A Clockwork Orange just might be Stanley Kubrick’s most controversial film. For a director whose previous productions focused on orgies, the manipulative nature of the American military complex, paedophilia, and reducing the nuclear destruction of the world into a farcical comedy, that’s certainly saying something.
Whereas those films dealt with sinister themes, none of them articulated the unsightliness of modern society in quite the same way as A Clockwork Orange. While ostensibly taking place in a future dystopia, the film and its source material both comments on the devolution of Britain as both writer Anthony Burgess and ex-pat Kubrick saw it playing out in the contemporary time. Neither shied away from graphic violence to illustrate their thoughts on delinquency, reformation, and hypocrisy.
In order to bring out that palpable danger on-screen, Kubrick often put his actors in truly dangerous scenarios. While reflecting on the film’s 50th anniversary with the NME, lead actor Malcolm McDowell recalls the harrowing experiences he was subjected to during the filming.
“One of the electricians said: ‘He’s tryin’ to kill you Malc, he’s tryin’ to kill you,'” McDowell remembers. “He was a control freak, without a doubt, on everything. [Kubrick] showed me a picture of this and I went” ‘Oh yeah? Wow’. He goes, ‘What do you think?’ ‘What do you mean what do I think? It’s an eye operation going on.’ He said: ‘I’d like you to do that.’ I went: ‘What? There’s no way! No, no, no.’ But he already had a doctor from Moorfields [Eye Hospital, in London] coming over to talk to me about it.'”
The actor continued: “And of course this doctor comes over and he’s the guy in the movie. ‘You’ll have no problem, your eyes will be anaesthetised,’ he said. ‘You won’t feel a thing.’ Well, famous last words. That wasn’t exactly accurate. So they scratch my corneas and then a week later [Kubrick] says: ‘I’ve seen all the stuff, and it’s great, but I need a real close-up of the eye.’ And I went: ‘Well, why don’t you do it on the stunt double? That’s what he gets paid for.’ ‘Malcolm, your eyes are… I can’t do that.’ So I had to go back in and do it again! And of course, they scratch my corneas [again], nothing like originally but I knew it was coming. That was torture because I knew what to expect… but, you know, it was worth it.”
Following the physically and emotionally excruciating production, McDowell developed an (understandable) bitterness towards the film. “For the first ten years after I made it, I resented it,” McDowell explains. “I was sick of it. I didn’t want to talk about the fucking thing, I was over it. I said: ‘Look, I’m an actor, I got to play a great part, I’m moving on.’ Then I came to the realisation that it was a masterwork, and I was very, very much part of it. You may as well just accept it and enjoy it.”
McDowell also found the controversy surrounding the film to be strange. “Of course, it’s psychologically disturbing, but I’d just seen Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, the Wild West one where everything is mass shootings in slow motion. Brilliant. Compared to [that], it’s a Disney movie. The violence of the film was nothing, they kick an old man and that’s about it. I mean, even the rape of Bryce’s wife, Alex does ‘Singin’ In The Rain’ for Christ’s sake.”
Ultimately, McDowell found the not-so-futuristic dystopia of the film to be a cautionary tale, and just like Burgess and Kubrick before him, he sees parallels to the modern day. “It’s a warning, it’s a warning,” says McDowell. “But look, we’ve just come through a Trump presidency. Jesus, how we got through that I’ll never know. So the warning signs are all there. I mean they’re all there.”