The 100+ Most Controversial
Films of All-Time

1970-1971


The 100+ Most Controversial Films of All-Time
Film Title/Year, Director
Screenshots

Carnal Knowledge (1971)
D. Mike Nichols

Moviegoers expecting to be titillated were taken aback by this drama's raw, taboo-breaking examination of misogyny and dysfunctional relationships.

The prurient title of this raw, profanity-laden, taboo-breaking Mike Nichols film (with a script by satirist and cartoonist Jules Feiffer), meaning 'sexual intercourse,' brought millions of patrons into the theatres for its character-based tale of the exploits and sexual encounters of two Amherst college roommates: shy and naive Sandy (singer Art Garfunkel) and narcissistic, predatory womanizer Jonathan (Jack Nicholson).

This striking film with adult subject matter told of their dysfunctional, misogynistic sexual attitudes and 'machismo' relationships (and breakups) with women over a 20-year period (from the late-1940s to the late 60s). It illustrated their fragile male egos and bravado, as it further pushed the boundaries of sex in cinema and challenged the ratings system and the general morals of the time - although the film had little in the way of explicit sex.

A film print was seized by Albany, Georgia officials in 1972, claiming that it violated obscenity laws, and the manager of the film theatre was arrested (and convicted, but it was later overturned). It was brought as a major case before the US Supreme Court, which found in 1974 that the film was not obscene and "did not depict sexual conduct in a patently offensive way." The court ruled that a local Georgia law prohibiting the distribution of the "obscene" material had gone too far. Nowadays, the film would be considered tame, with its minor amount of nudity or explicit sexual activity, although its dialogue was ripe, candidly frank and open for its time.

It began with the two males' difficult initiation into sex ("scoring" with coeds) during their 1940s student days at Amherst (with among others, Candice Bergen as the pretty, respectable and intelligent Smith College student Susan whom they both dated). Sandy awkwardly tried to feel Susan's breasts through her clothes during a date, details of which he later shared with Jonathan. In the meantime, Jonathan betrayed his friend and dated Susan ("Myrtle") and she lost her virginity to him, unbeknownst to Sandy, although eventually Sandy married Susan and had a family in a typical surburban setting.

The story continued with playboyish Jonathan's later difficult relationship to voluptuous, big-breasted TV model Bobbie (Oscar-nominated Ann-Margret) who he first felt was his sexual salvation - and she soon became his live-in mistress: ("I took one look at the tits on her, and I knew I'd never have trouble again"). Jonathan soon resented Bobbie's hints at becoming more domestic and trapped-hitched, as she vulnerably drowned in depressing despair. He then berated and insulted her ("Answer me, you ball-busting, castrating, son of a cunt bitch! Is this an ultimatum or not?"). When she cried out and pleaded: "I want you!", he answered: "I'm taken --- by me!" He added: "For God's sake, I'd almost marry you if you'd leave me."

In a revealing close-up, a naked Bobbie sat up against a blank wall (filmed from the chest up), lost in her own thoughts of depression and suicide, and soon after took an overdose of pills. The film then followed Jonathan into his divorced, burnt-out life in the late 60s and 70s, when he looked back and called ex-wife Bobbie "Queen of the Ballbusters." Meanwhile, Sandy was dating 18 year-old free-love advocate and hippie chick Jennifer (Carol Kane) in the late 60s.

Finding himself dysfunctionally impotent, Jonathan resorted to using the pleasuring services of paid prostitute Louise (Rita Moreno in a cameo) to massage his ego (and more) in the film's final scene. Obsessively, he had her recite a carefully-worded script (he yelled at her - "God-damn it! You're doing it all wrong" - when she deviated) while she kneeled between his legs. After accepting payment of $100, and as he reclined back on a couch, she reassured him as she stroked his thighs: "I don't think we're gonna have any trouble tonight." She called him "a real man, a kind man" and then went on to encourage him to rise up and be manly:

I don't mean the weak kind the way so many men are. I mean the kindness that comes from enormous strength, from an inner power so strong that every act, no matter what, is more proof of that power. That's what all women resent. That's why they try to cut ya down, because your knowledge of yourself and them is so right, so true, that it exposes the lies by which they, every scheming one of them, live by. It takes a true woman to understand that the purest form of love is to love a man who denies himself to her - a man who inspires worship, because he has no need for any woman, because he has himself. And who is better, more beautiful, more powerful, more perfect... you're getting hard... more strong, more masculine, extraordinary, more... bust. It's rising, it's rising... more virile, domineering, more irresistible. It's up - in the air...






A Clockwork Orange (1971, UK)
D. Stanley Kubrick

The second (and last) X-rated Best-Picture nominee, Stanley Kubrick's evocation of a dystopian future appalled some viewers with its ultra-violence.

At the time, Stanley Kubrick's randomly ultra-violent, over-indulgent, graphically-stylized film of the near future - and most controversial film - was one of only two movies rated X on its original release (the other was Midnight Cowboy (1969)) that was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award.

The subversive film was hotly debated when it was released - both highly praised and objectionable for its bleak outlook, and for its pairing of comedy with 'ultra-violence' - including two rape scenes. [Two other films that were highly criticized a few years earlier for breaking similar taboos were Sam Peckinpah's bloody western The Wild Bunch (1969), and Bonnie and Clyde (1967).]

The dystopic film about fascist social conditioning and free will was heavily criticized and opposed by religious groups for its sexual and violent content. Feminists were outraged with some of the misogynistic images - such as the obscene female poses of the supine furniture in the Korova bar, the prolonged rape of a big-breasted 'devotchka' (Shirley Jaffe) on an empty opera house stage, a gigantic penis sculpture being used as a murder weapon on the Cat Lady, a sped-up orgy (within a threesome composed of two females and a male) performed to the tune of the William Tell Overture, and a view of the protagonist's snake gliding toward a woman's vagina.

The most infamous was the rape scene of a couple in an ultra-modern, opulent house by sociopath Alex's (Malcolm McDowell) gang of derby-hatted droogs (Pete, Georgie, and Dim) who were wearing masks with comical noses. Both victims: red pajama-suit-wearing writer's wife Mrs. Alexander (Adrienne Corri) and elderly husband Frank Alexander (Patrick Magee) were bound and gagged, with a rubber ball painfully inserted into their mouths and wrapped with long strips of Scotch tape around their heads. He was assaulted and kicked on the floor (with vicious blows of boots to his mid-section) by Alex who ironically punctuated and timed his rhythmic, soft-shoe kick-dance to his gleeful singing and tap-dancing of the lyrics of Gene Kelly's tune Singin' in the Rain.

Mr. Alexander was also forced to helplessly watch the ugly disrobing and choreographed rape of his own wife when Alex cut away her skin-tght jumpsuit and attacked her breasts. He snipped off two circles of jumpsuit cloth around them to expose them and then in the mode of 'Jack the Ripper,' he slit her entire suit off from her pant leg upward. After unzipping and pulling his own pants down prior to her rape, he mocked the husband: "Viddy well, little brother. Viddy well."

There was also a gruesome murder with a giant phallic art sculpture that was conducted in a gallery filled with erotic paintings, when lead droog Alex attacked Catlady (Miriam Karlin) with a over-sized porcelain dildo.

In a later scene, Alex was subjected to corrective treatment -- experimental aversion therapy imposed by the state in which he was behavioristically conditioned (with his eyes clamped wide-open in order to view scenes of violence in films while drugged to induce nausea and forced to listen to his beloved Beethoven) to suppress his violent and aggressive sexual drives and urges - and in the process gave up his own individual and personal rights to become a model citizen. Alex experienced an orgy dream of eating grapes while surrounded by half-naked, bare-breasted handmaidens (Jan Adair, Vivienne Chandler, Prudence Drage). That was all that was left to him, to feed his violent and sexual personality.

In a second demonstration to the tune of Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary, he was tempted before a stage actress (Virginia Wetherell) - a half-nude woman wearing only bikini panties. Eyes glazed and on his knees, Alex lustfully reached out for her breasts (filmed both from a low angle and an overhead shot to emphasize their firm ripeness). As he cupped his hands tantalizingly close to her pink-nippled, fleshy protuberances, his urge for sex instantly turned to an urge to vomit and he fell to the floor belching to his former passion.

By the film's conclusion, Alex, now supposedly "cured," returned to his former self. An enigmatic dream-like image came on the screen - with both his free will intact and with his old proclivities for sex and violence. The final explicit scene emphasized the enormity of the state's hypocrisy. In his Ascot fantasy, a nude Alex had found peace and fantasized copulating (making love to/raping?) with a beautiful blonde woman (Katya Wyeth) who wore only black silk stockings. They were frolicking in slow-motion on piles of white snow, while two rows of genteel-looking, Victorian Londoners (ladies and gentlemen), the men dressed in top hats and the women carrying parasols, looked on and sedately applauded toward them. Alex had reverted to his old, pre-conditioned behavior. In voice-over, he triumphantly and sardonically uttered: "I was cured all right."

Because of the copy-cat violence (some gangs dressed as droogs sang "Singin' in the Rain" as they carried on violently) that the film was blamed for by the media and courts, Kubrick withdrew it from circulation in Britain about a year after its release. Some believed it was because it was rumored that Kubrick and his family had received death threats. It wasn't officially available there again - in theaters or on video - until 2000, a year after his death.











The Devils (1971, UK)
D. Ken Russell

Ken Russell's historical drama about womanizing priests, sex-crazed nuns, hypocrisy and hysteria in 17th-century France was banned in deeply Catholic Italy.

Ken Russell directed this blasphemous, shocking and excessive depiction of the repressive 17th century when sexuality was equated with Satanism - a loose adaptation of Aldous Huxley's "The Devils Of Loudon." The film's setting was the fortified city of Loudon, 150 miles southwest of Paris, in the year 1634.

It provoked protest and outrage from Christian groups and viewing audiences everywhere. It was banned outright in Italy and its stars (Redgrave and Reed) were threatened with three years' jail time if they entered the country.

The film was vilified and met with outrage in its story of a womanizing (non-celibate), vain, libertine, rebellious activist renegade-priest Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) who faced questioning and persecution for his "diabolic possession" of the local, repressed Ursuline nuns.

It included Vanessa Redgrave as tormented hunchbacked Sister Jeanne, who had unfulfilled, warped sexual desires for Grandier and expressed them through self-mutilation and self-flagellation. The only way the monarchy of Inquisition-obsessed France (including Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) and King Louis XIII's (Graham Armitage) establishment) could destroy the Protestant-leaning French town of Loudon was to attack the liberal religious leader as a sorcerer and practitioner of witchcraft.

When the priest impregnated nobleman's cousin Philippe (Georgina Hale), married wealthy heiress Madeleine Dubroux (Gemma Jones) in secret, and then refused to remove the city walls around his fortified town, fanatical witch-hunter and exorcist Father Barre (Michael Gothard) was quickly dispatched to question, torture (headscrews, nails into hands, etc), tie up, and execute the profligate priest.

During the proceedings, possessed nuns, led by Sister Jeanne's denunciations, performed orgiastic rituals publicly in Church to bolster claims against him. In the controversial staged mock exorcism scene, dubbed the orgiastic "rape of Christ" sequence, the sexually-hysterical nuns acted as if they were possessed, due to threats of execution from one of the church's accusers. The crazed nuns displayed full-frontal nudity, and masturbated with (or raped) a large-sized crucifix or effigy of Jesus that they pulled down from the wall, while Father Mignon (Murray Melvin) watched from afar and committed self-abuse under his robe (an excised scene before the film's release). As a result, Grandier was convicted of obscenity, blasphemy, and sacrilege, and burned alive at the stake.

Prior to the film's release, the "rape of Christ" sequence was censored. And the scene of Grandier's burning-at-the-stake torture as a heretic was shortened. A scene at the end of the film was mostly edited out - of Sister Jeanne masturbating with the charred thighbone of Grandier after he was executed.

The film contained graphic depictions of open sores and medieval medicine treatments for the plague (with hornets).







Dirty Harry (1971)
D. Don Siegel

Was San Francisco cop Harry Callahan's contempt for modern criminal-justice protocols a liberal critique of vigilantism or reactionary propaganda? Debate raged.

Dirty Harry took its name from the fact that its unorthodox title character, San Francisco Inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood), became embroiled with the most challenging and controversial ('dirty') cases of urban crime, often using tactics of police brutality and an attitude of "take-no-prisoners" that ignored criminals' rights in order to restore victims' rights. Callahan's open contempt for normal Miranda law restrictions illustrated his belief that criminals must be stopped - by any means, since traditional law enforcement ("by the book") tactics weren't effective.

He followed his own unconventional philosophy of justice by using "excessive force," ruthless methods, and "the end justifies the means" principle without much regard for the rules and legal regulations of his profession. Often, his methods were as vicious, taunting, sadistic and violent as the behavior of the criminals he opposed. Advertising posters for the film read: "You don't assign him to murder cases...You just turn him loose," and "He doesn't break murder cases. He smashes them."

The film reflected a pervasive fear of crime during the early 1970s. This seminal vigilante film of the decade, joined The French Connection (1971), the UK's Get Carter (1971), Death Wish (1974) featuring a vengeful vigilante killer Charles Bronson (and an awful rape sequence), Walking Tall (1973), The Seven-Ups (1973), and the Australian film Mad Max (1979) with Mel Gibson. Countless other cop-action films have been made to copy this original law-and-order film that was one of the first to appear on movie screens.

Siegel's film was considered sensational because of its overt violence (reflecting the early 70s era of rising crime and calls for 'law and order') and occasional glimpses of nudity. The duelling combatants (the cop and the criminal) throughout the film were an individualistic, unconventional, neo-fascist, super-hero police detective with a .44 Magnum weapon who threw away the rule book, and his complementary opposite - a pathological, malevolent and sadistic criminal named Scorpio (similar to SF's real-life Zodiac Killer, played by Andy Robinson) who demanded an extortionist ransom of $100,000, both shared traits of brutal violence and insanity.

The police thriller spawned many debates about the political stance of the film and the complex issue of the conflicting rights of victims, suspects, and society. Was it a reactionary message piece against imperfect, "liberal" judicial trends that let 'sicko' criminals get away, literally, with murder? Or was Siegel encouraging audiences to empathically identify with the indiscriminate vengeance of the violent, fascist, anarchic, unrestrained vigilante 'killer' on the side of the law who acted as an autonomous police power?



The Last Picture Show (1971)
D. Peter Bogdanovich

Obscene or mature? Peter Bogdanovich's melancholy look at adultery, alcoholism and promiscuity in 1950s Texas divided moviegoers and critics.

Director Peter Bogdanovich's R-rated frank and realistic black and white drama told about the dreams and loves of small-town Texans in the early 1950s, confronting various issues such as adultery, alcoholism, and promiscuity. Although the adult-themed film was nominated for eight Oscars (with two wins for supporting performers), some considered it obscene for its full frontal nudity and explicit sexual situations.

The film was reportedly banned in Phoenix, Arizona in 1973 after a showing at a drive-in theatre, following complaints by the city attorney that it violated a state obscenity statute. Arguments in federal court focused on the nudity in a nude swimming party scene, and eventually the courts disagreed over whether it was obscene, and threw the case out.

The film's most controversial scene was at an indoor pool party in which the country-club-set teenagers enjoyed skinny-dipping (with full frontal nudity of both sexes). At the pool party, a stark naked Bobby Sheen (Gary Brockette) greeted Lester and rich, ravishingly beautiful, self-centered town tease Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd in her debut film) when they arrived, labeling them: "New victims." While the others engaged in water fights, Bobby (who joked about being "dressed informally") stepped out of the water to shake Lester's hand. His nude girlfriend Annie-Annie Martin (Kimberly Hyde) also emerged from the private indoor pool, joined Bobby and asked the newcomers: "Wanna join the club?" Neophyte Jacy was challenged to get undressed out on the diving board as part of the initiation rites ("so everybody gets to watch"). The whole naked group of teenaged boys and girls eagerly sat by the edge of the pool to watch "the strip show."

Nervously and gingerly, Jacy removed her white shoes and white coat and climbed out onto the diving board for a strip-tease. Fearing that she would lose her balance, Jacy complained: "Goodness, I hope I don't fall off this thing." She slowly removed her full-length dress, her silky white slip, unhooked her garters and slid off each stocking, and then took off her garter belt. As she was unfastening her bra top, she almost fell and prevented tumbling into the water by sitting down on the board. Then in one dramatic gesture, she yanked off her bra top and flung it on top of her pile of clothes. Finally, she slid off her panties and tossed them at Bobby's ten year old brother who surfaced beneath the end of the board. She was cheered as she hopped into the water - completely naked, although she had forgotten to remove Duane's present. Realizing that the watch had stopped working, she shrugged and smiled at Bobby. Neophyte Jacy's bid for acceptance from the rich set of kids had succeeded - she had attracted the attention of the wealthy young playboy.

In another scene, the calculating, fortune-hunting Jacy experienced an aborted deflowering with football-playing boyfriend Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges) in the Cactus Motel in the dying Texas town. Ducktailed Duane entered Room 8 where he found Jacy standing in the room wearing a thin nightgown. They kissed and embraced, vowing their love. They sat on the bed and Duane began unbuttoning the top of Jacy's gown, and then exposed her breasts. As she laid back on the motel bed and half-closed her eyes, she encouraged him: "Oh Duane, hurry." He hurriedly and eagerly removed his clothes and lay on top of her. But then she asked in an annoyed tone why he was taking so long to penetrate her while being suspended over her: "Aren't you gonna do it?...What do you mean? How could anything be wrong? Just go on and do it." She blamed his Mexico trip for his limp impotence: "No telling what you got down there. I just hate you. I don't know why I ever went with you."

She was furious about his sexual incompatibility and their aborted love-making, and ordered him to put his clothes back on ("You think I wanna sit around here and look at you nekkid?"). And she feared that she might "never get to not be a virgin" - and thereby win Bobby Sheen's heart. She was also worried that classmates might ridicule them when they found out about their unsuccessful and clumsy encounter, and she confirmed what her mother had forecast: "I think you're the meanest boy I ever saw. My mother was dead right about you." She instructed him to "not tell one soul - you just pretend it was wonderful," and then threw her panties at his face. She told her admiring girlfriend-classmates: "I just can't describe it in words." Later, at the same motel in Room 9, Jacy gave Duane a second chance to deflower her - using him to provide an entree to dating Bobby Sheen. This time, he succeeded without an audience outside to witness the post-rites of passage.









Straw Dogs (1971)
D. Sam Peckinpah

A graphic double rape and its aftermath made Sam Peckinpah's movie about a mild-mannered mathematician driven to explosive violence a hot-button topic.

This disturbing film further ignited controversy over screen violence and misogynistic sexual abuse of women in the early 70s, especially due to its graphic double rape scene, which led to a cathartic eruption and escalation of violence. [The film was remade in 2011 by director Rod Lurie in a contemporary Deep South setting with the same amount of violence.]

The unflinching film from Sam Peckinpah (following his equally divisive film The Wild Bunch (1969)) starred Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner, a bookish, mild-mannered American mathematician on sabbatical living in a rural England town - the childhood village of his teasingly-seductive young bride Amy (Susan George). To incite the sexual interest of local roof construction workers, Amy removed her sweater and deliberately stood topless in full view next to an upstairs window, although her husband had cautioned her: "Don't forget to draw the curtains."

After she flaunted herself flirtatiously in view of the local townsfolk, in the scene preceding the rape (the first of two), the provocative Amy invited local laborer-thug (and ex-boyfriend) Charlie Venner (Del Henney) into her isolated farmhouse for a drink. He forcibly kissed her and although she protested unconvincingly ("Please leave me"). He dragged her by the hair to the sofa, as he struck her again and began tearing at her blue robe and continued kissing her.

He tore her white top, leaving her breasts exposed, before he raped her. The controversy stemmed from the idea that Amy was sexually excited by the aggressive violation that she was facing. At first, she struggled and called out "No," but then surrendered to his kisses. In some ways, she didn't resist but submitted, although she was under tremendous duress. When he held her down, ripped off her panties and began removing his shirt, she helplessly begged: "Easy," and meanwhile fantasized about her husband above her. She showed obvious enjoyment and lovingly kissed her assailant and stroked his shoulders and chest during and after being entered, and begged for comfort: "Hold me." However, she was also shedding tears, feeling both humiliated and disgraced. However, that wasn't the case when she was forcibly raped a second time by local workman Norman Scutt (Ken Hutchison).

The film was accused of implying that she brought on the assault (possibly as a means to insult her impassive husband) and actually might have enjoyed the first rape (a glamorization of rape). The climactic, stunning and barbaric ending also appeared to morally endorse vigilante violence, especially because of the main character's redemptive yet unsatisfying homicidal rampage. It was re-edited for an R-rating and faced censorship bans in England for 30 years.





Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971)
D. Melvin Van Peebles

Violent, politically radical and sexually transgressive, Melvin Van Peebles' indie movie reflected the simmering rage of disillusioned African-Americans.

This unconventional, revolutionary, and seminal blaxploitation film (released just before the Hollywood-financed Shaft (1971)) from the early 70s with an all-black cast was directed, co-produced, edited, scored, and written by African-American independent film-maker Melvin Van Peebles (his film debut) - he also starred as the macho black hustler title character. Peebles reportedly received VD during the making of this film. In Mario's own autobiographical film Baadasssss! (2003) years later about the making of the landmark independent film, he revealed the upset caused by the explicit scene he was forced to engage in.

The Hollywood establishment refused to financially back this gritty, low-budget, sex-filled, realistic film with never-before-seen images, soft-core sex and inflammatory racial politics, so Peebles self-financed it (with $100,000 of his own money) and sought monetary backing from Bill Cosby ($50,000). It was the first highly profitable independent film made by a black filmmaker. It caused tremendous controversy for its militancy, under-age sex, anti-white sentiment, revenge-themes, and violence, although it was one of the most important black American films of the decade. It was exceptional that a vengeful black man (after witnessing corrupt police violence) could kill a cop - and survive, as happened in the film.

After he refused to submit the film to the ratings board (the MPAA), he rated his own film with an X-rating - and Peebles used this to his marketing advantage in its tagline advertising on posters: "Rated X By An All-White Jury!" However, only two theaters in the entire United States would screen the film at first - until it became a big hit and highly profitable. The radical Black Panthers praised the film, while the mainstream black-oriented Ebony Magazine denounced it - Hollywood studios were ultimately forced to acknowledge the monetary potential of the untapped, urban African-American market (similar to the effect Easy Rider (1969) had on its countercultural audiences) as a result of this influential film.

The documentary-style, cheaply-made independent film (budgeted at $150,000), aimed at urban black audiences, was released by independent distributor Cinemation, and was shot on location in about three weeks. It was an anti-White, anti-authority diatribe. It was supplemented with jump-cuts, experimental lighting, split-screens, freeze-frames, zoom-ins, tinted and overlapping images and montages as it chronicled the successful (uncharacteristically) flight of a black fugitive nicknamed "Sweet Sweetback" (due to his large-sized manhood and insatiable sexual prowess) through Los Angeles - and toward and across the Mexican border.

The film actually opened in an all-black brothel, where (in flashback, in the film's most controversial scene), an underaged, orphaned Sweet Sweetback as a 13 year-old minor (played by Melvin Peebles' own 13 year-old son Mario) was being fed by an older maternal black prostitute. (The scene was cross-cut with a quick image of the same character as an adult on the run underneath a city bridge - accompanied with the film's opening title: "This film is dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man.") Then, young virginal Sweetback was coerced by one of the older black prostitutes to enter her room and have sex with her - explaining the derivation of his name when she said: "You've ... gotta ... sweet ... back!" The sex scene concluded and then opening credits rolled, stating that the film was "Starring THE BLACK COMMUNITY."

It also contained an explicit sex scene of well-endowed Sweetback having unsimulated sex on stage in a brothel (with poorly-lit full-frontal nudity). The film ended with a shot of a hillside landscape with the superimposed text: "Watch out -- A Baad Asssss Nigger is Coming Back To Collect Some Dues..."









The 100+ Most Controversial Films of All-Time
(chronologically, by film title)
Intro | Silents-1930s | 1940s-1950s | 1960-1961 | 1962-1967 | 1968-1969
1970-1971 | 1972 | 1973-1974 | 1975 | 1976-1977 | 1978 | 1979
1980-1982 | 1983-1986 | 1987-1989 | 1990-1992 | 1993-1995 | 1996-1999
2000-2002 | 2003-2005 | 2006-Present


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