The mid- to late 1980s was a bit of a trying time for the BBFC (operating then under director James Ferman), in part due to the large backlog of unclassified videos that the Board was trying to work through and the ongoing "video
nasties" panic. On top of this, the Hollywood action movie was riding on a high, with films like Commando, Lethal Weapon, Above the Law and Die Hard proving popular with adult audiences. The Sylvester Stallone action vehicles
First Blood and Rambo: First Blood Part II were also released during this time, with both films receiving uncut 15 ratings from the BBFC in 1982 and 1985 respectively. A couple of years later, the unthinkable happened.
On August 19th 1987, 27 year old Michael Ryan killed 16 people and wounded 15 others in the market town of Hungerford in Berkshire, England, before taking his own life. At the time, it was the deadliest mass shooting in British history. British
news reports broadcast the day of the Hungerford shootings featured one anecdote from a local resident who recounted that other locals had referred to Ryan as "playing Rambo". Certain media outlets picked up on this and immediately
began comparisons between Ryan's actions and Stallone's Rambo character. It was an irresistible hook, and before long the British Safety Council wrote an open letter to Lord Harewood, then-president of the BBFC, to withdraw the 15 ratings given
to the first two Rambo films.
The next day, the BBFC held one of their monthly board meetings and James Ferman came into the meeting in a state that former BBFC examiner Carol Topolski described as "hysterical".
"[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 and we must absolutely hack it back because this is what's happened', because there was a completely ill-advised linking in the media's mind between what Michael Ryan did in Hungerford and the Rambo films."
During this period, the BBFC were regularly cutting images of illegal martial arts weaponry from action films, particularly from Hong Kong products. But it would be the classification of Rambo III in 1988 that would expand the BBFC's remit
regarding the handling of on-screen depictions of more conventional weapons in major Hollywood action films. Indeed, the Board clarified their position in their 1987 annual report, stating:
"The terrible killings at Hungerford made it clear that Britain was not exempt from the violence we had come to believe existed abroad but not here. Lethal weapons, we realised, were alarmingly easy to obtain. There has never been any
evidence that video viewing contributed to what happened in Hungerford, although the media have -- irresponsibly we think -- claimed the reverse. Nevertheless, the Board has felt it its duty to come down on the side of caution. After Hungerford,
the Board tightened up its own policy on guns and knives. Images that had once been considered traditional are now frequently excised from screen entertainment."
BBFC cuts for an 18 rated cinema release
Rambo III was submitted to the BBFC for a theatrical certificate in 1988 and it is unfortunate for the filmmakers that the classification of the film would be affected by the fallout from the Hungerford massacre. The classification of the film
didn't start well in Britain; for one, its theatrical trailer was banned outright for a cinema classification by the BBFC in June. The film itself then came in with a request for a 15 rating, no doubt due to the fact that the previous two films
had received 15 ratings and had proven popular with teenagers. The opinions of various BBFC examiners who saw the film were split between granting the film a 15 and an 18, with or without cuts in both cases. In the wake of the events in
Hungerford, the Board agreed to classify the film 15 -- at the expense of three minutes of cuts. The filmmakers considered this unacceptable and reluctantly opted for an 18 rating, but even at this category the BBFC still demanded cuts to the
Cut Scenes: Reel 1
The first cuts occur in Reel 1 of the film, which sees Rambo engaging in a high-stakes stick fight in Thailand. For an 18 rating, the BBFC demanded:
"Considerably reduce Rambo's stick fight in Bangkok by removing: a) opponent's spinning kick to Rambo's head, b) opponent's heavy kick to Rambo's right leg, c) opponent's slow-motion kick to Rambo's chest plus second slow-motion
shot of flying kick to Rambo's head and heavy stick blows to Rambo's left arm; d) heavy stick blows to Rambo's shoulders, e) two blows from Rambo to opponent with sticks, one to the stomach and one to the back, f) multi-stick blows from
Rambo to opponent plus Rambo's backward kick to opponent's chest, g) frenzied punch by Rambo to opponent's head."
The UK cinema version reduced the fight to little more than a selection of stick-on-stick blows, removing the vast majority of blows to the fighters' bodies.
Cut Scenes: Reel 3
Whilst Reel 2 escaped unscathed, the BBFC demanded two further cuts in Reel 3. The first change occurred in the scene where Rambo is accosted by a young Afghan fighter, who wants to look at Rambo's knife. After Rambo hands it to him, the boy
twirls the knife around before asking if he can have it. Rambo refuses, and holsters the weapon. For an 18 rating, the BBFC demanded:
"Remove sight of Rambo's knife being twirled by young boy after taking it from holster."
Another cut occurred shortly afterwards, with the uncut version showing a horse falling to the ground as its rider is blown from its back. Under the terms set out in the Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act 1937, the Board demanded this cut to
what they deemed was the inhumane treatment of an animal; in this case, a tripwire being used to make the horse fall to the ground.
It should be noted that director Peter MacDonald makes a point in the film's audio commentary that he and his crew ensured that none of the horses used in the film came to any harm. Nevertheless, the BBFC demanded:
"Remove sight of horse tripped into forward somersault as rider is blown from horse."
Cut Scenes: Reel 4
Further cuts were demanded in Reel 4, beginning with the sequence in which Rambo digs for landmines during his incursion into the Russian base. Concerned about the glamorisation of weapons, even though the knife in question is not being used
in a violent manner, the BBFC demanded of the UK cinema version that the producers remove the initial sight of the knife, remarking:
"Remove close-up of Rambo's knife being thrust into ground."
The next affected scene in the UK cinema version show Zaysen electrocuting a prisoner in a cell. For an 18 rating, the BBFC demanded:
"Remove sight of electric shock torture to man strapped in chair."
A few minutes later, another instance of callous violence was cited as needing to be cut, concerning a scene where Zaysen orders the execution of a prisoner. For the UK cinema version, the BBFC demanded:
"Remove sight of gun shot to man hanging in torture cell and chest exploding with impact of bullet."
Shortly afterwards, Rambo infiltrates the Russian base and meets up with Colonel Trautman. Rambo throws a knife into the neck of an approaching guard, before gunning down a number of Russian enemies. For an 18 rating, the BBFC demanded:
"Remove shot of Rambo's knife in guard's neck after being thrown."
"Remove impact shot of bullets fired into Russian guards when Rambo leans back from staircase."
"Remove impact shot of bullets in Russian soldier in doorway."
Cut Scenes: Reel 5
Just over 10 minutes later, more changes were mandated by the BBFC in Reel 5, as Rambo comes to Trautman's aid in order to save him from death by flamethrower. With regards to these sequences, the BBFC demanded:
"Remove shot of Rambo twirling knife before he throws it at Afghan traitor."
"Remove Rambo's uppercut blow with piece of wood to Russian guard."
"Reduce sight of Rambo gloating over Russia guard after he has hit him and broken piece of wood across his back."
A couple of minutes later, Rambo and Trautman escape from the Russians in a commandeered helicopter. For the 18-rated UK cinema version, the BBFC demanded:
"When Rambo fires at two guards in watchtower from helicopter, remove bloody impact wounds and blood spattered over window."
As Rambo and Trautman escape through the Afghanistan caves, a brief cut was made to the killing of a Russian soldier by Trautman. Here, the BBFC demanded:
"Remove heavy impact splatter shot of bullet exploding Russian soldier's head after being shot by Colonel Trautman."
Cut Scenes: Reel 6
The final fight between Rambo and the Russian henchman in Reel 6 was the last affected scene in the UK cinema version. For an 18 rating, the BBFC demanded:
"Remove lingering close-up of Rambo's knife after it has been kicked out of his hand by big Russian (flash shot may remain)."
"Remove close-up of Rambo's fingers gouging big Russian's eyes."
"Remove head butt by big Russian to Rambo during fight."
"Remove close-up of Rambo just before his flying kick to big Russian's head, which contains impact soundtrack of kick."
Following these changes, Rambo III was passed 18 for a British cinema release on July 29th 1988. A total of 98 feet of film has been removed, amounting to one minute and five seconds of footage. The BBFC annual report of 1988 later referenced the
"RAMBO III, a military adventure in Afghanistan, attracted criticism because of its alleged potential for encouraging anti-social violence on the streets of Britain, although no scene in the film had taken place in a peacetime urban
setting. It was the moments of military death-dealing in RAMBO III which seemed likely to inspire dreams of emulation, and many brief cuts were required by the Board in bloodshed and glamorisation of military weaponry, particularly the 'Rambo
knife', which was already being sold by many weapons shops in Britain to teenagers whose lifestyles owed little to military discipline. Shorn of all these details, the film began to seem acceptable even for a '15' category. In the end, the Board
decided to play safe with an '18' certificate."
Further BBFC cuts for an 18 rated VHS release
Rambo III was later submitted for a VHS classification in what appears to be its original uncut version and the BBFC were keen to uphold the film's 18 classification on video. However, the version of the film that was passed for home viewing
would be cut even more heavily than the cinema version, no doubt due to the fact that the BBFC were aware that younger teenagers who had seen the first two films in the series would seek out the third film regardless (or perhaps because of) its
higher rating. In effect, one could argue that the cutting of the film on video brought it down to 15-level, with heavy cuts made to almost every action sequence in the picture.
Cut Scenes: VHS cuts
Following the video submission to the BBFC, the Board issued a general cuts list to the distributors, which stated:
"Reduce splatter shots and glamorising of weapons throughout, in particular the 'Rambo Knife', and considerably reduce opening stick fight as indicated in the film cuts list. Also remove illegal horsefall."
A summary of the UK video cuts follows (which were made in addition to the cuts made for the theatrical release). For a more detailed look at these changes, readers can view the video below:
The sight of bloody bullet impacts during the Russian air assault on Trautman's men, just before Trautman is captured, were deleted;
Trautman's interrogation was cut by around 15 seconds to removing a blow to his body and his face;
Three cuts to the sight of bullet impacts into bodies were implemented during the Russian assault on the rebel base;
Rambo's shooting of a Russian soldier on a balcony was cut during the rescue of Colonel Trautman;
Trautman gunning down Russian enemies during the subsequent helicopter escape was trimmed;
Rambo's construction of his bow was virtually eliminated on video, along with the further sight of Rambo prepping his bow to eliminate Russian enemies in the caves a few minutes later;
Rambo's fight with the big Russian removed body blows to Rambo, reduced the focus on Rambo reaching for the Russian's grenades, the sight of the Russian hanging at the end of the rope and the resultant sight of his eviscerated body;
Rambo and Trautman gunning down various enemies during the final showdown was trimmed;
Rambo's killing of two Russian tank drivers was slightly truncated;
Trautman's assault on Zaysen's gunner was cut to remove bloody impacts, as was the death of Zaysen as Rambo shoots at him.
Following all of these changes, Rambo III was passed 18 for a VHS release after a staggering 183 seconds of cuts on January 23rd 1989. In addition to the cuts made to the film itself, the VHS packaging in Britain also removed all sight of Rambo's
bow strapped to his naked torso from the video cover.
UK video cover, uncensored on the left and censored on the right
Referencing the classification of Rambo III on video, the BBFC's 1989 annual report noted that:
"Rambo III was cut more heavily on video than on film, chiefly to limit the glamorisation of weaponry for home viewing... Among these was Rambo's trade-mark knife, virtually removed from the film as a combat weapon though retained for the
cutting of barbed wire. His high-tech bow was also given rather less prominence in an age when the sale of crossbows has had to be legally controlled in Britain. The obsessions of certain film-makers with martial arts weapons and military
hardware and their festishisation through carefully lit close-ups and slow-motion shots is a perennial problem. It is hoped that this cinematic fascination with guns and crossbows is short-lived."
BBFC cuts for violence waived in 2000
This heavily-cut version would be the standard version available to British buyers for 11 years, until Universal Pictures submitted the film for a new classification in 2000. With the passing of time, the BBFC waived almost all of the previous
cuts, save for the sight of the horsefall in the film which they still required as a compulsory cut under UK law. This version of the film was released on VHS and later on DVD by Momentum Pictures.
Almost a decade later, a limited edition Blu-ray set containing First Blood, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Rambo III and Rambo was released in the UK. According to the comparison site Rewind, the UK version of this set also contained the slightly
cut version of Rambo III which eliminated the horsefall. Rewind also suggests that the standalone release from Optimum Home Entertainment that was released on August 4th 2008 is uncut. A Cutting Edge viewer has informed us that the Optimum
release is indeed uncut, although we were unable to independently verify these claims at the time we went to print.
British fans wishing to seek out the full uncut version of the film may choose to play it safe by importing the Lionsgate Films release from the United States, which is Region Free and will play on any UK Blu-ray player without issue. This
version contains none of the BBFC cuts that were applied to the film in Britain and represents the complete version of the film.
Cutting Edge Video, Season Four, Episode 50 Rambo III
Cutting Edge now in High Definition
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.