Backgrounder
A Clockwork Orange Unbound
feature by Gregory Avery

As of March 17, audiences in the U.K. will have the chance to see Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film A Clockwork Orange for the first time in twenty-six years. The film was withdrawn from circulation in that country in 1974, and Kubrick forbade it to be shown in any medium. The film has been freely available everywhere outside the U.K. since its initial release.

For his first film after 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick had wanted to do the life of Napoleon, about which he had done a prodigious amount of research. But plans were already underway at that time to do a gigantic film about the battle of Waterloo, to be directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, who had just done the definitive film version of Tolstoy's War and Peace. Instead, probably inspired by the success of such youth-oriented films as Easy Rider and Michael Wadleigh's three-hour documentary on Woodstock, Kubrick turned his attention to a 1964 novel by Anthony Burgess, whose depiction of a near-future of decay and pessimism would stand in direct contrast to the optimism and achievement of 2001.

With the news of the return of Clockwork Orange, London newspapers have already published lengthy exegeses about the genesis of Burgess' novel, Kubrick's filming of it, and the end results of both. Of how Burgess wrote Clockwork Orange as one of a series of short novels intended to provide for his wife, after he had been -- erroneously -- diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor. Of how the novel was inspired in part by a horrific real-life incident where a group of intruders broke into the Burgesses house and attacked his wife, causing her to lose the baby she was pregnant with and leaving her with permanent psychological scars. How Kubrick's film virtually revived Burgess' moribund writing career, even though he had sold the film rights to Clockwork Orange for a pittance to producers who then turned around and sold them to Kubrick for much, much more, and how Kubrick filmed many sequences straight from the novel, directly the way Burgess wrote them.

Clockwork Orange was released, with an "X" rating, in the U.S. in December, 1971, and was one of four films spotlighted in Time magazine as examples of Hollywood's idea for that year of yuletide cheer, the other three being Dirty Harry, Straw Dogs, and Ken Russell's Twenties musical The Boy Friend, a complete turnaround from Russell's earlier 1971 film release, The Devils. Only The Boy Friend tanked with the movie-going public (which, at the time, didn't know that around thirty minutes, and two whole production numbers, had been yanked out of the film prior to its American release). Dirty Harry became a huge popular success, while Straw Dogs and Clockwork Orange became vituperative conversation pieces, films people went to see to find out if what they had heard about them was true. Clockwork Orange won the New York Film Critics Circle award for best picture of the year, and was named by the Harvard Lampoon as the worst picture of 1971. Both the film and Kubrick were nominated for Oscars, although Malcolm McDowell, who should have been nominated for Best Actor for his portrayal of the film's protagonist, Alex, and Walter Carlos, who provided the brilliant electronic interpretations of works by Beethoven, Rossini, and Henry Purcell (the film's theme was from Purcell's Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary), were passed over.

After souping themselves up on drug-laced lactose at the Korova Milk Bar, young Alex and his "droogs" are shown properly sharpened-up for an evening's worth of "the old ultra-violence." They beat up a transient on the street who insults them. They also beat the stuffing out of a rival gang they come across. Stealing a car, they merrily run other motorists off the road before stopping at the house of a writer and his wife. Tricking their way in, they beat and bind the writer and make him watch as they overpower and attack his wife. Returning to his parents' flat, Alex curls up in bed with his pet snake while listening to one of his favorite recordings of Beethoven, the only pure thing in his life.

Alex is later arrested for murder, and, after the interrogating police beat the stuffing out of him, is sent to prison. There, he manages to win his way into being a volunteer for a new experimental treatment that is supposed to get common thieves and murderers out of prison more expediently (the jail space being needed by the current government-in-power for "political insurgents"). The "Ludovico technique," unfortunately, causes Alex to become incapacitated whenever he experiences sexual or aggressive urges. Released from prison, he is spurned and rebuked by everyone who knows him, resulting in an incident that drives him to suicide. Alex survives, and the media depicts him as the victim of enforced brainwashing. He is lauded.

In 1974, Kubrick quietly made arrangements with Warner Brothers for the film to be withdrawn from distribution in the U.K. Kubrick never made plain why, but the reasons for this may have had more to do with his increasing protectiveness towards his sense of privacy than anything else. Kubrick had become increasingly weary of the "crackpot" responses, both public and private, to Clockwork Orange. He then went to Ireland to film Barry Lyndon, where he staged the sequences showing 18th-century British redcoats engaged in battle during the Seven Years War. The film's production office then was contacted by a member of the British Intelligence Special Branch, informing them that Kubrick was a potential target of the Irish Republican Army. Kubrick's direct response to this is not recorded, but, according to his line producer for Barry Lyndon, Bernard Williams, "Stanley freaked." He returned to Great Britain immediately, with the production following thereafter. At the same time, to quiet controversy and, possibly, his nerves, Kubrick contacted Warners and asked that the London theatrical run of Clockwork Orange be brought to a close. Kubrick would make all his future films within driving distance of his estate residence, Childwick Bury, which was heavily gated, had an elaborate security system, and whose main house was invisible from the nearest road.

The film then became completely unavailable in that country, and Warners, acting on Kubrick's behalf, prosecuted every attempt to show it, the most recent being 1992, two years before Warners would release Oliver Stone's meditation on modern day violence, Natural Born Killers. A brisk business in covert, bootleg copies of the film on VHS and, later, multi-regional DVDs sprang up. In 1990, the Royal Shakespeare Company produced a stage adaptation of Burgess' novel, starring Phil Daniels as Alex and with original music by U2 members Bono and The Edge. Figures dressed as Alex's "droogs," wearing white with black bowler hats, boots, and swagger sticks, could be seen riding to and fro on trains in the London Underground.

In the U.S., meanwhile, the film had long since been surpassed as the ne plus ultra in screen violence -- Last House on the Left, The Exorcist, and the entire slasher film cycle, to name a few -- and the film went on to make appearances on cable television and video, while its MPAA rating was changed from an "X" to an "R." (I have seen the film under both ratings, and have discerned no difference.)

"There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim...." After a retina-searing burst of orange signaling the start of the opening credits, Kubrick's film begins with one of the most famous images in screen history: Malcolm McDowell's Alex DeLarge, head tilted down, comfortably numb, and feeling entirely in his element, staring into the middle distance while seated on a couch in the Korova Milk Bar, wearing two spiky false eyelashes on the left eye to denote his status as leader of his gang. The camera tracks directly back from Alex to reveal that the tables in the milk bar are made from life-sized, full-figure human sculptures, and that the milk dispensers are in the form of kneeling young women with towering white hair. (The "human furniture" was based on actual pieces created by London pop artist Allen Jones.) Alex is our narrator, and, as in Burgess' novel, he speaks in a slang language called "nadsat" made up of a polyglot derived from rhyming-Cockney slang, Latin, and Russian. (Anthony Burgess wrote his novel after visiting the Soviet Union, where he saw marauding youth gangs on Moscow streets.) Alex's fellow gang members are referred to as "droogs," from the informal Russian word for "guy" or "man." "Glazzies" are eyes, and "viddy" refers to seeing. "Real horrosho" is a term of approval, derived from both "horror show" and the Russian word for "good" or "very well."

The scene with the vagrant (Paul Farrell) -- "Can you spare some copper, me brother?" -- set the tone for the rest of the film in many people's minds. "It's a stinkin' world because there's no more law-an'-order anymore!" he yells defiantly at Alex. "It's a stinkin' world because it lets the young get on the old, like you done! Oh, it's no world for an old man any longer!...." The vagrant's rant then turns into a sneer. "Men on the moon! An' men spinnin' around the Earth! An' there's not no attention paid to earthly law-an'-order, no more!..."

It's a bit of a start because, at the time, what he was talking about was not all that much different from what was going on outside the movie houses. The setting looks alien, and yet not so. Anthony Burgess had originally intended his story to be set in 1972, and some of the publicity materials for Kubrick's film even stated that it was supposed to make place in the late Seventies. With few exceptions -- the reflective wall covering in Alex's parents' flat which looks like it was made by the appliance manufacturer Braun, and the wonderfully awful women's hair tintings of blue and yellow (the film includes a credit for a consultant on the hair colorings) -- the film could very well have been taking place in 1971, a year when Youth was in all its unruliness, insolent, raucous, flaunting and openly scornful of authority and the status-quo. Protestors making obscene gestures at the police, parents telling their kids to "turn that garbage down!" on their stereos, and driving through downtown Berkeley and seeing huge pieces of cardboard where storefront windows used to be. Alex and his "droogs" represented what could be your worst fears about where things were going -- or with other audiences members' expectations and hopes of what could happen once the "old tigers" had gotten really scared.

Like James Cagney and George M. Cohan, or Audrey Hepburn and Holly Golightly, Malcolm McDowell and the role of Alex DeLarge seem fated to meet. Other actors could probably have played the role just as well, but it wouldn't be the same. McDowell's career would become overshadowed by Alex's twisted smile, though he would go on to do some exceptional work in Time After Time, Get Crazy (in which he did a dead-on parody of Mick Jagger), and Paul Schrader's remake of Cat People. (And he would do some not-so-exceptional work in Caligula and Blue Thunder.) It probably did not help that McDowell also came to the fore, two years prior to Kubrick's film, playing a teenager who ends up leading an armed revolution at his very proper boarding school in Lindsay Anderson's If..

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