Michael Winner's adaptation of Brian Garfield's 1972 novel about a vigilante at large in New York City had already caused quite a stir in the United States when it was first seen by the BBFC in September 1974.
The film tells the story of an architect whose previously liberal views on crime and society are challenged when his wife and daughter are viciously attacked and raped by a gang. In response to the attack, he attempts to track down those responsible but in the course of his mission he becomes a vigilante, attacking and killing criminals wherever he finds them. This leads to a significant reduction in crime in the city and the police are left with a dilemma - whether to bring the vigilante in, with the inevitable result that crime will rise again, or whether to allow him to continue his activities.
In the BBFC's view, the film was considerably less violent than initial press reports from the States had suggested and, apart from the strong language and the early rape scene, was visually acceptable at AA (suitable for persons of 14 years and over). However, the strong language pushed the film firmly into the X category (suitable for persons of 18 and over) and the BBFC's Secretary, Stephen Murphy, had doubts over whether the rape scene was likely to be acceptable uncut, even at X.
In a letter to the film's distributor (9 September 1974), Stephen Murphy explained the problem "We accept that without a strong rape scene at the beginning, the whole motivation of the film must be weakened: nevertheless, I think that as it stands, the rape scene is likely to be very offensive to some British audiences, not only on account of its visual content, but on account of some of the language used. I would like to think that we can arrive at a compromise answer acceptable to yourself and myself on this".
The distributor passed this letter on to the film's director, who strongly resisted any attempts to censor his film. In a letter to Stephen Murphy (12 September 1974), Michael Winner stated "I am genuinely surprised that you take exception to any of the rape scene. This was deliberately shot with most of the violence expressed in a close up of Joanna, and only split-second flashes of what is going on. It is considerably less severe than scenes of rape and violence which have been shown on the screen in numerous films that have been passed by you. As you know, this film has been passed in America with an R certificate which permits anyone over the age of 17, and accompanied children of any age, to see the film".
Winner went on to explain that a number of reviews, including that in Variety, had praised the relative discretion of the violence in general and the rape scene in particular. He concluded that "Whilst I am delighted to arrange to meet with you and discuss this picture, and indeed will do so, neither I, nor Paramount Pictures, have any alternative version of this scene, nor do we consider one necessary. I am still hopeful that this picture can be released without being savaged by you".
Given the strength of Winner's feelings, Murphy wrote back to Winner (16 September 1974) explaining the Board's difficulties in more detail: "Visually - as with the shootings later on in the film - you have shown restraint, and I am the first to say that this is no 'exploitation' piece. But in two respects - the aerosol [used to spray the daughter's backside during the rape] and the repeated use of the word 'cunt' - this sequence goes further than anything we have seen [...] You dispute that professional judgement. Fair enough. The next step is to invite Lord Harlech [the BBFC's President] to see it".
Accordingly, a further screening was arranged for the BBFC's President. A letter to the distributor (1 October 1974) explains that the Board was now prepared to accept the brief 'aerosol incident' at X but remained concerned about the uses of very strong language, directed by the attackers at the victims.
In response, Winner wrote back to Murphy (2 October 1974) stating that "I have looked at this sequence again myself and consider that to remove the shots using these words is technically and artistically enormously destructive. I believe that [the distributor is] going to go over this as well, as neither they nor I are anxious to destroy a picture which we all seem to agree has merit, on such a minor matter".
Given the technical difficulties of making the cuts, the BBFC finally relented and agreed that the film could be passed X uncut on 23 October 1974. Compared to its release in the States, which had provoked enormous controversy, principally over its vigilante theme, the UK release passed without incident or serious complaint.
Death Wish was subsequently released on VHS in 1981. At the time there was no formal requirement for videos to be classified by the BBFC and so the film was simply released uncut, as it had been at the cinema, using its existing X certificate. However, the introduction of the Video Recordings Act in 1984 meant that Death Wish would have to be re-examined by the BBFC if the existing copies were to be allowed to remain on the shelves. Because of the large number of videos already available, the Video Recordings Act was gradually introduced with all existing titles needing to be classified (or removed from circulation) by 1988.
Accordingly, the video version of Death Wish was formally submitted for video classification in 1987. This time around, the BBFC had to consider the film according to the different circumstances of its distribution on a format that would be viewed in the home and where scenes could be viewed repeatedly and out of context.
With this in mind, the BBFC's then Director, James Ferman, felt that cuts should be made to the rape scene for home video release in order to reduce elements of nudity in a violent context that may be misused. However, Ferman found it difficult to work out how to cut the rape scene in a way that removed what he perceived as the more problematic moments whilst retaining the horror of the scene.
The problem was essentially the same as that encountered in 1974 - the scene was carefully edited and constructed and it was difficult to make changes without damaging what was undoubtedly a crucial scene. Added to this, the distributor was very reluctant to cut the film at this stage, given that it was a very well known title and had been available uncut in cinemas since 1974 and uncut on video since 1981.
Accordingly it was agreed that Death Wish would simply be withdrawn from the classification process and that the existing copies would be removed from the shelves. Like Straw Dogs and The Exorcist, both of which had also been made available on video prior to the introduction of the Video Recordings Act, Death Wish simply entered a kind of limbo in which it was neither classified for video release nor formally refused a classification.
In 1999, encouraged by James Ferman's departure from the BBFC and by the decision to classify The Exorcist for video and DVD release, Death Wish was formally resubmitted for video classification. On this occasion the Board was inclined to grant a video certificate on the understanding that a few brief cuts, totalling 29 seconds, were made to remove elements of nudity, including the spray painting of the buttocks, that had been problematic in the past and which were felt to raise concerns under the Board's strict sexual violence guidelines.
The distributor agreed to make the necessary cuts, albeit with a degree of reluctance from Winner himself, and the video version was finally rated 18 with cuts in February 2000. However, the film was only released on the outgoing VHS format and not on DVD.
Subsequently, the film was submitted again, this time for DVD release, in 2006. By this time, the BBFC had a new President (Sir Quentin Thomas), a new Director (David Cooke) and had gone through two new sets of BBFC Guidelines since 1999. In particular the Board's 2005 guidelines placed an emphasis, in line with the findings of the public consultation exercises that led to them, on not interfering with what adults wanted to view provided the material was neither harmful nor illegal.
Although the rape scene was still considered offensive and disturbing, the comparative lack of detail and the brevity and discretion with which the nudity is shown, convinced the BBFC that the overall effect of the rape scene was to repel and disgust rather than to arouse.
Given that the only real issue with the scene was offensiveness, it was agreed that the scene could be passed at 18. Therefore, on 1 June 2006, Death Wish was finally rated 18 uncut for DVD release, with all previous cuts waived.