As it hits 40, A Clockwork Orange remains associated with a violent revolution in cinema. But, asks Andrew Dickens, does it deserve its brutal reputation?
"Audiences in general won’t, I frankly believe, see A Clockwork Orange other than as a fairy tale,” said Stanley Kubrick, in the days before his 1971 film was released to a Kubrick-hungry public expecting another Spartacus, Lolita or 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Sadly, Kubrick hadn’t predicted how key the ‘in general’ part of that sentence would be. While receiving international critical acclaim, there were some commentators in this country — commentators, crucially, in possession of a national platform from which to speak — who felt differently and were set on letting us know in no uncertain terms.
The Sun’s Ken Eastleigh labelled the film “unparalleled in its concentrated parade of violence, viciousness and cruelty.” Labour MP Maurice Edelman, who attracted 50 fellow MPs and peers to a special screening of the film in early January 1972, offered the opinion that when “A Clockwork Orange is generally released, it will lead to a Clockwork cult which will magnify teenage violence”.
Whether Edelman was incredibly prescient or merely creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, his words began to ring true. During its 61-week theatrical run in Britain between 1972 and 1973, Kubrick’s screen version of Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel went from Oscar-nominated blockbuster to, some believed, both symbol and cause of society’s ills, with ‘copycat’ crimes being held up as evidence of its corruption of British youth. A subsequent 27-year ban in this country, imposed by Kubrick himself, merely fuelled the controversy and confirmed it as an icon of violent cinema. Yet 40 years on from the film’s creation, it may be time to reassess this status.
For those who haven’t seen it, A Clockwork Orange is set in a dystopian near-future Britain and follows our narrator and juvenile delinquent extraordinaire, Alex, as he, often with his droogs (‘friends’ in Nadsat, the Anglo Slavic slang Burgess created for the book), merrily indulges in his hobbies of ‘ultra-violence’ and listening to Beethoven. These pastimes eventually catch up with Alex, placing him on the other end of the brutality courtesy of an experimental state treatment for misbehaviour and, almost fatally, a vengeful victim — before he’s finally compensated by the government, perversely, for his suffering.
The film’s UK release in January 1972 caused little more than a storm in a teacup, with the likes of Eastleigh, Edelman and moral guardian Mary Whitehouse — who called for its head after seeing just 20 minutes — failing to prevent widespread laudation, huge box-office takings and four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture (it lost to The French Connection).
A year later, however, that teacup had flooded over. Papers were awash with examples of Edelman’s foresight: teenagers dressing as droogs and real-life delinquents blaming the film for their own ultra-violent acts. Even the former chaplain to British film institution Pinewood Studios, Reverend John Lambert, felt moved to write in The Evening News: “I am utterly convinced in my own mind — and from talking to many young people — that this celluloid cesspool has done damage to more young people than just the boy who beat out a meths-drinker’s brains with a brick.” He was referring to one of the most famous self-proclaimed ‘copycats’, a 16-year-old boy who beat a tramp to death. Kubrick had been well-and-truly vilified.
“The final straw came when the police said we were in real danger,” says Kubrick’s wife, Christiane, with a graceful Germanic bluntness. “There were many moralists and religious groups and Mary Whitehouse, etcetera, who wanted us dead. I had my head in the sand — I didn’t think it was that bad — but when the police came I did get scared. We all did. So Stanley phoned Warner Bros [the studio behind the movie] and said please, could they pull the film. Those who had written to us had won.”
While the irony of these murderous threats wouldn’t have been lost on Kubrick, neither was the severity. In May 1973, A Clockwork Orange was quietly removed from British circulation; so quietly, in fact, that the ban wasn’t discovered until 1979, when the film’s cinematographer, John Alcott, requested a copy. It remained impossible to obtain or show the film legally in the UK until 2000, a year after Kubrick’s death. The ban merely fuelled a savage reputation that Kubrick had not intended and, with hindsight, one that may do a great film a great injustice.
“He didn’t feel that he had done anything bad,” continues Christiane. “He told a story about evil extremely well. He didn’t make a gory film with lots of blood. The actual acts of cruelty were either extremely stylised or cut all together.”
This is a view shared by the man who spends most of the film dispensing or receiving that cruelty: Alex himself, Malcolm McDowell.
“That was a rather difficult sequence to do,” McDowell tells us, recalling the film’s most debated scene, in which the droogs beat a writer and, we’re informed but not shown, sexually assault his wife to a soundtrack of Singin’ In The Rain. “In the so-called script [Kubrick famously cut-and-pasted, literally, from the book] it was naturalistic — go in, kick him down the stairs, throw bottles of booze through the windows. We spent four or five days trying to work out how to do it. Then Stanley came up to me and asked me if I could dance. So I leapt up and, as a joke, out came Singin’ In The Rain. It was spontaneous.
“Stanley was amazed. He put me in his car, drove us to his house, and he bought the rights to the song. It was a brilliant way to get out of a dodgy situation. The violence is not naturalistic, it’s stylised and, really, hilariously funny — if it wasn’t for the raping and beating. But you don’t see that.”
This is something that’s been overshadowed by the scandal: in terms of graphic violence, A Clockwork Orange is relatively tame, even by the standards of its day. The violence is mostly suggested or disguised. In another infamous scene, when Alex kills a woman with a giant phallic sculpture (ludicrous enough in itself), the actual blows aren’t shown and, once more, it’s done to music — this time that of Alex’s hero, “lovely, lovely Ludwig Van” — to add both levity and surrealism. Watched without prejudice, the film is as Kubrick wanted: more funny than gory, more comedy than horror.
“Clockwork wasn’t a watershed moment for cinema violence,” says Peter Krämer, author of A Clockwork Orange, a forthcoming book from Palgrave’s ‘Controversies’ series. “It wasn’t as graphic as you think. In the late Sixties you had a bunch of hit films with extremely graphic violence, such as Bonnie And Clyde in 1967 and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch in 1969. This peaked between 1971 and 1973 with films such as Clockwork, The Exorcist and another Peckinpah film, Straw Dogs. These films were acclaimed blockbusters, not at the margins.”
This raises the question: why was it Kubrick, then, who was targeted by those fighting for our moral salvation?
“A lot of groups opposed to permissiveness in society felt that they’d missed out on earlier films, and so jumped on Clockwork,” says Dr Paul Newland, author of Don’t Look Now: British Cinema In The 1970s. “It’s a shame that it’s remembered for the controversy when it’s memorable in so many other ways. It was the first film to use Dolby sound, has one of the first synthesised scores, and was one of the first films to use locations in an interesting way, shooting this futuristic dystopia in settings such as the Thamesmead estate in south London.”
While there’s scant doubt that the outcry was disproportionately loud (Rev Lambert’s tramp-killing teen hadn’t even seen the film), we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it isn’t Mary Poppins we’re talking about. It can still make even today’s gore-hardened audiences squirm.
“It is shocking,” explains Krämer, “but it’s because of the framework. We deal with violence in films because justice is eventually done, but at the end of Clockwork the punishment is removed, maybe even replaced with the reward of compensation. It was also the first film to make us identify with the evildoer. We only have his viewpoint.”
McDowell concurs. “Someone told me that before Alex, there wasn’t the cinematic antihero,” he says. “He’s a rapist and murderer, but people like him.”
And this was the nub of the matter in 1973: A Clockwork Orange made people uncomfortable. Even if they enjoyed the film, they wondered if they should. For modern equivalents, think Four Lions or American Psycho.
Place this in a future that was a little too close for comfort and you’ll also see why the effect was so exaggerated in this country. The scenery was recognisably British, the stereotypes were British, and the look of the droogs perfectly captured the zeitgeist: a transition from Sixties masculinity to the androgyny and glam of Bowie and Bolan. In essence, A Clockwork Orange’s only crime was holding up a very large, very clear mirror to British society.
Stanley Kubrick; Limited Edition Collection is out on Blu-ray now. A Clockwork Orange Anniversary edition is available now on iTunes
(Images: All Star, Rex Features)
Malcolm McDowell on Stanley Kubrick
A first-hand account of working with the genius director
“I remember when I got the part. I was given a book, called by Kubrick and told to read it. I called him back and said, ‘It’s incredible, but I have no idea how you’re going to make this into a movie.’ He said, ‘I’ve got one or two ideas.’ So I asked him, ‘Have I got the part?’ There was a silence and then he quietly said, ‘Yes.’ And that was it. If you were offered a part by Stanley Kubrick, it was a no-brainer. You’d have been an idiot to say no.
“He was a perfectionist in a way, but having said that, he knew that filmmaking isn’t a perfectionist business, so the reputation he got as a hard taskmaster wouldn’t have come from Peter Sellers [who starred in Kubrick’s Lolita and Dr Strangelove] or me. For us, he trusted in the actor and said, ‘Show me, bring it.’ And that’s what I soon learned to do.
“He was protective, very communicative about who the character was, where we were. Kubrick’s strength wasn’t in directing his actors. His strength was in everything else: the technique of the lights, of the lenses, the sounds, the look. Clockwork’s still undated. He cast films carefully and expected the actors to bring something to the film. I can understand why Kubrick loved Sellers, because Sellers would come and do a completely different take, and he could pick which one he loved.
“It wasn’t take after take, though. We’d get on set for a new scene. We’d look at it, read it and try to come with a few ideas. He wouldn’t turn the camera until there was a little bit of magic, something he could shoot. Once he found that, the shooting was relatively fast. Sometimes we didn’t start until 6pm after rehearsing all day.
“It was gruelling at times. Physically, there was the famous incident where I scratched my cornea on the eyelid clamps while filming the Ludovico Treatment [Alex is forced to watch horrific acts on film while being given a drug to make him feel nauseous]. And when the actor stamps his foot on my chest and tells me to lick his boot, his foot went through my ribcage and caused a blood clot, which thankfully the doctor spotted and dispersed.
“Tempers frayed, of course, with the long hours. I remember once the crew said, ‘Stanley, enough. No more 16 or 17-hour days. We want to work 12 hours and get out.’ So they took a vote and went home. I had my coat on and was just about to go through the door when Stanley beckoned me towards him. I went, ‘There’s nobody here!’ and he said, ‘We’ll rehearse for tomorrow.’ I stayed another two hours.
“But that was Kubrick. He was completely blinkered and absolutely concentrated. He would do anything he could to get the shot that he wanted. Anything.”