Film Censorship in the 20th Century: A Socio-Political Overview

The purpose of this paper is to present film censorship in the 20th century in light of the socio-political-and less extensively, economic context by taking into account three films largely discussed in class: The Great Dictator (1940), Casablanca (1942) and Apocalypse Now (1979). Given that discussion will focus on the United States and Europe, these films have been selected because they best exemplify how some censorship mechanisms worked and developed over the years. Specifically, The Great Dictator serves as an illustration of how writers and producers in the United States were limited by both governmental bans and self-imposed censorship by means of the Motion Picture Production Code-better known as “Hays Code”-and later, also by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

This film is a paramount example of censorship driven by political reasons. Casablanca shows how religious institutions and a conservative society could be influential in the making of a film.

Rick and Ilsa’s stories were unacceptable for the puritan American society of those years, both on the screen and in real life.

In the plot, the characters were considered outrageous for having an extramarital relation and in real life, one-Humphrey Bogart-was accused of sympathizing with the Communist and the other-Ingrid Bergman-well…again for having an extramarital affair with the Italian film director, Roberto Rossellini. Finally, Apocalypse Now is the only one among the three films that did not face heavy censorship, for the only reason of having been produced when the Hays Code was dead and gone and society was ready to accept reality as it was and cruder films.

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However, despite being an anti-war film, some have argued that it could be seen as a pro-war film. Therefore, if The Great Dictator shows the beginnings of the worst years for Hollywood, Apocalypse Now embodies its closure, its coming to terms with the fact that society had changed.

Apart from American censorship, the European situation of those years will also be taken into account, with specific reference to the three Fascist regimes of Europe that occurred during the Great War and the Second World War. Undoubtedly, the dictators Franco, Mussolini and Hitler influenced the film industry, both domestically and internationally, and used cinema as a propaganda weapon. An important note to make is that this paper does not aim at summarizing the plots of the films or focusing into technical cinematographic details, but rather at combining the “film as the film” and “film in its political and historical context”, as discussed in class, to apply them to the topic of choice, namely censorship. It is amongst these lines that the content of the film, cinematographic choices, and information on the actors will be found.

From Hollywood’s first scandal-Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle’s rape allegation and charge of murder-to Olive Thomas’ suicide in Paris and the unsolved William Desmond Taylor’s murder -Hollywood, the American Dream Factory, was crippled by continuous scandals and indecencies (drug and alcohol addiction, extramarital affairs, prostitution…), which caused public protests and government censorship. In 1922, to save Hollywood’s face, Will H. Hays was hired as director of Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). It was time to stop immorality, libidinous kisses and actors’ shameful private life. In 1930, the Motion Picture Production Code was adopted-its head being the conservative Catholic and anti-Semite Joseph Breen-and contained a thorough description of what was and was not allowed on the screen.

The Code reflected the political climate of World War II, when Communism was already seen as a threat, pervasive in the US society, especially within the Hollywood circle. Indeed, despite F. D. Roosevelt’s efforts to cope with the effects of the Great Depression, a significant number of Americans flirted with Marxist ideas that seemed to explain capitalism’s collapse. Unemployment and poverty levels were high and the US economy had seen better days. However, the Code was also a reflection of the social and sexual mores of the time. The economic insecurity following the Great Depression and the totalitarian ideologies in Europe had a conservative effect in American society. The turmoil of those years taught Americans to prefer “decency, virtue and productivity” to ensure they could live in freedom, peace and prosperity . Simplicity and efficiency had become American features and were reflected in consumers’ cuts on cars and clothing, in the expansion of second-hand items, in interior and fashion design simplification.

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or go without” was the American motto of the 1930s. In order to stop Communists from dominating medium of mass culture and therefore, obtaining international coverage and influencing public opinion at the expense of the United States, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was created in 1938. The aim of the HUAC was to keep leftist ideas out of the American film industry. Covert investigations were performed to start completing a blacklist with all the most “dangerous” Hollywood stars’ names. Nobody escaped the strict control of the Committee and if blacklisted and not repentant, only scriptwriters had some chances to continue working afterwards, as they could write under pseudonyms, the rest saw their careers ruined. Some tried to fight it, often by invoking the First and the Fifth Amendments, others gave in and claimed to have been misled and confused. Oftentimes, the latter would name other colleagues known for sympathising with Communist associations in order to have their careers saved.

Furthermore, it cannot be forgotten that this period was also the beginning of a new era: silent films made way for sound films. Spoken dialogues and sounds brought new problems, such as mockery, increased use of firearms, scenes of passion and obscenity. A consequence of sound films was dubbing, another form of restriction that will be used during those years by totalitarian regimes in Europe. For instance, in 1930, the fascist regime in Italy banned foreign films, allowing silent films to have only music and noises. When actors spoke, the voice was erased and oftentimes, scenes were stopped to add subtitles in Italian. Clearly, the Italian regime preferred promoting Italian films in order to use them as a propaganda weapon and an instrument of cultural and linguistic preservation. Hollywood films were also at odds with the Francoist regime. Franco had even more reasons than Mussolini to keep his country unilingual, as regional languages (Catalan, Galician, Basque, Valencian…) have always been seen as a threat to Spain’s unity.

In addition, just like in Italy, the Spanish population of that time also had a worrying level of illiterates, reasons why the dictators wanted to promote their national languages. In Germany, the Nazi Propaganda Ministry, headed by Joseph Goebbels, kept under surveillance all forms of communication adverse to Nazi beliefs and Hitler’s regime. Generally, by 1941, the only foreign films screened throughout the Axis-controlled areas were a handful of German, Spanish and Italian productions, because Hollywood films were banned after the United States joined the war. Nevertheless, recent narratives support the idea of economic collaboration with Hitler’s Third Reich in order to have access to all European countries conquered by the Führer. An additional reason supporting this point of view claims that in that period, the dictator was not seen as the evil he became to be known in the years to come.

Specifically, Ben Urwand is the Harvard scholar supporting this view that has created strong reactions amongst historians. He stated that the reason why people saw Hollywood as an anti-Nazi circle was that some classic anti-Axis films, like Casablanca, were produced between 1941 and 1945. Hollywood became all the more conservative when the first Hollywood blacklist (1947)-the so-called “Hollywood Ten”-was finally instituted by the HUAC and denied employment in the film industry to whoever was suspected or accused of being close to Communism. Famous people like Humphrey Bogart and Charlie Chaplin were accused of being communist sympathizers and therefore, blacklisted (even though, this never really affected their careers, unlikely many other actors). Ingrid Bergman’s international scandal with Roberto Rossellini brought her to the floor of the US Senate, which referred to her as a “powerful influence for evil”, but also from the Vatican.

Having had denied appearance on shows and films, Bergman had been burned at the stake as in “Joan of Arc”-film she had starred in as the heroine of France- and forced (self-imposed “exile”) to leave the United States to Europe (she also lost custody of her daughter ). In Europe, especially in England, the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) forced directors and writers to abide by its strict rules of conduct. The Third Man (1949), by Carol Reed, was an example of a film containing inappropriate scenes and characters. Indeed, a subject often censured was homosexuality (many have seen hints of homosexuality in the relationship between Dr. Winkel and Baron Kurtz and Martins and Lime, either in veiled ways-props, costuming, gestures-or by more overt scenes, such as the balcony scenes with Winkel and Kurtz).

Despite containing a strong message, films as Apocalypse Now escaped this strict control of censors because, from late 1960s, the Hays Code had been abandoned. As the nation returned to economic vitality, Americans became more sceptical towards religion and the Hollywood studio system began to crumble to the benefit of independent producers. Society had evolved and was ready to reject the “rainbows and butterflies” musicals to embrace realism and more radical films: a new era of American cinema began in the 1970s, with social consensus supporting films such as Apocalypse Now aimed at questioning every aspect of life-the utility of the Vietnam War in this case.

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Film Censorship in the 20th Century: A Socio-Political Overview. (2023, Feb 18). Retrieved from

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