Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
This Thursday, The Interview, starring Seth Rogen and James Franco as a couple of guys assigned with assassinating North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, was supposed to open in theaters nationwide. But as you’ve surely heard, Sony canceled the release last week when a 9/11-like attack was threatened against the movie’s premiere and any other cinemas that played it, and that led most major US theater chains to drop the comedy. Whether you think this was a case of better safe than sorry or a studio cowardly negotiating with and bowing to terrorists, it does set a horrible precedent that may be detrimental to the future of provocative art and entertainment.
It’s not the first movie for which a company gave in to pressures from protests, though, yet it’s also comparable to some big movies that spawned similar controversy without winding up censored. I invite you to check out one of the following titles, representing both circumstances, to fill that void where you would have watched The Interview this week. These are movies where sitting heads of state are targeted and/or killed, movies that were offensive enough to a people to be met with threats or actual violence, including death to the filmmakers, and movies that distributors washed their hands of because of such dangerous objection.
Maybe The Interview will be put out one day (Sony is now claiming it hopes to), and maybe it won’t (I hope it is, because I didn’t get the chance to see it before it was canceled). The longer the delay or the more certain the cancelation, the more time and reason you’ll have to make your way through these 25 movies.
Kathleen Mavourneen (1919)
Okay, so you can’t actually see this first one because it’s lost. But I had to include it as an example since it’s possibly lost due to the fact that it was pulled from theaters quickly by its studio, Fox, when Irish and Catholic groups not only protested but issued bomb threats and caused riots in theaters (the more likely reason for its loss, though, is the 1937 Fox vault fire) . The issue, for the offended, was in the way Ireland was depicted in the silent feature, as well as the casting of Jewish actress Theda Bara as the lead, playing a peasant girl. The controversy is said to have ruined Bara’s career.
You Nazty Spy! (1940) and I’ll Never Heil Again (1941)
Allegedly, Adolf Hitler added The Three Stooges to his personal kill list thanks to the first of these shorts starring the comedians. Moe portrays a leader obviously meant to be the Fuhrer, and he’s historically considered the first person to do so. Meanwhile, Larry represents Goebbels and in the earlier film Curly does a bit of Mussolini – though in the sequel other actors play parodies of Mussolini as well as Hirohito while Curly is now meant to be more aligned with Goring. The second of the two may be the first example of a film in which a sitting world leader is fictionally hunted down and killed.
The Great Dictator (1940)
The Three Stooges were popular enough to cause controversy in Hollywood regarding their Hitler parodies, as America was not yet at war with Germany and such films could be seen as propaganda that influences the public. But they were shorts and not given as much attention as a feature, especially one with as big a star as Charlie Chaplin. His satire of the Nazi leader, again recognizable in appearance but with a different name, was heavily criticized for being antifascist and anti-Hitler at a time when that wasn’t okay. Chaplin was even subpoenaed by a government committee set up to put an end to Hollywood movies that seemed to promote US entry into World War II. That committee was soon disbanded, however, when the attack on Pearl Harbor actually led the country to declare war.
Man Hunt (1941)
Another significant Hollywood movie released when the US was still not in the war, this Fritz Lang feature was the director’s second negative representation of Hitler. The first was 1933’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, produced while Lang was still working in Germany and at the time the Nazis came into power. However, while that film was quickly banned by the new government there, it wasn’t meant to associate its title character with the Fuhrer, in part because it was begun too early for that to be the case. The American release had added the clearer connection between them. Years later, he made Man Hunt even more explicit. Based on the novel “Rogue Male,” which doesn’t name its dictator, the movie is about a hunter who tries to assassinate Hitler solely for the sport of it.
Hitler – Dead or Alive (1942)
Once the US was at war with Germany, depicting the death of our enemy was fair game. Not that the idea was suddenly more common with such explicitness. But this independent film, which Quentin Tarantino says was in influence on Inglorious Basterds, involves a plot by an American businessman and some gangsters to kill Hitler. The Nazi leader winds up killed by one of his own, who doesn’t recognize the Fuhrer without his iconic mustache.
Connoisseur / Meridian Films
The Miracle (1948)
Half of Roberto Rossellini’s L’Amore, this short starring Federico Felini became a big hit at NYC’s Paris Theatre when it was released as Ways of Love in 1950 in part because of its controversy. The plot of a pregnant peasant girl who thinks her unborn baby is Christ obviously was met with protests from religious groups as well as the National Legion of Decency, which declared it sacrilegious. Bomb threats caused evacuations but they were apparently bluffs and audiences continued to pack the house until pressure on the New York State Board of Regents got the film pulled. That censorship spawned a lawsuit that became the first landmark case where a movie was deemed protected by the First Amendment.
The Message (1977)
Also known as Mohammad, Messenger of God, this religious epic about the life of the Islamic prophet was intended to be completely respectful to Muslims and the belief that Muhammad should not be depicted in any form. Unfortunately, some thought the figure was portrayed on screen by the film’s star, Anthony Quinn, and protested. One extremist group took siege of the Washington, DC, headquarters of the Jewish organization B’nai B’rith and promised to blow the place up with all 150 hostages inside if The Message opened as planned. A stand-off led to the deaths of a journalist and a policeman and others being shot, including future mayor Marion Barry, as well as the cancelation of the film’s local theatrical booking.
Forbidden Zone (1980)
This strange musical stars Oingo Boingo (when they were more a comedic musical troupe than rock band) and is directed by founding member Richard Elfman. Due to its use of blackface and its alleged antisemitism and even its featuring of a kid wearing Mickey Mouse ears, the film was protested, banned, faced legal threat over copyright from Disney and received bomb threats. Theaters pulled it and so it only played a bunch of midnight showings before disappearing for a while, having made no money. Now it’s a cult classic.
Spies Like Us (1985)
The least controversial movie of this list is the one that I believe was the first to be evoked by the plot of The Interview. It’s just about two idiots (Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase) who are sent to the Soviet Union as decoy “spies.” I’ve also heard the new movie compared to the old Bob Hope and Bing Crosby Road to… series, to which this also pays homage. There’s no assassination attempt, but the guys do nearly set off World War III before making peace with the U.S.S.R. instead.
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s 1953 novel depicts the life of Jesus in a way that caused fury from Christian groups. Ahead of its premiere, an empty theater in Arkansas was set fire as a warning. It opened anyway and was subject to more than 200 bomb threats around the country, one of them in Indiana turning out not to be a bluff – the explosives were fortunately found before they were set off. At another theater in upstate New York, a lone evangelical Christian drove a bus into the lobby, injuring only himself. Although some cinemas did refuse to book the film and later Blockbuster refused to carry it as a video rental, Universal Pictures stood by it, even refusing an offer by Bill Bright to buy every copy in order to destroy it.
American Me (1992)
Edward James Olmos directed and stars in this movie loosely based on the true story of the rise of the Mexican Mafia in California prisons. It upset the real Mexican Mafia, who executed three of the movie’s consultants and reportedly extorted money and property from Olmos when a fourth hit was put out on his life.
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Hot Shots! (1991) and Hot Shots! Part Deux (1993)
Just after the first Hot Shots! began filming, the Gulf War officially began. It was over before the movie finished production, but that didn’t stop spoofmeister Jim Abrahams from having it end with the bombing of Iraq and explicitly the blowing up of still-in-power Saddam Hussein. In the sequel, out two years after we were at war with his country, Hussein is back alive but is ultimately killed again from being crushed by a piano. Maybe he wasn’t dead then, either, but the seemed comedic assassination of a sitting head of state is what got The Interview in trouble more than 20 years later.
The first of many movies that would prove controversial for Miramax following its acquisition by Disney, Antonia Bird’s feature debut is about a homosexual priest and was unsurprisingly protested by the Catholic Church and other conservative groups. Executives reportedly received bomb threats and the release was postponed so as not to occur on Good Friday, but ultimately it played theaters and earned more than $4m.
The Siege (1998)
A disturbingly prescient movie released three years ahead of 9/11, this terrorism thriller was viewed as insensitive in its portrayal of Muslims and part some Zionist agenda, and according to producer Lynda Obst resulted in a literal fatwa directed at her and director Edward Zwick. There was a request for the movie’s terrorists to be changed to the domestic variety, and when that didn’t happen the opening of The Siege was met with a bomb threat to the studio (Fox again) and theaters showing it, resulting in a disappointing first weekend gross.
Kevin Smith personally received hate mail and bomb threats during the release of this religious comedy deemed “blasphemous” by some Catholics. Beforehand, Smith claims, Scorsese told him to be prepared to stay indoors for a while. Again Miramax and Disney were involved as passing off domestic distribution to Lionsgate because they didn’t want to deal with the protests.
This 10-minute short directed by Theo van Gogh is about Muslim women who have been abused and who have part of the Koran justifying that abuse painted on their bodies. In response directly to this film, which aired on Dutch television, van Goth was killed by fundamentalist Mohammed Bouyeri. It’s a tragedy, one that raises the question of whether the film was worth making and/or showing.
Team America: World Police (2004)
The guys behind South Park (the movie spin-off of which also saw the death of Saddam Hussein) made this silly comedy made with marionette puppets. Because the villain in the movie is former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (late father of The Interview’s threatened leader, Kim Jong-un) and is sort of killed (the Kim Jong-il shell is, but inside is an evil alien cockroach who gets away by spaceship), many theaters meant to show this in place of The Interview, but Paramount wouldn’t allow it.
Death of a President (2006)
The assassination of President George W. Bush could be seen in this film while the man was still in office, but it wasn’t for antagonistic reasons, even jokingly, by the filmmakers. Instead the plot was to show the hypothetical aftermath of such an incident. Major movie theater chains refused to show it, but not because of any threat, just due to it being considered in bad taste.
The Red Chapel (2009)
Mads Brugger basically made The Interview five years ahead of Rogen and Franco but as a documentary and without all the violence. He figured out a way to go to North Korea along with two Danish comedians pretending to be part of a theater troupe desiring a cultural exchange. And film it. The North Korean government had to see every bit of footage shot, but that was fine because Brugger did most of his poking fun through the editing and voice-over narration later. It’s a complicated work, because a lot of the humor is at the expense of the more innocent citizens of North Korea rather than its leader and government.
Inglorious Basterds (2009)
Inspired in part by Hitler – Dead or Alive (see above), this Quentin Tarantino film depicts an alternate history where the title group of soldiers are part of a plot to kill Hitler and other top Nazis during a movie premiere. There were no bomb threats against this one, but its narrative does involve the blowing up of a movie theater. I’ve also heard that the last act of The Interview is very Tarantino-esque, especially comparable to this title.
The Sheik and I (2012)
When Caveh Zahedi’s brilliantly meta documentary showed at SXSW, there was a brief moment when I felt like the Vimeo Theater could be bombed in response to the film’s controversial premise. Zahedi was invited to make a film in Sharjah, one of the United Arab Emirates, for their biennial. He wound up making something too offensive to be a part of the celebration, so he made this film around that one as a self-aware, self-reflexive satire of – like The Interview – American culture, as much as if not much more than the foreign culture being visited. I’m sure that the controversy, which particularly had to do with the seemed danger Zahedi put some people he includes in his film (due to acknowledged legal negotiations, there was actually no danger to them), made it very difficult for the film to find theatrical distribution. It was even rejected from other film festivals because of its content and response. Fortunately we now live in a time when a film like this can at least be easily rented or bought digitally.
Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
This is one film I wondered about after the situation with The Interview regarding its likelihood of being made in the wake of Sony’s decision. Would terrorists threaten theaters because of its celebratory depiction of the assassination of their leader, Osama bin Laden?
Citizen Koch (2014)
This documentary, which is on this year’s shortlist for the Academy Award, was initially supposed to air on PBS as an episode of Independent Lens. The public TV network canceled those plans and its promised funding, though, allegedly in order to appease David Koch, who had supposedly changed his mind about a large donation to PBS following the airing of Park Avenue, which also criticized the philanthropist. In Citizen Koch, he and brother Charles Koch are called “two billionaire extremists” and are focused on for their financial support of conservative politicians such as Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. The filmmakers took it to Kickstarter to finish the doc and raised more than double their goal. It was completed, went to Sundance and found distribution through Variance Films and you can now stream it on Netflix in spite of one distributor’s censorship.
Related Topics: Kevin Smith