The issue of violence in films is one which has tested Examiners since the earliest days of cinema. Ever since The Great Train Robbery (1903), widely acknowledged as the first narrative film, violence on screen has been an issue that has sparked argument and debate (audience members reportedly ran terrified from the cinema when the villain pointed his gun directly at the camera).

As the moving image became the most dominant art form of the 20th century so concerns started to grow about the effects of violence on the audience, in particular on the younger audience, and about the increasing levels of violence on screen. As public attitudes about violence have shifted, so the BBFC has had to change to reflect those shifts.

Violence has been a part of children's entertainment since the very first stories were told and has been a staple element of cartoons such as Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry. The challenge for the BBFC is to determine whether the violence in any given work is acceptable for the audience at which the work as a whole is aimed. To do this the BBFC takes into account a number of factors:

  •  What is the overall attitude of the film towards violence?
  • What is the dramatic context of the violence?
  • Is the violence perpetrated by the hero or villain?
  • Are there consequences or rewards for the violence?
  • How is the violence treated?
  • Is there undue emphasis on weapons?
  • Is it prolonged?
  • Are there frequent close-ups?
  • Is it stylised eg slow motion, soundtrack, editing, and do these techniques accentuate the images or restrain their impact?
  • How much do we see of process, e.g. blows, bullet impacts, blood spurts, etc and effects, e.g. injuries, bodies, forensic detail etc?
  • What is the viewer’s relationship to what is shown?
  • Do we identify with victim or aggressor?
  • Are we repelled or excited by the violence?
  • What is the power relationship between victim and aggressor?
  • Is there an element of torture/sadism?
  • Does the amendment to the Video Recordings Act apply (harm to viewer or to society through viewer’s behaviour)?

We must also consider potential effects such as desensitisation or fear, as well as the more obvious concerns about encouraging violent behaviour. The BBFC debates issues such as whether more ‘sanitised’ versions of violence are in fact more harmful (as some American researchers imply), because they do not show sufficiently the harmful consequences of violence. Nearly always, however, it is the film which encourages the viewer to take pleasure in the pain and suffering of the victim or victims that raises the most objections.