The disintegration of language is a further omnipresent force in the film. The so-called Received Pronunciation (RP) of the BBC newscaster and indeed virtually all public voices aired in the UK up to the 1960s is torn asunder by the Droogs’ use of a slang called Nadsat. Slang is used ubiquitously by youth subcultures to differentiate themselves from the adults who control their daily lives, as a way of carving out one’s own identity and presenting a challenge to social authority.
Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange is perhaps the most potent example of Alex’s desire to live outside the state-sanctioned social system. Alex has chosen to embrace a way of speaking whose subtext is to say, ‘I don’t want to be a part of the society into which I’m born’. The BBC had long been seen, at home and abroad, as the voice of civilised British values in no small part because of the strongly associated intonations and accents of the dialect used by its reporters and presenters. This RP is also strongly associated with having a formal education, which in turn is often associated with being wealthy and coming from an upper-class background. Alex and his Droogs wilfully discard any aspirations to belong to the social class of the power elite by embracing their own dialect, uniform, and criminality. In the same way, Kubrick actively subverts the tropes of so-called civilised values through co-opting Purcell and the bowler hat, producing a peculiarly British critique of all that Britannia stands for. More than that, it’s a call for a very British revolution.
Is this really a British film or actually a US studio film masquerading as British? After all, few of us would consider Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006) a British film, even though much of it is shot on the familiar streets of London, any more than we would consider Our Man In Havana (Carol Reed, 1959) a Cuban film. But what is it then that makes a film belong to one culture or nation rather than another? Traditionally, because of their high production costs, films are often constructed with a cultural universality in mind. It’s a rare film made outside of France, the US or Japan that can cover its production costs from within its domestic market alone. So where does this leave A Clockwork Orange? Is it British, American or simply the product of a global industrial process rather than the expression of any single nation’s cultural identity?
A Clockwork Orange has a largely British cast, crew and setting and is adapted from a British author’s novel. But it is directed by Stanley Kubrick, arguably the most significant of all American directors. Kubrick found finance for the film through Warner Brothers at the very heart of Hollywood. The US studios were actively seeking to fund their very own art-movies in order to compete with the raft of films from Europe which had lately been sweeping up awards, critical praise, and above all dollars around the globe. Using American money to fund what seems on the surface like a very British picture might have been the industrial equivalent of building a cultural Trojan Horse. Britain has long been perceived as a kind of cultural beachhead between Europe and the USA thanks largely to its common language. Warner Brothers could easily have conceived of using A Clockwork Orange to colonise the European art-house market from within. With their more challenging and adult approach to subject matter, films like The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970), Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965) and Belle de Jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967) were selling tickets almost as fast as they were breaking taboos. It’s likely that Hollywood wanted a piece of this action and thought that by producing something abroad, which tackled potentially controversial themes, it could beat the Europeans at their own game while keeping the international box office receipts in country. Looking at A Clockwork Orange’s national identity this way opens up an intriguing argument for the film as a kind of US imperialist indoctrination of the UK in much the same manner as the film’s anti-hero, Alex, finds himself brainwashed by state power. The cultural and industrial muscle of Hollywood equates easily with the financial and ethical authority of the British state as depicted in Kubrick’s film.
However, A Clockwork Orange can hardly be labelled a US film simply because of its US director and funding. It is very hard to imagine the film functioning as successfully if located in any other country in the world besides Britain. It is this exploration of the iconography of the UK which confirms A Clockwork Orange’s cultural identity as truly British. There is something inherently British in the way the material addresses social flux in a timeline which could begin with a past depicted in If… (Lindsay Anderson, 1968), continuing through the disaffected present found in Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1995) and arriving at the dystopian future in which A Clockwork Orange is set. Kubrick uses an idea of Britain, a memory of Empire, casting its eye over the past of this once powerful British Imperial Civilisation and presenting us with a vision of an atrophied future where the savage and civilised have become one.
Perhaps this film is, in a perverse way, Kubrick’s paean to Britain. It seems somehow a fitting tribute to the artistry of A Clockwork Orange that it resonated so powerfully with British youth culture while simultaneously galvanising the outraged attention of Middle England’s moral Right. ‘Of all the films that [Kubrick] made in Great Britain, Barry Lyndon and A Clockwork Orange are, paradoxically, the only ones whose cultural background is truly English’ (Ciment 2005: 411). What other film in the history of UK cinema has been rereleased nationwide 30 years after its original debut in over 250 cinemas? If there remained any doubt over A Clockwork Orange’s national identity, this should triumphantly confirm its position as a key work of and for British cinema.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: UK. Production Company: Warner Bros, Hawk Films. Director and Screenwriter: Stanley Kubrick. Cinematographer: John Alcott. Editor: Bill Butler. Cast: Malcolm McDowell (Alex de Large), Patrick Magee (Mr Alexander), Michael Bates (Chief Guard), Warren Clarke (Dim), Carl Duering (Dr Brodsky), Adrienne Corri (Mrs Alexander).]
Michel Ciment, ‘A Clockwork Orange’, in Alison Castle (ed.) The Stanley Kubrick Archives, London, Taschen, 2005.
Janet Staiger, ‘The Cultural Productions of A Clockwork Orange’, in Stuart Y. McDougal, ed., Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 37–60.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.