That’s the primary emotion people exhibit when I state that A Clockwork Orange (1971) is predominantly a religious film with a very Christian message. Religious in the sense that it blatantly shows the worship of the judicial system by stout politicians out of touch with the real needs of young working class citizens; Christian in the sense that, above all else, it promotes the concept of free will, and displays the consequences when this is prohibited. The film even teases this thematic comparison at one point, so I don’t think it is an altogether speculative idea.
Yet, try to argue this openly with anyone and you’re likely to be greeted with the same sense of ironic mockery that Stanley Kubrick himself must have experienced when A Clockwork Orange was released. After production wrapped on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Kubrick had decided to relocate from his native New York to England. His reasoning was simply to escape the growing hooliganism in his hometown. You could say, then, that focusing his next movie on this exact topic wasn’t the wisest of choices for someone on the lookout for a quiet getaway, but Kubrick was never one to work within an assigned box; even if that very box was the society in which he was living.
Kubrick would remove the film from circulation soon after its release (the only film-maker to do so independent of his profit-hungry studio) for fear of his own safety when people started copying the events portrayed in it. You get the feeling he kind of misjudged British society when he decided moving here was an optimistic choice, right? But focusing on this would be to miss the point entirely; that point being the actual movie itself.
Our main protagonist, if we can call him that, is Alex DeLarge (played by Malcolm McDowell in one of his most iconic roles): large in personality and, presumably, some other areas of his anatomy, if the obvious play on words is to be read into. Blame Anthony Burgess (who wrote the original novel which Kubrick used as the source text for this film) for that. Also attribute to Burgess the credit for the creative and unique way of speaking that Alex and his ‘droogs’ use throughout the movie; a mixture of English and Russian slang known as ‘Nadsat’.
The movie has a certain dreamlike, hypnotic quality to it that isn’t easily forgotten. While it can be argued that this is true of most Kubrick films, A Clockwork Orange displays this quality at its most effective level of potency. For me it still feels uncomfortable watching the movie today, less because of its vulgar content and plot, more because of the sheer nightmarish shine radiating off the screen, with Alex’s voice and laughter echoing through your head long after the final credits roll. This is arguably where the films greatest strength lies, and it was something that few directors aside from Kubrick could have achieved.
On the subject of plot, we see Alex and his friends travelling around town during the evenings, free from the humdrum of parental rules and schoolwork. Having a bit of innocent fun, one would presume. And then…
We soon realise that this fun is not so innocent, as Alex’s version of ‘fun’ involves beating up the homeless, breaking into the homes of innocent people and raping helpless women. It can be quite disturbing material if you haven’t been forewarned before watching, yet this was precisely the desired effect Kubrick would have wanted from his audience.
It is also worth pointing out that the sex and violence in this film are not there for gratuitous purposes, as is the case in so many other mainstream productions. Their purpose is to make you feel uncomfortable about what you’re watching. They don’t provide the entertainment of this movie; rather, Alex’s personal journey as the story progresses does this. That journey inevitably takes him to prison, where he is selected as a candidate for a new version of shock therapy. This subsequently creates feelings of nausea when he tries to repeat his old crimes upon release, and therefore appears quite effective.
But the thorny issue of individual human rights comes into question. When Alex catches the media’s attention after enduring torture (some would call it simple revenge) from his formerly tormented tormentors, and then attempting suicide, the very same politicians who thought this form of enhanced societal control was a good thing immediately backtrack. They’re soon shaking Alex’s hand for the adoring cameras, after promptly curing him of his new ‘disability’.
By the end of the film we are left with the uneasy feeling that Alex was merely a pawn in an experimental bigger picture. After being cured, he is allowed back into society, and Kubrick, in all his controversial glory, hints in the final scene that Alex simply went back to his old notorious ways. Kubrick is merely illustrating a much more significant point, though. People must be allowed to choose their path, even if they are destined to choose the wrong one. Stories don’t always end with the main character learning from their mistakes.
To focus on the intricate details of Alex’s life as an individual within society, rather than the reverse, would be to miss the overall idea of the movie. It’s a story of morality, certainly, but not necessarily Alex’s specific morality. He is a means to an end, much like many of Kubrick’s characters.
Boosted by a classical soundtrack that provides an almost horrifying juxtaposition to the images it accompanies on screen, A Clockwork Orange represents Kubrick at his mercurial best. While this movie may not be to everyone’s taste, there’s no denying that there never has and most likely never will be another one quite like it.
Try disbelieving that.
10 / 10