Film review: A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Not one of my favourites by Kubrick, but still interesting. Based on Anthony Burgess’ futuristic dystopian novel from 1959. Some spoilers here, the review is intended for people who have already watched the film.

I thought to myself that maybe Kubrick had gone too far with the violence. Some have criticized the film for glorifying violence, which is almost balletic with background music by Beethoven.

The story shows the consequences of violent acts. Alex clashes with some authority figures in the story, who seem as bad as he is. But this does not excuse Alex for his bad behaviour. Alex sees his violence as a kind of artistic project. According to page 186 in the cinema of Stanley Kubrick, the director reveals that he wanted to show “Alex’s guiltless sense of freedom to kill and rape and to be our savage natural selves”

The film is no doubt a critique of the way we punish citizens, or at least a warning that experimental rehabilitation can go too far. Have you been habilitated, if they take away your personality? He has been stripped of his evil doing and been officially cured. He is a new man, he can no longer hurt anyone, but his free will has been removed. Kubrick attempts to make us feel sorry for Alex despite his crimes in the past, the authorities torturing him with straightjacket brainwashing.

According to the book “the cinema of Stanley Kubrick”, the satire is “that a man conditioned to be good in all circumstances is continuously vulnerable”. Kubrick has said that “the goal should be to destroy all authority, so man in his natural goodness may emerge, this Utopian view is a dangerous fallacy. All such efforts eventually fall into the hands of thugs. The weaknesses don’t stem from an improperly structured society. The fault is in the very imperfect nature of man himself”

The film makes a point of saying that we are either a person who can choose, with all the side effects this entails, or we are stripped of choice and are not ourselves anymore. A Clockwork Orange questions, if you can no longer choose between good and evil in your life, are you still a human? And if you are a vegetable, then you can no longer manage to live a normal life in the real world. How do you deal respectfully with criminals, so they have the same rights as everyone? The trouble with free will is it allows you to commit atrocities, despite laws saying you shouldn’t. The film seems to ask, what is more important, free will, or reducing violence? We the audience speculate what is the most humane way to treat criminals.

We can’t be sure if Alex is speaking the truth when he says he wants to be good, one of the prison officers suspects Alex is pretending he wants to be rehabilitated. He goes from being a selfish criminal to being a victim. The way we have increasingly become desensitised these days to violence by continuously and unavoidably being faced with it in popular culture is eerily reminiscent of Alex being strapped down and forced to watch violence, torture and destruction on a screen.

If humans are deprived of the ability to choose evil, can they truly be said to be good? Of course not, because they haven’t chosen to be good, but have been forced by the authorities.

A Clockwork Orange is satirical and Kubrick’s most controversial film. There were several incidents were people claimed to have committed crimes and were inspired to do so by Kubrick’s film. Kubrick's wife has said that the family received threats and had protesters outside their home. Subsequently, Kubrick asked Warner Brothers to withdraw the film from British distribution. The violence doesn’t come across as so bad today, we are used to far worse in mainstream culture, in the 70s, it was heavily criticized.

Anthony Burgess admits, even though he wrote the novel, to detesting A Clockwork Orange in his autobiography. He was quoted in the book "the complete Kubrick":
"I was trying to exorcise the memory of what happened to my first wife, who was savagely attacked in London during the second world war by four American deserters. She was pregnant at the time and lost our child".

A tricky film to interpret and understand. The reckless violence at the beginning is not explained, what is the cause? Boredom? evilness? group pressure? Lack of parental guidance? Probably a combination.

Alex is the extreme case, how could you possibly argue in favour of freedom for a monster such as Alex? Should all humans have free will? This is a moral dilemma.

I hate the soundtrack, they messed with some classical music, other than that, good film, which may look dated in some respects, hair cuts for example, but the theme of how to deal with criminals is still highly relevant today.



Readers, any thoughts on A Clockwork Orange ?


  1. My friend said I should watch it. She told me it was a bit violent. Makes me wonder if I should watch it.

  2. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE does present a very intriguing moral dilemma, one to which there's no easy answer. Should the state have the power to alter one's personality? Common sense would say "no", but then we have extreme cases such as Alex. how could the state NOT get involved?

    While CLOCKWORK isn't my favorite Kubrick (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is), it is one of my favorite films, partly because of the issues it addresses, but mostly becaise I think Malcolm McDowall is brilliant in it!

    Excellent wrote-up, BTW. I enjoyed reading it.

  3. "If humans are deprived of the ability to choose evil, can they truly be said to be good?" This rhetorical question really captures the essence of this film.

    Well, Clockwork Orange wouldn't rank as my favourite Kubrick film either - the honour would go to Dr. Strangelove, followed by The Killing & 2001. But it sure ranks among my most discomfiting movie-viewing experiences. Consequently this wouldn't be far off when you list down Kubrick's best works.

  4. I'll go the other way here and say that this does rank as one of my favorite Kubrick films for a lot of reasons. I read the book at an age a few years younger than I should have been, and I like that Kubrick kept the film very close to the source material (some changes, but mostly cosmetic). I also really like the soundtrack--the skewed classical music seems appropriate in some way for the skewed version of the world that Alex lives in.

  5. @Andina: I don't think the film is to your taste.

    @ Dave Becker: I think the state should get involved with extreme cases like Alex, although how to rehabilitate is a big question mark for me.

    @ Shubhajit: I agree, that rhetorical question really sums up the dilemma.

    @ Movie Guy Steve: Hadn't thought of the music in that way, thanks!

  6. I don't think he was a monster, he was too young. It was society.

    I loved the soundtrack, though.

  7. @ James D: That's an interesting interpretation, how to define him?
    monster, or perhaps a victim to start with as you imply.
    I think society is to blame, yes, to a certain extent. But he committed the crimes, he was not THAT young. He must have known it was wrong. The problem is perhaps when all the guys his age were doing similar crazy attacks, then he thinks it's ok.

  8. I used to love Clockwork Orange but I just find it offensive.

  9. @Ronan: Yes, Clockwork Orange is offensive, and the characters sort of are unlikeable, but I think it's an important and interesting film that will stand the test of time.


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