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A Clockwork Orange (1971)

It seems hard to believe now that there were a number of mainstream films which, until very recently, were banned in the UK. If the 21st century has brought us one thing, it’s some common sense when it comes to home entertainment. In the past few years we have seen barriers fall and old arguments disappear, it’s like the horror film version of the fall of the Berlin Wall. From a British horror film perspective, there were always two big hitters which had been withheld from public view – Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange. Less than a decade ago, the only way they could be seen was on dodgy pirate video. These days both films are regularly screened uncut on British television. The times they are a-changing, alright.

Out of the two films, A Clockwork Orange was always seen as the chief bogeyman. Here was a film which had been self-banned by its director, cast into motion picture purgatory by the very person who had created it. There was no clash of artistic sensibilities here – this wasn’t Sam Peckinpah annoying everyone with yet another misogynistic portrayal of women, Abel Ferrara baiting the censor with yet more pornographic violence, or Lucio Fulci bunging in yet more genuine animal cruelty to add a bit of spice. This was Stanley Kubrick – a man whose films were never less than challenging – deciding that he had indeed created a Frankenstein’s monster, and that the best thing for all concerned would be for it to never be seen again. It was (and still is) an astonishing bit of self-censorship, which says quite a lot about the contempt Kubrick had for us, the idiots who watch his films and can’t tell the difference between them and reality.

But now Kubrick is no more, and his unholy child has survived him. A Clockwork Orange has been clogging up the bargain bins in HMV since the turn of the Millennium, and as yet society hasn’t crumbled because of it. In fact, given that the thing was supposed to be the most explosive slice of cinema ever created, when it finally did hit the cinema screens and the video shelves, the whole event was a bit of a damp squib. People went and watched it, shifted uncomfortably in their seats during its bum-numbing running time, and came out wondering “is that it?”

Which is pretty much what they did after being conned into watching any of Kubrick's films.

If A Clockwork Orange was half an hour shorter and slightly less wilfully artistic, it would be a wonderful film. Kubrick should be congratulated for making the violence horrific and the rape scene utterly devastating, but it was for precisely these reasons that he withdrew the film. If they weren’t in there, the rest of the movie would suffer considerably. In fact, it’s a safe bet that if a less “challenging” director had made the film, it would have been simply another British sci-fi B-movie that would have slipped out and been instantly forgotten. Imagine that Alex and his droogs break into the home of Frank Alexander (Patrick Magee). They slap him around a bit, and then drag his sexy wife (Adrienne Corri) off for a bit of the old “in and out” in another room, the door closing coyly behind them, the camera making its excuses and leaving. That is what usually happens in this kind of film, and the very fact that you are forced to “viddy well”, just like Magee’s character, is what gives A Clockwork Orange its power, not the liberal-bashing politics which make up the film’s second half. Kubrick’s camera is unflinching as the Alexanders find their home and bodies destroyed.

“Go on then, do me in you bastards! I don’t want to live in a stinking world like this. It’s a stinking world because there’s no law and order!”

For Malcolm McDowell, of course, the film is a career high point. McDowell made a point of choosing fantastic films during the 70s, building an astonishing early body of work. But it is safe to say that his knack of picking zingers seemed to vanish as he grew older. There is a general rule of thumb that says if he’s got longish, floppy hair in a film, it’s probably okay. If it’s short and spiky, steer well clear (for example: Tank Girl). His Alex DeLarge is an astonishing creation, a white, working class gang leader with a penchant for “the old ultra violent” (he and his cronies give a tramp a good kicking then indulge in a huge, beautifully orchestrated gang fight), “in and out” (he’s not averse to rape or threesomes) and “Ludwig Van” (following the attack on the Alexanders’ house, he berates one of his friends for blowing a raspberry on hearing Beethoven). He lives in a world where society has broken down, and gangs like his seem to be in charge (the doomed tramp shouts: “Go on then, do me in you bastards! I don’t want to live in a stinking world like this. It’s a stinking world because there’s no law and order!”).

But just when you think you’ve got a handle on Alex comes the horrific punchline – he wakes the next day to be told by his mother: “It’s past eight Alex, you don’t want to be late for school!”

Yes – after witnessing one of the most brutal scenes committed to celluloid (the invasion of the Alexanders) we find out that the main perpetrator, this murderous, sex-crazed, conscience-free criminal, is still at school – and it’s safe to say that he is probably not in the sixth form. Alex finally meets his comeuppance when he attacks an elderly artist with one of her creations, crushing her head beneath an enormous pottery penis. Knocked unconscious by his own gang (he has just defeated a rebellion in the ranks) he is arrested and receives a much-deserved kicking from both the police and his social worker, Mr Deltoid (Aubrey Morris). And this, according to Alex himself, is when “the real weepy and tragic-like part of the story begins…”

Two years after being locked up, Alex has decided that he wants out of prison. He is singled out by visiting dignitary Anthony Sharp as “enterprising, young, bold, vicious” and is set to do the “Ludovico Treatment”, despite the dignitary being told by the guards that Alex is “a right vicious little bastard… and will be again”.

“And viddy films I would,” says Alex, adding: “It’s funny how the colours of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on a screen.” (and, one assumes, when a psychotic film director has actually clamped your eyes open with retina-scratching metal clamps…)

Following the Ludovico treatment, which involved hour after hour of watching terrible things on-screen whilst being forced to listen to “lovely Ludwig Van”, Alex is deemed to be cured. Or to put it another way, he is prepared to lick the soles of the shoes of his jailers, can’t bear to even think of “the old in and out” and is, to quote Anthony Sharp’s ministerial character: “As decent a lad you would meet on a May morning.”

Alex is released, but returns home to find that his place has been taken by Joe the lodger, and that his parents don’t want to know him. Thrown out, he is set upon by tramps, and rescued by police officers. Unfortunately, the police officers are his old gang members, who proceed to try and drown him in a water trough. Alex is unable to fight back due to the treatment, and staggers away, towards “where he had been before” – the home of Mr Alexander.

Alexander is now confined to a wheelchair, but has become a campaigner for social reform. He fails to recognise Alex as his attacker, and instead sees him as a weapon he can use against the government. But then he hears his young visitor singing “Singing In The Rain”, which Alex had sung as he beat him to the ground, realisation begins to dawn…

Despite its many shortcomings, A Clockwork Orange has never been more relevant than it is today. The worst of the teenage gangs reported on in the national press aren’t that removed from Alex and his droogs – conscience-free horrors with their own dress code, language and lifestyle. The buzz word at the time of writing is ASBO, but such measures seem laughably ineffective against a tidal wave of drink and drug related disorder. As the government continues to grasp at straws in the same way the one in A Clockwork Orange does (“We are only concerned with cutting down crime! The point is that it works!”), you have got to wonder how far away they are from introducing a Ludovico Treatment of their own.

“I was cured, alright…” grins Alex, at the end of the film.

Perhaps someone should tell them.

Clockwork Orange, A (1971)

Director: Stanley Kubrick Writer(s): Anthony Burgess (novel) Stanley Kubrick

Cast: Malcolm McDowell - Alexander 'Alex' DeLarge, Patrick Magee - Frank Alexander, Michael Bates - Chief Guard Barnes, Warren Clarke - Dim/Officer Corby, John Clive - Stage Actor, Adrienne Corri - Mrs. Alexander, Carl Duering - Dr. Brodsky, Paul Farrell - Tramp, Clive Francis - Joe the Lodger, Michael Gover - Prison Governor, Miriam Karlin - Cat Lady, James Marcus - Georgie, Aubrey Morris - P.R. Deltoid, Godfrey Quigley - Prison Chaplain, Sheila Raynor - Mrs. DeLarge (Em)

Last updated: February 17, 2010

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