movie film review | chris tookey

Clockwork Orange

© Warner Bros. - all rights reserved
  Clockwork Orange Review
Tookey's Rating
4 /10
Average Rating
7.85 /10
Malcolm McDowell , Michael Bates, Adrienne Corri
Full Cast >

Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Written by: Stanley Kubrick , from Anthony Burgessís novel.

Released: 1971
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: GB
Length: 136

A violent young thug (Malcolm McDowell, pictured) has his anti-social tendencies removed by the State.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

Bookmark and Share

This most overrated of movies was voted best film of 1971 by the New York critics. The first third, depicting a gang of young thugs fighting, raping and murdering their way across a futuristic London, is visually powerful. It also glamorises and eroticises violence in a way that has become unremarkable over the last thirty years, but remains disturbing.

The second third, in which the leader of the young thugs (Malcolm McDowell) has his anti-social tendencies removed by the State through aversion therapy is the truest to novelist Anthony Burgess's original theme - the importance of free will, even if it is exercised in anti-social directions.

The final third, where the lobotomised anti-hero becomes himself the victim of society is the most tiresome and unfocused section, with Kubrick allowing too many of his actors to indulge in melodramatic mugging and cartoonish caricature.

His view of the future now looks comically dated. Most of the film is poorly acted, and Kubrick's exploitation of Burgess's material is juvenile and voyeuristic.

A Clockwork Orange remains one of the clearest examples of a film inspiring real-life violence. Shortly after its release, a Dutch school girl holidaying in Lancashire was raped by a gang of youths who, modeling themselves on the film's anti-heroes, accompanied themselves by singing 'Singin' In The Rain'.

A tramp was kicked to death by a 16-year-old Oxford boy whose obsession with Kubrick's film was such that at the time of the attack he even wore the uniform worn by Malcolm McDowell and his fellow thugs - white overalls, combat boots, bowler hat.

A judge who sentenced another 16-year-old boy who had beaten up a younger child while wearing the same uniform spoke of the "horrible trend which has been inspired by this wretched film''.

The director Stanley Kubrick was so alarmed by such news stories and the extent to which he personally was held culpable, that in August 1993 he asked Warner Brothers to remove the film from UK cinemas. Warners acceded to his request, and the company's vice-president, Julian Senior, recalls that this was not a ban but a joint decision by Kubrick, the police and Warner Brothers. "The police were saying to us: 'We think you should do something about this. It is getting dangerous'.''

It was only after Kubrick's death in 1999 that his widow, Christiane, gave a reason other than conscience for why her husband had the film withdrawn. He had received death threats, which ceased once the film was no longer being shown. Soon after Kubrick's demise, Warner Brothers decided to cash in and re-release the movie.

There is always something darkly comic, even pathetic, about film-makers who purvey violent acts and imagery on screen with one purpose, only to find that audiences see something else altogether.

Kubrick, who lived in luxurious isolation from the world of violent housing estates, expected people to be shocked and disturbed by his bowler-hatted, codpiece-wearing, white-costumed anti-hero Alex.

Instead, many found the character exhilarating. Malcolm McDowell, already an icon of anti-establishment rebellion as a result of Lindsay Anderson's If, looked stylish. The sequences where he and his chums raped and murdered conveyed the unintended message that hurting people was fun.

Kubrick's most criticized characteristic - his coldness - distanced the viewer from Alex's victims. The leading American critic Pauline Kael suggested he had done this on purpose: "Kubrick carefully estranges us from these victims so that we can enjoy the rapes and beatings. Alex alone suffers. And how he suffers! He's a male Little Nell."

So concerned was Kubrick to emphasise the clinical, repressed nature of the world around Alex that he made Alex's victims much more mannered, snobbish and obnoxious than they are in the book.

Always a skilled craftsman, he used numerous techniques to distance the audience from the victims: extreme wide angles, slow motion, fast motion, surreal backgrounds, and music that made the violence look balletic.

Kubrick also did his best to make the film sexy, with cruder phallic symbolism than you'd find in a Carry On movie. Everyone in the movie appears sex-obsessed. Penises are chalked on a huge mural of men in bathing-trunks; bedroom walls are covered with nudes; a snobbish woman (old in the novel, younger and sexier in the film) is murdered with a giant china phallus she keeps as an objet d'art.

Anthony Burgess, the author of the novel Kubrick had adapted, initially leapt to the defence of the film, but later confessed his regrets about what Kubrick had done. Even before the film was made, Burgess records in his diary:

"I feared, justly as it turned out, that there would be frontal nudity and overt rape."

Kubrick dismissed as "unrealistic" Burgess's final chapter, which showed Alex maturing, expressing a desire to settle down with a wife, and achieving a kind of redemption. Burgess wanted his protagonist to exercise his freedom of choice to grow up, not stay in a permanent state of adolescent aggression.

Kubrick's decision to leave his hero a rebel at the end left audiences with a much more pessimistic vision of humanity. Kubrick endorsed Alex's brutality as proof that he could not be coerced by the state or patronized by those who regarded themselves as his social superiors.

Burgess reeled out of the first screening in a state of shock. "A vindication of free will had become an exaltation of the urge to sin. I was worried," he wrote, while maintaining a positive facade in public.

Later, he became even more dismayed when he viewed the film in America with an audience: "The audience was all young people, and at first I was not allowed in, being too old, pop. The violence of the action moved them deeply, especially the blacks, who stood up to shout 'Right on, man,' but the theology passed over their coiffures."

Burgess wrote the novel from a moral standpoint. A lapsed Catholic who retained his belief in Original Sin, Burgess used Alex's misadventures to expose the dangers of totalitarianism, especially its use of the mass media for mind-control.

No lover of youth culture, Burgess intended his book to be a satire on youth's capacity for violence, immaturity and mindless love of fashion. In the final chapter that Kubrick omitted, he explicitly demonstrates the importance of maturity to true moral freedom.

Ironically, the copycat crimes that followed the film's release proved how right Burgess was about the inherent capacity for evil and violence in man, the immaturity and amorality of youth, and the potentially malign influence of the mass media.

Clayton Riley, Editor of the New York Times, put his finger on the peculiarly malign influence of Kubrick's film when he wrote that it celebrated a corrupt form of freedom: "In the name of free will, all self-expression becomes highly valued - even the freedom to commit atrocities."

Viewed today, A Clockwork Orange no longer seems quite so shocking. The rape scenes are brutal, but far less so than the ones in Baise-Moi or Irreversible. Killing for pleasure has become a commonplace in movies, and the exploits of mass-killers in gorefests such as Natural Born Killers make Alex's excesses seem tame.

Yet there remains something chilling in Alex's lack of remorse. The underlying class-war attitudes that Kubrick brought to the movie - that the bourgeoisie exists to be used and abused by a new, less hypocritical generation - remain worryingly alive and well on the political Left.

The unthinking worship of youth is now an unconscious orthodoxy among those in high places on television.

The film's association of violence with sexual self-expression has also become a disturbing commonplace. The film remains one of the clearest expressions of the Sixties' belief in "doing your own thing" that spawned Charles Manson, Ian Brady and many, many others - the idea of killing for pleasure.

Most who watch A Clockwork Orange now will be shocked to discover that, despite all the critical acclaim it has received, the film is a flabby bore, with a very dated view of the future.

All the same, a few powerful but highly unpleasant scenes do etch themselves into the memory. The image that stays with me is of Alex being strapped into a chair and forced to watch violent scenes played over and over again on a movie screen. There are times when being a film critic feels just like that.

The many celebrations of violence and sexual brutality that have followed in the tradition of A Clockwork Orange have themselves become part of our social conditioning. Yet those who are doing the conditioning don't realise the power they are wielding - or they simply don't care.

ďA Clockwork Orange was an attempt to make a very Christian point about the importance of free will. If we are going to love mankind, we will have to love Alex as a not unrepresentative member of it. If anyone sees the movie as a bible of violence, heís got the wrong point.Ē

(Anthony Burgess)

Key to Symbols