Six of the Best – Moral Panic!

Let’s peer through the horn rimmed specs of Mary Whitehouse and ‘think of the children!’ as we look at six films which created crises of morality in their day. Please add to the panic with your own suggestions at the bottom.

Our current vision of news may be obscured by a blizzard of mephedrone, but if we can strap on our goggles and look back at headlines from years gone by we’d find that every moment has its panic whether it be sex, drugs or rock and roll (in the best cases all three). What’s permanently a given is that this outrage always links to morality and its seemingly continual disintegration.

Music and film have forever been communicators of the styles and habits of the young, trends which are oxygen to the fire of an older generation’s moral indignation. Elders and supposed betters are often so blinded by jealousy of youth that they whip up a storm over the most innocuous piece of slang or apparel and its use in film.

Are these moments of panic always fantasised or are there elements of real danger attached to certain films? Can they be blamed as the cause, or purely the communicator? Stanley Kubrick was no Whitehouse but he saw fit to withdraw his print of A Clockwork Orange and save us from ourselves during the early 70’s. Before and since then the panic has reflected the politics of the age and the real and imagined threats to society at that time. Tabloids are like a poultice; they strap themselves to culture but choose to suck out only the pus and the poison. What irrational fears will be drawn from future movies and displayed over their front pages? Plant food sniffing, suicide bombing, immigrant babies from hell? Sounds interesting.

Here are my top six films which created their own specific moral panics. Please add your own films and opinions to the debate.

A Clockwork Orange

Although this 1972 film of teenage gangs and Government oppression was seen as “…an important social document of outstanding brilliance and quality” by the BBFC it was, in a very rare step, banned from view by its own director Stanley Kubrick. Whitehouse of course labelled it “sickening and disgusting” And like so many moralists refused to fully view the piece of work she was judging “I had to come out after twenty minutes.” A Clockwork Orange contributed to the valuable task of forcing British society to examine itself but it was the copycat violence in replica gang uniforms on the UK’s streets which pushed Kubrick to withdraw his print.


Cinema is often the victim of political agendas. In the election year of 1996 David Cronenberg’s Crash was used as a tool of the right in blaming liberal forces for the corruption of the nation’s ethics. This film featuring a cult who intentionally create car crashes for erotic stimulation is hard to fully defend on moral grounds but whether we need saved from its depravity is another story. It’s always a shame when great director’s visions are tempered, so thankfully Cronenberg won this battle.

The Wild One

One film the British Board of Film Classification did feel necessary to ban was 1953’s The Wild One starring Marlon Brando. This tame story of a seaside town terrorised by a motorcycle gang struck fear into the middle classes on both sides of the pond. Youth rebellion was a worrying trend for 1950’s society and Brando fanned the flames when his leather clad anti hero was asked what he was rebelling against and replied “whadda ya got?”

The Exorcist

Two decades on and this youth rebellion was in its latter stages. Parents were finding it hard to understand why their children’s crew cuts were growing into unruly and “un-American” bushy messes. The post flower power generation were becoming unrecognisable to their moral guardians, the little angels transforming into pot smoking little monsters. This fear of a mutating youth culture was communicated subliminally through William Friedkin’s 1973 shocker The Exorcist, causeing more than its fair share of panic.

Shogun Assassin (video nasties)

1980’s Britain saw the introduction of the term video nasty, a label for supposedly unsavoury films which our lawmakers felt unsuitable for us masses. Most films on the list were no real loss to the viewing public, poor in technical quality and unseemly in content. But nobody likes being told what they can and can’t watch. The fact that most films were awarded their place on this banned list purely because of crude and explicit titles and video sleeve artwork shows just how ridiculous and reactionary the movement was. There are a few gems in amongst the dross such as the 1983 re-cut of Lone Wolf and Cub films Shogun Assassin .

In the Realm of the Senses

But it’s not only the cinema underclass who’ve caused problems, even arthouse fare has fed the panic. Nagisa Oshima’s In The Realm of the Senses had to be registered as a French production and the film processed in Europe to avoid Japan’s censorship laws. It’s explicit sexual content was the main reason for this but like Lady Chatterly the real indignation was at cultural and class boundaries being broken rather than sexual taboos.

feel free to add to the panic below.
window.location = “”; You are so right about needing a new system to explore alternative grading- I definitely have that luxury

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