picture Association of America website:

3. Is censorship really necessary?

Activity: What films or film sequences have you seen that you think should have been censored. Did these elements shock or influence you in any way?

Effects of media on the audience have mainly been conducted in relation to TV audiences and focussed on the issue of violence. For example, in laboratory conditions children have been shown violent film clips and then their behaviour has been monitored afterwards to see if they act more aggressively than a control group that has not been shown violent films.

Content Analysis has also been employed to count the number of acts of violence, violent language and related actions in a specific film. A high score would rate the film as being more likely to inspire aggressive reactions than a low scoring film.

Polls and surveys, and test screenings are another means of determining how an audience responds to a film.

Group Activity: View a film sequence and note the incidents of violence contained in it. Afterwards discuss the pros and cons of this content analysis in relation to censorship. Critics claim that such studies are limited as they do not consider the wider context of the film and its effect on the viewer. A direct cause and effect - viewing a violent film causing aggressive behaviour - has been very hard to establish on a scientific basis.


4. Censorship and genre

The BBFC notes that it gives more allowance to Art House movies, or films that bring important issues to a wider audience e.g. Spielbergís Schindlerís List or Saving Private Ryan. It also gives different allowances to different genres - e.g. it will except more violence in a cartoon than a crime movie.

Group Activity: 

Group 1. Imagine you are making a Horror film 
Group 2. Imagine you are making a Romantic Drama film 
Group 3. Imagine you are making a Crime Drama film 
Group 4. Imagine you are making a Disaster film 

What elements would you need to feature in your groupís chosen film genre? What areas of censorship would you have to consider? E.g. in terms of nudity, sexual activity, language, presentation of criminal acts, violence, moral message of the movie, the target audience. How would you tackle the issue of censorship?

This activity shows that different genres have different audience expectations. 

5. The context of censorship and the role of social change

Beyond the film itself we have to consider its wider social context. 

For example, after a terrorist outrage - such as immediately after 9/11 film makers avoided making films that touched on this topic. E.g. Spielberg deleted a reference to terrorism in his re-release of E.T. yet in 2005 released his version of The War of the Worlds which depicted the destruction of US society by Ďaliení warfare.

On an informal basis we employ individual and collective censorship. As an artist/ film maker we might never want to make a film that would feature a subject repugnant to ourselves or we might meet resistance from financial backers if we did try to make such a film. The commercial basis of film making and the need for box office success can dictate and censor the type of films than can or cannot be made.

In the 1950 and 1960s the affluent/permissive society broke down many traditional barriers and previously taboo topics became the subject of films. Violence and nudity became more graphic. The innuendoes of the Carry On films gave why to the more explicit Confessions films of the 1970s. 

Activity:  What film topics would you like to censor now? Is free speech and censorship compatible?

6. Censorship and technology

New technology presents new problems for film censorship. The perfection of special effects especially with the introduction of digital technology in the early 1990s means that all forms of graphic violence can be depicted. Furthermore, the technological means of delivering films to an audience has evolved. Video technology of the 1980s brought about the fears of video nasties being viewed in the home. Similarly video games portraying graphic violence and scenarios have created equally powerful moral panics. Currently the Internet has prompted fears about the easy distribution of uncensored  films and other visual material to people in their homes.

ACTIVITY:  Is censorship necessary or possible in the future? Is classification alone able to Ďcontrolí what we view?

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