Sunday Matinee: A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Hi, hi, hi, my little droogies!

This bit of ultra-violence came on my gazzies when it viddied on HBO and Cinemax back when I was just a young veck.

Oh, hell, I can’t continue this post in nasdat, no matter how much I would like to. A Clockwork Orange was one of those films that, if my parents knew what the hell I was watching when I was 13, would have gotten the cable turned off in our house. And, if you’ve been following this series at all, you’ll know that there is a lot of deep thinking behind the gratuitous sex and violence, it’s somewhat iconic in popular culture, and that it made something of an impression on my young mind.

The film follows Alex, a young hoodlum in an undefined, but assumedly near-future Britain, who leads a small gang of “droogs” on nightly rampages of theft, rape, assault, rape, and on at least one occasion, manslaughter. We are treated to Alex, Pete, Georgie, and Dim roughing up a rival gang (caught in the midst of gang-raping a “weepy young devotchka”), beat up an old drunk on the street, and then stealing a car and “doing the old ‘surprise visit’, which was sure for a laugh'”, in which they cripple a man and rape his wife in front of him. Jolly!

The next day, Alex is visited by Mr. Deltoid (Aubrey Morris), his “purse-collective advisor” (read: probation officer), who advises him to stay to the straight and narrow. Alex’s been missing more than a little school, it seems, and the police are on to his activities. “You can count on me, sir,” Alex assures him. “As clear as an azure sky of deepest summer.”

After an encounter with two girls at a record store, who return with Alex for a twosome (remember, this is 1971– quite shocking– and even in 1979, it was shocking enough to see two nekkid girls on tv!). His droogs await him, and seem to have plotted something of a revolt. George is now to be the leader, and Dim “his mindless, grinning bulldog.” Fortunately for Alex, “wonderful music came to my aid”, and he lashes out, slicing into Dim and knocking George off a wharf. Chastened, the two are brought to heel, and suggest a “man sized crast”. Alex agrees, ends up killing a woman in a house (with a 4′ statue of a penis) and gets hit on the head with a bottle of milk by his former friends for his troubles.

Now in prison, Alex volunteers for the Ludovinko Treatment, which reprograms offenders to be violently ill at the thought of violence. He thinks he’s gaming the system to get out early, but Alex really is reprogrammed. The mere thought of violence or sex sends him to the floor in violent retching. Released, he finds he cannot go home, as his parents have rented his room to someone else and the government has confiscated his possessions. The bum he had earlier accosted recognizes him, and he and his compatriots fall upon Alex, who can no longer defend himself. Finally, the police come to his aid; newly-minted officers George and Dim, who proceed to nearly kill Alex and drop him in a wilderness. Alex makes his way to an almost-familiar home; the home of the writer whose wife he had raped, who eventually recognizes him, drugs him, and, having found out that Alex had been conditioned not only against violence and rape, but also Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (incidentally), tries to kill him by blasting the music into Alex’s room. Alex tries to kill himself, the government reverses the treatment through surgery, and Alex is finally “cured”, with a display of ultra-violent images at the very end of the film to give us proof.

Yikes, this is one hell of a downer of a movie! You’d be hard pressed to find something as cynical as this. Aside from the striking visuals, however, is the musical score. One of the things we learn about Alex is that he is a fan of classical music (particularly Beethoven), and that plays into the plot of the film more than once. But it is also the soundtrack of the film, and possibly the most memorable aspects of it; I actually set up a tape recorder in front of the television back when HBO played the soundtracks of the films between 2 AM and 10 AM, when they didn’t actually broadcast, just to record that music. My initial love of classical music comes from that film, and I’m not ashamed to say it, even if some of it is done on synthesizer and has a very futuristic tone to it. This is one of those films where the soundtrack is a character unto itself.

The message of the film is vast, touching on free will and the nature of totalitarian states (one throwaway line is “we must deal with these common criminals on a purely curative basis; soon we’ll need all this prison space for purely political offenders”). I personally find quite ironic the fact that the prison chaplain is the one person who points out that the treatment that Alex undergoes does not make a man good; it simply robs him of choice. And that is true; Alex is physically incapable of violence. But does that make him a good person, “completely reformed”? Obviously not, and also oddly vulnerable in a society so consumed with violence. The themes of vengeance are also somewhat obvious.

On the whole, this is one of those films that needs to be watched more than once. Watch it once or twice to get the imagery out of your system– it’s jarring and disturbing, and it’s intended to be. Only then can you take the time to appreciate the really deep themes of free will, the futility of the striving towards redemption, and the utterly cynical world-view that the film portrays. Show that to your 13 year old.

And, of course, this is one of those films that has made quite an impression on popular culture.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

5 thoughts on “Sunday Matinee: A Clockwork Orange (1971)

  1. One note about the ending: Kubrick based his movie on the Anthony Burgess novel of the same name; however, the American printing that Kubrick had read omitted the last chapter of the book! Therefore, the film ends quite differently than the novel.

  2. Any film condemned by the Catholic Bishops' Office for Film and Broadcasting HAS to be seen at least once!

    It should be recommended viewing prior to any dystopic RPG.

  3. By omitting the last chapter of the book from the movie, Kubrik left out a key element of the story. In the end Alex chooses to change himself, he chooses to be "good". By excluding that and instead ending the movie with Alex's return to violence, the movie seems to promote violence, something Kubrik later realised to his regret, which is why he banned it from being shown in his home, the UK, while he still lived.

    Fantastic book, great movie, magical music score.

  4. Yes, he helped to ban it. Especially since the violence and threats were aimed at him and his family! Can't blame him at all.

    It's actually surprising that the studios showed him the respect to honor his wishes. If that happened today, they would use him as so much media-fodder, waiting & hoping for something to happen to him to hype the film more.

    If a studio could get the author's estate to agree & Malcolm McDowell to return, they'd try and do a sequel!

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