The Clockwork Controversy
by Christian Bugge
In January 1972 A film entitled A Clockwork Orange appeared in the Warner West End Cinema in Leicester Square. Billed as "being the adventure of a young man whose principal interests are rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven", it was clear this would be no ordinary film. It proceeded to ignite a serious controversy that penetrated all sections of society in a way that was unprecedented in the history of cinema in Britain. Its depiction of a young gang of anarchist hooligans raping, mugging and vandalising their way through a futuristic dystopian Britain caused outrage and significant attention. During the sixty-one weeks that it played to the British public, it preoccupied the attention of politicians, the media, the church, the so-called protectors of morality as well as the youth, police and local authorities of towns up and down the country before its director, Stanley Kubrick, in the face of this pressure finally banned the film from public exhibition.
Who was affected most by A Clockwork Orange? Why was it such a sensation, and should it have been banned?
A Clockwork Orange inspired a variety of responses from different members of British society. John Trevelyan, Chairman of The British Board of Film Classification (1956-71), who passed the film with an "X" certificate said it was "...an important social document of outstanding brilliance and quality". On the other hand according to the spokesperson of the so-called "silent moral majority", Mary Whitehouse, it was "sickening and disgusting...I had to come out after twenty minutes". To MPs such as Maurice Edelman, A Clockwork Orange was an incitement to violent crime -- "...the adventures of the psychotic Alix[sic] rampaging to music, are likely to have a more sinister effect on those who see for the first time see a fantasy realised on the screen. -- a fantasy of exciting violence." But for the young themselves it was "a subversive tribute to the glory of youth"
What exactly was it about A Clockwork Orange that grabbed the attention of the British public? Why did it cause such a controversy and who was principally entwined within it? Over the course of this essay I aim to discover the answers to these questions. In doing so I have considered the various contributions of those who helped to shape this controversy and to analyse the way in which this film was so unique. I have examined the state of mind of the film industry, its regulators, politicians as well as the public at the time A Clockwork Orange was released. From the media and the reactionaries who called for its censorship to the youth who adored it I have analysed the accusations and defenses of its unsavory influence and aimed to discover if A Clockwork Orange really was such a rotten fruit.
The Limits Of Permissiveness
The late 1950s and 1960s have been described by Arthur Marwick as marking "a retreat from the social controls imposed in the Victorian era by evangelicalism and non-conformity." Indeed, there exist many examples to prove that this era was one of liberal reform and social revolution. The extent of liberal reform can be witnessed in "The Betting and Gaming Act" of 1960, which legalized certain forms of gambling and led to street betting shops, gambling clubs and Bingo. It can be seen in Home Secretary James Callaghan's decision in 1969 to make the abolition of capital punishment a permanent fixture; and furthermore in 1967 when supported by the government, and several Conservatives, the Liberal MP, David Steel had put forward the "Abortion Act" which enabled a pregnant woman a legal abortion on the mere evaluation of two doctors believing it was necessary on medical and psychological grounds. The social and even sexual revolution of the 1960s can be defined by legislation that made divorce more easily attainable under the "Divorce Reform Act", the "Sexual Offences Act" which no longer made a homosexual act between two consenting adults an offense, and even the introduction of the Pill, which had the effect of "contributing to a general sense of security for women and girls and to a situation in which contraception (something no respectable girls would have dreamt of mentioning ten years before) could be spoken of openly". A picture of a more tolerant and liberal society seems apparent.
From the fashion for miniskirts and hot-pants to the increased consumption of illegal drugs like cannabis, amphetamines and LSD, through the words of popular songs of the time to gang fights at the sea side -- and as a result of the explicitness of certain theatre productions and the increased promiscuity of the young -- it seemed as though a revolution had brought about a permissive age. But was the revolution complete and had it permeated all sections and all age groups in society? How far could permissiveness go? A Clockwork Orange is an indicator which holds some of the answers to these questions. It shows how the old morality still remained and if the film is evidence of the radical Sixties then reaction it received is evidence of the conservative Seventies.
"Up to the last war the Board clearly considered itself the guardian of public morality, allowing no departure from the acceptable code of conduct and behavior, the protector of the and image of the Britain in the other countries and the protector of cinema audiences from such dangerous themes as those involving controversial politics." Indeed the board claimed, "the success of the cinematograph had been obtained by the fact that it was clean and healthy to which ladies and children could go in safety."
After The Second World War the arts in general enjoyed a sense of liberalisation from this policy, which allowed film considerably more freedom than before. The B.B.F.C. was evolving and consequently so was the content of films showing in the cinema. The board introduced The "X" certificate in 1951 to deal with films that were not "merely sordid films dealing with unpleasant subjects, but films which while, not being suitable for children, are good adult entertainment films which appeal to an intelligent public". This was in fact how the board perceived A Clockwork Orange. However, during the early sixties there was a backlash against this post-war liberalisation and people started to ask questions about the direction that art was taking. These questions became, as we shall see, increasingly more frequent so that by the time A Clockwork Orange was released there existed a great deal still unanswered.
In 1960 the Conservative MP for Wimbledon, Sir Cyril Black, formed the "Moral Law Defence Association", gaining the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the moderator of the Free Church Council. The same year another group "Youth Impact" was established to tackle "increasing immorality" as well as the "London Committee Against Obscenity". These committees although small and practically ineffectual were an indication of the changing tide of reaction against what they saw as obscenity in the arts.
Far more influential was "The Women of Britain Clean-up T.V. Campaign", which later became "The viewers and Listeners' Association" with the notorious Mary Whitehouse at its helm. "Although dismissed as cranky and ineffectual, The campaign gathered force until by the late sixties its voice was powerful enough to be influential at the BBC."
Despite the emergence of these groups, the liberal opinion of the arts, meanwhile, had encouraged the freeing of the theatre from prior censorship under the Theatre Act of 1968. This act came under scrutiny when the play "Oh! Calcutta!" was staged at "The Roundhouse" in 1970. Including nudity and scenes of stimulated sexual behavior, it aroused instant protest from many quarters. Mary Whitehouse, David Holbrook, then a lecturer at Dartington Hall, the Dowager Lady Birdwood, founder of the V.A.L.A., and Frank Smith, a non-conformist G.L.C. councillor all expressed their disdain. In January 1970 the "underground" magazine "International Times" was indicted for containing advertisements , "to induce readers to resort to the said advertisers for the purpose of homosexual practices and thereby to debauch and corrupt public morals". A further charge alleged that the publishers had "conspired to outrage public decency by inserting advertisements containing lewd, disgusting and offensive matter". In the same month a series of lithographs by John Lennon were seized when the London Art Gallery was raided. Following an initiative by John Trevelyan, Warhol and Morrisey's "Flesh" was shown at the "Open Space Theatre" a few days later. That was until 32 policeman descended on the theatre collecting the screen, the film projector, as well as the names and addresses of those who were present. Although neither of these cases led to prosecutions the publicity that they encouraged led the Home Secretary to announce to the House of Commons, March 12th 1970,
There is a great deal of pornography about that is causing a great deal of concern to many people in this country...Broadly speaking, I want the House to know that I shall support the police when they act in response to the police in investigating these matters. It may be that, On occasions, they will make mistakes of judgement, but I know perfectly well that the country as a whole is extremely alarmed at what is going on in this field.
In the light of these events the Christian pressure groups united under their banner of "The Festival of Light" seeking to inform the public of what they saw as "moral pollution". Their route of attack headed them into the direction of the cinema:
The Festival focused its challenge to 'permissiveness' almost entirely on the mass media. The Cinema, forced to concentrate on adult themes, represented a suitably large and vulnerable target. Unlike the television companies, it had no spokesman to defend it, nor any mass public support to fall back upon. It was an ideal symbol of the ills in society which the Festival was now determined to expose and eradicate.
What was to prove significant, in particularly, to the later censorship of A Clockwork Orange, were the comments made by Lord Windlesham, Minister of State at the Home Office, who told his peers in the Lords about a circular he had sent to local Authorities, "reminding them of powers they have concerning cinema licensing, and asking them to consider whether they were making adequate use of these powers, with particular reference to indecent or offensive advertisements for films."
At the same time there developed a great deal of debate concerning the emergent sex films which were being produced in Scandinavia, Germany and America which by a loophole in the law via the "Cinematograph Act" and the "Obscene Publications Act" were making an appearance in private cinemas in London. The club loophole had long been a concern to governments formed by both major parties. An indication of the neurosis of the time was illustrated by Lord Ferrier who assured the House of Lords of a "Definite link between international communism and the distribution to adolescents of certain pornographic material."
Furthermore, the surprise victory in the election of June 1970 was an indication of the turn to the right that was evident at this time . It was an encouraging sign to the anti-permissive groups. By September 1970 the Archbishop of Canterbury was calling on Christians to unite and protest against obscenity and blasphemy and so by September 25th, 1971 the "Festival of Light" was able to attract 35,000 people to a meeting in Trafalgar Square. The Festival's success was their ability to make local authorities much more critical of the films they reviewed reminding them of their powers over cinema licensing. Beforehand the local authorities had been even more liberal than the B.B.F.C. From 1969-1971 they had passed films rejected by the Board on some 150 occasions.
If this was the sea of moral panic into which A Clockwork Orange was launched, it was not aided by advertisements that tended to focus on the more sensational aspects of the film. The promotional poster depicted the leading character, played by Malcolm McDowell, brandishing a knife and a psychotic stare accompanied by the headline, "Being the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven". Moreover, Adrienne Corri, who appeared in the film, confided in the Sunday Mirror that she "was scared to see herself," since, "this was violence beyond anything I ever imagined would appear on the screen."
There were other violent films released at the same time as A Clockwork Orange. In some cases they were probably even more graphically violent. In the film The Devils scenes of nuns in a nude orgy aroused enough interest to lead L'Osservature Roman, the official newspaper of the Vatican to pass comment. Furthermore, Straw Dogs led 13 critics of the day to take the unprecedented step of writing to The Times to complain of its unnecessary use of violence and double rape. However far from distracting attention from A Clockwork Orange, films such as the aforementioned mentioned, Soldier Blue, Witch-Finder General, The Wild Bunch and Performance, only made anti-permissive groups more determined to get to grips with A Clockwork Orange. As Guy Phelps pointed out,
Having missed the boat where the indiscriminate violence of Straw Dogs was concerned, all kinds of pressure groups, newspaper 'campaigns' and the all-purpose commentators who were there in the media now latched onto A Clockwork Orange as the current whipping boy for the industry's irresponsibility.
It is quite probable that under more normal circumstances A Clockwork Orange would not have aroused so much controversy, but such as it was, the scene had been set for the "Clockwork Controversy".
A Clockwork Orange -- What was it about?
A Clockwork Orange started its life as a novella written by the English author Anthony Burgess. The first draft, written whilst Burgess supposed he was dying of an inoperable cerebral tumor, presented the world of adolescent violence and governmental retribution in the slang that was current at the time among the hooligan groups known as the "Teddy boys" and the "Mods and Rockers". In early 1961 in a fit bill of health and realising that the slang of his earlier draft would soon be outdated, he decided that the story properly belonged in the future. That year Burgess spent part of the summer in Soviet Russia where he observed,
The authorities had problems with turbulent youth not much different from our own. The Stilyagi, or style-boys, were smashing faces and windows, and the police, apparently obsessed with ideological and fiscal crimes, seemed powerless to keep them under control. It struck me that it might be a good idea to create a young kind of hooligan who bestrode the iron curtain and "spoke an argot compounded of the two most powerful political languages in the world -- Anglo-American and Russian. The irony of the style would lie in the hero-narrator being totally unpolitical.
Rather than a "nasty little shocker" as the Times Literary section had called it, what Burgess had tried to write "was as well as a novella, a sort of allegory of Christian free will. Man is defined by his capacity to choose courses of moral action. If he chooses good, he must have the possibility of choosing evil instead. I was also saying that it is more acceptable for us to perform evil acts than to be conditioned into an ability only to perform what is socially acceptable"
Even at this early stage A Clockwork Orange discovered its first potential censor when Burgess' literary agent was unwilling to submit the novella to a publisher alleging that its "pornography of violence would be certain to make it unacceptable". Despite this the novella was sold to William Heineman Limited in London and W. W. Norton Inc. in New York.
A view of what was to come was evident in the pop-following the novella attracted. In New York and Los Angeles Burgess claims, "Rock-groups called Clockwork Orange began to spring up" and the young interested in the language of the book adopted it as a "genuine argot". Even the British rock-group The Rolling Stones expressed an interest, in 1965, of performing in a film version they envisaged Burgess writing.
The film version of the book happened almost by accident. Its director Stanley Kubrick had been given a copy of the book which he had initially put to one side. On the rebound from the cancellation of the production of Napoleon he happened again on the copy and it made an immediate impact on him. Kubrick said of his enthusiasm for the project "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's most important, on a dreamlike psychological-symbolic level". When Kubrick wrote the screenplay he made a point of sticking very closely to the original text, "I think whatever Burgess had to say about the story was said in the book but I did invent a few useful narrative ideas and reshape some of the scenes."
Although the novella had met its critics it was nothing compared to the reaction the film was to receive. The more liberal period in the film industry which prevailed out of the sixties permitted Kubrick to film such graphic scenes of physical and sexual violence. In Burgess's mind, "It was the dawn of the age of candid photography that enabled Kubrick to exploit, to a serious end , those elements of the story which were meant to shock morally rather than merely titillate". Burgess explains one of the elementary reasons why The film itself was more of a "shocker" than the book, "to tolchock a chelloveck in the kishkas does not sound so bad as booting an old man in the guts...But in a film little can be implied; everything has to be shown. Language ceases to be an opaque protection against being appalled and takes a very secondary place" Furthermore, "The sheer power and brilliance of Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange undoubtedly contributed to the outrage at the film. The images were so effective that many viewers were led to believe that the film was more explicitly violent than it was."
But it was not just these scenes on their own that made A Clockwork Orange so controversial, there was also an element of being in the wrong place at the wrong time that added to its impact. There existed a certain sense of inevitability that given the contemporary mood the film was not going to be judged on its own merits, but put into a much larger context of societal concerns. Since the 1950s more and more onus had been directed towards the accountability of the power of films to influence their spectators. Many had thought that the arts were going to far and they needed to be checked. A Clockwork Orange was at the end of a long line of hysteria that was bound to lead to its downfall.
Who Was Affected? -- The Clockwork Orange Controversy
Violence and crime were on the increase. The total figures for reported crime in the sixties were as follows, "11,592 in 1960, 15,976 in 1964, and 21,046 in 1968". In Northern Ireland the problems had gone from bad to worse, forcing the problem of violence into the public conscience. Continuous news reports of bloodshed and semi-warfare within the United Kingdom had created a greater awareness of violence as a major problem in society. As Marwick explains, "The most bitter year since the war of confrontation between government and unions was certainly 1972: it was the year of the IRA bomb outrage at Aldershot in which five civilians died; and it was the first year since before the First World War in which a picket had lost his life". This situation is probably what drew the Home Secretary Reginald Maudling, who had stated previously that he was concerned about the connection between the rising crime rate and cinema violence, into the Clockwork Orange controversy: "There is a new film out this week that I think I ought to go and see...If things are being shown which one could reasonably suppose are contributing to the degree of violence, I think I ought to know". Maudling was also clearly aware of the liberalisation of the film industry and worried about its effect on the growing wave of crime. "The British film board of censors has done a really good job over the years. But I am disturbed about the degree of violence which seems to be entering films...If I think that this trend of films is doing harm to I ought to say."
Having viewed the film at the Admiralty no press statement was issued, so one might suspect he decided that A Clockwork Orange was unlikely to cause any harm. However, it is more likely that he avoided comment on the basis that if the Home Office was seen to appear dissatisfied with the performance of the B.B.F.C. it would have undermined its credibility. Moreover it is possible that he had never intended to intervene, but was only doing so to appease certain pressure groups. However, Maudling's contribution to the controversy had other far more reaching effects,
To single out for mention a specific film before it has appeared publicly is certain to suggest to some people, among the more illiberal forces of opinion, that the film merits the scrutiny of the minister responsible for curbing the abuses of law and order.
Rather more outspoken was Maurice Edelman, the Labour MP for Coventry West and co-chairman of the All-Party Film Committee. Managing to accumulate 50 MPs and Peers to attend a showing of the film at a Soho Square Trade cinema on 25th January 1972 he was quoted in the press,
The film stimulates for two and a half hours an appetite for sadistic violence with the instantaneous communication which the visual arts uniquely offer...I believe that when 'A Clockwork Orange' is generally released, it will lead to a Clockwork cult which will magnify teenage violence.
If the sea of moral panic, which stemmed from the liberalisation of the arts, and Maudling and Edelman's concern at the growing number of cases of violence in the film industry, drew the focus towards A Clockwork Orange, then the press put it directly into the spotlight. Through a series of sensationalist reports and headlines it was clear that they aimed to focus merely on the more "sordid" aspects of the film, it was pitched as the, "FILM SHOCKER TO END THEM ALL". Ken Eastleigh reported in The sun, "The star is Malcolm McDowell, who is seen in a speeded up sequence having repeated sex with two dolly birds." and further described the film as, "unparalleled in its concentrated parade of violence, viciousness and cruelty."
The problems really started when the press reported a spate of supposed copy-cat crimes. The first and most famous of these was the case involving a 16 year old boy called James Palmer who had beaten to death a tramp in Oxfordshire. As Edward Laxton reported in the Daily Mirror, in a convincing enough manner that the more reactionary reader might suspect that, A Clockwork Orange was terrible enough to influence even the most unassuming and hitherto quite innocent of young men, it was clear that the press were going to make the film even more controversial. "The terrifying violence of the film A Clockwork Orange fascinated a quiet boy from a Grammar School...And it turned him into a brutal murderer". Laxton continues, "The boy viciously battered to death a harmless old tramp as he acted out in real life a scene straight from the movie A Clockwork Orange"
A Clockwork Orange began to be developed into an euphemism in the press for referring to teenage crime and societal deviance. When a study was undertaken to explore the deviance of 1565 youths aged between 12 and 17 by Dr. William Belson of The London School of Economics, The Daily Mail reported, "it is the first to study the clockwork orange society in this country."
Although Burgess, in particular, jumped to the defence of the film commenting, "No evidence has ever been adduced in a court of law to prove beyond a doubt that a work of art can stimulate anti social behavior", the fact that a psychiatrist had told Oxford Crown Court, "It seems as if, momentarily, the devil had been planted in the boys' subconscious...planted their was ...the violence of A Clockwork Orange", it was inevitable that those who had reservations about A Clockwork Orange were now convinced of its tragic effects.
Despite Burgess's continued efforts to point out that A Clockwork Orange was being carried away on a storm of hysteria by commenting, "The notorious murderer Haig who killed and drank their blood said he was inspired by the sacrament of the Eucharist - Does that mean we should ban the Bible?", people in positions of authority were loathe to agree. Reverend John Lambert, former chaplain to Pinewood studios commented in the Evening News, "I am utterly convinced in my own mind -- and from talking to many young people -- that this celluloid cesspool has done damage to more young people than just the boy who beat out a meths drinkers brains with a brick". Furthermore, just to add fuel to the case against A Clockwork Orange the reverend threw rather an exaggerated attack at Stanley Kubrick, "Old people tremble to go out of doors and young girls are abused by bands of louts imitating your bizarre world."
Despite the fact that James Palmer had never seen the film and his knowledge of it came merely from his friends accounts, the ball was rolling. Even the local pud landlord felt obliged to comment, "I see the effects on youngsters who come in here afterwards and act out what they have seen." Mary Whitehouse determined, to see the film banned said, "Since it has been shown we have witnessed muggings and the start of the dreadful gang bang syndrome. One gets tired of the irrational, pretentious arguments film makers use to defend their works." Lord Soper, leader of the Methodist Church in Britain commented "films like this tend to bring out the worst possible interests in people. It can only encourage people into violence.
But not all those who one would expect to be on the side of the anti-permissive groups were as scathing of A Clockwork Orange. John E. Fitzgerald, writing in "The Catholic News, commented,
The film seems to say that to take away a man's choice is not to redeem him but merely to restrain him. Otherwise we have a society of oranges, organic but working like clock-work. Such brainwashing organic and psychological, is a weapon, that to totalitarians in state, church or society might wish for an easier good even at the cost of individual rights and dignity. Redemption is a complicated thing and change must be motivated from within rather than imposed from without if moral values are to be upheld. But Kubrick is an artist rather than a moralist and he leaves it to us to figure what's wrong and why, what should be done and how it should be accomplished.
Furthermore, the chairman of the Festival of Lights planning committee , Peter Thompson who had led the crusade against The Devils had a more personal insight into the film which made him a fan. Thompson had been a patient in Broadmoor's special hospital from 1965-69 and it lead him to comment,
To someone who has committed violent acts of and who has been mentally ill, this film has a lot to say to society. It is my honest opinion that this is the best film I have ever seen. I felt like I was reliving my own experiences. In Broadmoor they have drugs that bring you out in rashes...Alex's aversion therapy seems to me to be the exact equivalent to 900mg of Largatil.
If the effect of A Clockwork Orange of corrupting the young and innocent was seemingly apparent in the James Palmer case the press exploited some other less convincing cases to back-up their clockwork orange theory. One such case was of a sinister character who murdered a 79 year old woman who was according to the Daily Mail, "praying at her friend's grave side". The culprit however, was, it has to be said, not of particularly sound mind and judgement judging by his comments to the police, "Sometimes I think I am Jack the Ripper, a vampire or something like that". Despite the police report's allegation that he got the idea from A Clockwork Orange it seems inevitable that this man would have ended up in prison due to the influence of his imagination without A Clockwork Orange.
Cases were springing up all over the country leading judges to conclude that even minor assault charges had something to do with the effect of A Clockwork Orange. When a 15 year old boy was assaulted by another, a year his senior, in Heywood Lancashire, judge Desmond Bailey said that A Clockwork Orange presented "an unassailable argument for a return to censorship." Mike Purdy who worked at the "Old Bailey" for the Metropolitan Police solicitors provides a different angle, however, on these cases:
At the 'Old Bailey' we kept seeing people on assault charges who had seen the film and been impelled to go out and beat someone up. Most of us who worked at the court thought this a load of rubbish but unfortunately such cases got a lot of publicity and many judges would impose lesser sentences in these cases. It got to the stage when we referred to these cases as 'Clockwork Orange defenses' and it came almost boring as one after another tried using this excuse.
It seems that even the police were carried away by the "Clockwork Orange" hysteria. When Frank Boulton a 50 year old wood seller was murdered in Newton-le-Williams in May 1973, despite no evidence to support their rationale, detectives started a search for a "Clockwork Orange Gang". A police spokesman said, "Teenagers in Newton-le Williams have been buying similar make up and dress to that used in the film. Special squads have been detailed to check out fancy dress shops in the area...The comparison with facts in the film are being followed up as a strong line of inquiry". These comparisons are recounted to the reader in the same article, in the Daily Mail's own inimitable style, "In the film A Clockwork Orange, banned in some towns because of its violence, a kinky group of teenagers in fancy dress savagely attack an old tramp, leaving him for dead."
This wave of hysteria even affected local authorities who had the task of deciding whether or not A Clockwork Orange should be shown in their cinemas. All sorts of committees were banning the film, public health and licensing committees, fire brigade committees. All of them were unfit to pass judgement on films, particularly in this situation of media sensationalism. In one such case in Hastings in February 1973, A Clockwork Orange was ruled unfit for viewing after being seen by only two members of the Public Health and Licensing committee. Although one of them did not even see the whole film it was described as, "violence for its own sake". The local press condemned their decision in a way that spoke for all these local committees, "It is wrong that the public should be treated like schoolchildren by a handful of fickle councilors whose tastes are not in any way representative of the people they are elected to represent"
The ludicrous treatment of A Clockwork Orange hit its height when Dr. Malcolm Carruthers, senior lecture in Chemical Pathology at St. Mary's Hospital Medical School, and Dr. Peter Taggart, lecturer in Medicine at Middlesex Hospital monitored the reactions of 34 doctors nurses, colleagues and friends whilst watching the film. Monitoring heartbeats during the film and carrying out tests before and after the viewing , the results were published the following day in the "Daily Telegraph" under the headline, "Viewers' Hearts Slowed by A Clockwork Orange".
So how did all this effect the youngsters? Were they really affected in the way that the moral majority feared? It appears not. In fact the youth of the day saw A Clockwork Orange in a completely different light. What they saw was a representation of a life they already lived. In working class urban areas the violence and the tribal identity of Alex and his droogs was a reflection of football hooliganism, gang fighting and loyalty to your friends and team. Tony Parsons explains, "A Clockwork Orange was like seeing your little life blown up and put on the big screen. It took all the consolations of being a teenager in the early 70s...and made them mythical, monumental, glorious."
Most working-class youths referred to themselves as "Suedeheads" due to their closely cropped hair styles. "Ben Sherman" shirts, "Levis Sta-press" trousers, 6 hole polished "Dr.Martin" boots and braces were the essential cladder of the day. Alex and his droogs were just as particular about what they wore, "the thin braces, the white strides, the rakish use of hats, the combat boots as combined fashion accessory and blunt instrument. It was all there. Someone had been paying attention. And we were flattered beyond belief."
True to the film advertisements, it was the film that youngsters had been waiting for, everybody knew about it, "we saw the film and then we read the book and then we saw the film again. And even the lads who never read books - the thickos , the hard-core thugs, the dims made flesh, blood and bone - all read Burgess' black masterpiece." But did it make them more violent?
Mic Martin, a suedehead and fan of "A Clockwork Orange", whose friends Zac, Col and Sav saw themselves in Alex and his droogs said, "No, definitely not. May be it was a validation of our lifestyles, but we were not about to rape or kill anyone. We had seen our fair share of violence both on the giving and receiving end, but it wasn't about beating people up, it was about fighting other groups, allegiance to your football team or protecting your friends, whether or not A Clockwork Orange had been made, this would have gone on regardless. The film was just a stylised version of the lives we were leading."
It would seem, therefore, the violence that the press predicted would entice the young, was already a part of the young's lives.
"It was a violent film for violent days ...I saw truncheons coming down on number two crops, away fans invading the home fans' end and trying to take it, bodies tumbling down terraces, feet and fists flying as one of those sickening gaps appeared in the crowd to give violence some room...,the football grounds of England in the early 70s played host to weekly rots. So the highly ritualised violence in 'A Clockwork Orange' did not shock us. We could get all that at home."
The concept of A Clockwork Orange as a morality tale was also lost on the youth, but Parsons believes, "as we brooded in Ted Heath's Britain, we didn't feel we had any choices. A morality tale? Perhaps, but 'A Clockwork Orange had a moral heart. It was a subversive tribute to the glory of youth." Moreover, its appeal was its authenticity: "A Clockwork Orange was about our Britain. Not the country of someone else's mythology -- The Blitz spirit of World War II, the saucy charm of the swinging 60s -- but the way we were. Fishfingers and football pools and furniture that was a fire hazard. Parents that were losing their grip and politicians that couldn't get you to turn up. Authority was crumbling on every side and teenage rebellion was turning nasty. If they attached electrodes to Alex's brain then that didn't seem so far fetched in Ted's divided nation." The fact that A Clockwork Orange was so adored by a large number of the young, probably added to the fears of the moral majority.
Although Kubrick never thought that A Clockwork Orange was likely to influence it viewers enough to carry out copy-cat crime, he became increasingly more fed up with the controversy which he saw to be aimed in his direction. Due to reports in the press of the inevitability of a clockwork cult, he had delayed the general release of the film so that it ran merely in one West End cinema for a year before it went on general release . It had not worked. After 61 weeks of showing, Kubrick decided to ban A Clockwork Orange in Britain completely. When in November 1973 a Dutch tourist had been raped by a group of youths whilst singing, "Singing in the Rain" it appeared to many that he had done the right thing.
Whether or not A Clockwork Orange should have been banned is a tricky matter. As we have seen the influence of the cinema to corrupt its viewers has caused much debate. Those in the anti-permissive leagues gave much credence to reports in the press of copy-cat crime, but we have seen that these links were often tenuous. The judges who saw case after case of "Clockwork crimes" were sure that A Clockwork Orange was to blame, yet Mike Purdy showed us the contrary. So where can we turn? A film expert, Claude Chabrol, gives his opinion,
Of course everybody is worried about screen violence, of course everybody stigmatises it. What nobody seems to point out is that screen violence opens up dark corners and expresses to public scrutiny a side of life that might otherwise remain hidden...Occasionally, film can open people's eyes. Do violent films incite violence? I don't believe a word of it. Since Aristotle's day, it is common knowledge that people go to public entertainments to purge their baser instincts, and they return home calmer. They are liberated not corrupted, by the screen depiction of criminal perversions."
Ironically the most outspoken critic of the theory that art corrupts, Anthony Burgess, had a surprising change of mind . In march 1993, six months before his death, addressing public anxiety about a "cult of violence" in the wake of the James Bulger murder, he performed a remarkable volte-force,
It must be considered a kind of grace in my old age to abandon a conviction that the arts were sacrosanct, and that included the sub-arts, that they would never be accused of exerting either a moral or immoral influence, that they were incorrupt, incorruptive, incorruptible. I have quite recently changed my mind...I begin to accept that as a novelist, I belong to the ranks of the menacing.
It seems clear that A Clockwork Orange need not have been the sensation that it was. The liberalisation of the arts after World War II led directors to push the boundaries of what was acceptable in the cinema. But there were more violent films than A Clockwork Orange and unlike these films A Clockwork Orange's violence was not violence for violence sake, but as Kubrick states, "absolutely necessary to give weight to Alex's Brutality". It is inevitable that shocking films will cause complaint, but not as much as was received by A Clockwork Orange. Had the film been released in a different time when politicians had not been so neurotic and groups like V.A.L.A and people like Mary Whitehouse hadn't been given so much coverage then it might have passed by with little notice. Furthermore, being that it was set in England with English actors, gave it much more authenticity and therefore much more attraction. Had the country been unspecified and the actors american then much concern would have been deflected. Moreover, the press can be held very much responsible for their part in making the Clockwork Controversy. "It is only in Britain that A Clockwork Orange was subjected to a campaign of vilification in the press. It is only in Britain that Stanley Kubrick had decreed that the film may not be shown in the cinemas. These two facts are not presumably unconnected"
So was A Clockwork Orange really a rotten fruit? To many it seems that it was. But had it avoided sensationalising in the press and evaded the moral crusade of politicians and the Mary Whitehouses of the reactionary cause, it is quite possible that Burgess and Kubrick's story could have rode the waves of controversy and still be showing in cinemas today.
1. John Trevelyan, Chairman of the B.B.F.C. (1956-1971), in The Times (London), 8/3/73.
2. Julian Petty - "Index on Censorship". Volume 24. Number 6. 1995.
3. Daily Mail 8/24/73
4. Evening News 1/27/72.
5. Tony Parsons, Movie Heaven, p.96
6. Arthur Marwick, British Society Since 1945, (London, 1982), p.145
7. It had previously been abolished only for a 5 year trial period by an Act of Parliament in October 1965.
8. Marwick, p.153-154
9. John Trevelyan in Guy Phelps, Film Censorship, London, 1975, p.32 -33
10. Arthur Watkins, (secretary of the B. B. F. C. 1951) in Film Censorship, p.39
11. Guy Phelps, Film Censorship, London, 1975, p.56
12. Ibid p.59
13. Ibid. P.58
14. Ibid. p.66
15. Ibid. p.80
16. Anthony Burgess, in regards to ACO
19. Geoffrey Alexander, "The Hechinger Debacle"
20. Anthony Burgess
22. Phelps, P.135
23. Marwick, p.148
24. Ibid. P.188
25. The Sun (London) 1/10/72
27. Evening Standard (London), 1/14/72
28. The Evening News (London), 1/27/72
29. Headline in The Sun, 1/6/72
31. Daily Mail, 8/24/73
33. Daily Telegraph 26/ 1/ 1973
35. Daily Mail 31/7/1973
36. Evening News 1/ 7/ 1973
37. Daily Mail 4/ 7/ 1973
38. Daily Mail 24/ 8/ 1973
39. Daily Telegraph 25 / 7/ 1973
40. Kubrick, from the interview with Strick & Houston, Sight&Sound, Spring 1972.
41. Daily Telegraph 13/ 7/ 1974
42. The Times 24/ 7/ 1973
43. "On Kubrick's Ban of ACO in the UK" by Mike Purdy
44. Daily Mail 8/ 5/ 1973
45. Brighton Evening Argus 9/ 2/ 1973
46. Tony Parsons, in Philip Thomas ed., Movie Heaven (London, 1995), p.92
47. Ibid. P.94
48. Ibid. P.94
49. Interview with Mic Martin. 30th Jan 1997
50. Parsons, p.94-95
51. Parsons, p.97
52. Claude Chabrol, Et Pourtant Je Tourne...(Editions Laffont-Fixot 1976)
53. Independent on Sunday 21/ 4/ 1993
54. "Otherwise there would be moral confusion with respect to what the government does to him. If he were a lesser villain, then one could say:'Oh, yes, of course, he should not be given this psychological conditioning; it is all too horrible and he really wasn't that bad after all.' On the other hand, when you have shown him committing such atrocious acts, and you still realise the immense evil on the part of the government in turning him into something less than human in order to make him good, then I think the essential moral idea of the story is clear." -- Kubrick, from the interview with Strick & Houston, Sight&Sound, Spring 1972.
55. Julian Petty, Index on Censorship. Vol.24, no.6.
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