Friday, 17 June 2016

What the censors made of Star Wars: British paperwork reveals their views

A UK poster for Star Wars, displaying the 'U' certificate

The bodies that apply age ratings to films around the world had to consider whether Star Wars was appropriate for all children. Episode Nothing considers some fascinating documents from the archives of the British film censors which record their conclusion. 

At what age should a child see Star Wars?

How old should a child be before they're showed to see Star Wars?

My own kids were about five when I first let them see the original 1977 film, and the rest of the original trilogy, with no qualms at all.

But the question did require consideration in 1977.

Back then, the Motion Picture Association of America decided that the film merited a 'PG' rating, indicating that "some material may not be suitable for children"

The MPAA's ratings carry no legal force. Exhibitors only defer to them by choice and tradition. But in other countries, ratings have the law behind them, and in the months after the US release of Star Wars, those state-sanctioned censors would have to see the film.

In some countries, the decisions were disappointing for young viewers. In Norway, the film was banned to under-12s, in common with many other science fiction films.

But the month after its American release, Star Wars went before the censors in Britain.

What the British Board of Film Censors made of Star Wars

A potentially scary moment from Star Wars

As we've seen before, the British public had to wait until December 27, 1977, to see Star Wars – and even on that belated opening day, it only reached the West End of London.

But the film had been shown to a lucky few in July and September – which is probably why the British Board of Film Censors saw it as early as June.

In those days, the BBFC was a frustratingly secretive organisation, and its decisions could be puzzling. Today, renamed the British Board of Film Classification, rather than Censors, it is a model of freedom of information, with extensive material available readily available online and more being released all the time. It has produced a series of case studies of important films, and one of them – to be found here – is Star Wars.

In the 1970s, the BBFC could give a film one of four ratings: U (universal), A (parental guidance advised), AA (over-14s only) and X (over-18s only). Clearly, the possible ratings for Star Wars would be U or A.

The BBFC has published two reports written by its examiners at the time. Both of them give slightly odd summaries of the film's plot, with enough errors to make you worry whether the censors were really paying close attention to the films they rated.

One begins by saying the film is “Set thousands of years in the future", which suggests that the examiner may have been looking at his or her clipboard when the legend "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...." appeared.

It goes on to say "the Universe is ruled by Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) and his henchman Lord Vader from a large planet called ‘The Battle Station’. They hold captive Princess Organa who comes from the only planet to oppose their rule. " 

The goriest image from Star Wars

The report describes the film as a "vastly entertaining story", adding:

"In the USA it is already outgrossing all other major films. We have decided to give the film a ‘U’ category, but in my opinion there could be some complaints regarding giving the film this classification.

"On a large screen with full stereophonic soundtrack, some of the shoot-outs could be quite frightening for younger audiences and in addition shots of mutated inhabitants from other planets and the tearing off of an arm, could be far more worrying than similar sequences seen on a small TV screen.”

The second report calls the film a "galactic fairy tale peopled by futuristic robots and traditional monster figures as well as humans". It says Ben Kenobi “understands the signals flashed out by an endearing tubby robot, Artuditu [sic], which lead the band on a rescue mission in search of a Princess held captive by the wicked Imperial War Troops under the command of a inister [sic] black-clad villain".

It goes on: “Although the film was rated PG in America, we could find little in the film to cause more than a thrill of excitement in a TV-reared generation, and the youngest audience will be held enthralled by the ingenuity of the spectacle.”

So the BBFC, which was usually more relaxed about sex than its US counterparts but stricter on horror and violence, had come to its conclusion. 

Frightening shoot-outs? Mutants? Dismembered arm? Go ahead kids, knock yourself out. 

That's just what we wanted to hear.

What age were you when you saw Star Wars? And at what age have you let children see it? Was it ever too scary? I'd love to read your comments below.

1 comment:

Seeing_I said...

I was five, and don't remember any of it being scary, but it was INCREDIBLY exciting. The closest it came to scary was the trash compactor scene.

Am I the only one who always thought that severed arm looks hollow on the end?