Back in the 1990s, the British Board Of Film Classification took a little bit of action against the headbutt – we’ve been looking into it.

As a child of the early noughties, the Star Wars prequels are something of a cinematic landmark for me. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that when it came time to choose a DVD to watch between the ages of five and 12, if the options weren’t a Star Wars (or perhaps a Pixar) film, the screen remained resolutely blank. As such, I’ve seen Attack Of The Clones an unreasonable number of times, and know every grain of sand off by heart. Which is why, when revisiting the film on Blu-ray, this writer was dismayed to find that something didn’t quite add up.

The moment that raised my eyebrows is the rain-flecked duel on Kamino between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Jango Fett. The two are engaged in what might be politely referred to as a bit of a fisticuffs, when it cuts to a wide shot: Jango smacks his helmeted head against the sodden Jedi’s face, sending him flying backwards. Jarred suddenly by a beat I couldn’t remember seeing before, I rewound, rewatched, then hastily looked up ‘Jango Fett headbutt’ online.

After briefly investigating a Wookieepedia entry, which signalled the move as a ‘Keldabe Kiss’ (your guess is as good as mine!), I discovered that the BBFC had made a single cut to the original theatrical release to remove the offending action, in order to receive a PG certificate and avoid a 12. Though bemused, I thought little more of it until rewatching 1995’s Goldeneye (again, on Blu-ray). During a showdown between Pierce Brosnan’s Bond and Famke Janssen’s Xenia Onatopp, an entirely new moment had appeared, in which the previously unconscious Natalya (Izabella Scorupco) joins the fray, only to be knocked cold by Onatopp by way of – you guessed it – a headbutt. Again, to the BBFC website: the original DVD was cut to get a 12 certificate.

Thanks to careful searching and other random film viewings, a trend began to emerge, limited largely to films from the early 2000s.

Subjects of the ‘butt cut’ include The Mummy Returns (2001, cut to avoid a 15), Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001, cut to avoid a 15) and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2004, again cut to gain a 12 certificate – ironic, considering actor Bill Murray is alleged to have actually knocked heads with director, McG, behind the scenes of its predecessor).

Perhaps the most incredible victim of the cull was DreamWorks’ Shrek 2 – a headbutt from Fiona to Prince Charming was re-animated for the UK release, so that Fiona delivers a sharp karate chop to Charming’s neck instead. This targeted revision brings us to the key question: what made a headbutt (as opposed to a karate chop, a kick, or the multiple dismemberments of your average Star Wars film, including Jango’s own decapitation, such a taboo for the BBFC?

The board’s guidelines are a fluid beast, and have taken on multiple changes with reference to violence across the years. In response to the ninja/martial arts craze of the late 80s, the board took special umbrage with certain acts of violence and weapons that children may want to recreate in the playground. The rubber suited Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films were an alarming case, to the point where all clear images of nunchucks were snipped from the sequel, Secret Of The Ooze. Even the seemingly innocent A Very Brady Sequel got held up in the 90s due to including nunchucks.

These cuts were eventually waived in 2003, following a 1998 guideline consultation. In this new iteration, the board specified that dangerous actions which could easily be imitated by younger, more naive viewers (ear-claps, headbutts, and neck-breaking in particular) would suffer tougher scrutiny. And they did.

In a BBFC Twitter Q&A from 2014 – during which a member of the public questioned the headbutt anxiety – the board’s representative failed to give a concrete reason for singling out certain acts beyond “there was concern”. Since the 1998 guideline exercises, violent behaviour on screen is not judged by an individual act, but by the severity of the depiction (i.e. whether bloody injury detail is shown). You have to work hard to be refused classification: even in the infamous case of the Human Centipede II, the previously declared “obscene” film was finally permitted a release with minimal cuts.

Which is not to say that the BBFC is now entirely consistent, nor infallible. It has its champions and critics alike. Film journalist Mark Kermode – who fought against them during the 1980s video nasties’ episode – is one of its staunchest defenders, arguing the case for the 12A theatrical certificate and the board’s common-sense approach to the reclassification of older films.

Across the way are detractors such as Charlie Lyne, a filmmaker and writer who submitted a 10-hour film of paint drying for certification in 2015. Paint Drying was Lyne’s way of protesting the board’s inconsistencies and its continued banning (or flat-out rejection) of select images, most notably those involving female sexual pleasure. Lyne argued in an accompanying piece in VICE that the BBFC’s ‘rejection’ policy is little more than a euphemism for straight-up censorship.

Both make valid points: while it’s certainly the case that the board has some areas in need of address, progress has been made in others, not least with regards to imitable action. True, the boundaries are still occasionally difficult to define (Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, for example – a film that features the destruction of all mankind – was declared a 12A for ‘moderate violence’), but generally the BBFC has a good handle on appropriate viewing for younger viewers.

It recognises that imitable action is something affected by all kinds of stimuli beyond the cinema experience (upbringing, temperament, the actions of peers), and has the confidence to trust parental guidance.

In that context, the headbutt anxiety is understandable, whether you agree with it or not. And while it may not have the endlessly compelling cultural impact of horror’s relationship with the censors, the headbutt affair is nevertheless a bizarre and amusing footnote in the evolution of film classification.

 

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