UK Clock ticks again for Kubrick's Orange

by James Howard


© 2000 James Howard. All Rights Reserved

Witty. Funny. Satiric. Musical. Exciting. Bizarre. Political. Thrilling. Frightening. Metaphorical. Comic. Sardonic - all-but incomprehensible to those unfamiliar with the subject, the 55-second movie trailer which began to appear in British cinemas during the early part of February 2000 served to announce that, almost exactly a year after the director's death, Stanley Kubrick's film version of A Clockwork Orange was finally returning to British movie screens on 17th March.

Regularly screened and revived almost everywhere else in the world - most notably throughout Europe and, particularly, France where Kubrick is regarded as 'a god with a small g' - A Clockwork Orange was first screened in London in January 1972, a month after its US premiere when it had been hailed by Variety as 'a brilliant nightmare [which] employs outrageous vulgarity, stark brutality and some sophisticated comedy to make an argument for the preservation of respect for man's free will - even to do wrong.'

Over the next twelve months, the movie picked up four Oscar nominations, Best Film awards from the London Evening Standard, the Venice Festival and the New York Film Critics (who also named Kubrick Best Director) and won further prizes across France, Denmark and Germany. Kubrick went on record as being 'very pleased' with the film, which he considered 'the most skilful movie I have ever made. I can see almost nothing wrong with it.' By the end of 1973, though, A Clockwork Orange had disappeared from screens in Britain - unavailable for screening even by as eminent a body as the National Film Theatre who mounted a Kubrick retrospective in 1979 (although, it was claimed, it could be hired for screening in 'hospitals, prisons and borstals' !). A cinema manager in London's Kings Cross was later fined 1,000 by the Federation Against Copyright Theft for showing the film without the owner's permission, all of which added to the myth - which, typically with Kubrick, became 'fact' - that the movie had been either a) banned by the authorities, or b) withdrawn 'on the express orders of Stanley Kubrick', who then employed a team of 'spies' to ensure that the film remained unseen.

The truth is both less interesting and more disturbing: A Clockwork Orange - granted an 'X' certificate and passed uncut by the British Board of Film Censors - has never been 'banned' in Britain, other than by a handful of enlightened local authorities, led by the good folk of Accrington Borough Council. True enough, Kubrick was deeply disturbed by press reports claiming to link the film to acts of street violence but, as his brother-in-law Jan Harlan told me, this had more to do with the absurdity of the claims being made. 'It was very upsetting to him,' he says today. 'Stanley was a very sensitive person, and he would call me early in the morning and say 'look at this article, they must be out of their minds' He was deeply upset by all of this bad press he got in the UK almost all of his life - even after his death.'

Harlan - Executive Producer on all of Kubrick's remaining pictures after A Clockwork Orange - recalls how 'Stanley got such a hammering, and was accused of contributing to the falling apart of society in the broadest sense, and of course he personally was very hurt by this, because really the film should have an opposite effect. It's a deeply democratic film, and of course it is only a film. I dare say that most of those who criticised him hadn't even seen the film anyway.' Kubrick's widow Christiane told Sight and Sound magazine a few months after his death in 1999 that the director had been baffled by press reaction both to this film and, increasingly, to himself. 'It's only in England that there's this envious, strange joy in knocking him off his pedestal,' she said, adding 'even if he himself never climbed onto one. Because A Clockwork Orange played with the background of England, they blamed every crime in history on Stanley's film. That only happened here, nowhere else.'

Potentially more serious than the press reports, however, were the letters which began to reach Kubrick who, Harlan says, 'was singled out by various groups as a villain, and received personal threats.' Warners Advertising Executive Julian Senior worked closely with the director on the film and agrees that Kubrick was coming under increasing pressure from a number of directions. 'Nowadays they are called stalkers,' he says, 'but we started having guards in a mobile van on the driveway, and Hertfordshire police said some of the letters were becoming a little bizarre.' The joint decision was taken by studio and director that the film would no longer be available in the UK although, as Harlan makes clear, 'strictly, in legal terms, Stanley had no rights, but they agreed to do this, at great expense to themselves. It was much more than a matter of contracts, he and they had an excellent relationship, and Warner Brothers simply complied with his request.'

In the absence of any public response from Kubrick to the escalating press hysteria, Anthony Burgess had taken it upon himself to defend the movie as early as August 1973, just as Warners were about to take it out of circulation. Calling it 'a remarkable work, probably already a classic,' the writer said that he was 'increasingly exasperated by the assumption that it was my duty to defend the film against its attackers.. It is surely the duty of the maker of the film to speak out for his own work.'

Unaware of the true situation, as most people were, Joan Bakewell later (1988) wrote in the Sunday Times 'What are we to make of a film, passed by the censor, but taken out of circulation by its own maker ? The idea of a genius trying to recapture the work he has unleashed upon the world is one that might take Kubrick's own fancy.. yet once it is released, a film of the force of A Clockwork Orange does, for good or ill, enter the public imagination.' So the legend grew, with sporadic calls for the movie to be shown in cinemas again while Kubrick, as ever, remained silent.

Written in 1962 by Burgess and set in an unspecified near-future quite unlike the super-clean, adventurous and optimistic future of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Burgess' vision of where we may be heading was both pessimistic and disturbingly prophetic. Written in an ultimately rather irritating teen-dialect created by the author and which he called 'Nadsat', the novel centred on its anti-hero, Alex De Large who, at a mere fifteen years old, is a contradictory figure devoted to the works of Beethoven while bent on violence, rape and anything which livens up his otherwise dull existence. Sent to prison following the murder of one of his victims, Alex undergoes the 'Ludovico' technique - a treatment which effectively makes him incapable of committing any further acts of violence. Programmed to suffer overwhelming nausea in any potentially dangerous situation, the effects of this government-backed 'cure' are less welcome than may have been expected.

A 1967 screenplay by Terry Southern and Michael Cooper had been rejected by the BBFC, who advised London International studios that the script 'could not possibly get into even the X-category' and would never be shown in Britain. After David Bailey and Andy Warhol had later (mercifully) abandoned plans to film the story with the Rolling Stones, Southern - who had earlier recieved a co-writer credit on Dr Strangelove  - gave a copy of the book to Stanley Kubrick, whose own new screenplay actually toned down the amount of violence described in Burgess' original - he omitted a number of beatings, the cruelty of prison life and a second murder, while the book's drink-induced seduction of two ten-year old girls now involved highly willing, late-teenagers (this scene was played almost for comic relief, accompanied by a speeded-up version of the William Tell Overture).

Undeniably violent - especially in its opening 20 minutes - Kubrick's movie was nevertheless enthusiastically reviewed, with Vincent Canby of the New York Times calling it a 'disorienting but human comedy.. a brilliant and dangerous work, but it is dangerous in a way that brilliant things sometimes are.' In Britain, Films and Filming labelled the film as one 'not to be missed' while Michael Wood in New Society compared the level of violence on screen with that in the novel and found it to be 'less than you'd expect - the minimum, I think, that the movie requires to make sense.'

Kubrick himself gave several interviews on the subject. 'It's all in the plot,' he told the New York Times. 'Part of the artistic challenge is to present the violence as Alex sees it, not with the disapproving eye of the moralist but subjectively as he experiences it.' Julian Senior recalls discussions at the time in which it was suggested that Kubrick could easily have dispensed with the spectacularly violent opening, and simply begun the story in the courtroom where Alex is found guilty and then selected for aversion therapy. 'Stanley made the point,' he says, ' that if we can feel sympathy for someone who is as repellent as we've seen, then I think we've shown that freedom of choice, however debatable, is preferable to the violence exerted on him by the state.'

Going to considerable lengths to discuss the film with journalists and explain the reasoning behind it, Kubrick later told Michel Ciment that 'The central idea of the film has to do with the question of free will. If we are deprived of the choice between good and evil, do we become, as the title suggest, A Clockwork Orange ? Recent experiments in conditioning and mind-control on volunteer prisoners in America have taken this question out of the realm of science-fiction.'

With Kubrick and Warner Brothers' self-imposed withdrawal of the picture in Britain, however, most know the film by reputation only. The blackout in the UK was total - no legal screenings, no video release; a tv documentary which featured brief clips of the movie was initially pulled from the schedules by a court injunction. A US produced 75th Anniversary tribute to Warner Brothers was screened in the UK without any Kubrick material, and even the tv obituaries following the director's death were not allowed to include any scenes from A Clockwork Orange. It was interesting, therefore, to compare the American tv reports which summed up and paid tribute to Kubrick's career and which freely included Clockwork in its rightful place among his best and most challenging work.

Now almost thirty years old, A Clockwork Orange retains a rare strength and power which younger British moviegoers will finally be able to discover for the first time (as will audiences in Ireland, where the picture was never granted a licence). Julian Senior believes it 'looks as fresh as though it were made yesterday' while the subject matter is, if anything more relevant today. 'The issues are still the same,' he says. 'The issues of street violence, the alienation of young kids from the world around them - the idea that the prisons are full, so who cares what you do so long as it works.'

While it is not uncommon for 'classic' films to be restored, self indulgently re-edited as a 'Director's Cut' or otherwise revived to mark some anniversary of questionable significance, A Clockwork Orange as it finally unreeled in cinemas on 17th March was exactly as last (officially) seen in the UK some 27 years ago. And, where most UK reissues see the light of day only in the elite 'selected cinemas' - invariably confined to the London area - Kubrick's movie enjoys a full, simultaneous release on more than 300 screens nationwide, the equal of any blockbusting new studio release. Apart from the reissue of The Exorcist a few years ago, Julian Senior concedes that Warner Brothers have never had a successful re-release, but thinks that A Clockwork Orange will find a significant audience. 'It is one of the most unique British films ever,' he says, 'and there's an enormous number of people out there who have never seen it, and what they're doing is picking up all the silly things that have been said about it over the years. I sort of felt we owed it to Stanley to give the film another showing.'

Within hours of Kubrick's death being announced last March, there were - somewhat unseemly - suggestions in the press that A Clockwork Orange would now become available once again. Rumours circulated throughout the rest of the year before it was finally confirmed that the film would reappear as close as possible to the first anniversary of Kubrick's death.. To suggestions that the reissue was untimely or in poor taste, however, Julian Senior counters that he and Kubrick had discussed the situation many times. 'Stanley talked to me eighteen months ago and said we should give some thought to Clockwork Orange,' he says. 'He'd talked about it a few years back, looking at prints and trailers and so on, and he said 'let's get Eyes Wide Shut out of the way and then see how things are.' I can't stress strongly enough that this is not pressure from Warner Brothers - the film was very successful and we certainly don't need to recoup anything. We talked about it very openly, and the family decided it was something they should do.' Jan Harlan confirms this: 'At the time he wanted to put the film behind him and to put a stop to all of the threats and nasty letters,' he says. 'But later he wanted it to be re-released. Unfortunately he's not with us any more, but his wife certainly has no objection.'

Predictably, the knives are already out, as they have been in the UK press for many years. Any film made almost thirty years ago may no longer have the power to shock that it originally had, but that need not render it ineffective. It will be common for those intent on visibly keeping their 'cool' to wonder aloud 'what was all the fuss about,' as they did for the successful reissue of The Exorcist a few years back (coincidentally, the only other film to enjoy such a major revival in recent years). In the Sunday Times, Bryan Appleyard wrote of A Clockwork Orange as 'still widely rated as a masterpiece by a man regarded, wrongly, as a cinematic genius.' Clumsily flaunting his own intellectual credentials, Appleyard went on to dismiss the film as 'vastly overrated.. It looks like a student movie.. it's style of chilly alienation was done better by Antonioni' and, because the film didn't include the 'redemptive last chapter' of Anthony Burgess' novel, 'his ending is feeble and confused.' In fact, it is Burgess' novel which ends on a thoroughly unconvincing note, as the violent anti-hero Alex - now older and wiser - reflects on the age-old problem of youth and its rebellion against authority. Bloomin' kids, eh ? - never mind, you'll grow out of it, son.

Ironically, for a film-maker who remained out of the public eye as much as possible, and who took twelve years between his final two completed movies - Full Metal Jacket (1987) and last summer's Eyes Wide Shut  - Stanley Kubrick is currently better represented on cinema screens than at any other time in his career, with three movies (Eyes Wide Shut, A Clockwork Orange and the reissue of 2001: A Space Odyssey late this year) all on general release within the space of eighteen months. There is also a feature documentary in progress, being put together by Jan Harlan, which will relate Kubrick's life story. 'There are thousands of stills,' says Harlan, 'and 16mm home movies by Dr Kubrick [the director's father]' as well as the discovery of numerous draft screenplays written by Kubrick from the age of 18 onwards and found bundled together in his Hertfordshire mansion late last year. 'Obviously it's fun and fascinating for the family to see these early works,' says Christiane Kubrick. 'But the scripts we have found are not projects Stanley talked about developing while he was still alive. Rather, he kept them as keepsakes in the same way that many writers keep hold of everything they have written.' Harlan, meanwhile, insists that the documentary is a chance for the family to counter the negative press which Kubrick suffered throughout his career, although he promises that 'we won't make him into Saint Stanley either. He was a great guy, and you don't have to improve on him. He was one of the great artists of the 20th century.'

What the critical and public reception will be to A Clockwork Orange this time around in Britain remains to be seen - Julian Senior doesn't expect any of the problems which occurred before: 'I have a feeling that communication is such today that people are much more enlightened,' he says. 'I hope that, instead of dealing with segments or facets of the film, of which violence is clearly one, people will see the thing as a whole and say 'what is the film saying to us.' (This may, however, be optimistic as a Channel 4 documentary by Paul Joyce, The Return of A Clockwork Orange spent a large portion of its 50 minutes running time discussing the vioence of the opening scenes without ever getting on to the overall theme of the story).

Jan Harlan echoes Senior's opinion: 'Times have changed,' he says, 'and people now will realise that this is a very serious film - in some ways it is completely over the top, but then artists are allowed to do that.' To the question of whether A Clockwork Orange's time has finally come, however, he remains guarded: 'I have no idea,' he told me when I spoke with him at the beginning of March. 'Ask me in six weeks.' ??