The modern movie rating system was established at the end of 1968 as a way to help audiences understand what kind of content they were in for. Not every movie is meant to be watched by children. The first iteration of the ratings didn’t have a PG rating. Instead, they had M, short for Mature, in between G and R.
Two years later M was changed to GP and then finally to PG in 1972. It’s interesting to think of PG as a “Mature” rating because it’s basically synonymous with innocuous entertainment. Just about every non-animated summer blockbuster is PG-13, so PG has become a little more of an anomaly when it comes to big-budget fare. But that hasn’t always been the case.
I’d like to talk about PG movies that are far more intense than their light rating might make them appear. These films adhere much more to the Mature origin of the rating than the more kid-friendly interpretation it has taken on over the years. We’ll go from the early ‘70s to the early ‘90s because those years saw many films that made a big impression on my young mind.
Let’s start with the 1970s, since that’s when PG was born and it was when the industry was still getting a feel for what it meant to make a PG movie.
Patton – I realize that this film is more of a portrait of the famous U.S. general George S. Patton than a proper war movie, but this is World War II we’re talking about! It is amazing that the filmmakers made a movie about a man nicknamed “Old Blood and Guts” without making it an ultraviolent affair. And despite not showing the horrors of war, they still managed to produce one of the best war movies of all time.
Harold and Maude – This movie includes a lot of sick things, not the least of which is a romantic relationship between a 20-year-old man and a woman four times his age. Oh, and the young man is suicidal and fakes his death many times throughout the film. Despite all of this, the movie comes across as quite comedic and even bittersweet, especially at the end.
The Towering Inferno – I think of this movie as more of a prototype for Die Hard than a typical ‘70s disaster movie. It just has such an epic scale with its huge, interconnected group of characters and suspenseful scenes. It’s got people in constant peril. Characters get blown up and burned alive, fall to their deaths off a skyscraper, get impaled by falling beams, and meet other horrible fates. Definitely not a kids movie.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail – In spite of its goofy violence and sexual innuendo, Monty Python and the Holy Grail managed to earn a PG rating. That was the first and last time this film series veered into such family-friendly territory. I guess when the raters saw a cute little bunny viciously biting knights’ heads off, they decided no one would take this movie all that seriously, anyway.
Jaws – The original summer blockbuster and the precursor to most modern horror films, Jaws still stands up as a scary and engaging movie. There aren’t that many on-screen deaths, but every time one does show up, it really makes a lasting impression.
Rocky – There’s nothing terribly objectionable about Rocky (or its sequels), but it still has a very adult feel. I mean Rocky is an enforcer for a loan shark and, although we never see him hurt anyone, we believe he really is capable of breaking people’s bones if they don’t pay up. And on Christmas Eve when Paulie gets drunk and threatens to break Rocky’s arms with a baseball bat, it’s a genuinely terrifying scene. Oh, and there’s the small matter of Rocky fighting Apollo Creed and having to get his eyelid cut to allow him to see after it’s been swollen shut.
Grease – Basically, this entire movie is about teenage sex without ever being explicit about it. In the end, the nice girl gets the bad boy by transforming herself into a slut. It all seems so bizarre, but at least it has some catchy tunes.
In the early 1980s, the PG rating continued to be pushed in a harder direction, blurring the lines between strictly adult and family entertainment.
Raiders of the Lost Ark – Steven Spielberg shows up again on this list. He redefined the action genre with the first installment of the adventures of iconic archaeologist Indiana Jones. This movie has people (mostly Nazis) getting impaled, stabbed, shot, melted, burned, and crushed to death. And nowadays, my nieces and nephews hardly bat an eye at this level of violence. Go figure.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – This movie is the definition of “hard PG.” So much death and carnage is packed into this operatic film, but it’s handled with such class that I don’t really think of this as a violent movie. Except for that nasty creature that crawls in and out of Chekov’s ear. Man, that was disgusting.
Poltergeist – I can’t believe this movie managed to pull off a PG rating. Even though he only served as a writer and producer, Steven Spielberg must have had a magical influence on the people rating this movie. The scene where a man rips off his face to reveal some kind of demon underneath was enough to give me plenty of nightmares. And let’s not even mention the clown doll. Please.
Tootsie – This 1982 comedy about Dustin Hoffman dressing up as a woman managed to sidestep most of the obvious dirty jokes and actually turn into a very clever movie. I heard that director Sydney Pollack had to work hard to clean up the script from just a series of sex jokes, and I’m glad he did.
The Right Stuff – I love this movie, but seriously it has a lot of sexual innuendo. It gets ridiculously close to becoming explicit with a fan dance that a woman performs at the film’s climax. Also, I believe the movie has several F-bombs, so I’m not sure how they got around that. The Right Stuff doesn’t feel like a PG movie. But it doesn’t feel like an R-rated one, either. It exists as an entity outside of clear-cut definitions.
Everything changed in 1984 with the creation of PG-13. It was made necessary by a few memorably violent PG films.
Gremlins – Gremlins is a movie that starts out cute and then gradually takes a turn to the dark side with the introduction of a slew of malevolent creatures infesting a sleepy town. Hm. Could there be a metaphor somewhere in there about the direction of PG movies over their early history. Nah, it’s probably nothing.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – My parents debated for a long time about whether they would allow my siblings and me to watch this film or not. In the end, they said yes. This was actually the first Indiana Jones movie I saw. Yeah, it’s dark and violent without being all that good.
Ghostbusters – With its perfect blend of horror and comedy, the original Ghostbusters is a movie whose success has never been replicated. For some reason, the scariest shot to me is of the demonic taxi driver because I have no idea if a spirit possessed a living taxi driver or if evil spirits have the power to take on corporeal form. Either idea is frankly terrifying.
The Dawn of PG-13
Even after the creation of PG-13, quite a few movies managed to earn a PG rating, even though they had a lot of material that seems to go above and beyond that rating.
Back to the Future – It’s a testament to the storytelling power of Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale that they managed to craft a tale that included potential incest, attempted rape, and murderous terrorists, and make it come across as a lighthearted comedy. All three Back to the Future films managed to earn a PG rating, which was no small feat, considering all of their more serious moments, themes, and foul language.
The Goonies – I have to admit, I didn’t like this movie much growing up. The bad guys are so unpleasant I just don’t care to spend any time with them. But it does have a lot of inventive sequences. It’s basically Raiders of the Lost Ark for kids. Just as a side note, this film was directed by Richard Donner right before he made the first Lethal Weapon film.
Top Gun – I was shocked when I was researching this article and remembered that Top Gun is only rated PG. Mainly because Iron Eagle, which came out the same year as Top Gun, is rated PG-13, and that film doesn’t seem as intense as this one.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit – Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, and many other beloved classic cartoon characters share the screen in this ambitious movie. And yet, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is at its heart a murder mystery and it deals with a lot of heady stuff for what seems at times to be aimed at least partly at children.
Beetlejuice – How is this movie rated PG? Just, how? Tim Burton delivered a weirdly touching story in his directorial debut Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure in 1985, and he followed it up with this outrageously awesome dark comedy. I don’t know what kind of mind comes up with this bizarre interpretation of the afterlife, but I’m glad they did. Of course, I doubt the upcoming sequel will be PG.
Twins – In the midst of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s impressive string of R-rated action hits, he starred in this fun little comedy, playing against type as a perfectly constructed human being who dislikes violence and doesn’t know the first thing about love. If all of this movie’s sexual jokes and scenes weren’t enough to earn a PG-13 rating, surely the scenes of people getting beaten up and shot would have been enough, right? Alas, this movie somehow slipped by with a PG rating.
Willow – Is it possible to make a PG version of The Lord of the Rings and still retain the epic battles, deadly sword duels, and stunning wizard fights? Oh yeah. Willow was ahead of its time, offering a taste of great things to come in the fantasy genre while still managing to be accessible to children of all ages.
The Early ‘90s
I’ll finish by mentioning a few films from the early ‘90s that surprisingly got softer ratings than I thought they might have deserved.
The Hunt for Red October – It is astounding that the first Jack Ryan movie, which was directed by John McTiernan (fresh off of making the R-rated action classics Predator and Die Hard) turned out to be rated PG. The Hunt for Red October has plenty of suspenseful scenes that rival the ones in Die Hard and it even has a couple of shocking scenes of people being killed in close quarters.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country – The other Star Trek film directed by Nicholas Meyer deserves to be mentioned here. I saw this movie in theaters as a kid, and I was pretty surprised by the scene where two Starfleet officers board a Klingon vessel and start shooting everyone they encounter. Klingon blood flies through the air in zero gravity. One poor guy even gets his arm ripped off. There are other jarring scenes that easily could have made this the first PG-13 Star Trek film, but again the film’s charm seems to have convinced the raters to go easy on it.
Groundhog Day – Groundhog Day is a beautiful film. The journey of Phil Connors changing from a self-centered jerk to a kind-hearted helper is so convincing and natural. But to get to that point, Phil has to be broken down in more ways than one. He commits suicide many times, tricks women into sleeping with him, steals from an armored truck in broad daylight, and does quite a few other heinous things. Thankfully, he learns his lesson in the end.
Apollo 13 – “Houston, we have a problem.” Apollo 13 has more suspense than Speed, and yet it is rated PG. Can you believe that? With so many life-or-death situations and shouting fests between tense individuals, you would think this movie would be at least PG-13.
A Mature Rating
PG doesn’t necessarily mean “for all ages.” It’s possible to tell a gripping story full of adventure, death, and even sexual innuendo and still earn a “soft” rating. I would argue many of these films have harder content than most comic book movies that routinely earn PG-13 for no other reason than their action sequences.
There are quite a few other films I could have talked about, as well, such as the original Star Wars trilogy, early James Bond films, the first three Karate Kid films, and the first few Harry Potter films. But you get the point. I don’t know if the makers of films like these intended to make PG films, but one thing is for sure: they made some seriously intense PG movies.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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Great list. For me, the most intense PG movie (and one of the most intense movies of all time, period) is William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer”, ie the remake of Wages of Fear. The entire movie is our heroes transporting unstable nitroglycerin in trucks across the jungle, which can go off at any time with the slightest jolt. It’s like a cross between The Road Warrior and Speed, except this film has no problems dispatching major characters in an instant with no remorse. You feel every bump in the road, every pothole – it’s almost unwatchably tense at times.
Also there’s a fairly gory headshot and an “MF-er”, which is pretty rare in a PG movie (the only other one I know of is in the Chuck Norris actioner “Lone Wolf McQuade”)