Late last week, the world lost veteran actor and martial arts legend, Sonny Chiba. Although only particularly diehard American audiences knew of him until his role in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1, out of the dozens of grindhouse kung-fu brawlers leading up to his 2003 mainstream stateside introduction, one title arguably stood apart from the bone-crunching pack: The Street Fighter. Released in 1974, The Street Fighter garnered a level of American scandal—and, thereby a level of salacious success, of course—for achieving the first ever X-rating bestowed solely for its “extreme violence.”
Although many of our desensitized readers today would barely bat an eye at The Street Fighter’s throat-ripping, skull-smashing, penis-removing violence, back in the mid-1970s it was apparently enough for MPAA’s Code and Rating Administration (CARA) to deem the film too inappropriate for anyone under the age of 17. More specifically, as this dive into the archival bowels at The New York Times reveals, the ignominious claim to infamy can be attributed to one person in particular: Richard D. Heffner.
“Some people consider us censors...We’re not. We don’t ban anything, or demand that changes be made in films,” Heffner told journalist Gerald Jonas back in 1975. “We don’t make judgments about the value or quality of films. If you’re over the age of 17, nothing we do affects what you can see in a movie theater.”
Of course, it goes without saying that an “X” rating has, until very recently, been seen as a film’s kiss of death. There’s also ratings board’s long history of arguable double standards, something even the NYT brought up in 1975, noting critics’ claims of CARA’s “hard line with films submitted by independent producers and distributors while letting the giant film companies get away with murder.”
The entire NYT profile is an interesting one, delving into the history of U.S. film regulation and censorship alongside arguments for and against the “X” rating. In The Street Fighter’s case, “after reaping the benefits of free publicity from the original rating,” the director managed to submit a heavily edited version which finally garnered a more palatable “R” rating from CARA. Heffner, for his part, reportedly stated that he “couldn’t imagine any way to take the ‘X’ out of the film, short of destroying it and starting again,” so his opinion was wrong at least once in his career...
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