In 1971, Warner Brothers films released Stanley Kubrick’s dark comedy A Clockwork Orange, based on a novel by Anthony Burgess, to both critical and popular acclaim as well as to political controversy. A futuristic film about a violent young hoodlum, it scored Kubrick his biggest box office hit at that point in his career. A Clockwork Orange was nominated for four Academy Awards, won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for best picture, and found favor with international audiences. It has since gained a cultlike following.
The film’s brutality disgusted many viewers, even though most of the violent images in A Clockwork Orange are not of the blood-and-gore variety. In this film, Kubrick choreographed gang fights and assaults as graceful dances, and he presented scenes of rape, theft, physical brutality, and murder with a surreal, stylized, and even comic detachment. Even so, the Motion Picture Association of America slapped an X rating on the film’s initial American release. After Kubrick deleted thirty seconds of footage, the MPAA revised its rating to R.
Although Kubrick grew up in the United States, he lived much of his adult life in England, and there the film proved even more controversial than in the United States. The British public saw A Clockwork Orange as a particularly English film, satirizing English values and manners. For example, the run-down housing complex where Alex, the main character, lives closely resembles London’s poorly maintained public housing projects. While many disaffected British teens of the day saw their lives reflected in the film, some adults viewed the film as a celebration of youth violence, one more sign that society had grown too permissive with children. Groups of concerned citizens called for the film to be censored.
A Clockwork Orange had been in theaters for over a year when a bizarre and brutal crime put the movie back in the headlines. In 1974, a gang of British youths attacked a teenage girl. As they raped her, they performed the same song-and-dance number—“Singin’ in the Rain,” made famous by Gene Kelly in the musical of the same name—that Alex sings as he prepares to rape a woman in the film. Several more copycat crimes followed. The newspapers had a field day with the story, and a British judge declared the film an “evil in itself” and called for it to be censored. Though he defended his film, Kubrick was appalled at the copycat crimes and feared being sued. He pulled the film from British theaters, and it was not officially screened in full in England again until 2000, after his death.
Kubrick was born in New York City in 1928 and attended public school. His father, a physician, filled the family’s home with books of European fairy tales, folk tales, and Greek and Roman mythology. Kubrick read these books extensively when he was a child, and many of his films have the stylized and surreal quality of a myth or a fairy tale. Despite his interest in reading, Kubrick proved a mediocre student. He was an avid chess player and photographer, however, and after high school, he landed a job as a photographer for Look magazine. He worked there for four years before turning to filmmaking. He made his first feature-length film in 1953, using money he borrowed from his friends, his father, and his uncle, who was credited as associate producer. Kubrick eventually became a popular success, but for most of his career he avoided the Hollywood spotlight. On the set, he sometimes demanded that a scene be shot as many as seventy or eighty times, which earned him a reputation as a perfectionist. Kubrick died on March 7, 1999, only months before the July release of his thirteenth film, Eyes Wide Shut.
A Clockwork Orange was not Kubrick’s only shocking film. For years, French authorities banned Paths of Glory (1957), one of his early war films, which tells the story of cynical French generals and the soldiers they victimize. The Catholic Church in the United States raised objections to Kubrick’s 1962 film, Lolita, which is based on the Vladimir Nabokov novel of the same name and details an older man’s sexual obsession with a young girl. Kubrick had a keen sense of humor and aesthetic vision, but at the core of his films is a dark vision of humanity. Primitive psychological urges drive his characters, often manifested as impulsive sexual or violent behavior. As his friend Alexander Walker, a film critic, wrote of him, “Kubrick’s view of man [is] as a risen ape, rather than Rousseau’s sentimental characterization of him as a fallen angel.” Kubrick spun out this image of man as the biological and spiritual heir of the apes in his futuristic film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Kubrick was fascinated by the dark side of human nature as well as by the dangers of the political systems that humans create to control their own shadowy desires. In 1964, Kubrick released Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb, a political comedy about the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. This film satirized the logic of the day, which maintained that the best way to keep the world safe was through an ever-increasing buildup of nuclear weapons. Dr. Strangelove is a terrifying and hilarious comedy in which the combination of human irrationality and the overwhelming power of the state manage to destroy the world in a nuclear holocaust. A Clockwork Orange offers another look at the dangers of state power, where the power-hungry individual, Alex, and the power-hungry state seem almost equally threatening.
The theme of state power had particular significance in the early 1970s, when A Clockwork Orange appeared in theaters. World War II and the rise of the Soviet Union had already shown the world the dangers of fascism, Nazism, and totalitarianism. Before writing the novel A Clockwork Orange, Burgess spent some time in Soviet Russia where he saw gangs of violent youths running wild while the police rounded up the government’s political opponents. His novel and Kubrick’s film, in turn, reflect those experiences.
The 1960s and 1970s also brought about worldwide political upheaval and rebellion against political and social institutions. During those decades, sex and drugs had unprecedented influence on teenagers’ lives. This time period yielded drastic ideological alienation between generations, as the young rebelled, politically and socially, and allied against what they saw as the hypocrisy and repression of their elders. Although Alex in A Clockwork Orange has no particular political or social motivation for his violence and performs violence simply for its own sake, viewers still took a keen interest in the question of how much power the state should have to control its members, in particular its young.
Many viewers also responded to the film’s cynical presentation of science as a tool of state control. In the film, the government chooses Alex to be the subject of an experimental procedure, conducted by government-employed doctors, that attempts to control his violent tendencies by altering his mind. Although the film presents this procedure as a futuristic nightmare, the first half of the twentieth century had seen the rise of psychological and scientific methods of changing human behavior, as well as instances where governments used those methods to control criminals and other members of society they deemed threatening.
In 1971, Zhores and Roy Medvedev, famous Soviet dissidents, published a memoir, A Question of Madness, in which they described Zhores’s imprisonment in a Soviet psychiatric hospital, where techniques of mind control were practiced on him. In the United States, lobotomies and electroshock therapy had already been used to treat the mentally ill in the 1930s. Although doctors believed these procedures would truly relieve the suffering of their patients, the government also hoped the procedures would reduce overcrowding in state-run psychiatric hospitals. According to Elliot S. Valenstein, author of Great and Desperate Cures: The Rise and Decline of Psychosurgery and Other Radical Treatments for Mental Illness, doctors at the time “were rarely questioned about anything they tried, and institutionalized patients were completely at the disposal of the staff in terms of treatment.” In some instances, doctors performed similar procedures in prisons, on inmates judged criminally insane, in the hopes of making them less violent.
In Clockwork, a theme of the governmental abuse of power is coupled with the concept of modernity’s dehumanization of society, which has filmic roots dating at least as far back as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). This film, marking a widespread distrust of the industrial age, portrays an urban society segregated into “thinkers” and “workers,” neither group possessing a complete set of human qualities. A similar theme appears early on in Clockwork, when Alex’s mother wants to see him off to school but is thwarted in her maternal desires by her obligation to her factory job. In this scene, Alex’s cheery “Have a nice day at the factory!” offers a comic relief that was more inspired by such films as Charlie Chaplin’s landmark Modern Times (1936), a slapstick classic set in a factory and featuring Chaplin thrashing about in an effort to keep up with his conveyor belt duties.
Just as Metropolis influenced Clockwork’s criticism of society, so does Lang’s 1931 classic M foreshadow Clockwork’s theme of irrepressible violence. The murderer in M, though guilty of heinous crimes, seems childlike and helpless, his actions only a response to a profound psychosis. Though Clockwork’s Alex is a more unforgivable villain, the root of his perverted thrills seems equally innate. The film’s more politically oriented satire, apparent, for example, in Alex’s run-down community and his state-mandated psychological “cure,” preceded that in Milos Forman’s mental-hospital drama One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Terry Gilliam’s futuristic, bureaucracy-rotten Brazil (1985), and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000), about the horrors of the state welfare system. Like Clockwork, these films were all critically acclaimed, praised for their often-shocking explorations of humanity’s darkest impulses.