A Clockwork Orange


‘…a sensational story of youth both revolting and betrayed…’

Amidst all the blather about Doctor Sleep, and Stanley Kubrick’s radical changes to Stephen King’s book, it’s worth noting that the esteemed writer/director was more than happy to treat all manner of literature as a selective buffet or movable feast, from William Thackery to Arthur C Clarke; it can’t have been a huge surprise to King that his ideas were handled in a piecemeal fashion. Anthony Burgess’s book A Clockwork Orange was similarly ransacked for ideas; the result shocked audiences and critics in 1971, and still has the air of a text both sacred and profane.

As a sensation-seeking kid, I found A Clockwork Orange was a film to be read about, but not seen; Kubrick withdrew it from the marketplace in the UK after some copycat violence. Those willing to stump up the cash could purchase fuzzy VHS dupes; today, it’s something of a shock to see modernist, brutalist vistas featured in such sharp focus. There’s a celebrated, modish production design, plus innovative use of classical music; rather than the beautiful images of 2001, Kubrick features a much more muddy, garish aesthetic, in line with the vulgarity of his protagonist, Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his band of white-suited, masked Droogs, but also with the sinister world around him. A world where the black-suited government aim to subjugate the masses via thought control, and where the spirit of the individual is considered something to be worth eliminating. In this context, Alex’s deliberately mindless rebellion makes more sense, which casts a baleful light to view the notorious ultra-violence of the film’s shocking opening scenes.

Burgess created a writerly character, played by Patrick Macgee here, that clearly offers a surrogate for his own instincts. Frank Alexander’s wife is raped by Alex and his band of brothers, but when Alex unwittingly returns to his house, lobotomised and de-fanged, the writer is unable to put aside his own supposed sophistication, and seeks revenge. The message seems to be that our baser instincts are part of what makes us human; the idea seems valid, even if unpalatable at the same time.

Whether one agrees with the sentiment, and it’s one of the trickiest, most controversial ever dared to be expressed in a major motion picture, there’s plenty of striking details, from the music arcade that Alex visits, with artists like The Humpers or Heaven Seventeen providing the sounds, or Dave Prowse in chunky specs and cut-off shorts as an oddly supine bodyguard. The seedy setting, with social worker Mr Deltoid (Aubery Morris) a more-than-casual observer, is peculiarly British and plays up the banality of high-minded social interference. Ultimately it’s a non-binary parable that works best for mature adults; A Clockwork Orange is a sensational story of youth both revolting and betrayed, and observes standards falling due to a depreciating shortage of genuine human warmth; a grim world methodically lobotomised, with as little agency as a clockwork orange is predicated. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that the film’s creator withdrew this wildly misunderstood text from the public eye.


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  1. I forst saw this as a teenager doing film studies at school. I rarely say this about much media, but I don’t think my ageallowed me to appreciate it properly. Might deserve a second viewing at some point.

    • I don’t think it was ever a comfortable view. But although sensational, it’s more about the dangers of authoritarian control than youth gone wild, viewed today. A misunderstood film.

  2. Funny, I always thought it was directed by an English man till I realised it was Stanley Kubrick years later. I love it and it represents a boiling point in British history in the early 70’s. No wonder the Sex Pistols admired both the book, and the film. The only problem is, it never feels like the future. Still, it’s a beautiful but disturbing movie, what’s not to love about that. Great review.

    • Yup, that modish production design meant that the film would have looked dated by 75, but I do think that this retro-future was the intention; look at that arcade that Alex struts around! Again, ‘boiling point in British cinema’ FFS I wish I’d thought of that! But you’re right, it’s a key film in cinematic history, and while I’m not sure if I can ever love it, it’s takes the ideas of the book and brings them to life on-screen to striking effect.

  3. Kubrick wanted good stories from badly written novels, right?

    I watched A Clockwork Orange for the first time in my late teens, accidentally (it was either on daytime tv or a copy was lying around). I knew the name and I expected some boring arty old movie and I was completely invigorated by it. Never before had I watched a film for adults that had such an enormous impact and strength. I loved the milkbar, the desire, the energy, the music, the ideas, everything. Talked about it for weeks.

    Later I tried to watch it again but it felt very different, I watched it with ‘grown-up’ eyes which made the violence both more real and more superficial at the same time. I didn’t finish it.

    • Your first sentence is bang on, wish I’d put it so well!

      This film was verboten when I was a teenager; you bought it illegally and watched it illegally, and it carried the charge of being something that was deemed too dangerous for the public to see. Like you, we were blown away by the content, which had surface flash, but also a deep and painful reflection of what was wrong in society. As an adult, it seems a very different, and very British movie, a Pilgrim’s Progress through the layers of British society, from yobs to the nanny state. It’s not what i once thought it was, but something even darker…

  4. Just re-watched this a couple of weeks ago. Got the DVD sitting here and was going to write up some notes. Still holds up as a dangerous movie, and one that bothers people today almost as much as it did when it came out.

    Question: How did McDowell manage to hold his breath that long in the water trough?

    • I think Kubrick had probably drowned a dozen actors at that point, so Macdowell probably was first to survive. Kubrick’s view of man as a primal, atavistic creature on full display here, look forward to your notes…

        • That is fair enough. It’s not just the surface of the film that’s addressing the innate rottenness of humanity, it’s the whole film, text and subtext. It’s a very dark and potentially dangerous film that’s generated all kind of misconceptions. If the subject matter doesn’t appeal, avoid!

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