1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)

by Trey Hock on October 8, 2010

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!

I have watched “A Clockwork Orange” numerous times and it always affects me a little differently each time. The first time I saw it was in high school and we were discussing anti-heroes. Alex (Macolm McDowell) could not be a more perfect example of a corrupted and contemptible protagonist.

Often when people talk about “A Clockwork Orange” they discuss how disturbing it is, and I totally agree. The first third of the movie builds up Alex as an intelligent, charming, yet brutal youth, who fights boredom with his aggressive tendencies.

In the first act of the movie we see a bum beaten, a wife and husband beaten, the wife raped, a gang fight and a woman murdered. What struck me this time through is director Stanley Kubrick’s ability to build a scene up in the mind of the viewer and thus avoid putting excessively graphic images on screen. Now I’m not claiming that his images are not evocative or disturbing, but instead of showing lots of blood or the actual rape, Kubrick’s approach is gestural.

Here is one of the most brutal scenes in the film, watch it and look at what is actually shown. If you haven’t seen “A Clockwork Orange” in a while I think you’ll be surprised at how little makes it on screen. That said, this scene still contains full nudity and shows or refers to violent and sexual acts. Those more sensitive readers beware.

This scene is built around the distorted close up of the husband on the floor. We see Alex and his gang remove the wife’s clothes and we understand what’s happening, but the husband’s face sells the sheer terror of this moment. His eyes tell us what we’re not seeing.

After a botched break-in and the murder of a woman on her estate, Alex is caught and sent to prison where he thrives. He is able to seamlessly integrate into a system that thrives on aggression and strict order. He also finds joys in the violence he discovers while reading the Bible. Always looking for a quicker way to reenter the outside world, he approaches the prison priest about a new technique, which will make him “good.” (Sound starts at 20 seconds)

And here we get to the first nugget of what “A Clockwork Orange’ seeks to explore. Does a man cease to be a man if he can no longer choose his actions? Alex shows little regard for such questions and thus his treatment begins.

First I just want to say the use of music in conjunction with the war footage is inspired. Alex, in a moment of realization that his beloved Ludwig Van is being taken away, breaks down and screams for mercy, but the treatment must continue. We can now see the institution responsible for rehabilitating Alex is just as cold and unforgiving as Alex himself.

Still the treatment works and is hailed as a success.

All cheer for the program except the priest, who once again speaks out for personal choice. Kubrick chooses to put the argument for individual choice in the mouth of a priest, because true salvation can only come from within, from the personal choices that each of us makes. Anything else is straight existence, reactions to outside stimuli. We are reduced to paramecia running from one chemical stimulant to another.

Now Alex can no longer engage in violent acts of any kind, even to defend himself. Thus our aggressor has become completely vulnerable, and falls victim to those he once victimized. His lovely, lovely Ludwig Van becomes his Achilles Heel. (Sound starts at 17 seconds.)

Roger Ebert suggests that “A Clockwork Orange” is a failed film that attempts to make a left wing argument against fascism, but only glorifies the protagonist.

“It pretends to oppose the police state and forced mind control, but all it really does is celebrate the nastiness of its hero, Alex.” –Roger Ebert

Though I can see where Ebert is coming from, I think he’s wrong. I think he’s focusing too closely on one part of Kubrick’s argument, I don’t think Kubrick is just arguing against the police state in “A Clockwork Orange,” but is also saying that the world in the film, which mirrors our own, is a world in which a person like Alex can thrive. I think this is illustrated perfectly in the last scene.

This police state needs violent proponents to push the system forward, as well as violent opposition to rail against. Alex gets put on the payroll and co-opted, because he, more than anyone else in “A Clockwork Orange,” is in line with its workings. Stanley Kubrick isn’t just railing against governmental control nor is he glorifying a perpetrator of violence. He’s trying to scare us out of our seats. He’s trying to let us know that we’re screwed either way.

Next up #69 “Tootsie” (1982)

1 Year, 100 Movies #71 Saving Private Ryan (1998)

1 Year, 100 Movies #72 The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

1 Year, 100 Movies #73 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

1 Year, 100 Movies #74 The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

1 Year, 100 Movies #75 In the Heat of the Night (1967)

1 Year, 100 Movies #76 Forrest Gump (1994)

1 Year, 100 Movies #77 All the President’s Men (1976)

1 Year, 100 Movies #78 Modern Times (1936)

1 Year, 100 Movies #79 The Wild Bunch (1969)

For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)

For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Eric Melin October 10, 2010 at 10:54 pm

I love, love, love the way you describe the violence in this film. It is known for being one of the most graphic on record, but clearly that’s because our mind filled in the gaps. What’s really disturbing (and proves at least part of Ebert’s argument, although unintentionally) is that this movie has become a classic for some people for the wrong reasons.

I saw Motley Crue on the Generation Swine tour (free tickets to see Cheap Trick open the show–who blew them away, for the record) and one of the lamest, most pathetic things I’ve ever seen was a montage of video clips from Crue’s past and violent movies that played at one point during their show. “Clockwork” played heavily in that montage and it was disturbing to see a half-full stadium cheering along and whooping it up as Alex and his Droogs raped and stripped the woman in the clip above.

Talk about mob mentality. If there was some kind of ironic or satirical statement being made, I missed it. It was just a bunch of people cheering on rape from a movie they all knew–not what Kubrick intended, I can assure you.

So where does that leave us? Is “Clockwork” a misunderstood masterpiece or does it glorify the ‘ultra-violence’? I think that depends on the context. Watch a part of the film or take the entire thing into consideration and you may get 2 different opinions.


2 RCM October 11, 2010 at 4:06 pm

I’m not sure we can make judgments on what qualifies as the \right\ reasons to like a movie. I have a friend from Norway who’s actively engaged in the porn and fetish industry, particularly around the niche involving fantasies of forced sex and domination. She’s a lovely and intelligent women who just happens to have this fantasy, which is also her hobby. To say the least, she loves this movie just for that scene and really doesn’t gives a damn about exploring its themes.

On the other hand, I find the movie a fascinating look at authority and control put next to freedom and individual responsibility. Made even better with Kubrick’s striking combination of sounds and images.

My point is, I’m not really sure if my liking of the this movie is anymore authentic than hers just because it’s more in line with the filmmakers initial meaning, we’re both just looking for different things.


3 Trey Hock October 12, 2010 at 7:13 am


“I’m not sure we can make judgments on what qualifies as the \right\ reasons to like a movie.”

I do agree that people like different movies for different reasons, and that’s fine. I mean one could hammer in a nail with an adjustable wrench, and get the job done. I do however think that authorial intent is something to be aware of. Kubrick is condemning the police state, and scrutinizing those who thrive in it. If your friend’s okay with being on that side of the line then, that’s her choice. It sounds as though she’s exploring a dark fantasy, which means she does have an awareness of where the line of criticism is drawn, and that outside of the fantasy she wouldn’t argue for violence or police state.


You can take anything out of context, and misuse it. Because most of us encounter ACO in high school, it becomes a clearer target for misuse. Not sure that I can hold Kubrick responsible for a whole bunch of rape loving Crue fans.


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