Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the movie urban legends featured so far.
MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: George Lucas added a scene involving a severed arm to assure that Star Wars would be rated PG rather than G.
When the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) instituted the film rating system in 1968, the approach was a good deal different than it is now. There were four ratings, G (for general audiences), M (for mature audiences, which became PG in 1972), R (restricted) and X (adults only, which became NC-17 in 1990). The only ratings that required age restrictions were R (no one admitted under 16 without a guardian – later changed to no one under 17) and X (no one admitted under 18 period – later changed to no one under 17). The G rating at the time was not intended to mean fare for children, it was meant that the film was simply suitable for a “general audience.” As a result, a number of films in the late 1960s and early 1970s were released with G ratings that would seem surprising today, such as True Grit, Planet of the Apes, The Odd Couple and Airport. Over a third of the films released in 1968 were rated G. These films were likely rated the way they were due to confusion over the M rating, the middle ground between “open to general audiences” and “restricted.” “Mature” gave off the wrong connotation, as M-rated films held no age restrictions, but it seemed like “mature” was suggesting more adult fare while it was just meant to let parents know that the film might be particularly unsuitable for small children. The PG rating was introduced in 1972 and soon became the most popular rating for non-R films (as you might imagine, since PG was just for all films that didn’t meet the standard for an R, the content in PG films varied dramatically, ultimately leading to the introduction of the PG-13 rating, which also carried no age restriction, but at least gave parents the warning that kids under the age of 13 likely shouldn’t watch the film). Of the six Star Wars films by George Lucas, all but one of them were rated PG (just the final prequel, Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, received a PG-13). The first three films predated the PG-13 rating, but when they were re-released in the 1990s, they maintained their PG rating.
However, legend has it (suggested to me by reader Mike J.) that Star Wars nearly received a G rating but actually added a scene to assure a PG rating. From a 1980 article about the shrinking amount of G-rated fare in 1980, it stated:
Even Star Wars didn’t risk the jinx of the G…the preliminary version initially earned a G rating from the MPAA. To get the desired PG, however, a scene depicting a dismembered arm was added to the cantina sequence.
Is this true?
Before I go any further, let me note that I personally had heard the basic story that Mike J. sent in to me before over the years, only that the version that I had heard stated that the added scene was the sequence where we see Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru’s charred corpses.
But as to the truth of the matter – no, neither story is true.
I think that perhaps some of the confusion came from various discussions while making the film, where the special effects crew would check with director George Lucas (who would, in turn, check with producer Gary Kurtz) over what rating they were shooting for, so that they would make the effects (particularly the cantina sequence) fit that rating, toning it down if they were looking for a G or, well, not toning it down if they were looking for a PG.
At the time, they were, indeed, looking for a PG rating, so it was likely with that in mind that we had the sequence where Obi-Wan Kenobi slices off Ponda Baba’s arm and we get a nice close-up shot of the severed arm.
Some cantina creatures ended up being deemed TOO gross (including one pus-filled creature).
However, all of those scenes (including the Owen and Beru shots) were included when the film was submitted for a rating and the film still received a G rating initially! There was a split among the ratings board, but eventually they decided on a G rating. 20th Century Fox decided on an unusual gambit and resubmitted the film and requested that it receive the stricter rating. They wanted a PG rating, partially because they felt some of the scenes DID seem too graphic for very young viewers and didn’t wish to hear parents later complain (years later, Stephen Spielberg would express similar concerns over violent scenes in some of his PG films, as he felt he got too much criticism for having violence in his PG films, so he was a big proponent of inventing the PG-13 rating) but primarily because they felt that the G rating by this time was seen as “uncool” and sort of box office poison for a non-animated film.
Charles Lippincott was the advertising publicity manager on Star Wars and he related the fascinating story of Star Wars’ PG-rating to J. W. Rinzler’s book, The Making of Star Wars:
I had a kid about five years old sitting in front of me. And when Darth Vader appears on the bridge of the Princess’ ship at the beginning and grabs the guy and chokes him, the kid began crying, and just really broke down. So I said to George, ‘This film is a PG.’ Well, a friend of mine was on the ratings board, and she was one of I think two females on the board, and she was one of the few who actually knew the film. She said the men were absolutely bored by it, a couple of them fell asleep, and they all voted it as a G movie. The only one who was concerned about it was a mother, the only other woman there, who felt it was a little too intense for kids. But all the guys dismissed her, so it came out with a G rating – you know, the worst thing we could possibly get. I said, ‘This is not a G-Rating film.’ So we went back to them for a PG. They had never had this done to them before by anybody, and they couldn’t believe it. So the board reneged and gave it a PG because we wanted that.
The MPAA ratings board is a bit of an odd sort. Awhile back, I did a Movie Legends Revealed on Brian De Palma essentially pretending to make edits to Scarface to receive an R rating instead of X.
Anyhow, as to this legend, it is…
Thanks to J. W. Rinzler and Charles Lippincott for the information and thanks to Mike J. for the suggestion!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.