When Stanley Kubrick Banned His Own Film, A Clockwork Orange: It Was the “Most Effective Censorship of a Film in British History”

“What in hell is Kubrick up to here?” asked Roger Ebert in his orig­i­nal 1972 review of A Clock­work Orange, whose mar­ket­ing announced it as a film about “the adven­tures of a young man whose prin­ci­pal inter­ests are rape, ultra-vio­lence, and Beethoven.” How could this acclaimed direc­tor real­ly want to involve us in the “psy­cho­path­ic lit­tle life” of this dubi­ous pro­tag­o­nist? “In a world where soci­ety is crim­i­nal, of course, a good man must live out­side the law. But that isn’t what Kubrick is say­ing. He actu­al­ly seems to be imply­ing some­thing sim­pler and more fright­en­ing: that in a world where soci­ety is crim­i­nal, the cit­i­zen might as well be a crim­i­nal, too.”

Oth­ers in the press lev­eled sim­i­lar crit­i­cisms at A Clock­work Orange, most of them much sim­pler and more accusato­ry. They had more seri­ous con­se­quences for the pic­ture in Kubrick­’s adopt­ed home­land of Eng­land. With­in two weeks of its release there, writes David Hugh­es in The Com­plete Kubrick, “right-wingers and tub-thump­ing MPs were bay­ing for the film to be banned there before copy­cat vio­lence could spread among the nation’s impres­sion­able youth. Under a head­line that read ‘CLOCKWORK ORANGES ARE TICKING BOMBS,’ the Evening News pre­dict­ed that the film would ‘lead to a clock­work cult which will mag­ni­fy teen vio­lence.’ ”

The direct attri­bu­tions of vio­lent inci­dents involv­ing young peo­ple to A Clock­work Orange con­tin­ued until the film was final­ly pulled from British the­aters — by the film­mak­er him­self. “In ear­ly 1974, Kubrick and Warn­er Bros qui­et­ly with­drew it from cir­cu­la­tion,” Hugh­es writes, “refus­ing to allow it to be shown under any cir­cum­stances.” Attempt­ed breach­es of this “most effec­tive cen­sor­ship of a film in British his­to­ry” were dealt with harsh­ly: Lon­don’s Scala Cin­e­ma, for exam­ple, was forced to shut its doors for­ev­er after show­ing the film in 1992. A Clock­work Orange final­ly received a British re-release in 2000, the year after Kubrick­’s death.

That same year the doc­u­men­tary Still Tickin’: The Return of A Clock­work Orange, which you can watch on YouTube, told the sto­ry of the film’s sup­pres­sion and re-emer­gence. But why would such a force­ful­ly indi­vid­u­al­is­tic film­mak­er as Stan­ley Kubrick pull his own film from cir­cu­la­tion in the first place? “Stan­ley was very insult­ed by the reac­tion, and hurt,” Hugh­es quotes his wid­ow Chris­tiane as say­ing. Kubrick “did­n’t want to be mis­un­der­stood and mis­in­ter­pret­ed,” nor did he want to keep receiv­ing the “death threats” that the bad press had been draw­ing.

Kubrick “nev­er spoke about the deci­sion” to ban his own movie, writes Devin Faraci at Birth.Movies.Death., and sure­ly did­n’t see it as to blame for youth vio­lence in Britain, but “he was still sick­ened to see the clothes of his char­ac­ters hung on these per­pe­tra­tors. The mes­sage of his film was being missed, and he refused to let the movie take on a life of its own.” Kubrick had dis­cussed his own oppo­si­tion to the idea that art pro­motes vio­lent behav­ior dur­ing the ini­tial pro­mo­tion of A Clock­work Orange: “There has always been vio­lence in art,” he said to jour­nal­ist Michel Ciment. “There is vio­lence in the Bible, vio­lence in Homer, vio­lence in Shake­speare, and many psy­chi­a­trists believe that it serves as a cathar­sis rather than a mod­el.”

In Kubrick­’s view, “the peo­ple who com­mit vio­lent crime are not ordi­nary peo­ple who are trans­formed into vicious thugs by the wrong diet of films or TV. Rather, it is a fact that vio­lent crime is invari­ably com­mit­ted by peo­ple with a long record of anti-social behav­ior, or by the unex­pect­ed blos­som­ing of a psy­chopath who is described after­ward as hav­ing been ‘…such a nice, qui­et boy.’ ” Either way, “immense­ly com­pli­cat­ed social, eco­nom­ic and psy­cho­log­i­cal forces are involved,” and “the sim­plis­tic notion that films and TV can trans­form an oth­er­wise inno­cent and good per­son into a crim­i­nal has strong over­tones of the Salem witch tri­als.” Whether or not Kubrick went too far in with­draw­ing A Clock­work Orange, he cer­tain­ly had a clear­er sense of what cre­ates the kind of malev­o­lent char­ac­ters it depicts than many of its ear­ly view­ers did.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Mak­ing of Stan­ley Kubrick’s A Clock­work Orange

The Scores That Elec­tron­ic Music Pio­neer Wendy Car­los Com­posed for Stan­ley Kubrick’s A Clock­work Orange and The Shin­ing

Peter Sell­ers Calls Kubrick’s A Clock­work Orange “Vio­lent,” “The Biggest Load of Crap I’ve Seen” (1972)

Stan­ley Kubrick’s Rare 1965 Inter­view with The New York­er

A Clock­work Orange Author Antho­ny Burgess Lists His Five Favorite Dystopi­an Nov­els: Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Island & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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