Few films polarise opinion quite like Stanley Kubrick‘s A Clockwork Orange, the film he personally banned from UK distribution for 27 years up to his death, just as the source material, Anthony Burgess‘s 1962 novella of the same name, shocked public opinion at the time and since. The sexual violence portrayed grabbed many of the headlines. This is how Kubrick came to ban his own work from being screened in this country, courtesy of Wikipedia:
Although it was passed uncut for UK cinemas in December 1971, British authorities considered the sexual violence in the film to be extreme. In March 1972, during the trial of a fourteen-year-old male accused of the manslaughter of a classmate, the prosecutor referred to A Clockwork Orange, suggesting that the film had a macabre relevance to the case. The film was also linked to the murder of an elderly vagrant by a 16-year-old boy in Bletchley, Buckinghamshire, who pleaded guilty after telling police that friends had told him of the film “and the beating up of an old boy like this one.” Roger Gray QC, for the defence, told the court that “the link between this crime and sensational literature, particularly A Clockwork Orange, is established beyond reasonable doubt”. The press also blamed the film for a rape in which the attackers sang “Singin’ in the Rain” as “Singin’ in the Rape”. Christiane Kubrick, the director’s wife, has said that the family received threats and had protesters outside their home. Subsequently, Kubrick asked Warner Brothers to withdraw the film from British distribution. In response to allegations that the film was responsible for copycat violence Kubrick stated: “To try and fasten any responsibility on art as the cause of life seems to me to put the case the wrong way around. Art consists of reshaping life, but it does not create life, nor cause life. Furthermore, to attribute powerful suggestive qualities to a film is at odds with the scientifically accepted view that, even after deep hypnosis in a posthypnotic state, people cannot be made to do things which are at odds with their natures.”
Whatever the reason for the withdrawal, it was difficult to see A Clockwork Orange in the United Kingdom for 27 years. It was only after Kubrick’s death in 1999 that the film reappeared in cinemas and was released on VHS and DVD. On July 4, 2001, the uncut version premiered on Sky TV‘s Sky Box Office, where it ran until mid-September.
Though the depths of bitter and cynical dystopian satire are plumbed by Burgess and Kubrick in turn, this is first and foremost a satire of British society, one in which violence rules society, juvenile delinquency is rife, the rule of law is governed by the principle of harsh punishment, psychiatry offers radical solutions… and yet people at the top operate to their own twisted agenda. As such, ACO is arguably as relevant now as it ever was and has much to admire in the work of two great talents of the British creative arts… but don’t watch it expecting to enjoy the work or consider it light and frothy entertainment. It is challenging and disturbing, deliberately so.
But for all that the main protagonist of the film, young gang leader Alex (Malcolm McDowell, a favourite of both Kubrick and the other great social satirist filmmaker of the time, Lindsay Anderson) is a traditionalist at heart: he drinks milk, he listens to Beethoven’s 9th symphony (which later becomes a trigger causing Alex to vomit uncontrollably), loves mindless rape and “ultra violence” without a care for his victims – but respects his elders (when it is in his interests so to do.) Despite appearances, his is a quest for “goodness” and acceptance.
Above all he loves the authority of ruling his “droogs” (from the Russian word друг, “friend,” “buddy”) with a fist of iron – safety in numbers and the ruler of his own tiny kingdom. The droogs include another actor who went on to be much loved in the British consciousness, Warren Clarke playing Dim.
In many ways, Alex DeLarge is no stranger than the society around him, from the weird and smiley probation officer P R Deltoid (Aubrey Morris) to the cat lady with the bizarre taste in phallic art (Miriam Karlin) to Frederick, a very Machiavellian Minister of the Interior (Anthony Sharp.) In fact, everywhere you look there is a brutally stylised ultramodern England populated by characters in the best Hogarthian traditions, in which this modern morality play is conducted.
Alex’s picaresque journey of living by his wits takes him from being gang leader to prisoner to the subject of a psychiatric experiment in extreme aversion therapy (the “Ludovico technique“), to the victim of revenge by his former droogs and the disabled husband of a victim (Patrick Magee), to being cured of his aversions and held up as a model of society. His experience is every bit as nightmarish as that of McDowell’s character Mick Travis in Anderson’s O Lucky Man! – who had previously been the public schoolboy who effects a revolt in Anderson’s If….
As with Candide in Voltaire‘s famous novella, Alex never stops to rationalise or philosophise about what has happened to him – he responds to each stimulus as he finds it, which in the case of being played Beethoven’s 9th by Mr Alexander includes a suicide bid: cause and effect.
Where O Lucky Man! was a rambling tale interspersed with songs from Alan Price, Kubrick chose a more disturbing soundtrack effected on Moog synthesiser by Wendy (then Walter) Carlos, augmented at regular intervals by Beethoven, Rossini‘s Thieving Magpie and even Singing In The Rain gets a look-in during a brutal rape scene.
Visually ACO is iconic at every level – from Alex and the Droogs’ white outfits with bowler hats to Alex’s single false eyelash, to the hypermodern 70s design of London’s shops and homes – all except prisons and hospitals, which look appropriately and horribly dated. Even Burgess’s fictional nadsat – a slang language cobbled together from various sources – adds to be uneasy atmosphere without losing clarity.
At every level this is a movie that challenged the senses and current orthodoxy, so in a sense you can hardly be surprised it received a hostile reaction from the pillars of the establishment, notably the right-wing press – and it certainly was not the kind of movie to gain congratulatory gongs and gushing praise at the Oscars. The critics and Kubrick’s contemporaries, on the other hand, recognised genius when they saw it. This is from Wikipedia:
Along with Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Wild Bunch (1969), Soldier Blue (1970), Dirty Harry (1971), and Straw Dogs (1971), the film is considered a landmark in the relaxation of control on violence in the cinema. In the United Kingdom, A Clockwork Orangewas very controversial and withdrawn from release by Kubrick himself. It is 21st in the AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Thrills and number 46 in the AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies, although in the second listing, it is ranked 70th of 100. “Alex DeLarge” is listed 12th in the villains section of the AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Heroes and Villains. In 2008, the AFI’s 10 Top 10 rated A Clockwork Orange as the 4th greatest science-fiction movie to date. In 2010, TIME placed it 9th on their list of the Top 10 Ridiculously Violent Movies. In 2008, Empire ranked it 37th on their list of “The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time.”, and in 2013, Empire ranked it 11th on their list of “The 100 Best British Films Ever”. Spanish auteur Luis Buñuel was highly praising of the film. He once said: “A Clockwork Orange is my current favourite. I was predisposed against the film. After seeing it, I realised it is only a movie about what the modern world really means”.