In A Clockwork Orange’s Britain, the thugs who roam the streets raping, pillaging and murdering at will are at once both the savages from whom the civilised need protection, and the protectors themselves. Alex’s psychotic droogs flip from outlaws to guardians of the establishment with the merest whiff of state power.
It is no surprise that the British Board of Film Classification had particular problems passing the film as it seemed a direct attack not only on the civilised values it set itself up to guard, but also on the mechanisms which purported to keep it civilised. As Janet Staiger notes, ‘Since the film itself criticised government attempts to control or condition youth behaviour with the proposition that interference by authorities was more immoral than Alex’s original behaviour, it might look too self-serving of the Board to question the film’ (2003: 38). In the end they were saved the trouble of censoring the film by Kubrick himself who was disturbed by just how potent a cultural force the film turned out to be.
Following the film’s UK release in 1971, a spate of supposedly copycat violent occurrences were reported together with a number of threats against Kubrick’s own family’s personal safety. As a result, Kubrick chose to withdraw the film from distribution in Britain. It remained unseen in the UK from this point until after his death in 1999. It could be that he felt the film spoke so specifically to the youth of the UK that Kubrick chose to withdraw it from this territory alone. Or it could be that he would have withdrawn it globally had he the power to do so. But the fact remains that the UK is the only country where Kubrick demanded the film be taken out of public circulation. The question is, does this say more about the nature of the film itself or British culture? Either way the two seem inextricably linked.
By the time Kubrick made the film he had long ‘gone native’. Born in New York, he had moved to the UK with his family and set up permanent home far from the reaches of all but the most persistent envoys of Hollywood. Perhaps Kubrick’s outsider status gave him the necessary distance to carry off such a potent critique of Britain and British cinema. A Clockwork Orange is the ultimate antidote to the familiar school of British Social Realism which largely dominated UK art cinema of the time. Kubrick loved to use supposedly low culture to undress high culture. Science Fiction and Horror are commonly regarded as lowbrow genres, looked down upon as ‘trashy’ by the literary elite. It seems a peculiarly American conceit to use a blend of these disreputable genres to dissect both British culture and the class-fixated school of Social Realism. Kubrick emerged with a visionary critique of the effects of Britain’s rigid society, where everyone knows their place, the law serves the powerful and the civilised values this elite dictate form the very foundation of Britain’s national identity.
If nineteenth-century Britain were to identify any single value above all others as embodying Britishness, it likely would have been a notion of being civilised. As a result, for Britons, national identity has become almost interchangeable with the idea of being civilised. If this means being considerate, educated and charitable, it also means being right, powerful and in control.
A Clockwork Orange challenges the very meaning of ‘civilised’ with its carefully orchestrated assault on the establishment. Kubrick has put together a checklist of characteristics of civilised Britain, placing them at the heart of the moral malaise running through his vision of a nation in decline. Classical music from Beethoven, and even more ironically, Purcell’s ‘Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary’ become synonymous not with the genteel drawing rooms of the educated, but with the sadistic erotic fantasies of juveniles. The bowler hat and cane once associated with that bastion of Britishness, the archetypal City Gent, is now turned into a uniform of terror worn by Alex and his droogs. Science and Medicine are now to be found working for the frightened, patronising and deluded government. The British institutional construct of the State is subverted and used as a locus for power, corruption and lies. The irony of the film is that it is this very same corrupt fear which is serving to produce a nation of disaffected amoral and frustrated psychopaths. Perhaps Kubrick meant to indicate that this was also exactly the personality required for Imperial expansion and the subsequent violent ‘civilising’ of the world.
The striking and much mimicked uniforms of the droogs took the tropes of the City gent and rendered them into something more akin to the identifiers worn by members of any number of contemporary youth subcultures, in itself a very British idea. It comes as little surprise that so many of these subcultures were first produced by the UK. In a grey impoverished post-war Britain, the youth sought to separate themselves from their parents’ ‘keep calm and carry on’ post-war mentality and asked: ‘What has my county done for me?’ The answer appeared to be ‘not much’. And so the youth sought to distance themselves from their parents’ lifestyles and seek out their own more colourful identities often through the rising iconography of pop music. The Teddy-boys, mods, rockers, punks, headbangers – these were all established first in Britain before being exported to the US and beyond. Watching 1960s news footage of the clashes on Brighton Beach between Mods, Rockers and police, it’s easy to see where Burgess and Kubrick might have got their inspiration for Alex and his Droogs.