Movies and Censorship: Who Will Protect Freedom?

by James M. Wall

James M. Wall is Senior Contributing Editor of The Christian Century.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 18-25, 1987, p. 277. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The classification system provided an excuse for exploitation of significant human emotions, trivializing sexuality in the name of freedom and making violence attractive when, by definition, it is ugly. However, the outrage of views has increased. Who will protect the industry? Who will protect our freedom?

My first meeting with Geoffrey Shurlock was in a Hollywood restaurant, on La Cienaga Boulevard in the winter of 1965. At that time Shurlock was head of the Motion Picture Association’s production code office. As a longtime film buff and a critic for a church magazine, I had sought him out for an interview. After determining that I was not just another moralist who wanted to influence film content, but someone who was genuinely interested in film, Shurlock relaxed and asked me a question that was very much on his mind: "We are trying to determine what to do about a picture in which director Sidney Lumet wants to include a shot of a woman’s bare breasts. He insists the scene is essential to the film, and, frankly, I agree with him. It is. But we’ve never permitted that sort of overt nudity in a film. What should we do?"

That discussion took place 22 years ago. Even casual viewers of movies and cable television probably are aware that the film in question, The Pawnbroker, opened floodgates that have washed over us in a torrent of naked bodies, male and female. And that torrent -- combined with social change that has shifted cultural values and technological advances that have given movies access to our living rooms -- has raised, once again, questions about censorship and freedom.

To understand our culture’s current attitude toward movies and censorship, we need to make a brief excursion back to those naïve days before The Pawnbroker. The motion picture production code office was established in the 1920s as a way for the industry to protect itself against local or national censorship. The office was first headed by Will Hays, a former U.S. postmaster general who knew little about movies but a great deal about politics and protocol. Hays was succeeded by Joseph Breen, a devout Roman Catholic layman who at times ran the office as an outpost of the Catholic Church.

The code itself was drafted by Catholics and included such strictures as:

• "No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin."

• "There must be no scenes at any time showing law-enforcing officers dying at the hands of criminals."

The code -- which had to be obeyed if a picture was to receive the office’s "seal of approval" -- also forbade scenes in which a couple was in bed with more than two of their four feet off the floor. Words like "damn," "hell," "broad,’’ "tom cat," "cripes,’’ "fanny’’ and "tart" were all forbidden. Such restrictions sound quaint and archaic today, but from the ‘20s through the mid-’60s, various versions of this code guided the major Hollywood studios. The moguls who ran Warner Brothers, MGM, 20th Century -- Fox, RICO, Columbia and the other studios wanted the code for one reason. As Shurlock said in an interview several years after our first meeting, "I was protecting the industry from being harmed by outraged viewers."

The code worked as long as the film industry was largely a Hollywood centered monopoly. Through its influence on the code office and through its own strong Legion of Decency, the Catholic Church continued to affect the content of films. For example, Shurlock told me of his experience with George Cukor’s Two-Faced Woman (1941) , in which Greta Garbo played twin sisters, one evil and one good. In the film the evil sister sleeps -- off camera, of course -- with the good sister’s husband, and the hapless man doesn’t know the difference. The code office approved the film, but the Legion of Decency threatened to give it a "condemned" rating. So the studio compelled Cukor to shoot a final scene in which sufficient punishment is handed out for the adulterous activity between husband and sister-in-law.

The code office was changed to the classification office in 1968 when it became apparent that protection of the industry required a different strategy. Television was taking away customers, more overtly sexual material was being imported from Japan and Europe, and public attitudes were changing. The Roman Catholic Church’s hold over its members was slipping. In the 1930s the church not only could order its members to refrain from seeing a particular picture; it could also forbid them to attend a theater which had shown a condemned film. In those days, when the church spoke, the parishioners followed. But by 1968 it was evident that this was no longer the case.

Like its production-code predecessor, the classification system -- still very much in effect today, with its ratings of G, PG, PG-13, R and X -- was born out of necessity. On April 22, 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling in the case of Interstate Circuit v. Dallas, which revolved around the film Viva Maria. Starring French actresses Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau, it was not a particularly racy picture, but one that the censor board of the city of Dallas had ruled inappropriate for moviegoers in that community. Interstate Circuit appealed the decision all the way to the Supreme Court. The court’s ruling was a backhanded decision that favored the theater circuit but added that if the city were to improve its system, such cases might be decided in its favor in the future. In short, the court said to Dallas: Come back with a case in which you limit your censorship to films that children can legally watch, and you will find a more favorable atmosphere here.

Within five months the Motion Picture Association of America had created a classification system to meet the Supreme Court guidelines. The industry, said Jack Valenti, head of the MPAA, would police itself by voluntarily designating certain films as inappropriate for children and younger teen-agers and then instructing theater managers to enforce the classification. By November 1 of that year the system was in place.

It is easy to find fault with this initiative. The guidelines shift as public opinion changes; today’s nudity would have been unacceptable to the 1968 rating board. Enforcement is often lax; 13- and 14-year-olds generally have little difficulty gaining entry to theaters that display signs saying that patrons must be 17 years old or older. But the system has protected the industry, and, if you will, a public that doesn’t want censorship controlling what it can see. And artists are free to explore ideas, concepts, images and styles without having to be sure that what they do is acceptable to a five-year-old.

Now we are approaching the 1990s, with a president who thinks that these freedoms have been abused and an aspirant to the presidency, Pat Robertson, who has a clear agenda on matters of morals. The question, therefore, is not whether classification is a good thing, but whether we are about to return to the simpler view of life that existed in the 1930s, when pictures that lowered "moral standards of those who see them" were forbidden.

Today there is genuine alarm at what liberality has delivered to us. Indeed, many of us who still consider ourselves liberal share this concern. While classification freed directors to use explicit language in marvelous films like Platoon and Something Wild and has allowed films like Out of Africa and Children of a Lesser God to explore the complex nature of human sexuality, it has also given us a series of slasher films -- Friday the 13th, with its many parts; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, parts one and two -- and films like Brian DePalma’s artistically significant but deplorably explicit Body Double. Quite simply, freedom is being abused by the industry. It is producing soft-core pornography that not only can make visits to the local theater unpleasant but is available -- uncut and unchanged -- in our homes through cable-movie systems and video-cassette rental. The classification system continues to rate films and give guidance to parents -- which is its purpose. But every film rated R or PG-13, because it is unsuitable for children, nevertheless will eventually be accessible to every living room or bedroom where cable network programming is seen. Our children are once again vulnerable. Another ruling like 1968’s Interstate Circuit v. Dallas can be expected, saying anew that children are not being protected. (Under the U.S. Constitution, certain material can be blocked from viewing by children.)

In Judgment at Nuremberg, a German judge, Burt Lancaster, is on trial for war crimes. Lancaster laments to the American judge at Nuremberg (Spencer Tracy) that he never expected his slight bending of the legal system to come to such a conclusion. Tracy responds, "It came to this the first time you made a false ruling."

Movie censorship may already have become inevitable. It came to this the first time the rating system permitted schlock films to show nudity because of the precedent set by worthwhile pictures like The Pawnbroker. It came to this when the American public emerged from the 60s’ emphasis on freedom and began to worry about the effects of excessive freedom on the young. And it came to this when the voting public turned conservative.

The industry doesn’t want to hear about the likely return of censorship; the American Civil Liberties Union continues to deny it, and many of the rest of us will deplore it. But censorship is coming back because freedom is always relative in a democracy. We have the freedom to speak, but not to cry "Fire!" in a public theater. We have the freedom to keep a dirty house, but not to dump our garbage in our neighbor’s yard. At some point in the next five to ten years the Supreme Court is likely to rule that pollution of our children’s minds is as dangerous as pollution of the air, land and water.

Of course, there is a way to avoid this prospect: voluntary restraint. The various industries involved in producing and distributing motion pictures in theaters and on cable and cassettes should put themselves in a "Twilight Zone" frame of mind and try to imagine what it would feel like to have our film-viewing freedom controlled by a federal or state agency that shapes not only content but also point of view, political perspective and the freedom to make films. When the Roman Catholic Church condemned films and forbade entrance to theaters that had been naughty, we bad a glimpse of what a moralistic authority can do.

The film industry practiced voluntary restraint in 1968 to prevent local censorship boards from imposing restrictions on moviemaking. And the classification system served that purpose. But it also provided an excuse for exploitation of significant human emotions, trivializing sexuality in the name of freedom and making violence attractive when, by definition, it is ugly.

Geoffrey Shurlock told me that he was protecting the industry from "outraged viewers." The outrage has intensified. Who will protect the industry, and who will protect our freedom now?