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How 'that' scene in Stanley Kubrick film 'A Clockwork Orange' temporarily blinded Malcolm McDowell

“I had truly done my best, morning and afternoon, to play it their way and sit like a horrorshow cooperative malchik in the chair of torture, while they flashed nasty bits of ultraviolence on the screen” – Alex (A Clockwork Orange)

As Alex, the protagonist of Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 classic A Clockwork Orange, sits braced to a cinema seat, eyes forced open watching scenes of ‘ultraviolence’, his torturous screams reach unprecedented octaves way beyond the realms of normal reason. It’s an iconic scene and one which manages to allocate the film’s central focus of the relationship between pleasure and violence, the conscious and the unconscious. Along with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and both Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, Kubrick’s film was considered a landmark in the relaxation of control on violence in the cinema.

Provocative Spanish director Luis Buñuel was highly influenced by the film, once commenting that “A Clockwork Orange is my current favourite. I was predisposed against the film. After seeing it, I realised it is only a movie about what the modern world really means”. No doubt the famous scene where Alex’s eyes are propped open through ‘the Ludovico technique’, the film’s form of aversion therapy, is inspired by Buñuel’s own Un Chien Andalou. The disturbing scene became ubiquitous with the ‘ultraviolence’ spreading through cinema, leading to censorship in the UK and beyond, though it is also responsible for a rather grisly behind the scenes story. 

Cast after his performance in Lindsay Anderson’s If…, lead actor Malcolm McDowell plays a major role in the film’s legacy, with his menacing portrayal as ‘Alex’ fuelling the film’s raging provoking fire. In the scene in question, McDowell was assured by Kubrick and a doctor on standby that the scene was ‘perfectly safe’, with the doctor standing next to him in the scene being a real physician administering eye drops in the actor’s eye every 15 seconds. 

Unfortunately, however, whilst filming the scene, the actor’s cornea did get scratched and McDowell actually went temporarily blind because he had his eyes propped open for such a long time. Moreover, the actor also suffered a physical injury from the stage brawl scene where he cracked several ribs. 

It goes to show the sheer commitment McDowell had to his performance, and the dedication Stanley Kubrick had to create art, even if it came to the detriment of his actor’s wellbeing. With the knowledge that Alex’s screams to “stop!” in this sequence are genuine shouts of discomfort, you may never watch A Clockwork Orange in the same way ever again.

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