December 1983 saw the release of Brian De Palma's epic crime drama, Scarface, by Universal Pictures. A loose remake of the 1932 film of the same name, which was directed by Howard Hawks, De Palma's version tells the story of Cuban refugee
Tony Montana (Al Pacino) who arrives in 1980s Miami and rises to become a powerful drug kingpin. Although the film was a box office success, the film's initial critical reception was somewhat negative, with particular attention paid to the film's
excessive violence and strong language. However, in the years since, the film has had something of a reappraisal from critics and it is now generally considered to be one of the greatest crime films ever made.
The film's journey to the silver screen was fraught with classification issues in various countries; Germany and Norway, for example, both made cuts to the film for its initial theatrical releases. Scarface was also troublesome for the MPAA in
the United States and the BBFC in the UK, and in this month's edition of Cutting Edge we'll be taking a look at the film's classification in these two territories.
Moving in on the MPAA's censorship racket
Leading the good guys,
director Brian De Palma
After Brian De Palma had completed the film, it was submitted to the MPAA for a classification. On the afternoon of October 30th 1983, a board of seven members at the MPAA gave the film an 'X' rating; the equivalent of today's NC-17. Their chief
concern was the film's violence, including a scene involving the shooting of a clown. In 2018, the year of the film's 35th anniversary, De Palma argued that the film's violence had a purpose and that he hadn't held back on its treatment,
"I thought that we had to show that these were different kinds of gangsters. I thought, 'Right at the beginning, let's show the kind of violence we're going to be dealing with.'"
In the 1980s, the 'X' rating carried with it an association with pornography, although that was never the MPAA's intention. An 'X' film simply decreed that a film was suitable for adults, but since the 'X' was not trademarked pornographic
filmmakers had taken to using the 'X' rating as a sort of "badge of honor" in order to market their films, with 'XXX' films denoting the very best in adult entertainment. After Scarface received an 'X', the film's producer Martin
Bregman was reported as saying:
"We have been officially designated as a pornographic film."
Alan Friedberg, then-president of the Sack Theater Chain in Massachusetts, had seen the uncut version a week prior and said that Scarface argued the case for an "M for Mature" or "A for Adult" rating that would not stigmatize
the film in the way an 'X' rating would, remarking that the film should "not be lumped with Debbie Does Dallas ."
On the ascendancy
Additionally, only a few days before the MPAA's decision on October 30th, Robert Rehme (who was at that time the president of Universal's Theatrical Motion Picture Division) had said that under no circumstances would Universal Pictures release
Scarface with an 'X' rating. As a result, Brian De Palma was forced to recut the film before resubmitting it to the MPAA with the hope of bringing it down to an 'R' rating. This would allow anyone under 18 to attend, provided they were
accompanied by an adult guardian. De Palma submitted Scarface to the MPAA three more times after his initial uncut submission, making a number of minor cuts in various scenes, but the MPAA issued the film with an 'X' rating every time. Fed up
with the lack of progress, De Palma told Universal to either release the film as-is or fire him and hire another director to make the necessary changes in order for the film to receive an R. To their credit, Universal favored neither option, so
instead they accepted the 'X' rating and decided to appeal the MPAA's decision. De Palma saw this as a positive, remarking that the situation was:
"...kind of good. If we win the appeal, the whole world can see what the board considers an X picture."
In an effort to drum up support for an 'R' rating, Brian De Palma and Robert Bregman went public with their complaints about the 'X' rating in the fall of 1983, criticizing the MPAA's decision on Entertainment Tonight as well as arranging
screenings of the film for members of the American press.
The 'Godfather' of the MPAA
On November 8th 1983, the MPAA appeals board debated the 'X' rating given to Scarface. The film had been submitted for a fifth time to the MPAA in its original uncut version and presiding over the appeal was MPAA president Jack Valenti along with
14 members drawn from three groups that supply the ratings system with its professional support: the major film distributors who belong to the MPAA itself; motion picture exhibitors from NATO (the National Association of Theater Owners); and
representatives of the Independent Film Importers and Distributors of America. The chairman of the MPAA ratings board, Richard Heffner, gave a presentation in favor of an 'X' rating but he knew that MPAA president Jack Valenti didn't support the
decision. Not only did Valenti not want to alienate the big movie studios -- which form part of the MPAA -- he actually had praise for the film, calling it a "very anti-drug film."
On behalf of the distributors, Universal Studios president Robert Rehme attended the hearing along with Brian De Palma and the head of Florida's Broward County organized crime division who served as a technical adviser on the film, all of whom
spoke in favor of releasing the film as an 'R'. Film critic Jay Cocks read out a letter of support from film critic Roger Ebert, and Alan Friedberg went on record stating that he felt that the film was acceptable as an 'R'.
In the end, the outcome of the appeal was overwhelmingly in favor of releasing the film with an 'R' rating. Speaking in an interview with The Talks in 2013, De Palma remarked that:
"I was able to beat the ratings board with Scarface. Even though they rated it X, I was able to appeal to the whole committee and we got it passed. There's a lot of controversy about how Scarface was edited, but in reality, everything I cut
out to appease the rating board I put back in and that's what you see."
In other words, the original theatrical release of Scarface that was released in 1983 with an 'R' rating is Brian De Palma's original, uncut version of the film that was initially rated 'X' by the MPAA and this version has always been the sole
version available in the United States in theaters and on home video.
Taking on the BBFC, already battle-scarred by chainsaws
In the United Kingdom, Scarface was submitted to the BBFC for a cinema classification in its original R-rated version. The Board took issue with only one particular sequence in the film -- Tony Montana being forced to watch the dismemberment of
his friend Angel by chainsaw. The BBFC's aversion to the use of chainsaws on screen had really begun following the release of Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in 1974 and the Board's objection to the tool continued for a number
of years. To name but one example, the 1988 horror comedy Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers was cut by the British censors to remove not only scenes of violence involving a chainsaw but also to remove the word 'chainsaw' from the title of the
film. At the time, the UK video distributor printed an apology on the video cover for the amount of footage that the BBFC had removed (which totalled almost 70 seconds). It would be 12 years before Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers was passed uncut in
With regards to Scarface, the BBFC demanded of the UK version the following cut in the sequence where Tony attempts to buy drugs from the Colombians:
"In the chainsaw sequence, remove the line "And now for the leg" and the entire scene containing it in which Tony's face is splattered with blood as he is forced to watch Angel's leg being cut with saw."
The UK cinema version removed not only the implied violence, but also some shots of Manny flirting with a girl outside as he waits for Tony to complete the drugs deal. After cuts totalling 25 seconds had been made, Scarface was passed with an 18
rating on January 16th 1984.
A few years later, Scarface was submitted to the BBFC for a VHS classification in its uncut version but the Board once again took issue with the chainsaw murder, stating that the distributors needed to reduce the scene. After cuts were made, the
film was passed with an 18 rating for a VHS release on January 19th 1987. For a while, this cut version would be the standard version available to British fans until the film was re-released on video in the 1990s. CIC Video resubmitted the film
to the BBFC in its uncut form in widescreen early in 1994, and the BBFC passed the film uncut with an 18 rating on March 23rd . This same uncut version was later passed 18 on October 13th 2000 and July 4th 2003 for two different DVD releases,
with a Blu-ray release in 2011 also containing the uncut version.
The UK DVD and Blu-ray releases are uncut
To summarize, Scarface is available uncut in both the United States and the United Kingdom and can be purchased by fans in either territory without fear of censorial interference.
Cutting Edge Video, Season Four, Episode 53 Scarface
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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.