There are not many films as shocking and as visually distressing as A Clockwork Orange. There are even fewer films that despite their disturbing nature, are quite as fun. In 1971, Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian vision of sadistic violence and wacky eccentricity arrived with a gasp, thrilling and appalling audiences alike. It proved extremely divisive, with revolutionary director Luis Bunuel praising it as “the only movie about what the modern world really means”, while frequent Kubrick collaborator Peter Sellers called it “amoral” and critic Roger Ebert named it an “ideological mess”.
“It’s about big brother and the freedom to choose, Burgess was brilliant in that he made this anti-hero — a despicable guy, a murderer, and a rapist — but does the state have the right to alter his mind? Obviously not. And Kubrick found in this novel a black comedy although when it came out not everyone was laughing.” – Malcolm McDowell
It is not difficult to see why the film garnered such extreme mixed responses. Within the opening scenes, we are introduced to delinquent teen Alex (Malcolm McDowell), and his menacing gang of ‘droogs’. Energised by narcotics and a thirst for thrill, these hoodlums embark on a frenetic night of debauchery, raping and pillaging as they go. A sequence here is one of the most controversial and clearly has the potential to alienate some viewers, showcasing the film’s not-so-fine line between evil and whimsy.
Alex’s droogs arrive at a large hall and come face to face with a rival group of young criminals, in the process of sexually abusing a naked woman. Full-frontal nudity and brutal violence make for one of the most shocking depictions of rape in popular culture, but even more shockingly, moments later the scene turns into a hectic, epically-choreographed brawl, with dropkicks, chair-smashes, and bodies hurled through windows, all in a delightfully hysterical manner.
Some may consider this depiction irresponsible, showing a lack of seriousness to the issue of sexual assault, but it is important in showing the remorseless, care-free attitude of this maniacal group. Protagonist Alex is impossible to sympathize with, causing great harm to innocent people but is also compelling to watch, unpredictable and irritatingly charming throughout.
“The central idea of the film has to do with the question of free-will. Do we lose our humanity if we are deprived of the choice between good and evil? Do we become, as the title suggests, A Clockwork Orange?”
Stanley Kubrick (Director, A Clockwork Orange)
Visually, the film is a feast for the eyes, and its iconography is still frequently referenced in popular culture. Alex’s stick-on eyelashes, cricket-inspired costume, and many of the film’s futuristic interiors are bold and striking, painting a vivid near future of retro-kitsch and post-modern styles merged together. Meticulously-crafted and displayed through Kubrick’s wide lens, this world feels cold and detached, but also scarily familiar.
Its monumental symphony of a soundtrack, compromised largely of Alex’s beloved Beethoven, juxtaposes the ‘ultra-violence’ committed on screen, and elevates the atmosphere to a heightened level, much in the vein of Kubrick’s previous picture 2001: A Space Odyssey.
But the film’s perennial presence in cinema history and active importance lies within its ideological messages and the questions that arise. Is evil truly eradicated if all that has been taken away is the choice of evil? Is moral choice a necessary liberty in modern society? Even if an act is ultimately beneficial to society, is it wrong if its intention is only political gain? These queries are complex and timeless, giving the movie lasting relevance as a criticism of state control, and acting as a cautionary tale of Orwellian proportion.
A Clockwork Orange may be somewhat infamous, supposedly inspiring real life ‘copycat’ killers, leading to Kubrick himself banning the film in the UK. It is undeniable, however, that the picture was a huge success, one of only two X-rated films ever to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars (alongside 1969’s Best Picture winner Midnight Cowboy). Kubrick’s startlingly clear vision of a deranged and frightening future remains one of his greatest cinematic achievements, and regardless of moral problems the film may have, it is an enchanting viewing experience like no other.