Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
The Last Temptation of Christ

How the BBFC dealt with the threat of a prosecution for blasphemy

Main image of The Last Temptation of Christ

One of the most controversial films of the 1980s, The Last Temptation of Christ (USA, d. Martin Scorsese, 1988) caused a storm of protest in the United States from the moment Scorsese announced the project in 1982. He managed to complete the film six years later, only to see it become the target of an orchestrated campaign on both sides of the Atlantic.

The problem as far as the British Board of Film Classification was concerned was to do with the law of blasphemy. Although rarely invoked, it remained on the statute books, and the last person to initiate a successful blasphemy prosecution, Mary Whitehouse, made it clear that she would not hesitate to do the same again if Scorsese's film matched its reputation.

The other problem faced by the BBFC was that Scorsese was one of the most distinguished directors working in America. Under normal circumstances there would have been no question of his work being censored, since it would clearly meet the "artistic merit" exemption granted by most British obscenity legislation. But if it was felt that the film did indeed contravene British law, the BBFC would have little choice but to cut it.

As it turned out, there was nothing to worry about. BBFC director James Ferman invited various representatives of Britain's religious communities to watch the film, but it was clear even before the screening had ended that there would be no chance of a successful prosecution. As a result, the film was passed uncut with an 18 certificate, quietly downgraded to a 15 when released on DVD a decade later.

When Channel Four screened the film on 6 June 1995, the protests flared up again, accompanied by threats to boycott companies who advertised in the commercial breaks - but these ultimately had next to no impact.

Michael Brooke

Related Films and TV programmes

Related Collections

Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Ferman, James (1930-2002)Ferman, James (1930-2002)

Censor, Director