Finnish director Renny Harlin proved he was more than capable of helming a rollicking Hollywood action vehicle with the success of
Die Hard 2 , which he directed for 20th Century Fox in 1990. The film's worldwide gross was almost double that of its predecessor Die Hard that was released two years earlier.
Die Hard on ice
After Die Hard 2's success, Carolco Pictures assigned Harlin to directing duties on what would become Cliffhanger , an action movie set in the Rocky Mountains that was written for the screen by Michael France and Sylvester Stallone (the latter who
would also portray the lead). The film centers around a gang of ruthless thugs lead by Eric Qualen (John Lithgow), who attempt to steal three cases containing $100,000,000 in a daring midair hijack. After the hijack goes awry, the gang loses the cases in
the Rocky Mountains, so they trick two mountain rescue rangers, Gabe Walker (Stallone) and Hal Tucker (Michael Rooker), into helping them locate the money.
The villainous Qualen
Gabe and his gang on the hunt for the money
A frosty reception at the MPAA
Renny Harlin's initial workprint assembly of Cliffhanger ran for around 129 minutes and he did not hold back on the film's violence. In keeping with his shooting style from Die Hard 2, action scenes in the film were characterized by slow-motion
shootings, copious bloodletting through the use of bloody squib impacts and generally strong scenes of violence. Following reshoots and discussions with the MPAA, Harlin trimmed the film down to a leaner 112 minutes and Cliffhanger received a solid R
rating from the American censors.
Cliffhanger at the Post Hungerford BBFC
James Ferman, Director of the BBFC 1975-99
Have I cut enough to solve the problem of rampaging gun killers?
The film was then submitted to the BBFC, and at the time the American James Ferman was the chief censor at the Board. Following the Hungerford massacre in 1987 (and the resultant media fallout that wrongly blamed violent films for the carnage), Ferman's
kneejerk response was to ensure that, with immediate effect, the BBFC were to become stricter with regards to the level of violence and weapons displayed in Hollywood action films - a trend that would continue right up until Ferman's departure from the
BBFC in 1999. As former BBFC Examiner Carol Topolski recounted in the BBC Four documentary, Dear Censor :
[He was] completely beside himself, and the hysterical response was to say, 'As a result of this, we must absolutely look at how guns are portrayed in films, we must absolutely hack it back because this is what's happened'.
The knock-on effects of Ferman's feelings about Hollywood violence were evident throughout his time as Director of the BBFC. To name only a handful, the action films On Deadly Ground (1994), Cutthroat Island (1995, another Harlin movie),
Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), Under Siege 2 (1995), Eraser (1996) and Lethal Weapon 4 (1998) all suffered heavy cuts for violence and weapons under Ferman's watchful eye, regardless of their final rating. Additionally, 1990
saw Harlin's Die Hard 2 heavily cut for a theatrical release, removing around half of the film's strong language and greatly reducing most of its bloody violence for a 15 rating. One can surely see the irony of the film's tagline, die harder
, that accompanied the film's censored release in the UK. Speaking in an interview with British film critic Barry Norman, James Ferman once commented:
I do think there is a problem in the gradual increase of slightly more violence in films. [It] is a worry, because kids nowadays are becoming acclimatized to more violence, and I think on the whole that is not a healthy phenomenon.
With all of these factors in mind, Cliffhanger was not in for a smooth ride at the BBFC.
BBFC Cinema Cuts
Upon reviewing the film for theatrical showing, the BBFC issued a list of cuts to the distributor, commenting:
This film is a teenage action-adventure movie, laced with adult violence and sadism, which means that the film as a whole is '15', but the violence in the second half must be considerably reduced, together with the aggressive use of strong language.
A total of almost 70 seconds would be removed before a 15 certificate was issued, which amounted to over 100 feet of film. As with Die Hard 2 , these changes included the use of some tamer dialogue that had been specially recorded for US
television showings. These alternate lines could be slotted in where needed to replace some of the coarse language. Two specific violent scenes were cited by the BBFC along with instructions on precisely what footage was to be removed, but general
overall changes were also issued by the Board, including:
Minimizing blood, bloodspurts and glamorization of knives.
Weapons were a particular bone of contention for the Board during Ferman's tenure, as Senior BBFC Examiner Craig Lapper explained in the Dear Censor documentary in 2011:
James developed the Board's weapon policy to such an extent that any sight of certain weapons, including knives, was just unacceptable and it came to a point by the 1990s where generally it wasn't really worth an examiner even making an argument.
The hijacking scene early in Cliffhanger (already precut from the initial workprint version to remove some bloody slow-motion gunshot impacts) was deemed acceptable by the BBFC because of the narrative purpose it serves . However, the board went
on to say to the distributors that:
The violence for violence's sake escalates from Reel 4 onwards.
Cinema Cuts: First base
Indeed, Reel 4 is the first reel of the film where changes were made. When villain Kynette (Leon Robinson) shoots escaping BASE
jumper Brett, the side angle shot of Brett being riddled with bullets in slow motion was slightly trimmed to remove the final few frames of a second bloody impact to his lower back.
Kynette then runs after Brett's fleeing partner, Evan, and fires at him. Hal catches up to Kynette and growls angrily, You murdering motherfuck! In the UK version, the word fuck was muted on the soundtrack.
Cinema Cuts: Cave fight
As discussed before, the BBFC stated that two particular scenes in Cliffhanger stood out as having the strongest
impact. The first of these is the cave fight between Gabe and Kynette. Just before the fight, Kynette threatens to shoot Gabe but the latter manages to slice Kynette's leg with a pickaxe. The brief slow motion shot of the axe slicing into Kynette's leg
was trimmed to reduce the end of the shot, which featured blood erupting from the wound.
In the resultant fight in the underground cave, Kynette brutally beats up Gabe whilst demanding that Gabe hands over the money that he has hidden from Qualen. Numerous body blows and kicks to Gabe's head were removed, including Kynette's aggressive line,
Wrong answer, motherfucker! as he bears down on Gabe whilst brandishing a knife. Sight of Kynette holding his knife close to Gabe's face as he threatens him was also eliminated, as was the bloody sight of the stalactite emerging from Kynette's
stomach when Gabe impales him on it at the climax of the fight.
A little while afterwards, Cockney villain Delmar (Craig Fairbrass) guns down gentile rescue chopper pilot Frank (Ralph Waite). Already cut down from the workprint version by Renny Harlin, the BBFC asked for the brief shot of Frank being riddled with
bullets in slow motion to be reduced. Two bloody bullet hits to his lower body, consisting of around 10 frames, were removed.
Cinema Cuts: Cliff top football
Later in the film, the BBFC's second strongest scene bore the brunt of the cuts made to Cliffhanger. Now separated from Gabe, Hal is taken to a cliff top by Delmar in order to be killed. What follows is a prolonged and sadistic scene as Delmar takes
evident pleasure in beating up Hal for fun, all the while acting like a football player as he unleashes a torrent of kicks to Hal's head and body. In their notes to the distributor, the BBFC stated:
Considerably reduce sadistic footballing villain headbutting and kicking Hal repeatedly when he is down and wounded on edge of cliff. [The] scene would need reduction even for '18', and most of protracted sadism must be removed for '15', including
villain's gloating infliction of pain and injury.
Around 50 seconds were cut from the sequence, including: numerous knees and blows to Hal's face and body with accompanying bloodspurts and sight of blood in the surrounding snow; Delmar stamping on Hal's knee with an accompanying crack of bone; Hal
swearing at Delmar and Delmar kicking Hal for unsportsmanlike behavior; dialogue from Delmar glorifying his skills as a striker on the football pitch; and Delmar laughing at Hal as he hangs onto the cliff edge for his life. Broadly
speaking, the majority of these cuts were simply removed in a large chunk of footage, with the BBFC instructing the distributor:
After villain swinging leg for kick, remove sight of kick landing on Hal's face, all subsequent dialogue and second kick, resuming so that first swing of kick flows into third kick which sends Hal over cliff edge. This effectively removes sight of first
two kicks landing and shortens sadistic dialogue.
Some dialogue replacement was also employed here, to further tone down the gloating aspect of the scene. After Hal is kicked over the edge, Delmar walks away in preparation to take a final run up to Hal. His dialogue is as follows in the original
Striker lines up at the penalty spot... he focuses on the ball... the crowd is on its feet! Striker moves to his left ... he draws back his foot . He comes in.
The UK version employs the following changes, substituting or removing the word 'striker' and deleting some gloating dialogue:
He lines up at the penalty spot... he focuses on the ball... moves to his left... he draws back his foot. He comes in.
As Hal hangs onto the cliff edge with Delmar standing on his foot, Hal whips out a knife that he obtained from Frank earlier in the film and stabs it into Delmar's leg. As per the BBFC's comments about the film's sight of knives, the shot of the knife
being whipped out was reduced to tone down the focus on the open blade, and after Hal stabs it into Delmar's leg the shot of it embedded with blood running from the wound was also deleted.
Cinema Cuts: Adios
A short while later, with the numbers of Qualen's gang seriously diminished, his unwilling sidekick Travers (Rex Linn) finally loses it and radios Qualen angrily to inform him that Gabe is still alive, despite their best efforts. At the end of their
conversation, Travers signs off with an angry, Adios, motherfucker! The BBFC changes altered this line through the use of some alternate dialogue recorded by Rex Linn, with Travers now being heard to say, Adios, I'm after Walker in a
slightly less angry manner.
The BBFC cuts issued for the remainder of the film simply stated general reductions to the distributor, but the only further change that would appear to have been made is a removal of a bloody close-up of Qualen's face just before he dies in the final
BBFC Video Cuts
Clearly aided by its 15 rating, Cliffhanger went on to make almost £8,000,000 (approximately £14,000,000 in today's money) during its theatrical run in the UK, and just a few months later the film was back at Soho Square for home video
classification. The version submitted for classification by Guild Home Video was the pre-cut UK cinema version. Under terms set out in the Video Recordings Act, however, the BBFC were obliged to pay attention to the likelihood of underage viewing in the
home, and as a result a video release of a film could be treated more strictly by the BBFC than it was in its theatrical version. Cliffhanger would be no exception in this instance.
In addition to the cuts made for the cinema version (which amounted on PAL video to 65 seconds due to the differing frame rate), the BBFC requested an additional 16 seconds of cuts to the film. The first was a line of racist dialogue from Delmar. After
Gabe has felled Kynette with the pickaxe, female villain Kristel (Caroline Goodall) heads off to plant some C4 in an attempt to kill Gabe - and possibly Kynette if he doesn't make it out in time. As Kristel moves to leave, Delmar says to her:
Good, and blow up that black bastard while you're at it. Save me the time of doing it meself.
Video Cuts: Cave fight
The cave fight shortly afterwards was also reduced further, with numerous small trims throughout. Early in the fight, two blows to Gabe's body and a further hit to his face by Kynette were removed. There was also a subtle change to Kynette's threatening
of Gabe with a knife at the end of the fight. As Kynette bears down on Gabe, he makes reference to Gabe's partner, Jessie (Janine Turner):
It amazes me, in this day and age, when a man will put money before the personal safety of himself... and his bitch.
In the theatrical version, the underlined dialogue appears over a close-up of Kynette scraping his knife across the rocks in the cave and bringing the blade in front of his face as he grins. The visual details were cut out, but the dialogue was retained
and played instead over the following shot of Gabe on the floor. In essence, the BBFC considered that this cut eliminated two issues - sadism and knifeplay:
Cut away towards end of black man's speech... removing [his] gloating smile and close-up of knife re-entering the frame.
Kynette's death was also cut down further. With the shot of the stalactite emerging through Kynette's body already removed in the cinema version, the BBFC further requested:
Reduce impaling of villain on stalactite by shortening close-up of Stallone straining to hold him up and of black man's face dripping blood, resuming to see his head drop.
Video Cuts: Cut Kristel
Almost ten minutes later, Qualen's killing of his pilot/lover Kristel was also reduced for video
In the workprint version, Kristel was originally seen to be shot three times on camera, but the US R rated version re-edited this so that only the first shot was clearly seen. The following two gunshots played off-screen and over a reaction shot of
Travers looking on. For the UK video version, the BBFC asked the distributors to further edit the scene:
Reduce shooting of woman pilot by removing last gunshot and sight of bloody wounds in chest, resuming as she falls.
Video Cuts: Beneath the ice
The final change made to the video release of Cliffhanger was the death scene of the rogue treasury agent, Travers. In the original version of the scene, after Gabe falls into an icy stream and is trapped beneath the ice, Travers walks on the ice above
him and aims his gun down at Gabe. Grabbing his bolt gun from his belt, Gabe fires a piton up through the ice and into Travers, which incapacitates him temporarily. Travers struggles to his feet and is about to fire at Gabe again, at which point Hal
suddenly appears with Delmar's shotgun and blasts away at Travers. Travers staggers backwards into the ice, and Hal runs over to pull Gabe from the freezing waters. In the R-rated version however, Gabe fires three pitons into Travers from underneath the
ice, which kill him. We then cut to Hal lowering the shotgun (a shot that now looks out of place due to the scene's aforementioned changes) and running over to Gabe.
Common rumor has it that the scene was edited by the MPAA, but this is not the case. Speaking to me via email, actor Rex Linn who played Travers recounted his memories of shooting his death scene in Italy in 1992:
The original scene had Michael Rooker shooting me three times with his shotgun. However, after reviewing the dailies two days later, Renny Harlin was not terribly impressed with the scenario. [He] thought Rooker was too far away from me, it wasn't that
exciting, etc. So one week later we re-shot the scene with Sly killing me. We loved it!
For the UK video version of the scene (which had final R-rated version of the sequence as its basis), the BBFC requested it be reduced thus:
Reduce bloody impact shots by removing central emphasis on blood, resuming to see [Travers] fall through ice.
Gabe's three piton shots were reduced to two, with only the first being clearly registered. This creates one of the most awkward edits in the UK video version, where Travers goes from having one piton embedded in his chest to suddenly being drenched in
blood and falling into the ice.
Cover Art: Hang on a moment!
Cliffhanger was released on video in the UK in 1994, complete with a reversible sleeve that featured the iconic hang on poster design, which had the unfortunate effect of making the film look like it was titled Hang On .
It was rereleased on video at least once more in 2000 by Universal, where the previous BBFC cuts were replicated.
Original VHS release
with reversible cover A
Original VHS release
with reversible cover B
A laserdisc widescreen version of Cliffhanger was also released in the 1990s which allegedly restored some of the original BBFC cuts, including the aggressive uses of motherfucker . However, official information about this release is at the very
least scant, if not nonexistent. BBC One TV showings in the early 2000s restored the two uses of the word by Hal and Travers respectively, although Kynette's use was still removed.
Cuts hang on for DVD
Fast forward to April 2001, and Momentum Pictures are set to release Cliffhanger on DVD. Anticipating an uncut release, their publicity images of the DVD cover sported an 18 rating. However, BBFC policy would not allow both a cut and uncut version of the
same film on the market at the same time. In their eyes, underage viewers would simply seek out the "forbidden fruit" of the uncut version of a film, and so cuts would have to be made to Cliffhanger once again. The BBFC would later show a
relaxing of this rule, most notably with the release of Stephen Sommer's The Mummy on DVD in 2000, when they allowed the uncut 15-rated version to be released on DVD, whilst a cut version was released on VHS with a 12 rating. The BBFC's policy on
multiple releases of a single work with different ratings was officially revoked in 2004.
Due to the last minute realisation that the BBFC would not allow an uncut release of Cliffhanger, Momentum hurriedly made cuts to the DVD version in an extremely crude and lazy fashion. Offending footage was hastily butchered, with no regard to the
mixing or repositioning of the soundtrack to smooth over the edits as had been done on the VHS releases. This precut version was submitted to the BBFC but Momentum had neglected to cut Kristel's death as per the UK video version, and thus this too was
removed before a 15 rating was awarded. Despite sporting a much improved image quality over the old tapes, the DVD could not be recommended to the serious film collector.
To add insult to injury, the UK DVD master carried an additional German audio track and subtitles in English and German, and the English subtitle track appeared to be translated from the German dub. As a result, the on-screen subtitles were quite
incorrect with regards to the actual English spoken lines. Momentum would run into a similar problem in 2002 when they anticipated an uncut DVD release of Cutthroat Island , Renny Harlin's infamous pirate movie which bankrupted Carolco Pictures. Publicity stills of that DVD cover showed it sporting a 15 rating, but once more the BBFC demanded cuts to bring the film in line with the old PG versions on video, and
Momentum again carried out the edits in a rather ham-fisted fashion.
BBFC Uncut for Blu-ray
It would be just over seven years before Cliffhanger was back at the BBFC, submitted by a new distributor; the rather aptly-named Optimum Releasing. With new guidelines in place, the film was submitted in its uncut form to the Board and surprisingly all
previous cuts were waived - along with the 15 rating being retained. This new version was released without fanfare in August of 2008 and for the first time in 15 years, British audiences could enjoy the film it all its uncut glory. The one downside to
the UK Blu-ray release is that the front stereo channels on the 5.1 mix are accidentally reversed, but as the US Blu-ray is both Region Free and unaffected by this issue it is the disc most recommended for UK buyers who want an unafflicted, uncut copy.
Special thanks to Rex Linn, whose insight and memories of his experiences filming Cliffhanger were invaluable in the creation of this article.
Cutting Edge: Episode 3 - Cliffhanger
Gavin Salkeld's fascinating documentary about the background and the detailed BBFC cuts to Cliffhanger is presented exclusively by Melon Farmers.
All articles are original works compiled by Gavin Salkeld, with occasional
help from a small team of researchers. Particular thanks are due to the BBFC
for their diligent and helpful explanations of their interventions.