In an age when The Walking Dead provides a weekly dose of head-exploding gore, it’s easy to forget how shocking the violence of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) felt to viewers at the time. Anthony Burgess’ novel was about crime and punishment, the differences and/or similarities between street-level thugs and state-sanctioned violence, and the importance of violence in a free society. Kubrick, having blown up the world a decade earlier at the end of Dr. Strangelove, took on all these issues and made them into pure cinema. It elicits a response even now—I have friends who resolutely refuse to watch the film—despite its years spent on the compost pile of post-modern culture.
For an example of how strongly people felt, check this quote from Peter Sellers, being interviewed by Gene Siskel in the Chicago Sun-Times in 1972, five months after the film premiered in the States.
Peter Sellers: I hated A Clockwork Orange. I thought it was the biggest load of crap I’ve ever seen for years. Amoral. I think because of the violence around today it’s lamentable that a director of Stanley Kubrick’s distinction and ability should lend himself to such a subject. I’m not saying that you can’t pick up that book [the Anthony Burgess novel upon which the film is based], read it, and put it down. But to make it as a film, with all the violence we have in the world today – to add to it, to put it on show – I just don’t understand where Stanley is at.
Gene Siskel: Are you saying that it will influence people to commit violence that they would otherwise not commit?
Peter Sellers: I think it adds to it.
Sellers had worked with Kubrick on both Dr. Strangelove and Lolita, so for a star to talk so ill of a former director was quite shocking. He continues in the interview to also denounce the violence in Hitchcock’s Frenzy, which had just been released. When Siskel presses him on the portrayal of violence and its necessity in a world that wanted more truth and realism in its films, Sellers falls back on his recent involvement in yoga:
I must tell you first of all that I’m a yogi. I am against violence completely. Hare ommm. So you now know why. So there’s really no point in asking any more questions about it.
During the original promotion for the film, Kubrick considered criticisms of its violence absurd:
No one is corrupted watching A Clockwork Orange any more than they are by watching Richard III… The film has been accepted as a work of art, and no work of art has ever done social harm, though a great deal of social harm has been done by those who have sought to protect society against works of art which they regarded as dangerous.
Yet as copycat crimes—or crimes that the UK’s press like to suggest were so—increased in the months after its release, Kubrick removed his film from circulation in Britain. Despite Kubrick being behind the decision, it was generally thought that the UK had “banned” the film. It remained so until Kubrick’s death in 1999. Britain finally got to see an uncut version of the film in…you guessed it…2001.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.