In a way I feel it quite a shock that it has taken me so long to get to one of the most revered of film directors, Stanley J. Kubrick.
Kubrick made relatively few films (13 feature films) and they are all completely different. Derek Malcolm had already chosen my favourite Kubrick film, Paths Of Glory, so that was out and I came to the film that turned me into a Kubrick fan, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, a film that was withdrawn in this country for near 30 years, more of which later.
A lot of films are adapted from novels and everyone can see different things from a book but when they are transferred to film we see the director’s version of the book. Kubrick had read the American version of Anthony Burgess’s novella which was missing the last chapter, when the book’s central character, Alex, gives up violence to become an adult and the title of a person that is flesh on the outside and mechanical on the in is missing from the film, so as always I am not talking about what is missing, I’m talking about what is there.
Kubrick was born in the Bronx of New York in 1928 and went on to become a successful photographer. He then made three short documentary films, most notably “The Day Of The Fight” about a boxer, it was successful enough for him to raise the funds to make a feature film “Fear And Desire”, a WWII film which he wasn’t happy with and it has been rarely seen since, but then made a little film noir “Killer’s Kiss” and an update of “The Asphault Jungle”, “The Killing” the story of a robbery that goes wrong, it won much praise at Cannes and is a minor classic, rightly so and was very much an influence on the earlier mentioned “Reservoir Dogs” for Tarantino.
With the success of “The Killing” came more money and Kirk Douglas to make one of the finest films of all time “Paths Of Glory”, the greatest Anti-War film of all time and with it came Kubrick’s first clash with controversy, it was banned in France for many years. After it he started to make a Western with Marlon Brando, “One Eyed Jacks”, he walked off the set within a week and Brando was left to finish the film himself whilst Kubrick was talked into finishing Anthony Mann’s “Spartacus”, he put his stamp on it and it has more depth than most epics of the time, although it was cut due to a homosexual scene between Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis (now restored in 1991) and due to studio interference he decided to move to Britain.
Kubrick was back in the US within a year looking for locations for his adaptation of one of the most controversial books of all time “Lolita”, although acclaimed I don’t quite get it, it is overlong and Peter Sellers is awful in it plus due to censorship at the time, much of the book wasn’t there.
His next two films are rightly considered masterpieces “Doctor Strangelove Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb” and “2001: A Space Odyssey”, after the success of “2001”, he signed an exclusive contract with Warner Brothers, where he stayed for the rest of his life, I don’t know any other studio that would give a director such control.
The boundaries of censorship had been broken down a bit at a time in the 60s through “Psycho”, “Bonnie & Clyde”, “Midnight Cowboy”, “The Wild Bunch” and the work of the Hammer studios among others, but when we got to the 70’s things started to change further. The censor has experienced problems in early 1971 with Ken Russell’s “The Devils” (also made at Warner Bros) and Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs”, both made in Britain, “The Devils” was cut, but “Straw Dogs” wasn’t, the censor rightly thought that any edit of the film would make it a different film (unfortunately the US censor didn’t feel the same way) and so when A CLOCKWORK ORANGE came along they had the same problem and again decided to allow the film through uncut.
It is the story of a group of teenagers, in the not too distant future, led by Alex who drink Milk plus then go out to murder and rape. Alex is eventually caught and given the Ludovico treatment by the government to cure him.
It is a violent film, but the violence is stylised, the film’s main problem is Kubrick’s treatment of women in the film, one is raped, another is nearly raped, one is killed by a giant phallic symbol, but then again look at Wendy in The Shining, so maybe this is Kubrick’s problem. There are very few women in any of his films. The film’s strength is Malcolm McDowell’s extraordinary performance as Alex, a performance that gave Kubrick his last great performance (despite “Barry Lyndon” now being reassessed as a masterpiece, I think it’s great weakness is the miscasting of Ryan O’ Neal, Jack Nicholson is way over the top in “The Shining” and Tom Cruise is laughable in “Eyes Wide Shut”), his narration gets under your skin and it’s probably because of this you feel some sympathy for him at the end of the film.
The film was released nationwide in early 1972 and this is when the problem’s started, various copy cat crimes started and Kubrick feared for his family’s life and so in 1973 asked Warner Bros to withdraw it in and only in this country, I can’t think of any other studio ever doing this for any other director. It was only in the late 70s that it was known that this had happened, when the BFI tried to host a Kubrick retrospective. Indeed Kubrick had one London cinema closed down in the early 80s when they showed it.
By the late 80’s when the video industry was in boom and I first heard of it, it was considered a lost film. I got hold of a copy in the early 90s, one that had been transferred from laser disc, it was a good copy and for me lived up to it’s reputation, I found it disturbing but powerful and very watchable (far more difficult to find was Kubrick’s next film “Barry Lyndon” which was not released on video until the late 90s).
When Kubrick died in March 1999, Warner’s re-released the film at the cinema and most people by this time where probably wondering what the fuss was all about, but for me it takes me back to a time when we could talk about seeing it, like seeing the full version of “The Wicker Man” or seeing films the BBFC wouldn’t let you see on video “The Exorcist”, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” or “Straw Dogs”, time before the internet when everything is now available somewhere!
An interesting after note is that Walter Carlos who composed the music for the film is now Wendy Carlos.
Premiere 20th December 1971
DF Viewing 30th April 1994 on VHS