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A Bit of the Old Ultra-Violence – Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange

In the two decades since his directorial debut, former photographer-turned-filmmaker Stanley Kubrick had carved one of the most prestigious and notorious careers in Hollywood. Having first made a name for himself in the late 1950s the film noir thriller The Killing, he shot his first colour picture in 1960 with the epic Spartacus, before returning to black-and-white with the controversial drama Lolita and his biting satire Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

In 1968 he took special effects to a new level with his science fiction masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, which charted humanity from the dawn of man to its exploration of space. Always conscious of repeating himself, each movie that Kubrick directed stood on its own and would often be a radical departure from the style of its predecessor. Thus, when 2001 had proved to be an exhaustive achievement, and his long-planned biography of Napoleon Bonaparte had failed to reach fruition, Kubrick once again embarked on a project that would see him venturing into new waters.

A Clockwork Orange, first published by William Heinemann in 1962, was a novel that had made little impact upon its release yet had all the ingredients of a cult classic. Its author, Anthony Burgess, had crafted a tale of a teenage delinquent who, along with his three friends, spends his evenings indulging in rape and ultra violence. But when his crimes are eventually discovered he is sent to prison, only to become a guinea pig in a medical experiment in which mind control is used to condition those with violent tendencies to conform to the standards of polite society.

A comment on the freedom of choice, as well as the horrifying actions that many youths are capable of in their search for thrills and excitement, the novel introduced readers to a new type of language known as nadsat, a culmination of Russian, European and old English, but often delivered in the manner of a Shakespeare play. Its protagonist/antagonist, Alex, was a charismatic and educated individual who had little consideration for human life or the mediocrity of a nine-to-five existence, yet his charm and humour evokes some of the reader’s sympathy as he slowly changes from the violator to the violated.

Legend has it that the seeds for A Clockwork Orange came from an incident during the Second World War when Burgess’ wife was attacked by four American G.I deserters, although the extent of their assault differs depending on the source. In the exhaustive study The Stanley Kubrick Archives, Michel Ciment claims that she was raped by the group, while the introduction to Conversations with Anthony Burgess stated that the incident was not sexual in nature and just a mere mugging to gain her wedding ring.

Whatever the truth, the attack had a profound effect on Burgess and when, after having been told he would have less than a year to live after being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour, he enjoyed his most prolific period, the most famous work being A Clockwork Orange. The writing of the novel would prove to be a painful experience for Burgess due to the semi-autobiographical nature of one aspect of the story, in which the wife of a writer is brutally raped. ‘I had to write Clockwork Orange in a state of near drunkenness in order to deal with material that upset me very much,’ he was quoted as once saying.

It would be Terry Southern, who had co-written the screenplay to Dr. Strangelove, while also gaining acclaim for his work on Barbarella and Easy Rider, who would first make Kubrick aware of the novel, having obtained the rights some time earlier before and suggested the project to the director. With Napoleon having consumed so much time and energy following the release of 2001, Kubrick decided instead to set about faithfully adapting Burgess’ novel, while retaining the visual elegance of his previous feature.

While adapting novels and short stories had become commonplace for Kubrick ever since The Killing in 1956, A Clockwork Orange would mark the first feature that Kubrick would write by himself while, unlike 2001 or Lolita, the author of the original work had no input on the screenplay. The first draft of the script was completed in May 1970, a difficult task in trying to keep the essence of Burgess’ novel while also making the unusual dialogue and sadistic protagonist accessible to mainstream audiences.

The development of Alex would be crucial to the success of the movie, just as it had been to the novel, because if the audience/reader could not relate to him, nor find his story interesting, then A Clockwork Orange would fail. Regarding his own interpretation of the character, Kubrick told the New York Times nine days before its British release, ‘Alex symbolises man in his natural state, the way he would he if society did not impose its civilising process upon him. What we respond to is Alex’s guiltless sense of freedom to kill and rape, and to be our savage natural selves, and it is in the glimpse of the true nature of man that the power of the story derives.’

This was not the first time that Kubrick had explored such themes, as his 1953 debut Fear and Desire had shown soldiers during an unnamed war trapped behind enemy lines and away from the watchful eye of their superiors. One of the men kidnaps a young woman and ties her to a tree but, in a moment of panic, shoots her dead, while the other soldiers plan to invade a nearby enemy base and kill everyone on site, despite not being necessary to their mission. It would seem that one theme that interested Kubrick was how civilised man would act if he no longer needed to be civil.

As with the novel, Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange opens at the Korova Milkbar, where Alex spends parts of his evenings with his droogs (friends); Georgie, Pete and the easily led Dim. This was where they would hatch their plans for the following hours, which would often include ‘a bit of the old ultra-violence’ as Alex, the narrator of the story, would describe. After assaulting a drunken homeless man who was sat in a tunnel, treating anyone who cared to listen to a rendition of Molly Malone, they then set their sights on a turf war with a rival gang led by Billy-boy, who they caught molesting a young woman on the stage of an empty casino.

A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange

Tearing their way along the country roads, they finally arrive at an isolated residence for what Alex refers to as a ‘surprise visit.’ Knocking on the door of a middle-aged writer, Mr. Alexander, Alex informs the wife through the door that his friend has been in an accident and he needs a telephone to call for an ambulance. Despite her suspicion, her husband instructs her to open the door, but seconds later she is accosted by the four men, who carry her into the lounge and tear off her clothes, then force the man to watch as Alex rapes the wife while joyfully crooning a version of Singing in the Rain.

They then return to the Korova for one last drink before heading home, where Alex places his treasures of the evening in a drawer with the rest of his collection, before winding down to the sounds of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. The following morning, claiming to have a sick stomach, Alex once again skips school, with his parents leaving him home alone while they head out to work. Soon afterwards he receives a surprise visit from Mr. P. R. Deltoid, his post-corrective adviser, who informs him that Billy-boy has confessed to their fighting the previous night and that if he continues down his road of petty crime the sentence next time will be far more severe.

After meeting two young girls in a music store and bringing them back to his home for a threesome, Alex finds his three friends waiting for him in the lobby of his apartment block. Sensing some kind of mutiny on behalf of his droogs, particularly after punishing Dim in public for his lack of manners, Alex approaches the evening with some caution, but on their way to the Korova he turns on his followers, beating and humiliating them into submission.

Some time later, despite feeling angry at their treatment at the hands of their leader, Georgie suggests invading a health farm that has temporarily closed down that they could steal valuables from. With only one woman on the premises, Alex forces his way inside and terrorises the woman, eventually crushing her skull with a giant porcelain penis, but as he tries to escape outside, his droogs have turned on him and smash a bottle across his head, knocking him into a daze and they flee into the night.

Interrogated at the police station, Alex is informed by Deltoid that the woman he attacked has died from her wounds and that he is now a murderer, thus facing a strict sentence in prison. The first act of A Clockwork Orange is a fast-paced assault of violence, nudity and neon colours, with the droogs moving from one exciting set piece to another, but the tone of the movie changes drastically once Alex becomes a killer.

Impressed with his performance in Lindsay Anderson cult drama If…, released in 1968, Kubrick cast twenty-seven-year-old Malcolm McDowell in the central role of Alex. In a 2011 interview with IMDb, McDowell discussed how the part was first offered to him, ‘Kubrick had been looking, it is said, for two years for someone to play the part. He was about to go [and] drop this project to go onto another one. Eyes Wide Shut, I think. He couldn’t find the actor he wanted and then he saw me in this movie If… and he watched it five times, turned to his wife and said, ‘We’ve found our Alex.”

Unable to approach adapting Arthur Schnitzler’s novel Rhapsody: A Dream Novel in a way that felt satisfying, it would be almost thirty years before Kubrick finally brought the story to the big screen as his final project, Eyes With Shut. After viewing McDowell’s breakthrough performance in Anderson’s classic, he was convinced that he had finally found an actor with the right presence to take on the challenging role of his lead droog.

‘This is the real weepy and, like, tragic part of the story beginning, O my brothers and only friends,’ announces Alex as the second act of A Clockwork Orange begins, in which he begins his sentence in a maximum prison facility, losing his identity as Alex and instead being known as 655321. While there he becomes a model inmate, assisting the priest with his Sunday service and studying the Bible in his spare time.

Two years into his fourteen-year sentence Alex hears talk of a new treatment known as the Ludovico Technique, in which selected inmates are reformed and sent back out into society as changed men, but when he approaches his chaplain and asks for his name to be put forward as a volunteer, the priest expresses his concerns over the experiments and how goodness should be a conscious decision and not something that is enforced. Kubrick would later explain to critic Gene D. Phillips his own thoughts on this aspect of A Clockwork Orange; ‘The essential moral question is whether or not a man can be good without having the option to be evil and whether such a creature is still human…To restrain man is not to redeem him.’

When the prison receives a visit from the Minister of the Interior, who requests inmates to volunteer for the treatment in exchange for a greatly reduced sentence, Alex steps forward and is placed into the care of the Ludovico Medical Facility, where he undergoes a series of mild tests before the being subjected to more intense experiments. Tied to a chair and his eyes pinned open, he is forced to watch endless footage of graphic violence and sex, accompanied by the sound of Symphony No. 9.

While at first he enjoyed the horrific images, sickness soon began to creep over him, and by the time the montage came to an end Alex is screaming for the horror to end. Satisfied with their results, the Minister hosts a presentation in which they demonstrate how repulsed Alex has now become by wrongdoing, particular violence and lust, a reaction so extreme that it results in sickness. With Alex having proven that he is no longer a threat to society he is released back out into the world, only to discover that his parents have rented out his room to a paying tenant and that he is no longer welcome.

Unable to defend himself due to his newfound repulsion towards violence, Alex soon finds himself attacked by the drunken homeless man he had attacked two years earlier, only to be saved by Dim and Georgie, now respected police officers. Taken out into the country, Alex is dragged into the woods and beaten by Georgie while Dim holds his head under the water. Left for dead, he staggers back onto the road and makes his way to the nearest house, unknowingly finding himself in the home of Mr. Alexander.

His wife now dead and himself wheelchair-bound, the man is shocked to discover his attack before him, but after hearing how Alex is now also repulsed by Symphony No. 9 he plays it at full volume, causing Alex to jump headfirst out of the bedroom window. Lying battered and bruised in a hospital bed, Alex has become something of a local celebrity now that his story has made the headlines, with newspapers reporting of the ‘Government accused of inhuman means in crime reform.’

He then receives a visit from the Minister, who insists that he never meant Alex harm and that he had been used as a guinea pig for political means. Having been publicly accused of mistreatment over Alex’s case, he is desperate to make a public token of good will in a way to win favour with the voters before the next election, and clearly Alex is his best chance.

As a way to apologise, the Minister has arranged for a well paid job to be waiting for Alex upon his release from hospital, as well as compensation for his suffering, in exchange for his assistance in damage control due to the negative publicity over the Ludovico scandal. As a show of appreciation, the Minister presents Alex with large speakers that blast out Symphony No. 9 at full volume, causing no sickness for Alex. As he poses with the Minster for some press photos, Alex fantasises about sex whilst enjoying the sounds of Beethoven, before declaring to the audience ‘I was cured all right!’

While the movie had ended with Alex once again free to indulge in whatever vices he desired, Burgess had continued the story with an additional chapter, one that had been omitted from its American publication. Alex now had a new gang of droogs, Len, Rick and Bully, and still frequented the Korova Milkbar. The beginning of this chapter is somewhat reminiscent of the very beginning, with Alex and his friends deciding what to do with the evening, but now Alex seems less interested with ultra-violence than he did in the old days, informing his readers ‘I felt very bored and a bit hopeless, and I had been feeling that a lot these days.’

Anthony Sharp and Malcolm McDowell

Anthony Sharp and Malcolm McDowell

The gang relocate to a local public house called the Duke of New York but it is clear that his mind is elsewhere. The evening is sourced even further when Rick notices a newspaper cutting of a baby among the money that Alex pulls from his pocket, and he decides to take his leave and head back out into the night. Arriving at a coffee shop he comes face to face with Pete, who he had not seen since his arrest. Alex admits that he fears one day he will have a son and pass on the evil instead him, and then that will be passed down from one generation to the next. As he confesses to the readers, ‘I knew what was happening, O my brothers. I was like growing up.’

When A Clockwork Orange was released in Britain in January 1972 the public and critical reception was mixed, although Kubrick no doubt anticipated as much. One of the most promising reviews came from the Guardian, which declared it ‘a chilling and mesmerising adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novel which could well become one of the seminal movies of the ’70s.’ The BBFC had passed the movie the previous month with an X-certificate, but in 1974 a series of copycat incidents in which individuals had committed crimes dressed as droogs convinced Kubrick to withdraw the movie from circulation.

It remained unavailable legally in Britain for the next twenty-six years, when it was re-released at cinemas and on home video a year after Kubrick’s death. A Clockwork Orange remains Kubrick’s most controversial movie, and while many still dismiss it as smut due to its repeated sexualised violence, the Guardian were correct when they predicted that it would become a seminal movie of its era.

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