Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Film Censorship in the US

How film censorship is applied on the other side of the Atlantic

Main image of Film Censorship in the US

Although censorship is technically forbidden by the US Constitution (thanks to the absolute right to freedom of speech), in practice it has been applied in numerous subtle and not so subtle ways in order to keep film-makers in line.

Film regulation became a national issue in 1930, when concern over what was perceived to be increasing immorality in early American sound films led to the creation of the Motion Picture Production Code (popularly known as the Hays Code after its creator, Will H. Hays). Its guidelines, together with those laid down by the influential Catholic Legion of Decency, had a far-reaching effect on mainstream film production in the US.

By the mid-1960s, social changes rendered existing guidelines inadequate - the Legion of Decency was ridiculed for condemning distinguished films such as La Dolce Vita (Italy, d. Federico Fellini, 1960) and The Pawnbroker (US, d. Sidney Lumet, 1964), and producers increasingly ignored the Hays Code's recommendations. When Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (US, d. Mike Nichols, 1966), a film that blatantly breached the Code in several respects, garnered thirteen Oscar nominations (winning five), it was clear that the system had irretrievably broken down.

The Motion Picture Association of America therefore introduced a ratings system that sought to distinguish between films suitable for children and those clearly made for adults. Although technically voluntary, in practice mainstream films are generally expected to have a rating no stronger than an R (which admits accompanied children under seventeen). If they get anything more restrictive (or aren't rated at all) major studios usually won't release them, major cinema chains won't show them, and mainstream publications won't accept advertising for them. As a result, films are effectively censored by economic pressure.

Although the US ratings system may seem irrelevant to British audiences, it has an international influence, as it is often the case that cut US versions are submitted to the British Board of Film Classification, even if the BBFC might have fewer (or even no) problems with the material that caused difficulties in America.

Ken Russell (The Devils, 1971; Crimes of Passion, US, 1984), Stanley Kubrick (A Clockwork Orange, 1971; Eyes Wide Shut, 1999) and Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, US, 1969; Straw Dogs, 1971) are three major directors whose cited films were initially released in Britain in longer versions than those shown in American cinemas, but they are very much in the minority.

Michael Brooke

Related Films and TV programmes

Related Collections

Thumbnail image of Censorship and RegulationCensorship and Regulation

How film and video content is regulated in the UK

Thumbnail image of The Hays CodeThe Hays Code

The moral code that governed mid-20th century American film-making

Thumbnail image of The US Ratings SystemThe US Ratings System

How films are classified and censored in the United States

Related People and Organisations