Why Stanley Kubrick Banned A CLOCKWORK ORANGE

The story behind the disappearance of a classic.

The crimes could be scenes from A Clockwork Orange: a boy beats a homeless man to death for a few pennies; a 16-year old dressed like Alex and his droogs savagely beats and kicks a 15-year old; a 17-year old Dutch girl is gang raped by a group of Lancashire boys as they sing Singin’ In The Rain.

But these weren’t scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece – they were events that occurred in the real world a year after its release. The film, a smash hit, immediately got the attention of moralizers and puritans, who were shocked and appalled at the way Kubrick mixed sex and violence, and the seductive way that he portrayed Alex’s life of delinquency. When these crimes started happening – crimes that one judge explicitly said were part of a "horrible trend which has been inspired by this wretched film'' – the outcry against A Clockwork Orange grew louder.

Kubrick had stood steadfast by his film, but something about these crimes troubled him. He met with Warner Bros and they came to a decision: the movie would be pulled from release in the United Kingdom.

Over the years legend had it that A Clockwork Orange was one of the Video Nasties, one of the films banned by Britain because of its content, but the truth is that it was Kubrick himself who made the choice. Julian Senior, who was then vice-president of Warner Bros, told The Guardian, “The police were saying to us: 'We think you should do something about this. It is getting dangerous.'"

In many ways it was giving in to those who claim that movies create violence in society – a position Kubrick had staunchly opposed while doing the initial press for the film. Speaking with journalist Michael Ciment, Kubrick said:

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.

There has always been violence in art. 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. I think the question of whether there has been an increase in screen violence and, if so, what effect this has had, is to a very great extent a media-defined issue. I know there are well-intentioned people who sincerely believe that films and TV contribute to violence, but almost all of the official studies of this question have concluded that there is no evidence to support this view. At the same time, I think the media tend to exploit the issue because it allows them to display and discuss the so-called harmful things from a lofty position of moral superiority. But 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 behaviour, or by the unexpected blossoming of a psychopath who is described afterward as having been '...such a nice, quiet boy,' but whose entire life, it is later realized, has been leading him inexorably to the terrible moment, and who would have found the final ostensible reason for his action if not in one thing then in another. In both instances immensely complicated social, economic and psychological forces are involved in the individual's criminal behaviour. 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. This notion is further encouraged by the criminals and their lawyers who hope for mitigation through this excuse. I am also surprised at the extremely illogical distinction that is so often drawn between harmful violence and the so-called harmless violence of, say, "Tom and Jerry" cartoons or James Bond movies, where often sadistic violence is presented as unadulterated fun. I hasten to say, I don't think that they contribute to violence either. Films and TV are also convenient whipping boys for politicians because they allow them to look away from the social and economic causes of crime, about which they are either unwilling or unable to do anything.

And yet a year later he voluntarily removed the film from circulation in the UK - a condition that endured until his death. An entire generation of British film fans grew up unable to see the movie for themselves; a cinema club that tried to screen A Clockwork Orange in the 1990s was effectively sued out of existence.

Kubrick was, of course, correct in his initial quote. A Clockwork Orange didn’t make anyone commit any crimes; the boy who beat the homeless man to death hadn’t even seen the film, but had heard it described by friends. A Clockwork Orange remains a misunderstood movie, a film whose visceral and thrilling depiction of heinous acts is often misconstrued by younger viewers who are drawn to the edgy transgression and seeming self-actualization of Alex. It’s like Fight Club, a movie that has inspired actual real-life fight clubs despite such things being against the film’s message when taken as a whole.

So why did Kubrick have the film withdrawn? He continued exploring violence in movies, so it wasn’t remorse for the subject matter. After his death his widow, Christiane Kubrick, said he pulled the film after death threats were made against his family, but why would he have so vociferously kept the movie out of circulation even decades after its release? He never spoke about the decision, but it’s easy to imagine that while he didn’t blame A Clockwork Orange for the murder or the assault or the rape, 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. They say that once a movie is released it belongs to the public - Stanley Kubrick obviously didn't agree.

This was originally published in the "Cheers! A Celebration of Pub Life" issue of Birth.Movies.Death. See Badass Digest Presents: A Clockwork Orange at the Alamo Drafthouse this month.