A Clockwork Orange (1971) – I Don’t Understand the Hype

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A Clockwork Orange was directed and written by Stanley Kubrick who created a number of iconic films during his life including 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Shining (1980) .  It was adapted from a 1962 book of the same title written by Anthony Burgess.  Looking down the cast of actors the stand out name is a young Malcolm McDowell in the lead.  It also features Warren Clarke who is probably best know to UK TV viewers as one of the leads in police detective drama Dalziel and Pascoe.  The film also features an intense performance from Patrick Magee who despite having a varied career will forever be known for being in The Avengers TV series – not to be confused in any way with the current Marvel creation.

The film follows the story of a teenage boy called Alex (McDowell) who lives in a future Britain and leads a gang of ‘droogs’ on various drug fueled orgies of sex and violence.  His methods are not always popular within his own gang who turn on him and he finds himself in police custody.  He volunteers for a revolutionary new treatment in return for a commuted sentence and is released back into society.

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A Clockwork Orange is a film that has to be described as legendary.  Even if you haven’t seen the film you’ve probably heard about it, know some of the scenes and have that iconic image of Alex staring at the camera burned into your retina.  The film disappeared for decades after Stanley Kubrick asked for it not to be shown in the UK until after his death.  Imagine the excitement – a film so divisive the director didn’t want it shown and reportedly the head of the BBFC almost lost his job when he cleared it uncut.

It is for these reasons that I chose to rent the DVD to see why some many serious film fans and critics liked it so much.  Truth be told I think it has a significant flaw which stopped me from getting into the movie.  I couldn’t understand why the violent gangs of droogs existed.  There is no context to explain their behaviour – is there mass youth unemployment?  Has the drug Alex and co seem to like so much become a blight on society?  Alex and his gang are a reaction.  A reaction to what, I’m not sure, beyond they are driven by hatred.  They target an unemployed homeless man, another gang for trying to rape a women (before doing the same themselves?) and a couple living in a 1970’s fashion statement.  I found myself unable to ground the action in some form of reality.

The film’s fans will probably tell me that the’s whole point.  It’s not supposed to be rational, it’s supposed to generate fear in the viewer because we don’t know what it going to happen next.  I have been trying to think of examples when absolutely no explanation is given for an outbreak of violence or an alien’s desire to take over the world.  I can’t think of one.  In Alien (1979) it was the creatures life-cycle and desire to survive, in Independence Day (1996) it was the planet’s resources and in The Purge: Anarchy (2014) it was about pacifying man’s animal urges.  As such the film doesn’t work for me.

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This is not to say that there aren’t positives to take from the movie.  It is clearly a discussion of the importance of freewill and the conflict within society as to how far do we go in controlling out criminal elements.  A modern film comparison would be with The Imitation Game (2014) and the impact of chemical castration on its central character.  The treatment changed his nature but destroyed the person that he was with terrible consequences.  This is not to say that you would want an Alex wandering the streets of Britain but he is an extreme example to illustrate the point.  The hot topic in the UK right now is tracking down paedophiles.  What as a society do we do with them?  Can they be treated?

There is a high brow cultural element to this film.  The music when combined with the violence has a balletic quality and the language unique to the droog gangs has a Shakespearean quality to it in that you have to spend the start of film tuning your ear to understand it.  Sadly I think it lacks much depth, which is especially true when it comes to the characters.  An interesting if ultimately flawed film during which I couldn’t escape the similarity with the novel 1984.

Please note that while the content of the film didn’t bother me I would say that if violence towards women is a particular problem for you I would stay away from A Clockwork Orange.

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