Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: Censorship and the legacy of the PG-13 rating

by Padraic Coffey

This week will see fanboys giddily fork out the hefty price-tag for another essential addition to their Blu-Ray collection, as the Indiana Jones series arrives in stores. There is a particular reason why Spielberg enthusiasts this side of the Atlantic will rush out to buy this edition, more than the chance to see Raiders scrubbed up and restored, and without the intrusion of distractingly incongruous CGI effects, à la some other cinematic franchises. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the oft-maligned second film in the series, has been upgraded from a PG certificate to 12, and passed uncut for the first time in Britain or Ireland.

Spielberg’s India-set follow up to Raiders of the Lost Ark ruffled a few feathers at the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) upon its release in 1984. The censors demanded certain scenes be trimmed before the prerequisite PG certificate be granted. The 12 certificate would not come into effect until years later (Tim Burton’s Batman was the first to receive it upon theatrical release), and thus cuts were made to secure the most accessible rating. Among a few snips here and there, the most egregious edit came from the infamous ‘human sacrifice’ scene, in which a Hindu priest’s hand tears into the chest of a shackled victim, removing his still-beating heart.

Though Irish audiences will have seen Temple broadcast on RTÉ year after year with this scene intact, they were unable to pick up the film on DVD or VHS without being subjected to the anesthetised version. Spielberg is far from first filmmaker to compromise his vision at the behest of the British censors. Taken 2 is currently attracting audiences with an appetite for mindless entertainment, yet director Oliver Megaton sought “advice on how to secure the desired classification [12A]”, according to the BBFC’s official website. Last month Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games made its way onto DVD (in the edited 12 certificate version) and Blu-Ray (in the ‘Unseen’, harsher 15 certificate version).

It is blindingly obvious to even the most casual observer that the propensity for higher certificates to be found exclusively on Blu-Ray (to the list of The Hunger Games and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, add Hot Fuzz and The Expendables) is a clever marketing strategy to coax fans into upgrading their dusty old DVDs for a more pricey alternative. Interestingly, although Temple of Doom caused a similar ruckus in the US, it passed the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) with a PG certificate. The MPAA and BBFC have never been on much of a similar wavelength when it comes to classifying films. As was observed in Kirby Dick’s excellent documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, the MPAA is notoriously squeamish when it comes to depicting sex on screen, particularly between same-sex partners.

Stanley Kubrick, one of the most revered cinematic auteurs of the twentieth century, had cloaked figures digitally inserted into his posthumous final film, Eyes Wide Shut, to obscure its graphic sex scenes and secure an R-rating instead of the more prohibitive NC-17. In Britain, where Kubrick had resided since his 1962, Eyes Wide Shut was passed uncut. So too were Berrnardo Bertulucci’s The Dreamers and Steve McQueen’s Shame, despite NC-17 ratings for “explicit sexual content” in the US. But Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon 2 or David Fincher’s Fight Club? Both had to be trimmed of violence in Britain to pass even an 18 certificate. Their only other option was flat-out rejection; there is no porn-style ‘NC-17’ rating for especially violent films in the UK.

For an example of the discrepancy between the MPAA and BBFC, take two films from the late 1970s: Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales and George Lucas’ Star Wars. Eastwood’s western charted a fugitive from the losing Confederate side of the Civil War, and worked as a metaphorical treatise on post-Vietnam American. Lucas’ sci-fi is a much more fantastical tribute to adventure films like Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. Both received the same rating from the American censors: PG. In Britain, Star Wars received the unrestricted U certificate (suitable for all), while The Outlaw Josey Wales was first cut to achieve an AA rating (roughly equivalent to a 15 certificate) before being bumped up to 18 on video. Both, identically classified in America, were at completely opposite ends of the spectrum in Britain!

While American audiences may been enjoyed an uncensored Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in 1984, the furore caused by the film and another Spielberg project – Joe Dante’s Gremlins, which Spielberg co-produced – had ramifications far more prescient than the removal of a few frames of onscreen violence. Realising that perhaps the division of audiences into three distinct age groups (U, PG and R; the X, later NC-17, rating was barely ever considered economically feasible) was a tad short-sighted, the MPAA conferred on a new intermediate classification. Lo and behold, the PG-13 rating was born. Superficially, it would seem this was an advancement for cinema, allowing filmmakers to push the boundaries of what was acceptable in their work, while still appealing to the majority of their demographic.

However, much like Marty DiBergi and Nigel Tufnel’s argument in This Is Spinal Tap on whether the number ‘11’ is actually louder, or merely a arbitrary labelling of the maximum volume available, the PG-13 was simply a rebranded version of the PG. There is no question that, had the PG-13 been introduced in 1974 instead of 1984, several PG movies, such as Jaws, The Outlaw Josey Wales, All The President’s Men, Badlands and The Conversation, would have been slapped with the higher rating. Thus, the two subsequent entries in the Indiana Jones series – Last Crusade and the sub-par Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – both had PG-13 ratings, despite being significantly less graphic than either Temple of Doom or indeed Raiders of the Lost Ark. Nowadays, the PG-13 is applied to almost any Hollywood film, even family-fare like Richard Linklater’s School of Rock.

Worst of all, the allure of more ostensibly explicit content convinced studio bigwigs that audiences seeking adult-orientated fare could be placated with PG-13 movies. The effect was far from immediate. While the 1980s may not be as revered by film buffs as the two decades bookending it, they were a fantastic time for action blockbusters. Aliens, Die Hard, The Terminator, Beverly Hills Cop, Rambo, Lethal Weapon – all churned out within the space of a few years; all R-rated in American theatres. Such films would be inconceivable today. Die Hard had Bruce Willis machine-gunning villains’ kneecaps till they collapsed head-first into panes of glass. Die Hard 4.0, released in 2007, had Willis’ memorably profane catchphrase muffled by the sound of a bloodless gunshot. Terminator 2: Judgment Day opened with Arnold Schwarzenegger pinning a biker on to pool-table with his own knife. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machine, released in 2003, opened with Schwarzenegger comically sparring with an effeminate male stripper.

What do these post-millennium sequels have in common? The PG-13 rating, a downgrading from their predecessors’ R. It is unlikely we’ll ever see the day when an R-rated film like Terminator 2 earns over half-a-billion dollars at the box office again. So when you’re sitting in your living room, excitedly awaiting the sacrificial scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in all its unexpurgated glory, just remember one thing.

Steven Spielberg has a lot to answer for.

Twitter: @Padraic_Coffey

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