Surprising Movies That Were Banned—And the Strange Reasons Why

Some movies seem to trigger unexpected reactions from the censors. Newsweek

If you want to take the read of a country’s psyche, a good place to look might be its film censorship board. What they want to prevent people seeing tends to be deeply indicative of what the culture—or just the government—finds the most dangerous.

American censorship reached a peak during the moral panic of the 1950s, when a number of left-leaning directors were banned from making films due to the fear of communism spreading to the U.S. Sex and nudity were also heavily restricted.

These days, films that get blocked from release, such as 2008 Clinton documentary Hillary: The Movie, tend to be involved in legal issues, perhaps suggesting America’s biggest fear these days is being sued.

Looking around the world, you can spot a number of ideas and issues deemed too squeamish to be depicted in film. The Chinese tend to ban films which show superstitious beliefs, reflecting the Communist rulers’ dislike of spiritual practices contradicting their belief in Marxism.

Religion is a hot topic for other countries too—the Muslim world, much of it at war with Israel, isn’t always receptive to films showing Jewish actors and culture in a positive light. Sometimes, movies can blunder into offensive territory seemingly by chance, as the poor Simpsons Movie found out in Myanmar.

When a movie was banned years ago, it can be hard to see why it was deemed so offensive—Battleship Potemkin is yawned through in film classes today, but was seen as a serious revolutionary threat in the 1920s. Similarly, the Nazi hatred of Mickey Mouse now looks mystifying.

The logic behind why hyper-violent or sexual films like A Clockwork Orange and Deep Throat were banned by some countries is clear. But some movies seem to trigger some unexpected reactions from the censors. From Norway to North Korea, we’ve made a list of fifty of the most outrageous, funny or strange bans to hit the silver screen.

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Ghostbusters (2016). Where it was banned: China
In 2011, Chinese government authorities cracked down on the depiction of ghosts, reincarnation and feudal superstitions in film. Other banned topics include fantasy, time travel, ambiguous moral lessons and a lack of positive thinking. In 2016, the Ghostbusters movie was denied a Chinese release, despite Sony changing its name to ‘Super Power Dare-to-Die Team’ for Chinese audiences.
Sony Pictures
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Wonder Woman (2017). Where it was banned: Lebanon, Jordan, Qatar, and Tunisia.
Wonder Woman’s star Gal Godot served in the Israeli army before she starred in this popular comic book adaptation. This didn't go down well in some Middle Eastern regions—Lebanon, which is at war with Israel, canned the film before distribution due to a decades-old law that boycotts Israeli products, although it did show Gadot's Fast & Furious films. The Arab League boycott of Israel means it is also banned in other countries in the region.
Warner Bros. Pictures
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The Simpsons Movie (2007). Where it was banned: Myanmar.
In probably the most extreme case of a film censorship board reading too much into things, the innocuous Simpsons Movie was banned in Myanmar over the juxtaposition of the colors yellow and red, which is seen as symbolising support for rebel groups. As Homer would say—d’oh.
20th Century Fox
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2012 (2009). Where it was banned: North Korea.
The year 2012 coincided with Kim Il Sung's 100th birthday, and in North Korea, had been designated "the year for opening the grand gates to becoming a rising superpower." Authorities in Pyongyang feared that the movie, in which the Earth is obliterated by a series of massive natural disasters, could jinx this auspicious year. Authorities banned the film and punished anyone caught in possession of the film with “a grave provocation against the development of the state,” a charge that carries up to five years in prison.
Columbia Pictures
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Any film starring Claire Danes. Where they were banned: Philippines
Claire Danes is perhaps remembered by most Americans as the angelic lead in Romeo and Juliet, but in the Philippines, they remember something else. In a 1998 interview in Vogue magazine, Danes described Manila as a "ghastly and weird city." Certainly harsh words, especially when she followed them up in Premiere magazine, saying Manila "smelled of cockroaches, with rats all over, and that there is no sewerage system, and the people do not have anything—no arms, no legs, no eyes." Newsweek can confirm that people in Manila do indeed have eyes, but they won't be using them to watch Danes’ movies anytime soon. The Manila city council voted to ban all her films, and rejected a subsequent apology from the actress as insincere.
Reuters/Mike Blake
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Zoolander (2001). Where it was banned: Iran and Malaysia.
Although Zoolander contains no explicitly gay jokes, and protagonist Derek Zoolander is given a very much hetrosexual love interest, the film was banned in Iran for perceived support of gay rights. The Malaysian censorship board took issue with the film’s plot, which revolved around a plot to assassinate the country's prime minister, and deemed it "definitely unsuitable."
Paramount Pictures
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Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979). Where it was banned: Norway and Ireland.
The comedy classic was banned in Norway due to jokes deemed offensive to religious people. Sweden used this as a great way to shade their neighbors and screened the film with the tagline "The film so funny that it got banned in Norway." Norway saw sense and the ban was lifted the next year. The film was also banned in Ireland for religious reasons until 1987.
Orion Pictures/Warner Bros.
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Barney’s Great Adventure (1998). Where it was banned: Malaysia.
The film received overwhelmingly negative reviews from critics, but Malaysia went ahead and banned Barney’s Great Adventure completely, deeming it, mysteriously, to be “unacceptable for children.”
PolyGram Filmed Entertainment
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Catch-22 (1970). Where it was banned: Portugal.
The film was banned for four years for a single shocking act: a character sitting naked in a tree. Whether it was the subversive act of naked tree-sitting or a glimpse of a man’s bare butt which was considered too much for the Portuguese population was never made entirely clear.
Paramount Pictures
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Schindler's List (1994). Where it was banned: Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Lebanon, Jordan, Indonesia, Malaysia.
Steven Spielberg classic film is known for portraying the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany with humanity and sensitivity. Unfortunately, many censorship boards in Muslim-majority countries seemed to want to keep the movie out of theaters at all costs. Lebanese authorities removed the film’s advertising material and said that any imported prints of the movie would be confiscated. The Indonesian Censorship Board decided to ban it because “it contains too much violence and nudity,” although this reason was seen as disingenuous. In Malaysia, the government censors' board said "the story reflects the privilege and virtues of a certain race only." "It's just disgraceful," Spielberg said later in an interview.
Universal Pictures
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The Death of Stalin (2018). Where it was banned: Russia.
Russia gave the acclaimed black comedy, which revolves around the vicious infighting that followed Stalin’s death in 1953, possibly the most scathing banning ever. One MP said she had “never seen anything so disgusting in [her] life.” The head of the Russian Military-Historical Society’s department of information, said it is “a bad film, it’s a boring film, and it’s vile, repugnant and insulting.” Russia’s Communist party called the film “a form of psychological pressure against our country.”