Independence Day brings with it Sounds of Cinema’s annual controversial films special. The episode celebrates freedom of speech with a look at movies that have been censored, banned, or were otherwise controversial. This year’s program did something a little different, focusing on movies released in 1971 and 1972. That period saw an explosion of boundary-pushing films, some of which are still controversial today.
Dirty Harry (1971)
Most films that are controversial for their violence usually cause scandal because of copycat murders or because the actions of the villains in the story are more extreme than the audience is willing to accept. 1971’s Dirty Harry is a bit different. The title character is psychotic, sadistic, has no regard for laws or legal institutions but he is the good guy. Played by Clint Eastwood, “Dirty Harry” Callahan became an iconic figure in American movies.
Dirty Harry was a marriage of Hollywood entertainment and political reactionism. In the 1960s and 70s violent crime rates in major cities had been climbing and Richard Nixon successfully campaigned for president on a law-and-order platform. The San Francisco area, where Dirty Harry is set, had been terrorized by the Zodiac Killer; the villain of Dirty Harry is a serial killer known as Scorpio. The film also makes reference to the 1966 United States Supreme Court Miranda v. Arizona which reaffirmed the protections provided by the Fifth Amendment and ruled that police were obligated to explicitly inform citizens of their rights while under arrest. This was controversial at the time with some critics claiming that the court was taking the side of criminals at the expense of their victims and impairing law enforcement’s ability to do their jobs. Dirty Harry took this posture explicitly with the character rejecting procedure and going his own way.
The politics of Dirty Harry weren’t lost on viewers of the time. Viewers with conservative or rightwing leanings responded enthusiastically to the movie. Roger Ebert gave Dirty Harry a positive three-star review but wrote “The movie’s moral position is fascist. No doubt about it.” and Pauline Kael wrote “this action genre has always had a fascist potential, and it has finally surfaced.” Protesters showed up at the Academy Awards with signs that proclaimed “Dirty Harry is a fascist pig.”
Dirty Harry inspired decades of vigilante and renegade cop movies such as Death Wish and Lethal Weapon and Bad Boys. As this subgenre went on the police violence became more extreme while diluting the edge and intelligence of their inspiration. Dirty Harry had its own series of sequels, the first of them being Magnum Force. Reflecting the criticism of the original movie, Dirty Harry investigates a group of police officers who have taken his methods a step further and act as vigilantes. And in The Dead Pool, the killer attacks a film critic who resembled Pauline Kael.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)
In the late 1960s Melvin Van Peebles had achieved success as a novelist and a filmmaker. After completing the studio film Watermelon Man, Van Peebles wanted to make a movie with a majority-black cast and his need for total creative control led the filmmaker to independently produce his next film, 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.
Along with Shaft, which was released the same year, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is credited with starting the blaxploitation movement. However, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was much more overtly political. It opens with a dedication to “all the Brothers and Sisters who have had enough of the Man” and tells the story of a black male sex worker who witnesses an act of police brutality, kills the officers involved, and then goes on the run from the law. The movie was rated X by the Motion Picture Association which the filmmakers turned into the advertising tagline, “Rated X by an all white jury.” The politics of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song were seized upon by the Black Panthers who used it as a recruiting film but the movie was also criticized within the black community for reinforcing negative stereotypes and encouraging a fantasy of black liberation instead of dealing with reality.
Most contentious was a prologue sequence in which a juvenile Sweetback has sex with an adult woman. When the movie was first cleared for home video distribution in the United Kingdom director Melvin Van Peebles claimed that the sex scene was performed by adult actors but it was later revealed the young Sweetback was in fact played by the director’s fourteen-year-old son. As a result, the subsequent UK editions of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song heavily edited the prologue. The version released on Blu-Ray in the United States is uncut.
The controversy around Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song helped make the movie a hit. It was a disreputable film at the time but in the half a century since then, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song has been rightly recognized as an important title within black cinema and in American cinema as a whole and in 2020 Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry. Viewers new to this film may find it difficult to watch. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was made on the cheap by people who didn’t entirely know what they were doing, which gives the film a gritty authenticity but the plot, cinematography, and editing are at times nearly incomprehensible. But sometimes artistry and audacity can transcend filmmaking polish.
Last House on the Left (1972)
Last House on the Left was the directorial debut of Wes Craven, who went on to direct horror classics like The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream and it was produced by Sean Cunningham who later had great success directing the original Friday the 13th. A loose adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (which itself was adapted from medieval folklore) Last House on the Left tells the story of two teenage girls who are tortured and killed by a group of criminals. The killers inadvertently take shelter at the home of one of the victims and the parents take bloody revenge.
Last House on the Left is a nasty and difficult film. Its harshness is partly due to the look of the picture. It has a scuzzy and amateurish feel, partly owing to its link to the porn industry—several actors and crew members worked in adult films—as well as Craven and Cunningham’s inexperience. By Craven’s own admission, he didn’t understand how to stage scenes in a way that maintained continuity and so the final film used a lot of long takes which gave it a sense of reality. Last House on the Left featured brutal violence and gore that went beyond what audience were prepared for but also attempts at comedy with a couple of screwball police officers trying and failing to stop the carnage. The production values, the comedy, the violence, and the folk soundtrack by David Hess created a clash of tones that was nauseating.
Last House on the Left was cut down dramatically to get the R rating from the Motion Picture Association. Nevertheless, the film caused a sensation upon its release. Last House on the Left was primarily shown in independent theaters and some cinema owners were so offended by the picture that they destroyed the print or made their own edits, excising some of the grislier bits. Allegedly, irate viewers at one screening attempted to break into the projection booth to destroy the film. Craven has said that he was accused of being as subversive as a Communist plot to undermine the morals of American youth.
There have been a lot of different editions of Last House on the Left. The Blu-Ray editions are advertised as the uncut version. However, Wes Craven expressed a tense relationship with the movie, feeling that aspects of it had gone too far, and Last House on the Left was adjusted over the years. When the film was being restored, a complete print could not be found and various copies of Last House on the Left had to be spliced together in order to produce a complete version. The Arrow Video release includes three different cuts of Last House on the Left.
Carnal Knowledge (1971)
In the late 1960s and early 70s public morals around sexuality underwent a major shift during what’s now called the sexual revolution. Movies like Shampoo, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and The Last Picture Show reflected the change in values and explored the new boundaries of cinema. Among the most important of these titles was Mike Nichols’ 1971 film Carnal Knowledge. According to Richard McGuinness, the screenwriter Jules Feiffer intended Carnal Knowledge to be a sexual history of his generation “in which men of all political and ethical stripes shared some complicity in the Playboy Bunny aesthetic.” The picture starred Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel and follows their characters’ romantic and sexual exploits over several decades. The two men have opposing but problematic views of women; Garfunkel’s character idolizes women to a fault while Nicholson’s character views them as sex objects. The movie takes on topics of lust, power, and misogyny in a way that is still relevant and upsetting five decades later. As a product of the sexual revolution, Carnal Knowledge was reflective rather than celebratory of the new freedoms; as Bruce Eder puts it, Carnal Knowledge was “the rude awakening following sexual awakening.” The movie was so identified with the changing morality of the 1970s that the television show The Wonder Years built an episode around the movie in which the underage characters sneak into a screening.
For its time, Carnal Knowledge was extraordinarily frank about sexuality. This movie allegedly has the first appearance of a condom in a motion picture and the dialogue includes many blunt exchanges. For some, the movie went too far. According to Sean Axmaker at TCM, Carnal Knowledge was banned for a time in Italy and some newspapers refused to run advertisements for it. A print of Carnal Knowledge was seized by police from a cinema in Georgia and the theater owner was arrested and convicted of distributing obscene material. The trial went all the way to the United States Supreme Court who acquitted the theater owner and struck down the George obscenity law.
The Last Picture Show (1971)
The Last Picture Show was adapted from the novel by Larry McMurty. The film is a portrait of life in a small Texas town in the early 1950s with an emphasis on the sex lives of teenagers. Author Larry McMurty based The Last Picture Show on his experiences growing up in Archer City, Texas and the movie was shot there. The residents of the town were not particularly happy to see local gossip and scandals turned into a major motion picture and were hostile toward the filmmakers. For its time, The Last Picture Show was extremely frank in its depiction of sexuality; in one memorable scene a group of teenagers skinny dip in a country club pool. The sexuality of The Last Picture Show led to the film getting banned in Phoenix, Arizona when the city attorney declared the movie obscene and ordered that it be censored from drive-in theaters. Columbia Pictures complied and pulled the movie but then pursued the matter in federal court where the ban was struck down. In 1992 director Peter Bogdanovich reinserted seven minutes of footage that had been omitted at the behest of Columbia Pictures. The 126-minute director’s cut is now the only version of The Last Picture Show available.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
A Clockwork Orange was an adaptation of the novel by Anthony Burgess. The story is set in a dystopian future where gangs of juvenile delinquents roam the streets of a British city. Alex, played by Malcolm McDowell, leads a crew of droogs engaging in larceny, vandalism, and assault until he’s caught and incarcerated and subjected to an unusual form of psychological conditioning. A Clockwork Orange was controversial for its intense violence and sexual imagery made especially nauseating by the film’s arch style and cartoonish tone. That’s most famously exemplified by a scene in which Alex and his friends invade a home, torturing a couple and sexually assaulting a woman while crooning the song “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Among the people bothered by A Clockwork Orange was novelist Anthony Burgess. He had written A Clockwork Orange in response to a trauma experienced by his wife and the book is about a young man who outgrows wanton violence. However, the film was based on the American edition of the book which omitted the final chapter. Burgess was upset about that, feeling that this version of the story missed the point of his book. For the rest of his life, Burgess would be critical of the film and concerned about its potential to incite violence.
A Clockwork Orange was initially released in the United States with an X rating from the Motion Picture Association. The rating system was relatively new when A Clockwork Orange was released and the X rating was intended to label films that were only suitable for grown up audiences. However, the X would also severely limit where A Clockwork Orange could be shown. Director Stanley Kubrick removed about thirty seconds of footage to get the film reclassified with an R rating.
A Clockwork Orange had an especially complicated run in the United Kingdom. The film’s classification process was contentious. Films in the UK have to pass through the British Board of Film Classification before they can be shown and the board has the right to reject movies outright. The process is supposed to be apolitical but top law enforcement officials took an interest in the classification of A Clockwork Orange. The board was known for being highly restrictive on violence and especially sexual violence. Nevertheless, A Clockwork Orange was passed uncut which was scandalous to some people. The press linked A Clockwork Orange to several supposedly copycat crimes which led to filmmaker Stanley Kubrick receiving numerous threats. In response to those threat, Kubrick pulled A Clockwork Orange out of circulation in the UK and it remained unavailable there until 2000.
The Devils (1971)
The Devils was adapted from the play of the same name by John Whiting and from the nonfiction book The Devils of Loudon by Aldous Huxley. Set in 17th century France, the film tells the true story of satanic panic among a convent of nuns and the prosecution of a Catholic priest for witchcraft. As depicted in the film, Urbain Grandier (played by Oliver Reed) is as much a politician as a priest, and he defends the city of Loudun against the political machinations of Cardinal Richelieu. When a case of mass sexual hysteria breaks out among the nuns of a local convent, the cardinal’s operatives label it demonic possession and pin the cause on Grandier, using a religious mechanism to destroy a political enemy.
Directed by Ken Russell, The Devils is an angry political film that rails against the unholy alliance of church and state, showing how that cooperative distorts and corrupts both institutions. It is an extreme movie both in content and in style and The Devils’ combination of religious and sexual imagery made its provocative subject matter that much more inflammatory.
Warner Bros. financed The Devils but studio executives either didn’t read the script or didn’t understand it and when they finally screened the movie Warner Bros. executives were shocked by what Ken Russell had made. Before The Devils was submitted to any censorship board, the studio executives preemptively cut the movie, reducing or eliminating some key sequences. When the film was finally submitted to the BBFC and the MPA The Devils suffered additional cuts. A few years later, Warner Bros. rereleased the film to capitalize on the success of The Exorcist and put The Devils through an additional bout of editing. This was the version subsequently released on home video.
When it premiered in 1971, The Devils received polarized reactions. Professional critics frequently slammed the movie, the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore condemned The Devils, and conservative religious organizations mobilized against it. However, Reverend Gene D. Phillips, a Jesuit priest who taught film courses at Loyola University, defended The Devils and used it as part of his curriculum. Ken Russell was named Best Director at the Venice Film Festival despite the fact that The Devils was banned in Italy and actors Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave were threatened with jail time if they entered the country.
Decades later, The Devils came to be regarded as one of the most important British films of the post-war era and it has been praised by filmmakers such as David Cronenberg, Terry Gilliam, and Guillermo del Toro. British film critic Mark Kermode oversaw a restoration of The Devils that reincorporated the deleted sequences and the original cut was finally shown publicly at a special screening held in 2004. However, Warner Bros. has refused to release the movie. According to author Richard Crouse, senior Warner Bros. executives are either personally offended by The Devils or fear reopening the controversy and continue to withhold The Devils despite the fact that Warner Bros. distributes such controversial titles as The Exorcist, A Clockwork Orange, and Natural Born Killers. In 2012 the British Film Institute was allowed to release a Region-2 DVD of the UK edition of the movie, which is still missing key sequences. The Devils has never had a Region-1 DVD or Blu-Ray release. However, the movie does show up from time to time on horror-based streaming services.
A bizarre footnote: On the fiftieth anniversary of The Devils, Warner Bros. released the family film Space Jam: A New Legacy. The courtside audience watching the climactic basketball game was packed with characters from Warner Bros. properties including the Droogs from A Clockwork Orange and the Ursuline nuns from The Devils.
Deep Throat (1972)
Prior to the 1970s, the adult entertainment industry was primarily produced underground. Sex films consisted of what were called loops, which were single scenes that played cyclically in private projection booths. 1972’s Deep Throat and similar features released in the early 70s changed adult motion pictures from loops into B-movies with explicit sex. With the advent of videotapes in the 1980s and streaming video in the 2000s, the genre has come back around to resemble the loops of half a century earlier.
Deep Throat was not the first film of its kind nor is it a particularly exceptional sex film but it was an important picture because of the events that happened around it. The film was released amid the sexual revolution of the 1970s and when it opened in New York City Deep Throat became a social event. The film was shown at grindhouse theaters but also in mainstream cinemas and public screenings drew audiences from all levels of society, including celebrities. As the picture rose in prominence, the filmmakers of Deep Throat found themselves at the center of a legal battle over obscenity and free speech. Screenings of Deep Throat were raided by police, the film was banned in twenty-three states, and actor Harry Reems was indicted on charges of conspiracy to distribute obscene material across state lines. The legal prosecutions only furthered the movie’s box office success and the court battles were ultimately won by the filmmakers. The legal and cultural legacy of Deep Throat is twofold: it widened the latitude for filmmakers to explore sexuality in films of all kinds, from independent features to mainstream Hollywood movies, and it established the foundation for the contemporary porn industry which is now a multi-billion-dollar business.
After the legal hurdles had been overcome, the filmmakers of Deep Throat were indicted by one of their own. Linda Lovelace, the star of Deep Throat, published a memoir in which she claimed to have been beaten and coerced into the porn industry by her ex-husband and manager Chuck Traynor. The former adult actress was embraced by anti-pornography activists who propped up Lovelace as a voice against misogyny. The actress found new fame in television appearances and even testified before Congress during the hearings of the Meese Commission. Lovelace’s accusations have been disputed by other people who were on the Deep Throat set but Chuck Traynor has corroborated some of Lovelace’s abuse claims. In later years, Lovelace had less than complementary things to say about anti-porn advocates, claiming they had taken advantage of her.
For better or worse, Deep Throat is one of the most important films in the history of American cinema. It represented the new freedoms of its day and the sordid backstage details and the legal drama of Deep Throat’s release exemplify the complexity of that newfound liberality. Those interested in learning more about the political and cultural legacy of this film should check out the 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat.
Straw Dogs (1971)
Director Sam Peckinpah had achieved infamy with 1969’s The Wild Bunch, which initially earned an X-rating from the Motion Picture Association due to its violence. Years later, the notion that The Wild Bunch was censored for stylized gunplay is downright quaint but Peckinpah’s 1971 film Straw Dogs remains as provocative as ever. The movie tells the story of a mild-mannered mathematician (Dustin Hoffman) who spends the summer with his wife (Susan George) in her rural hometown. A crew of locals make repairs to the couple’s house and the film climaxes with the husband and wife fighting off a home invasion.
Straw Dogs’ enduring controversy is mostly due to a rape scene involving the wife and two of the construction workers. Aside from the horror of depicting sexual violence, the scene continues to inspire debate because the consent between the wife and one of her attackers plays out ambiguously. Also controversial was the violent climax. Straw Dogs’ final sequence was far more brutal than audiences of 1971 were prepared for and the transformation of a self-professed pacifist into a killer remains disturbing.
Straw Dogs had a troubled reception. The movie got polarized reviews and viewers frequently walked out of screenings due to its violence. The film was accused of lionizing the worst human impulses and advancing regressive sexual politics. Straw Dogs was censored for theatrical exhibition and many of the edits focused on the rape scene. The filmmakers were accused of eroticizing sexual assault or minimizing its traumatic effects. Straw Dogs’ rape sequence is nuanced and complex and requires close reading by the viewer. As Stevie Simkin has noted, the attempts to shorten or alter the sequence frequently distorted its meaning and actually made the scene more problematic.
Straw Dogs had an especially difficult time with censors in the United Kingdom. The movie had been released in the the UK with an X certificate after minor cuts. However, Straw Dogs underwent new scrutiny when it was released on home video. The passage of the UK’s 1984 Video Recordings Act required the film to be reassessed. This resulted in Straw Dogs being withdrawn from the British home video market altogether. In 1997 Straw Dogs was resubmitted to the British Board of Film Classification but with the United States cut featuring a reduced version of the rape scene. The attempts to blunt the sequence actually made it worse and derailed the film’s certification. In 2002 Straw Dogs was shown to clinical psychologists who determined that the film was not harmful to viewers nor likely to encourage copycat behavior and the film was finally passed with an 18 certificate.
Straw Dogs was very much a film of its time. In many respects it is a reworking of the western, Peckinpah’s genre of choice, and it has one foot planted in the masculinity and sexual politics of an earlier era. The film’s other foot is set in 1971 amid the feminist movement, social unrest, and the war in Vietnam. Those competing sets of values were (and still are) a combustible mixture. But what is most upsetting about Straw Dogs is its implicit suggestion that our civilized veneer disguises the ugly truth of human nature: that we are violent, bestial creatures. Flawed as it may be, Straw Dogs presents that thesis with complexity and nuance that are missing from so many later shoot-’em-up action pictures.
Last Tango in Paris (1972)
Last Tango in Paris tells the story of a torrid affair between a young woman and an older man played by Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando. For its time—and even now—the movie was remarkably raw and explicit. Last Tango in Paris was released when the MPA’s rating system was relatively new and at that time the X rating did not have a pornographic stigma attached to it; the rating simply described movies that were intended for adult audiences. Last Tango in Paris was among the first mainstream films to get an X rating and go out to U.S. theaters intact rather than appeal or cut content to achieve an R, although it was cut for later re-releases. It was also the first film to be prosecuted under Britain’s Obscene Publications Act although the filmmakers eventually won. The movie was also banned for a time in Nova Scotia, Portugal, and South Korea. Last Tango in Paris was also banned in Italy where director Bernardo Bertolucci was given a 4-month suspended prison sentence for obscenity. Despite the controversy, Last Tango in Paris was generally considered a respectable work of art house cinema and Brando and Bertolucci were nominated for Academy Awards.
In recent years, Last Tango in Paris found itself back in the news. The movie contains an infamous rape sequence popularly referred to as the “butter scene.” Maria Schneider said in a 2007 interview that fellow actor Marlon Brando and director Bernardo Bertolucci worked out what would happen in the scene behind her back. They then sprung the moment on Schneider and the actress said, “I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci.” Schneider’s comments went mostly unremarked upon until 2016 when an archival interview with Bertolucci resurfaced in which the director confirmed that he and Brando had come up with the idea to use butter in the scene and did not tell Schneider specifically so that she would feel humiliated and provide a genuine reaction. News of the behind-the-scenes skullduggery caused outrage. A number of high profile actors and filmmakers weighed in on the revelations including director Ava DuVernay who Tweeted “As a director, I can barely fathom this. As a woman, I am horrified, disgusted and enraged by it.” The revelations have led some critics to question the status of Last Tango in Paris as a classic.
Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971)
Pink Flamingos (1972)
The Tin Drum (1971)
The American Nightmare. Dir. Adam Simon. DVD. 2000.
Crouse, Richard. Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of The Devils. ECW Press, 2012.
A Decade Under the Influence. Dir. Ted Demme and Richard LaGravenese. DVD. 2003.
Dirks, Tim. “The 100+ Most Controversial Films of All Time.” AMC Filmsite.
Inside Deep Throat. Dir. Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. DVD. 2005.
“It’s Only a Movie: The Making of Last House on the Left.” Last House on the Left. Blu-Ray. 2002.
“The Last Picture Show: A Look Back.” The Last Picture Show. Blu-Ray. 1999.
McNeil, Legs and Jennifer Osborne, and Peter Pavia. The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry. It Books, 2006.
“A Moral Right.” Magnum Force. DVD. 2008.
The Real Linda Lovelace. Dir. Andrew Abbott and Russell Leven. 2002.
Simkin, Stevie. Straw Dogs. Red Globe Press, 2011.
“Still Tickin’: The Return of A Clockwork Orange.” A Clockwork Orange. Blu-Ray. 2000.