Cinema is always evolving and looking to push the boundaries to challenge our view on things, but if you take a look back at some films from decades past, movies can seem a lot more controversial (or braver, some would argue) than they are today. In the age of social media – and at a time where movies are more accessible than ever before – it doesn’t take long for a film to be called out on its controversy and for audiences to debate about what is and isn’t acceptable on screen.
Wind the clock back 20 or 30 years, though, and you tend to come across scenes that are not just uncomfortable to watch, but ones that would even struggle to make it into the final cut today. Our modern era of political correctness and strict health and safety measures would make it pretty much impossible for the following films to make it past the planning stages. From death-defying stunts to obscene nudity and animal slaughter, these films contain scenes that wouldn’t stand a chance with today’s censorship board.
Of course, it’s worth remembering that these movies are products of their time and may not have been considered offensive or controversial in any way to past movie goers. It’s only with modern eyes that these movie scenes appear quite shocking and messed up. If The Godfather were to be remade today, do you think they’d let Francis Ford Coppola use a real decapitated horse head? Unlikely. Do you think Daniel Craig could get away with disguising himself as an Asian man in James Bond? Not in a million years. Here are 15 controversial movie scenes that would definitely not go down well today.
15 The Real Horse Head – The Godfather
The Godfather is packed full of so many violent moments – any one of them could easily be viewed as controversial enough to give this film a limited release today. But the most disturbing moment in the film (and equally the most iconic) is the scene where one character finds out what happens when you turn down a favor from Don Corleone. When Jack Woltz wakes up to find his bed sheets sodden with blood, he pulls back the covers and the decapitated head of his favorite racehorse is staring back at him.
This scene was messed up enough when you try and tell yourself “it’s only a film, it’s just movie effects” but this severed horse head was the real deal! Coppola was apparently unsatisfied with the fake horses head that the special effects team could come up with, so he tracked down a dog plant in New Jersey where horses were due to be slaughtered and told the workers to send him a real head on ice. Horrific.
14 The Love Scene - Howard the Duck
Even if you’ve never seen the atrociously bad cult film Howard the Duck, you’ll probably be familiar with just how disturbing it looks. In a film where a duck appears to have human breasts and Howard the Duck is caught perving on a woman’s ass, any number of scenes from this 80s comedy flop could be considered more disturbing than funny by today’s standards But perhaps the ickiest scene of the entire film is when Lea Thompson’s character seduces Howard and asks him if she can “find happiness in the animal kingdom.” Dear Lord.
What was probably intended as a strangely funny make-out scene just comes across as one of the creepiest things ever put on screen. I feel like I’m watching taped evidence in court rather than a kid’s adventure movie. This flirtation with bestiality could be the reason this film was almost never made – even two Universal execs allegedly got into a fistfight about whether the film should ever have seen the light of day. Wise decision, fellas.
13 Underage Nudity – Kids
If you’re not too familiar with this 90s coming of age film, it could be because the film was slammed upon its release for being exploitative of its tender young cast and it was eventually released without a rating, scraping a meager $7 million at the box office. The writer of Kids, Harmony Korrine, even admitted in 2015 that to make the film now would be impossible and that “you could never get away with it.”
The 1995 film – which centred around a bunch of sexually active teens growing up in New York – was labelled “honest” and "a wake-up call” by some reviewers, but The Washington Post appeared to chime with freaked out parents across America when they described it as “child pornography disguised as a cautionary documentary.” The film may have been trying to accurately portray teenage desires and experimentation, but the world wasn’t ready back then and may be even less accepting 20 years on.
12 The Used Condom – The Mask
The Mask is generally considered a fun family comedy, so it seemed more than a little out of place when Jim Carrey randomly produced a used condom out of his pocket! In a scene where The Mask is trying to entertain some kids with his balloon animal skills, he pulls out a very different kind of balloon animal and apologizes before tossing it aside – and when the condom hits the floor, it makes an audible squishy sound. Awkward.
Like many 90s kids, this sneaky little adult joke will have gone completely over my head. Still, it was pretty risqué of the director to work a very adult gag into a zany Jim Carrey comedy. While the joke probably went down well with adults in the cinema, we can’t see this even making it into the final cut if it were made today. The "squishy" sound effect is just a little too much! Plus, what the heck is The Mask doing carrying a used condom around in the first place?
11 Brooke Shields’ Nude Scene – Pretty Baby
On paper, the 1978 film Pretty Baby by French director Louis Malle already appears to be laced with controversy – it tells the story of a middle-aged photographer and an underage prostitute in love in the early 1900s. So far so creepy. What makes the film especially icky though is the fact that this young prostitute was played by Brooke Shields (who was only 12 years old at the time) and in one very uncomfortable scene, she appeared completely nude.
The idea of any actress younger than 18 appearing completely naked on screen today would still raise eyebrows, but the notion of a preteen girl going full frontal in her first major film role? There would probably be a petition to have the film removed from cinemas an hour after release. As a result of this uneasy scene, Pretty Baby was banned in parts of Canada and was described by most as child pornography.
10 Unflinching Assault Scene - Irréversible
Usually, if you’re watching a rape scene on film, the camera may show just enough for audiences to get the gist of the horrific situation before cutting away or skipping to the victim dealing with the aftermath. But in the French psychological drama Irréversible, director Gaspar Noé showed a rape scene in its entirety – all 9 grueling minutes of it. It’s hard to decide whether a film that doesn’t flinch from showing a rape scene from start to finish is incredibly brave or utterly sickening.
This horrific scene is what has divided critical opinion over the 2002 film starring Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel ever since its release. Films of recent years have definitely not shied away from depicting similarly controversial sex scenes, but very few modern films would be happy showing something as upsetting and disturbing as rape (whether simulated or not) without cutting away to give the audience (and the actors) a break.
9 The Waterfall Showdown – Deliverance
The deeply disturbing film about a buddy trip gone wrong contains many scenes that could be considered controversial. When you consider that Deliverance deals with themes of inbreeding and brutal rape, it might seem odd that the most controversial scene had nothing to do with these aspects at all. The scene that kicked up the most fuss in Deliverance was actually the one where Burt Reynold’s character goes over the waterfall in a canoe.
Feeling brave and up to the task, Reynolds insisted that he perform this stunt himself, despite the director John Boorman insisting that a dummy go in his place instead. Reynold’s survived his stunt, but it could have resulted in the loss of the film’s leading man. Reynold’s suffered shoulder and head injuries after plowing into several rocks on his way down. When he woke up in hospital, he asked Boorman how the shot looked on the dailies. Boorman replied: “Like a dummy going over a waterfall.”
8 “Give Me The Bat, Wendy” - The Shining
The Shining may be one of the greatest horror films ever made and what makes it even more terrifying is the fact that Jack Nicholson’s co-star Shelley Duvall found the filming of it to be so straining that she actually suffered a mental breakdown due to the stress. In the disturbing and upsetting scene where Duvall’s character Wendy is waving the baseball bat at Jack in self-defense, director Stanley Kubrick made Duvall do 127 retakes! Duvall later described the ordeal as “almost unbearable” and she suffered hair loss as a result of Kubrick's perfectionism.
Nowadays, if an actor was due to replay such a harrowing scene over and over again, they would likely have some kind of counselor or therapist on standby to help them de-stress and "let go" of their character before they clocked off for the day. Sadly it looks like Shelley Duvall had no such luxury. If this is how most actors were treated decades ago, this has revealed a dark new side to 70s cinema.
7 Sean Connery’s Japanese Disguise – You Only Live Twice
Before Daniel Craig rebooted 007 and made him somewhat realistic, vintage James Bond was always a little cheesy and definitely a product of its own era. The Roger Moore and Sean Connery era were the worst for smutty innuendos and jokes that wouldn’t even make it into a Christmas cracker. But when Bond wasn’t making ridiculous verbal jokes, he was pulling ridiculous visual stunts – like this one.
For some strange reason, the director and film crew behind You Only Live Twice thought it was perfectly fine to have Sean Connery disguise himself as a Japanese man. His brilliant recipe for this disguise? Bushy gray eyebrows and a wig. To call this decision embarrassing is an understatement. The earlier Bond films were never exactly tasteful, but this has to be one of the strangest moments ever in the entire Bond series. When a scene from a genuine James Bond film reminds you of Austin Powers instead, you know you’ve lowered the bar!
6 Tippi Hedren’s Mental Anguish - The Birds
Terrorizing his blonde female leads was as much of a Hitchcock staple as his cameos and apparently, none of Alfred Hitchcock's blonde leading ladies were terrorized more than Tippi Hedren in the 1963 classic The Birds. The slightly outdated special effects may look silly to first-time viewers now, but we were merely watching the film and we never got to witness the barrage of live birds (or the constant abuse) Hedren faced at the hands of her director.
Speaking openly about her experience on set, Tippi Hedren revealed in an interview that Hitchock “put me in a mental prison.” She apparently endured weeks of verbal and mental abuse by Hitch as well as having live birds thrown at her with rubber bands around their beaks. This sounds like grounds for torture! I wonder how many directors would fare well with a reputation for leaving their actors with PTSD.
5 Real Animal Killings – Cannibal Holocaust
Think about the number of films you’ve watched that remind audiences in the end credits that “No animals were harmed in the making of this film.” Filmmakers quite rightly take the safety and well-being of any living creature very seriously when making a piece of art, but not every film crew has this same moral compass it seems. With a title like Cannibal Holocaust, it’s probably no surprise that this film has some pretty unpleasant content, but unfortunately, most of the horrific shots you see are real.
This controversial film from the 70s featured scenes of actual animal slaughter – 7 animals in total were brutally killed for the sake of the film. Of all of these needless and barbaric killings, the most disturbingly graphic death featured a tortoise being decapitated and dissected. The film crew of Cannibal Holocaust was taken to court over accusations that some actors were murdered for the film. Thankfully, no one was, but the needless animal cruelty is just as outrageous.
4 Illegal Stunt - The French Connection
The French Connection is famed for featuring one of the greatest car chase sequences of all time. But did you ever consider why the chase scene felt as dangerous as it was exciting? It’s because parts of it genuinely were dangerous. Normally for any big scale stunts in the movies, film crews clear their intentions with the town or city they happen to be working in and keep locals in the know about what their intentions are. Not for director William Friedkin, it seems.
While Friedkin had reserved most of the blocks in New York City that were needed for Gene Hackman’s epic car chase, when it came to shooting the scene, Friedkin and the stunt driver Bill Hickman played a little fast and loose with the rules and drove the car outside their designated clearance area – putting cars and pedestrians in serious danger. In fact, one of the crashes you see in the scene was genuine and Friedkin paid the unsuspecting guy’s car repair bills! Paying off someone might have worked in 1971, but this would be met with serious and career-damaging legal action today.
3 Non-Consensual Assault Scene – Last Tango in Paris
The erotic drama starring Marlon Brando was already considered pretty controversial by some when you consider that the then 48-year-old Brando was appearing in steamy love scenes with his 19-year-old co-star Maria Schneider. Being aware of their vast age gap, the moments of intimacy in Last Tango in Paris already made for uncomfortable viewing, but when an interview with the film’s director leaked about making one of the love scenes, a pretty horrid secret was revealed.
In a video interview from 2013 that resurfaced last year, director Bernando Bertolucci admitted that Maria Schneider was given no prior warning about the infamous rape scene where Brando uses a stick of butter as lubricant. Apparently, Bertolucci and Brando planned the scene together without asking for Schneider’s consent. Years later, Schneider confessed in a 2007 interview that although no actual sex was involved, she felt that she had been “forced” and “a little raped” by the whole thing.
2 Buffalo Hacked To Death - Apocalypse Now
Francis Ford Coppola famously said that Apocalypse Now was "not a film about Vietnam, it was Vietnam." As stupid and insensitive as the remark might sound, Coppola was merely alluding to the endless chaos he faced while making the film. His initial main star Harvey Keitel backed out, his replacement Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack and the helicopters were on loan from the Filipino military, meaning they had limited time with them – it sure sounds like every director’s worst nightmare.
On top of this, Coppola was about to face even more problems when he decided to leave graphic footage of a buffalo being slaughtered in the film’s final cut. Coppola filmed an indigenous tribe hacking a buffalo to death and kept the grisly footage in the edit – much to the anger of animal rights groups. This would destroy the reputation of many first-time directors, but perhaps the era and the impressive filmography of Mr. Coppola meant this went largely unchallenged.
1 Human Sacrifice – Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
The Indiana Jones films may have felt like fun, family-friendly romps, but when you think about it, Indy faced some pretty scary sh*t – especially in the second outing Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom when we saw our hero get mixed in with a barbaric Indian cult. This Thuggee cult removed a guy’s heart with his bare hands and then lowered him into a fiery pit – not exactly the image that comes to mind when you think of Steven Spielberg blockbusters!
Because of this freaky human sacrifice scene as well as the general amount of bloodshed on offer, the second Indiana Jones installment was definitely considered too disturbing and grisly for a youth audience and the film was soon given an altered rating of PG 13. If it were released now, promoting the Temple of Doom as a family film wouldn’t cut it – this would have to be 15 at least!
Sources: screenrant.com, theguardian.com, telegraph.com