What makes a movie controversial? By definition, controversial means to cause contention, strife, debate, or argument. Movies that are controversial typically touch on topics that the general public finds socially unacceptable. Typical topics usually include sex, religion, violence, and politics.
Before we share our list of some of the most controversial movies of all time, let’s explore the history of controversy in film, seeing how controversial topics have and haven’t changed over the years.
The History of Controversy in Film
Like most forms of media that allow people to send a message to the public, controversy has been present in film since film has been around.
One of the first controversial films known is from 1896 and was titled The Kiss. This was a silent short film, and at the time it was very scandalous. The film was the first filming of a, then physically unattractive, couple’s extended kiss, magnified on a screen. It was 47 seconds long, and at the time very controversial because intimate public displays of affection were socially unacceptable. One critic of the time wrote “The spectacle of the prolonged pasturing on each other’s lips was beastly enough in life size on the stage but magnified to gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over it is absolutely disgusting.”
A little further down the road, another example was the movie Scarface in 1932. At the time this movie was thought to glorify gangsters, so it was the subject of a lot of censorship to change the film from its original form to a version that condemned gangsterism. It was banned in several states and foreign showings were limited.
Moving to another well-known movie, the original Psycho (1960) was full of controversial topics at the time including transvestism, implied incest, and necrophilia. This is in addition to specific scenes such as a toilet bowl flushing.
As an example of controversial political movies, in 1991 JFK was a movie that was created from merged sources into a depiction of events surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The film is intended to have a semblance of truth yet does not necessarily depict real history. The last half of the film featured memorable segments to disprove the idea that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, causing controversy around its politics.
In 2004, Farenheit 9/11 was a controversial “documentary” film about George W. Bush’s war on terror. Some conservatives did not want theaters to screen it and it was rated R under protest from the creator.
These are just a few examples of controversial movies throughout the history of film. There are actually a large number of them, although most have never hit the mainstream public.
More Controversial Movies (as Submitted by Our Readers)
In the comments on this post when our list was originally published, some of our readers disagreed with our inclusions. So they submitted some of their own picks for the most controversial movies of all time. Here are some of their picks.
- Last Temptation of Christ
- Kill Bill 1 and 2
- Basic Instinct
- Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom
Now let’s get to our original list of controversial films. Here are a few of the most controversial movies of all time. Note that this list is by no means comprehensive — there are many more.
The Da Vinci Code (2006) – Ron Howard
Starring: Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellen
This religious conspiracy thriller is an adaptation of Dan Brown’s best-selling novel about the members of the Priory of Sion and an underground Catholic society trying to prevent a French police cryptologist and a symbologist from telling the world about a powerful secret that’s been hidden for thousands of years.
The movie was criticized by the Roman Catholic Church and several bishops asked members to boycott the film. There were protests outside movie theaters. Even albinos were offended by the way they were portrayed in the film. In spite of the controversy, the movie was the second highest grossing movie of 2006 worldwide.
United 93 (2006) – Paul Greengrass
JJ Johnson, Gary Commock, Polly Adams
This is a story of the unfortunate but heroic crew members and passengers of United Flight 93, which was the fourth hijacked plane flying from Newark, NJ to San Francisco on 9/11. The presence of the FAA ground crew and military officers involved in the actual event in the film as cast members, made it all the more realistic.
In spite of the film being made very sensitively and with immense respect to those heroes without any theories, personal dramas or additions, it was still criticized for its trailer. Many said that the trailer looked as if it were a conventional thriller. There were some who thought it was too soon after the event (after five years). Universal received criticism that a national tragedy was being exploited.
Passion Of The Christ (2004) – Mel Gibson
James Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Christo Jivkov
The fear, excitement, expectation, passion, tears, wonder that this film generated was huge. The life-changing experiences credited to this movie are many. This movie is about Jesus Christ and the brutal depiction of his suffering during his last 12 hours on Earth which, according to Christian beliefs, was brought about by his unconditional love for us.
It raked considerable controversy because of the crucifixion scenes that are bloody, vicious and torturous. Religious leaders were upset about the Catholic interpretation of the Bible and Jews called the film anti-Semitic and believed that Jews would be blamed for the death of Jesus. Gibson revealed that he made it extremely shocking in order for people to understand the enormous sacrifice. When it was finally released, it broke all records and became the highest grossing independent film of all time.
Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) – Michael Moore
Ben Affleck, Stevie Wonder
This controversial movie ridicules President Bush. Critics were of the opinion that the movie demoralizes the country and was propagandistic, more so because it was an election year. Many conservative groups asked theaters not to screen it. Disney also felt that this film could alienate customers and decided not to distribute it. This film has the distinction of winning a top prize called the Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival. It also broke the record for the highest earning in the opening-weekend in the US for a documentary.
Dogma (1999) – Kevin Smith
Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Linda Fiorentino
This writer/director’s comic fantasy was at the center of a controversy, as the content was considered to be an insult to the Catholic Church. The movie is about two fallen angels, Loki and Bartleby and how they discover a way to get back to heaven through a loophole in the Catholic Church dogma.
This was controversial as it showed that God is fallible which was not acceptable to religious leaders, who perceived an anti-Christian message. Many could not digest the transformation God has gone through in this film, from the patriarchal God to a more playful and feminine God. The filmmakers were said to have received more than 300,000 instances of hate mail and death threats.
Stigmata (1999) – Rupert Wainwright
Starring: Patricia Arquette and Gabriel Byrne
The film centers on an atheist hairdresser from Pittsburgh who exhibits true stigmata and an ordained Jesuit priest who was a former scientist. A powerful Vatican cleric attempts to kill the hairdresser, and she and the priest go on the run. It was very controversial when it was released because it showed a Vatican senior clergy as ruthless in trying to kill the hairdresser. Then there was the romance between her and the priest, as well as the manifestation of the Holy Stigmata which was said to border on demonic possession. Still, it earned $18.3 million in its first weekend.
Kids (1995) – Larry Clark
Leo Fitzpatrick, Sarah Henderson, Justin Pierce
This 1995 drama revolves around one day in the life of a few teenagers in New York City. One HIV-positive amoral teenager sets out to have sex with as many virgins as possible and a local girl, who contracted HIV from him, is out to save his next target. Some people considered it a window for our worst fears about what our children are doing when they are out there on the streets. However, the film was embroiled in a major controversy due to the depiction of teenagers’ unrestrained behavior towards sex, use of profanity, alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and drug ecstasy. It was also said that it showed parenting at its very worst.
Natural Born Killers (1994) – Oliver Stone
Anthony Quinn, Irene Papas, Michael Ansara
This film was called one of the best films of the 1990s by many. It takes a look at our immoral and corrupt society that showcases serial killers as media celebrities and cultural icons. The film’s protagonists are bad and they kill not only for love and passion, but also for fun. They go on a three-week murder spree and once they are arrested, they become celebrities. The film offers a look at our media’s obsession with sensationalism even with the criminals in our society. The scenes in the film are said by some to be too graphic, violent and disturbing. It was lambasted as loathsome and evil. In the UK, the public screening was delayed because the film inspired similar shooting sprees in the US, which included the Columbine High School Massacre.
JFK (1991)- Oliver Stone
Kevin Costner, Kevin Bacon, Tommy Lee Jones, Laurie Metcalf, Gary Oldman
This movie is about DA Jim Garrison’s investigation of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It was meant to demonstrate that Kennedy’s assassination was not the act of a disturbed Marxist loner but the result of a right-wing conspiracy. It includes a lot of speculation about the misconduct of the government and the testimonies of many unreliable individuals. The movie became embroiled in controversy when it was being filmed. Stone was blamed by the Media for ladling out unverifiable hypotheses. American newspapers ran several editorials that criticized the liberties taken with historical facts, including the implication that President Lyndon B. Johnson was also involved in the conspiracy.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980) – Ruggero Deodato
Robert Kerman, Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen
Cannibal Holocaust is the story of a film crew that disappeared during the making of a documentary on the last surviving tribes of cannibals.
This film caused a huge storm of controversy when it was first released because it was extremely graphic, violent, gross, and so real that people thought it really happened. As a result, it was banned in many countries. Some of these scenes included castration, eating guts, forced abortion, several animal slaughterings, gang rape, the impalement of a woman on a pole and beatings with large hammers.
The director was jailed in Italy on charges of murder and faced life imprisonment and later he had to prove that no one was actually killed. However, real animals were killed on-screen as a part of the film. This movie could not be released for five years and it was banned in the UK and many other countries for 20 years.
The Message (1976) – Moustapha Akkad
Anthony Quinn, Irene Papas, Michael Ansara
The original name of this 1977 movie was “Mohammad, Messenger of God,” which was given this title for the U.S. release. It was set in the 7th century Mecca and chronicles the beginnings of Islam and the life and times of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad. Problems arose when it was wrongly rumored that Peter O’Toole and Charlton Heston would be in the lead roles.
This caused bloody riots for two days. Even Saudi Monarch King Faisal withdrew his offer of $60 million as well as banned filming on location in Mecca and Medina. Akkad was then forced to move it to Morocco and find financial backing from Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi, the Libyan leader. The original title had to be changed to The Message because religious groups called the film an insult to Islam and it was banned in most Arab countries.
The Exorcist (1973) – William Friedkin
Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb
This landmark film that stirred unparalleled controversy is an adaptation of the blockbuster book by William Peter Blatty, a true story of a 13-year-old boy from Maryland. It is one of the most frightening, disturbing and shocking films ever made and was one of the most opposed. During its pre-release, there were nine deaths associated with the production and a request for exorcising the set was made.
It revolves around the demonic possession of a young girl and her mother’s efforts to bring her little girl back with an exorcism with the help of two priests. The spewing of green puke, self-mutilation, masturbation with a crucifix, and other such scenes along with obscenities and blasphemies led to the film being widely criticized as medical pornography. It was also alleged that the film used subliminal imagery. The film was banned on video in the UK for 15 years.
This movie won the Academy Awards for best screenplay and best sound.
Deep Throat (1972) – Gerard Damiano
Harry Reems, Linda Lovelace, Dolly Sharp, Carol Connors
This movie has a simplistic plot about a sexually frustrated woman who wanted to hear bells during sex and so she follows her doctor’s advice. It was a hardcore porn film — the first of its kind to become a hit.
After the release, the film and the people associated with it were at the epicenter of a cultural war. It was banned in many places for its obscenity. Actor Harry Reems was also prosecuted by the federal government on charges of obscenity. In the UK, it was banned upon release and after ten years, the ban was upheld. The DVD was allowed to be sold in 2000 only in licensed sex shops in the UK. The documentary, Inside Deep Throat, gives a glimpse into the film’s production history and its impact on American culture.
A Clockwork Orange (1971) – Stanley Kubrick
Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Michael Bates
This science fiction film is a satirical juvenile delinquency film adapted from Anthony Burgess’s novel. This is the story of Alex, the teenage protagonist who gets his kick from ultra-violence and rape. He volunteers for a behaviorist experiment that takes away his capacity to do evil and returns him to the world defenseless and a victim to his former victims.
It was surrounded by controversies and highly opposed by religious groups for its glamorization of violence and sexual content. Feminists were outraged with some of the scenes – such as the very long rape scene, the highly obscene female poses of the furniture at Korova bar, a giant-sized sculpture of a penis, and a snake gliding toward a woman’s private parts. The film was taken off from circulation after a year in Britain, because of the criticism from the courts and the media, and was only available again after the director’s death in 2000.
The Devils (1971) – Ken Russell
Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave
This film was set in the city of Loudon in 1634, and was a loose adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s The Devils Of Loudon.
The film is about a 17th century womanizing French priest, Urbain Grandier, whose sex life, religious and political opinions earned him many enemies. To bolster these claims against him, nuns performed orgiastic rituals in the Church and this led to his conviction and the burning of him alive at the stake.
The film was met with controversy and was greatly opposed due to the depiction of blasphemy and the general content. It had censorship issues in all the countries it was released in and it provoked outrage from Christian groups and audiences.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967) – Arthur Penn
Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Michael J. Pollard
This is based loosely on the true exploits of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker during the 30s. Bonnie and Clyde embark on their legendary crime spree and crave adventure. The youth of the counter-culture movement of the 1960’s identified with these rebellious and sympathetic characters.
However, the film raked in its fair share of controversy because of the cascading violence as the two main characters turn brutal. The combination of sex and violence and the mix of humor and murder were seen as glorifying violence. Some people even said that Arthur Penn made this film as an expression of his own discontent with the nation. Newspaper critics had negative reactions to this film, but it gained critical acclaim and was nominated for ten Academy Awards.
Baby Doll (1956) – Elia Kazan
Karl Malden, Carroll Baker, Eli Wallach
Baby Doll is about a married, pretty 19-year-old girl who sleeps in a crib and sucks her thumb, while her husband waits to consummate their marriage when she turns 20. Meanwhile, a rival cotton gin owner who suspects the husband of burning down his gin, takes revenge in the most erotic way possible. This film was highly controversial when it was released. The Legion of Decency condemned it for being immoral. There was so much negative talk that it had to be withdrawn from more than 70% of the theaters in the US. Even film critics labeled it as a highly pornographic film.
Triumph of the Will (1935)– Leni Rienfenstahl
Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göring, Max Amann, Martin Bormann, Walter Buch
It was called the most controversial and horrific film of all time and was banned for several years. It was about the 1934 Nazi party rally and was commissioned by the Nazi Fuhrer leader, Adolf Hitler.
He wanted Leni Rienfenstahl to make this documentary as a celebration of the sixth Nazi Reich Party Congress held Nuremberg in 1934. This film showed glorified accounts of the unjust Nazi regime.
This was and still is considered to be the most powerful propaganda film ever made. After the war, allies imprisoned the director for four years. Protests greeted her throughout and she could never clear her image of her Nazi-tainted past, in spite of her pleas.
The Birth of a Nation (1915) – D.W. Griffith
Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall
This film did not have a screenplay, and Griffith made it as he went along. The story revolves around two white families separated by the Civil War and reunited. This movie excelled in outdoor and night photography and panoramic long shots but has become highly controversial for its outlandish racial prejudices, its vicious portrayal of blacks as conniving and sexually animalistic, its pro-Klan stance, and endorsement of enslavement. It invoked a major censorship battle and riots broke out in many places in the US. Lawsuits and picketing plagued the film for many years. It again stirred new controversy in 1993, when it was voted as one of the top 100 American films.
Values change with the passing of time, and what was shocking in the past may not impact us in the same way now. Yet the film makers who brave controversy to get their thoughts across live on forever through their unforgettable creations.
Note: This post was originally published on March 22, 2009. It was updated with some background on controversy in film and a list of additional controversial movies submitted by readers on its currently-listed publication date.