The French Connection cut: who censors the censors?

The French Connection
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A new bout of censorship has removed a sequence from 1971’s The French Connection. Is censoring art making the world a better place?

A week has passed and much has been said regarding the recent stealth censorship that has seemingly applied to William Friedkin’s 1971 classic, The French Connection.

Just in case you missed it, the film seems to have been stealthily censored by Disney, who took ownership of it following its 2017 purchase of 20th Century Fox. So far, the re-cut version in question has replaced Friedkin’s original film on the US-based Criterion streaming platform, but some fans who own the film digitally on platforms like iTunes are reporting that their versions have been altered too. Recent repertory screenings in cinemas are also showing the altered version although as it stands, you can still see the original, unaltered cut on Disney+ here in the UK. 

The changes have left plenty of people unhappy and once again the topic of censorship finds itself thrust into the spotlight. It’s a complex conversation no doubt, with The French Connection becoming the latest piece of a complicated mosaic that encompasses Ian Fleming, Roald Dahl, Lilo & Stitch, Daryl Hannah’s derriere and much, much more. 

The intent behind censorship is usually seen an attempt to protect those who access the material from images, words or ideas that could be considered harmful in some way. And in this sense at least, it can be argued that censorship forms an important role in maintaining the shared norms and values of a progressive society. That’s why we have a British Board of Film Classification after all. Sometimes the BBFC will be too hard on a film (removing Michelangelo’s sausage nunchucks from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret of the Ooze) and sometimes they’ll be too soft (just ask all the young Harry Potter who were forever scarred by The Woman in Black’s questionable 12A rating). 

The point here is that in this sense at least, censorship can be seen to serve an important function in society, even though the debate of where to draw certain lines will always be contested.

However, Disney’s latest snip-happy manoeuvre has very little to do with this, and instead joins an increasingly long line of edits made with an intention that is at best, questionable and at worst, verging on sinister. 

Some context then. You’re probably already aware that the novels of Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming are being re-edited so as to be in line with modern sensibilities and attitudes. Racist thoughts and language are being excised from Fleming’s 007 novels whilst Dahl’s books are being scrubbed clean of descriptions that could be upsetting to some, such as the word ‘fat.’

It’s a snowball effect and one that seems to be picking up momentum and to this writer at least, it’s a very worrying phenomenon and it all comes back to that notion of intent. After all, minds making these decisions aren’t independent, non-governmental, not-for-profits like the BBFC. Instead they are corporate entities motivated largely by profit. Perhaps that’s why these companies seem to apply such a haphazard censorship policy to their material, a laughably uneven process further underlined by the fact that Disney has refused requests to publicise its specific censorship guidelines, a marked difference from the transparent operating policies of an organisation like the BBFC. 

When you are motivated by money, it’s hard to make the case that anything you do is not profit-centric. Disney’s argument that the (horrible mushy CGI) censorship of Daryl Hannah’s bottom in Splash back in 2020 was because it has a romantic connotation. Frankly, that is laughable. A glimpse of Hannah’s bare bottom is about as contextually linked to the act of sex in Splash as the quick flash of Bart Simpson’s nether regions in The Simpsons Movie is akin to child pornography. And yet one of those images remains censored on Disney+ whilst the other does not. 

When you go digging, that’s far from the only startling comparison that you’ll find. However, by allowing ourselves to be shepherded into a digital world we are making these companies the stewards of our art, allowing them to determine when art can and cannot be deemed as offensive. It’s a worrying Who Watches the Watchmen kind of situation. You are of course free to agree or disagree with me on this point. In fact, I welcome it because isn’t that the point of art? To spark debate, to fire up conversation, to make us look at the world through fresh eyes, even if we don’t like the eyes we’re looking through? 

When Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle barrels through a couple of ethnic slurs in the now excised six second sequence from The French Connection, call me an optimist but I doubt many members of a modern audience are aligned with his values and language. I’d argue that as an 18-rated film considered to be in the canon of great 1970s films, viewers returning to it or discovering it for the first time might be trusted to reflect on Doyle’s prejudiced language and consider why the character, not to mention the creative forces behind the camera are choosing to depict him in this way. If you’re not convinced, perhaps a disclaimer acknowledging the film’s outdated and insensitive language would be useful to spark those conversations. 

The French Connection

They certainly did when I last saw 1980’s Flash Gordon in a cinema a couple of years ago. The first question my companion asked post-viewing was about the disclaimer notice and that in turn led to a discussion about the film’s use of ‘yellow face’ and its outdated and culturally insensitive use of the Yellow Peril trope. We both emerged from the screening a little more cognisant of the world around us. Without a disclaimer screen, that conversation may never have happened. Censor all the scenes with Ming the Merciless from the movie and well, there wouldn’t have been a screening to attend, so definitely no opportunity for reflection. On the other hand, this approach won’t work for everybody and for some, warnings of this kind won’t reduce the distressing impact of the challenging content in any meaningful way. 

That’s because the continued existence of exclusionary language in our culture creates and maintains a system of oppression and clearly, that argument holds merit.

Maybe the real question is what we do with that language then, or at least as far as this article goes, what we do with it in the world of cinema?

To that, I have no answer, but I do doubt that the answer lies in the hands of those that will – without announcement – cut sequences from Oscar-winning films, refuse to offer the original cut as an optional alternative and be seemingly supported in their actions by the Hollywood trades who have barely given this story a whiff of publicity.

It’s a unilateral and clumsy axe-swinging approach to a complex and multi-faceted problem and I can’t help but think that in the case of Fleming and Dahl especially, it’s been made purely to protect the future earning potential of each author’s books, rather than with any intention of making the world a better place. After all, despite sometimes being censored throughout history, I don’t see anybody jumping out and brandishing scissors in the direction of Shakespeare and wishing to sanitise A Merchant Of Venice right now. But then, the bard has been out of copyright for a long, long time so I suppose there’d be no financial incentive for any corporation to do so. 

Making a problem disappear isn’t the same thing as solving it, yet stealthy censorship simply vanishing things into thin air seems to be Disney’s approach as it airbrushes its films without any announcement. If Disney truly believes it has the moral imperative to make these cuts then why are they secretly undertaken?

From where I sit, I acknowledge that there’s privileges that come with being who I am, along with viewing the world through a particular lens. When I see Popeye Doyle on the screen using hateful words, I don’t want him to disappear, far from it. I need to see him there. Like myself, Doyle exists inside of a system where simply because of the colour of his skin, his gender, his straightness, he possesses an authority and privilege that others of a different race, gender or sexuality may have to fight tooth and nail for. I need to see characters like Doyle who have those advantages and have become polluted by the world, because they remind me of the capacity I also possess to do harm. It reminds me of my shortcomings and my prejudices and reminds me to do better. 

That’s what art should do, shouldn’t it? And that’s why simply making problematic moments ‘go away’ isn’t an answer.

I know there are others out there, people whom I have colossal respect for who will disagree with me. I’m also acutely aware that I’m seeing things through a specific lens and try as I might to broaden it, it’s still the only one I’ve got. Others will look at the scene with Doyle and respond very differently to it – that’s the fundamental nature of spectatorship and as with anything, if a discussion, a conversation, results in the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few, then censorship could and should be considered.

When we’re talking about representation that negatively impacts minority groups then the reverse must also be true: sometimes, the needs of the few may well outweigh the needs of the many. However, how are we supposed to figure that out unless the companies that own these films create leave a space for us to have these conversations?  To unilaterally remove something without fanfare, without discussion, removes the conversation and serves nobody. It’s not a moral imperative, it’s moral cowardice.

For my part, I think we all need cinema to show us the world as others see it, to continue challenging and widening our perceptions of the world, whether we like the view we’re presented with or not. What we don’t need is nebulous meddling from image-conscious, corporate censors. Their world view I think we all understand and it has less to do with protecting us and everything to do with serving a bottom line.

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