Cyberlizard goes to the movies

Clockwork Orange (1971)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick, starring Roddy MacDowell, Patrick Magee, Michael Bates

One of the twentieth century's more controversial films, Clockwork Orange was based on the short novel by the late Anthony Burgess. Popular upon its release, it was shortly after withdrawn by Kubrick after accusations of copycat violence and remained unavailable in the general cinema until the year 2000, shortly after the director's death.

The plot

The film is fairly faithful to the book, so both can be summarised as follows. The central character, or anti-hero, of the story, is Alex, a completely amoral and somewhat disturbed young man in his teens who heads a gang of like-minded thugs who go around in the pursuit of criminality and "ultra-violence", including rape and finally unintentional murder. After this last crime Alex is caught, having been betrayed by his gang whom he had tried to brutalise into submission to him, and is sentenced to fourteen years in prison. Despite a close association with the outspoken prison chaplain he finds he is unable of his own volition to become good, so eagerly volunteers for a new treatment being championed by a new and politically adept Interior Minister (Paul Magee). Over the objections of the prison chaplain he is used as a guinea pig in this treatment, which consists of conditioning him with drugs and films so that whenever he wants to react with violence or sexual aggression he suffers feelings of extreme revulsion, sickness and even suicide. Proclaimed a success, he is released into the community again, only to find that all his former victims or partners in crime take the chance to exact their own brutal revenge. This culminates in him ending up at the house of a writer whose wife Alex raped and who subsequently died of the trauma. The writer and two accomplices who have their own political agenda (ie one contrary to that of the Interior Minister) lock Alex up and torment him with his favourite music which he has since hated because it was involved in his treatment. The torment becomes so bad that Alex throws himself out of a top floor window intent on killing himself. Instead he wakes up in a hospital to find his parents by his bedside, wanting him back, and more importantly, the Interior Minister trying to initiate a political damage control job by apologising for the failure of the treatment and offering him several sweeteners to buy his co-operation, including a final press photo session around his bedside with two huge speakers blaring out the now-harmless Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven.

The film

I went to see this film somewhat apprehensive about what to expect, given its lurid reputation (well, I was too young to see it first time round anyway). To my relief the scenes of violence were not as awful as had been portrayed, although they are still sickening and (forewarned is prepared, if you're planning on seeing it) include an assault with truncheons upon an old tramp, a gang fight with truncheons against knives, an attack on a writer and the rape of his wife, and a fatal assault upon a bohemian woman with a phallic statue in her house. It's not so much the actual technicolour portrayal of the wounds and injuries - to our shame, perhaps, we've seen a lot worse in nearly three decades since this film was made - but rather the nastiness of the motivation, or motivelessness, behind it, a hedonistic seeking for gratuitous thrills and infliction of pain and insult upon people who had done no wrong to the perpetrators. In this it reminded me a bit of the Polish A Short Film About Killing, where we follow the equally random nastiness of an aimless young man whose inner tragedy is only revealed later in the film. Unlike that character, however, Alex has no hidden tragedy, he is merely vicious and cunning, able to dominate his rather feeble parents with ease. The sex scenes are also rather desultory or brutal - apart from two rapes being portrayed, sex is seen to happen with a sort of random casualness in this world, and a speeded up sequence in which Alex has sex one afternoon with two girls he has barely met made me laugh when a friend likened it to the old Benny Hill programme endings. Perhaps the most difficult part of the film, and one which may ultimately render it inaccessible to a lot of people, is the fact that Alex (who narrates the film as it goes along) speaks in a gang vernacular which comprises lots of Russian words - thus he has a "pain in the golova" (head), refers to us and his gang as "droogs" (friends), and goes to a place "full of prestoopniki" (criminals), ie prison. You may pick it up as you go along, but even reading it in the book makes it hard work, even for this critic who speaks Russian.

The cast - many of them Seventies stalwarts whom I recognise from the time but haven't seen since - do turn in creditable performances, especially MacDowall who has to go from brutal thug to whimpering reconditionee and then back to his old feral self. His facial expressions are just right for the cunning predatory character of the young criminal, yet in the prison scenes also show vulnerability. Magee is also superb as the slippery Machiavellian operator, and Bates is excellent as the old-school moustachioed prison warder, hard but decent despite his occasional referral to Alex as "scum". (Bates, incidentally, was to turn up some years later blacked up as the Indian in the not-so-PC "It Ain't Half Hot Mum"). The rest of the gang are also credible as a mixture of childishness, evil and occasionally stupidity. Even Alex's boa constrictor turns in a good performance. Attempts by Kubrick to give the film a modernistic feel with its touches of avant-garde architecture and gadgetry now look rather retro, however, even quaint to the point of nostalgia, although thankfully most of the concrete jungles in which Alex and his parents live are now being blown up.

The moral

What saves Clockwork Orange from being just another piece of Seventies dirt, although barely, is the message of the film which is fortunately not obscured by the unpleasant elements. The central question is, how can a person become good? And if they have no choice but to be good (through physical reactions in the body, as in Alex's case, or possibly through the fear of hellfire as preached by the prison chaplain), then is that really goodness, or as the chaplain suggests in protest, merely self-interest? It becomes clear that although Alex wants to become good, at least in order to get out of prison, his old urges are still in place, even if the possibility of them being realised are squashed by his body's reaction. Later the film seems to indicate that he would have acted in self-defence at least against his former victims and gangmates, perhaps justifiably, if the treatment had not left him helpless. The Interior Minister proclaims that the State wants to get away from "punishment" - but in doing so, is the State robbing the perpetrator of their dignity? Although it may now look a bit dated in some of its details, these questions are very much at the heart of contemporary debate, especially in the wake of school shootings in the USA and the debate over the murderers in the Bulger case in Great Britain.

Ultimately the debate over whether and how a human being can become or remain good is a centuries-old one, going back to the Laws of Hammurabi, the Old Testament and Plato and the Sophists. Anyone interested in following my own views on the subject might like to click here. Burgess himself (a very talented and clever man) seemed to disown the book somewhat later in life, saying that he "wasn't particularly proud" of it. As for the film, this particular filmgoer and his friends agreed, "Once is enough".

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