A darker and more daring James Bond challenges the film censors with Licence to Kill
31st October 2011
By Gavin Salkeld
In early 1989, Licence to Kill came before the BBFC. A much darker and more daring film than any of its predecessors -- with a very contemporary villain and more realistic, stronger violence -- the film would go on to cause problems at
the BBFC well into the Summer of '89.
A lot of casual fans call the film a flop, but this is a common myth. Whilst not as financially successful as the Bond films before it, Licence to Kill grossed $156 million against its $32 million budget, and the film has more than it's fair
share of fans. With Daniel Craig now in the role, viewers young and old are beginning to see that Licence to Kill was simply ahead of it's time. Dalton's darker interpretation of Bond, and particularly his more emotional and human portrayal, are
precisely the elements that Craig is getting kudos for in his tenure as Bond.
First Screening: Cuts required for 15
The 23rd of February 1989 saw Licence to Kill come before the BBFC for an advice viewing. The print was a rough cut, with an incomplete sound mix and no credits sequence. The running time was 2 hours, 8 minutes, 42 seconds and 9 frames. The
BBFC examiners finish viewing the film, and are split between three options - an uncut 15 , a 15 with cuts and, amazingly, an uncut 18 . A decision is eventually made between the examiners that an uncut 15 is not
possible, and a potential cuts list is drawn up for a cut 15 version.
Five days later, on the 27th of February, United Artists Pictures (UIP) are contacted by phone by the BBFC, with a list of cuts that will enable Licence to Kill to obtain a (more commercially viable) 15 rating. These initial cuts are
small, but also somewhat vague, and were outlined by the BBFC thus in their original notes:
Reel 1: the whipping of the woman [Lupe]
Reel 2: the man [Felix] lowered into the shark tank
Reel 10: the man [Krest] in the pressure chamber
Reel 11: the man [Dario] crushed in the grinder
UIP take onboard the BBFC's suggested cuts and take some time to re-edit Licence to Kill. It is almost a full month before the film is back at Soho Square.
Second Screening: More cuts required for 15
It is now March the 23rd. Licence to Kill submitted for viewing by a new, different team of examiners. The film at this point is still a rough cut, without the credits sequence, but the sound mix is more complete. After the screening of the film
-- in what must have been, for UIP, an unexpected move on behalf of the board -- the BBFC conclude that in fact more cuts are required for a 15 rating, and that extensive cuts for a 12 rating were not a viable option .
The 12 rating was not yet available to distributors but was soon going to be introduced later in the year. Both the BBFC and indeed UIP were aware of this, which will come into play later in the year.
As result of this second screening, the BBFC write up additional, more detailed cuts for UIP. Due to the film's sound mix now having been added, their notes now include details visual and audio cuts and state:
The following cuts in visuals must be made for 15:
Reel 8: remove sight of impact sounds into woman's heart [when Loti, the HK Narcotics agent, is shot in the breasts]
Reel 12: after Bond has set light to Sanchez, remove two shots of his body in flames
The sound must be reduced at the following times:
Reel 1: punch to man's lower body [Lupe's lover in the opening scene]
Reel 2: blow to man's head with rifle butt [Sanchez's van escape];
Reel 2: blow to back of Felix's head during attack in bedroom;
Reel 2: at end of reel, reduce sound of Felix screaming as he is attacked by shark
Reel 3: heavy blow to guard by James Bond in crate of worms
Reel 5: heavy kick to frogman underwater [seen in close-up];
Reel 5: reduce sound of heavy blows and kicks in bar room fight
Reel 8: blow to head with rifle butt [this happens when the ninja overcome Bond]
Reel 11: heavy blows in driving-cab of big truck [given by Bond to the driver]
The BBFC again dictate the cuts to UIP by phone and a week later on March the 30th, reels 8 and 12 (the reels requiring picture cuts) are viewed by the BBFC, as the sound cuts have not yet been made. The BBFC take notes during this screening
session and are satisfied with the edits:
Reel 8 - impact wounds [to Loti's breasts] have been cut. Blood stains near breasts remain but are unlikely to be noticed as body falls to ground immediately.
Reel 12 - one shot of Sanchez in flames remains and is unacceptable. This has been removed experimentally, but leaves a slight jump cut of Bond running away. Company told this may be filled with another shot of Bond
running or an extension of the shots that remain.
Following the BBFC's comments, a few days later UIP resubmit reel 12, which meets with the Board's approval:
Jump cut now bridged with a new shot of Bond running away in single shot, followed by a brief shot of flames spreading from [Sanchez] to ground, with no emphasis on man in flames. [The sequence is] OK for 15.
On April the 7th, a printed hard copy of the complete cuts list drawn up by the BBFC on March the 23rd this is mailed to the distributor.
Third Screening: Cuts implemented for 15 accepted by the BBFC
A month or so later, on May the 15th, the BBFC once again views Licence to Kill, this time in a completed, final theatrical cut with the credits sequence finalized. The BBFC notes that the sound cuts have been made in full, along with all
previous visual cuts requested, and a unanimous decision is made that the film can now be classified as a 15.
The final classification -- including the infamous black card -- is formally issued to UIP on May the 23rd, and this is the date listed on the BBFC website. The BBFC notes that the film's UK theatrical running time is 2 hours, 12 minutes, 16
seconds and 44 frames, which is roughly three and half minutes longer than the earlier submissions due to the addition of the credits sequence. However, the BBFC notes that their records do not indicate how much footage was removed since the
initial rough cuts were seen.
And so it would appear all is well, or as well as can be, for British Bond fans. But the story does not end there...
Fourth Screening: Further cuts required for a possible 12 rating
The film received its Royal World Premiere on June the 13th, 1989, but on June the 28th, the finished film was screened privately at the Odeon Leicester Square. In attendance was James Ferman, six BBFC examiners and assorted young people
[aged] 15 to 20+ . Afterwards, the BBFC noted from the audience feedback that there is unanimity that 15 is the correct category and there is no support at all for reclassifying 12, even with cuts .
But what's even stranger is that two days later, UIP appealed against the 15 rating that they so strongly tried for.
Following the appeal, the already-edited 15 version of Licence to Kill was viewed by the Presidents of the BBFC, and a film examiner. With the 12 rating due to roll out for cinema use around August time, the BBFC offer a 12 to UIP, requesting further cuts in the
whip, shark and pressure chamber scenes.
Final Decision: Distributors stick with the cut 15 rating
However, on July 10th, a memo to James Ferman arrives at the BBFC. It states that associate producer Tom Pevsner, Cubby Broccoli and UIP's Jim Higgins had discussed the matter and agreed that as the 12 rating would not be introduced by the
time of Licence to Kill's release, that they would yield and accept the 15 rating.
And so concludes the Licence to Kill classification procedure, an even that took the best part of five months to complete.
Meanwhile at the US film censor
The film had problems with the MPAA too, who requested edits for UIP to obtain a PG- 13 rating. Loti's death was cut similarly to the UK version, removing the exploding bullet hits on her breasts. The other scenes cut included the shark tank
scene, the pressure chamber murder, Dario's death in the rock crusher and Sanchez's fiery demise.
A shot of Felix's bloody stump was removed in the shark tank scene, the shot of Krest's head exploding was cut in the pressure chamber and Dario's death was trimmed to reduce a shot of gore as he slides into the rock crusher. To cut Sanchez'
burning to death, an early cutaway of Bond running away was spliced into the shots of Sanchez on fire, and the sight of him flailing, failing to the floor and getting engulfed by fire was shortened. These cuts were more akin to trims -- a shot
here, a shot there -- and nowhere near as extensive as the BBFC's original cuts.
Less cut for the 2000 DVD release
The heavy BBFC cuts persisted into all pan and scan and widescreen VHS releases, until MGM submitted the American PG-13 version for DVD release in 2000. The BBFC passed this pre-cut version uncut with a 15 rating, and originally had this
version listed on their website as all previous cuts waived . It was not until I had viewed the DVD and questioned the lack of footage -- notably Felix's bloody leg stump and Krest's exploding head -- that they realised they had made a
mistake, and the film was not actually uncut. They changed the website text accordingly.
Uncut for the 2006 DVD release
Staggeringly, it would be nearly two decades before British Bond fans could finally see Licence to Kill uncut. Seventeen years after its heavily edited cinema release in 1989, the Ultimate Edition DVD released in 2006 finally restored all the
BBFC- and MPAA edits to the picture.
John Glen's personal favorite of his all the Bond films he directed, Licence to Kill is a bold picture that, sadly, audiences just weren't ready for in the late 80s. The grittiness of the film however would spill over somewhat into GoldenEye
, Pierce Brosnan's first film, which was written with Dalton in mind. What a movie that would have been had Dalton decided to take it on! More on that film next time.
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.