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Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange featuring Malcolm McDowell

Today marks the date of the release of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece ‘A Clockwork Orange’ in the UK. The film that follows Alex Delonge, a youth who enjoys acts of theft, violence, rape, and Ludwig Van Beethoven, set within a dystopian post-cold-war England is one that has become iconic within popular culture. 50 years on, the themes and questions explored by the film based on Burgess’ 1962 novel of the same name, are still relevant within society.

Set the scene: The opening camera slowly pans out into a wide view shot of Alex, drinking a drug-infused milk at the milk bar, a lounge that is decorated with a plethora of figurines of naked women. Surrounded by his gang of Droogs, a synthesised version of Henry Purcell’s ‘Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary’ plays whilst Alex monologues over the scene, as the band of thugs head out for a night of ultraviolence. Alex is masterfully played by Malcolm McDowell, who brings a maniacally scary and unnervingly childish performance to the film that toes the line between over the top and terrifying. Due to the performance by McDowell, he creates a twister sense of empathy for the character of Alex, even after watching him commit such heinous acts.

Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, released in the UK on 13th January 1972.

The film follows Alex and his gang as they commit wicked acts of violence, until Alex is captured and sent to prison before entering rehabilitation via use of the ‘Ludovico Technique’, a form of experimental psychological conditioning that forces Alex to become a “good man” and face the consequences of his past before release into society. Alex DeLonge is both the protagonist and antagonist of the movie: the film is not as clear as black and white, and the screenplay shares these blurred lines. The first-person perspective and narration give Alex a connection with the audience, making Alex’s status as a villain one that is contentions between good and bad. The setting of an irredeemable society that is more immoral than the hero is one that only furthers this. There is no idealism in A Clockwork Orange: the good citizens are socially castrated, being a pathetic vision of modern man, only obeying the force that is there to control.

The cinematic adaption of Burgess’ book was not originally planned. Screenwriter Terry Southern gave Kubrick a copy of the novel which was put aside due to the director being preoccupied with other work. It was upon his wife’s recommendation of the book to him that caused him to immediately take interest. “I was excited by everything about it: the plot, the ideas, the characters, and, of course, the language. The story functions, of course, on several levels: political, sociological, philosophical, and, what is most important, on a dreamlike psychological-symbolic level,” Kubrick commented when asked about his initial interest of adapting the novel. Kubrick wrote a screenplay that was faithful to the novel, only taking some creative and narrative liabilities with some of the scenes.

Originally, the film was presented to the Rolling Stones, with Mick Jagger taking interest in playing Alex, and originally slated to be directed by Ken Russel. When the rights fell to Kubrick, he cast McDowell as Alex after seeing him in the 1968 film ‘if….’ and when asked why, Kubrick’s reasoning was “you can exude intelligence on the screen.” As seen within much of Kubrick’s work, McDowell played up his performance to create a tension and unease to his character. However, he was given a lot of free reigns on the character, improvising the impromptu rendition of ‘Singing in The Rain’ during the infamous rape scene. McDowell also helped inspire the costume design when showing Kubrick his cricket whites, and during the filming of the ‘Ludovico Technique’, McDowell scratched a cornea and was temporarily blinded. During the humiliation scene he broke a couple of ribs, and was almost drowned when on-screen, former Droogs attempt to drown Alex. Kubrick uses explicit imagery throughout the film to reflect the depravity of Alex’s state of mind, and the set design is chaotic in the same nature.

Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Alex, and his Droogs

Upon its release, the film was instantly controversial due to the themes and the level of graphic violence that was portrayed. After the release of the movie there was a rape and murder whose culprits cited the movie as the motive towards their acts of violence. The repeated copycat crimes made Kubrick pull the film from UK distribution. The film was banned until the director’s death in 1999, where it was re-released in British theatres. This ban was something that only added to the cult status of the film.

The film offers a commentary on morality and the meaning behind being good. Can someone be wholly good if the choice to act in this way is taken away from them? In this case it is Alex’s subjection to the ‘Ludovico Treatment’ – based off the prose of aversion therapy and ‘behaviourism’ that was proposed by psychologists John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner. On the call sheet for the film Kubrick wrote that A Clockwork Orange is “a story of the dubious redemption of a teenage delinquent by condition-reflex therapy. It is, at the same time, a running lecture on free-will.”

Throughout the film Alex is motivated by instinct. He is incapable of thinking of the repercussions of his actions or distinguishing between good and evil. The young people of the future enjoy violence as their only form of entertainment, due to the contextualisation that there is no reason or motive for the violence that is seen throughout the movie. It leads the audience to believe that society is in fact the cause of this. This makes the viewer question if Alex is evil by nature or by circumstance.

Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Alex Delonge

After the therapy Alex acts in good nature, though not by his choice, it is an involuntary action that has been forced onto him leaving him inadvertently vulnerable. He has become “A Clockwork Orange” – someone who is organic on the outside, however, is a mechanical shell of themselves on the inside, programmed in such a way. The treatment starts the question of whether Alex has lost not only his freedom but his free will, and Alex becomes incapable of what he wants to do whether this be touch a woman, respond to an insult, or prevent humiliation. If a person does not commit certain acts due to fear of physical pain rather than conquering the source of their impulses than are they truly cured?

Some could argue that the daily measures of society to keep people moral achieve the same as the therapy that is seen within the film, so why should it matter? It matters because it is what separates humans from other living species. By taking away the freedom of thought and choice, this diminishes the conscience that makes people human. The sense of unease that the audience get from seeing Alex being punished is Kubrick evoking the conscience of the audience. The point of doing this is showing that doing monstrous things to a monstrous human only makes them a monster themselves. The message behind the movie is that in the pursuit of a utopia only based on one sense of morality, humans run the risk of crossing the blurred lines themselves of what is or is not moral.

The movie is a running commentary on violence, but it is the question of if it is the state or the people controlled by them who are more turbulent in this. By depriving inmates of the freedom and identity, and then subjecting them to the violence of society. This is seen directly through Alex, neutralising his free will, and turning him into a puppet to be used by the state for their own agenda. It is Alex’s release from prison where he is even less free than when he was behind bars, and it is at this point of the movie that he becomes a victim. His past was not restricted by morality, but the treatment provided does not provide him with morals, but merely the façade of this as he is left to deal with the consequences of his past.


Despite being 50 years on since the release of the controversial film, there is no doubt that the film is a cultural cornerstone within cinema and film culture. The debate of free will that is tackled during the film is one that is still relevant and discussed to this day. The imagery within the film that has become iconography over the decades has been borrowed by everyone from Davide Bowie, and Led Zeppelin, to Madonna, Lady Gaga, and The Simpsons and is still continuously used. However, it was the fact that the film was so ahead of its time that has cemented its status. A Clockwork Orange was innovative, being a film that had no set genre, something that became synonymous with Kubrick’s filmography. On release everyone wanted to fit the film into a pigeonhole, but it simply could not be done, its varying themes and social satire went way beyond movies of its era.

Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, film poster

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