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International Guerrillas and Criminal Libel

How a crude Pakistani action flick posed serious legal problems

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The Pakistani film International Guerrillas (d. Jan Mohammed, 1990) was a crude thriller inspired by the controversy over Salman Rushdie's 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. The film portrays Rushdie as a James Bond-style villain protected by the Israeli armed forces. The good guys are Islamic freedom fighters, and Rushdie is eventually killed by a bolt of lightning emitted by a flying Koran.

Although it is hard to imagine anyone taking this seriously, when the film was submitted to the British Board of Film Classification, they were faced with an unusual dilemma: how to deal with potential libel.

In 1958, the BBFC had refused a certificate to two films about the alleged Nazi past of apparently upright German citizens. One of these, Operation Teutonic Sword (Unternehmen Teutonenschwert, East Germany, 1958, d. Annelie Thorndike), was passed by the London County Council, but its release was delayed by a successful libel action.

The Board later sought legal advice regarding potentially libellous films, and was informed that this was almost certainly outside its jurisdiction. As a result, the BBFC decided not to cut or ban films on these grounds.

But when International Guerrillas was submitted in 1990, it was felt that the portrayal of Rushdie might qualify as criminal libel, causing a breach of the peace as opposed to merely tarnishing his reputation. The BBFC therefore refused to grant the film a certificate.

However, the ban was lifted two months later after Rushdie said that while he thought the film was "a distorted, incompetent piece of trash", he promised not to sue. He later said "If that film had been banned, it would have become the hottest video in town: everyone would have seen it".

Rushdie's stance was more than justified, as the film, a huge hit in Pakistan, disappeared virtually without trace in Britain.

Michael Brooke

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