The 100+ Most Controversial
Films of All-Time


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

Caligula (1979, It./US)
D. Tinto Brass

Variety dubbed this hardcore historical epic - written by Gore Vidal, produced by Penthouse's Bob Guccione and directed by Tinto Brass -- a "moral holocaust."

This lavish Roman-Empire epic was the last major attempt of its era to include graphic sexual content in a mainstream film. It was written by Gore Vidal and co-financed by adult-oriented Penthouse magazine's producer Bob Guccione, though the script underwent several re-writes after the director and cast found Gore Vidal's interpretation unsatisfactory (Vidal later disowned it and removed his name). It advertised itself as "the most controversial film of the 20th century" - and was the most expensive pornographic film ever made.

This was Hollywood's first big-budget ($17 million that later ballooned to $22 million), bizarre blockbuster sexploitation epic of 'classy' hardcore sex and gory violence - and it became both a critical and commercial disaster after a very limited theatrical release (due to fear of prosecution for obscenity). Fearing an X rating, it was originally self-rated as MA (mature audiences only) and shown in a 156-minute version, it was then severely edited for an R-rating down to about 102 minutes.

This depraved movie, condemned as worthless fantasy trash, arrived just before the new conservatism that took place during the Reagan administration and its subsequent Meese Commission Study of Pornography (finally published in mid-1986). The film's director Tinto Brass had only one major film in his resume, Salon Kitty (1976) about a German brothel used by the Nazis.

The objectionable film was originally intended to be high-art (although it turned out to be excessive cinematic sleaze), with major and notable stars (Malcolm McDowell as the infamous, crazed and corrupt Roman emperor, John Gielgud, Helen Mirren, Peter O'Toole), but was described as a "moral holocaust" by Variety and reviewers considered it worthless fantasy trash.

An encounter between two lesbians Messalina (Penthouse Pet Marjorie Thoreson (as Anneka Di Lorenzo)) and Agrippina (Penthouse Pet Lori Wagner) was filmed later and inserted for prurient interest, to depict explicit oral sex. The sordid film also included graphic and steamy sex scenes of sexual depravity and orgiastic decadence, including a large-scale orgy, a phallic swing, masturbation, rape, sleeping with a horse, and incest (Caligula's interest in his sister), among other thngs.

Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979, UK)
D. Terry Jones

Defiantly tasteless and daringly irreverent, this satire lampooned religious zealotry and was labeled blasphemous and sacrilegious.

This Terry Jones-directed tasteless and daringly irreverent, pseudo-biblical satire of Biblical blockbuster religious films (from Cecil B. DeMille's works to Ben-Hur (1959)) and religious intolerance was often considered blasphemous and sacrilegious for its depiction of hypocritical faith, modern organized religion, and its religious zealotry and conformity. The film illustrated the kind of outrage that would come later for Martin Scorsese's film The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).

Self-appointed moral guardians criticized the idea of the film's production, until Beatle George Harrison set up HandMade Films to finance it. [An hour-long UK TV documentary was made to chronicle the making of the film and the accusatory atmosphere surrounding it - The Secret Life of Brian (2007).]

Biblical history was rewritten in its parody story of reluctant Messiah Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman), a Jerusalem nobody and "very naughty boy" (according to his shrewish Jewish mother (Terry Jones)), whose life uncannily and coincidentally paralleled that of Jesus since he was born on the same day. A common misunderstanding was that Brian lampooned Christ or Christianity, but that was definitely not the case. Depictions of the figure of Jesus in the film were treated non-humorously and with respect, although the way in which Jesus was worshipped by followers was mocked.

One of its ongoing gags was about the various factional, anti-Roman revolutionary groups (i.e., 'The Judean People's Front', 'The People's Front of Judea') that were protesting against Roman rule and occupation - and more often against each other. The Sermon on the Mount was lampooned, with Christ (Kenneth Colley) delivering the well-known speech - misunderstood and inaudible, misinterpreted and heard in part as "Blessed are the cheesemakers."

The R-rated film's most controversial scene was the ending sequence of a mass crucifixion, in which the incongruously upbeat, life-affirming comical song "(Always Look on the) Bright Side of Life" was spiritedly performed by the chorus-line of dozens of crucified individuals, including Brian.

When released in the UK, the film -- regularly regarded as one of the funniest films ever made - was banned in some towns and counties by several town councils and organizations (one of which was Festival of Light), and efforts were taken to reclassify it as X-rated so that audiences would be further limited. It was also banned for eight years in the Republic of Ireland and for a year in Norway. The film was not released in Italy until 1990, eleven years after it was made. Various pressure groups in the US (especially in Bible Belt states) tried to prosecute the film or ban its showing, and Catholic groups condemned the film and suggested it was a sin to view it. Citizens Against Blasphemy attempted to prosecute the film.

The Warriors (1979)
D. Walter Hill

Worried that Walter Hill's stylized depiction of warring gangs might incite real violence, Paramount Pictures temporarily pulled it from several theaters.

This urban fantasy cult movie (a modern retelling inspired by the Greek tale Anabasis by Xenophon) was director/writer Walter Hill's third feature film. It was a surprise hit although it had a large cast of unknown actors from the New York theater area, and it presented a cartoonish-like display of violence (without blood) and an unrealistic view of NY street gangs (with their flamboyant costumes and face paint).

However, the film's original poster, which stated the film's tagline: "These are the armies of the night" and this additional phrase: "They are 100,000 strong. They outnumber the cops five to one. They could run New York City," outraged and scared many people - and some of the film's early showings incited lethal violence (in Palm Springs and Oxnard, California) and caused gang outbreaks.

Due to these reports of criminal violence in a few locations, the film was temporarily pulled out of circulation in over half a dozen theaters by its nervous Paramount Studios despite being a box office success. One theater in Washington hired full time security until the end of the film's run. Paramount also attempted to modify the film's advertising campaign by pulling its print and TV advertising, but then was compelled to remove the film from release entirely. The film later gained a cult following when the cable TV and the VCR revolution occurred, and through midnight showings.

This controversial film told the story of The Warriors gang (from Coney Island) who attended a truce meeting of gang members in Van Cortland Park in the Bronx, where charismatic gangleader Cyrus (Roger Hill) was shot dead by anarchistic Luther (David Patrick Kelly) of the Rogues gang after a speech, with the Warriors falsely accused of the crime by the Gramercy Riffs. The Warriors gang, led by reluctant hero Swan (Michael Beck) and joined by tough-talking would-be girlfriend Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) from the Orphans, had to flee back to their home turf without weapons and with every rival gang in pursuit through the dark night of NYC. Lynne Thigpen's role was as a melodic-voiced, omniscient radio DJ who communicated God-like through coded-message broadcasts, providing a running commentary about the progress of all the rival gangs and the movements and location of the Warriors - she was represented only by her full, sensual fire-red lipsticked lips.

The gangs they encountered along each stop of their subway ride across town included the Turnball ACs (multi-racial skinheads riding in old green schoolbuses, with chains and planks of wood for weapons), the Orphans (low-class hoodlums with razor blades), the infamous Baseball Furies (represented the Furies - with baseball bats as weapons), the seductive Lizzies (a female gang representing the Sirens), the Punks (dungaree clad who fight the Warriors in the men's room of the Bowery station, in one of the film's best scenes), the Rogues (led by Luther who memorably taunted with empty clinking beer bottles: "Warriors, come out to playyy"), the (Gramercy) Riffs (the largest and most powerful gang - now vengeful and led by Masai after Cyrus' death) -- and many more -- and finally, the New York City police.

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 | 2006-2009 | 2010-present

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