A Clockwork Orange (1971) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

“I’m singing in the rain. Just singing in the rain!”

A Clockwork Orange presents itself as an ultra-violent reflection of modern society, even when viewed almost 50 years after its creation. In truth it’s a sly satire that criticizes many elements of society, admonishing those with power and forcing audiences to look closer.

First Impressions

If a trailer is to provide a sense of the film it advertises, this trailer succeeds hands down. Made up of short shots, all less than a second, words and images flash across the screen. Witty. Funny. Metaphorical. Satirical. Beethoven. Along with scenes of violence, sex, Hitler, faces, and many other strange things. Certainly the trailer entices the audience to see the film, as it gives no sense of what the film is about or exactly what the title means. For those that have seen the film, this trailer is spot on, and ties in with the thematic and tonal quality of the film. And hopefully it intrigues those that haven’t seen it for a viewing.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

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A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange title card.

The Fiction of The Film

Set sometime in the future, Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his three droogs (friends), Dim (Warren Clarke), Georgie (James Marcus), and Pete (Michael Tarn), enjoy milk-plus at the local milk bar. They then go out in the evening for some ultra-violence. First they beat up a wino under a bridge, then tussle with Billy Boy and his droogs, finally they race a car down a country road, running other vehicles off the shoulder, before winding up a small house labeled “Home.” They break in and assault the husband and wife that live there while wearing masks. Alex sings an excerpt from “Singing in the Rain” while repeatedly kicking the man, and then proceeds to rape his wife.

Alex is awakened by his mother (Sheila Raynor) the next day, but says his gulliver (head) is sore and can’t go to school. When he finally wakes up he discovers Mr. Deltoid (Aubrey Morris), his counselor (or perhaps his probation officer) in his house. He basically warns Alex that he can’t afford any more mistakes, all while physically flirting with the boy (which Alex is able to avoid). Georgie decides that the group should do what he wants for a change, but Alex re-asserts his dominance with the gang and they decide to break into a health farm and attack the female owner. Alex sneaks in attempting to goad her as he did with the couple the night before, but she fights back. He accidentally kills her, and as he tries to escape, his droogs–tired of his overbearing dominance–turn on him, leaving him injured at the scene waiting for the police.

He is taken into custody and convicted. Over the next two years he works with the prison priest in order to at least look like he’s making amends. He hears of a new treatment called the Ludovico Technique which is said to cure the criminal mind absolutely. Alex volunteers and is put into a program where he is dosed with a chemical, and then shown violent and sexually provocative films while listening to classical music, including his beloved Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The technique associates the urges he gets with the films with illness, but the side effect is that he also gets the same feeling from his music. He is released a cured man and the newspapers all share the headline making story.

A Clockwork Orange

The iconic opening shot.

He returns to his parents’ house, and his father (Philip Stone) informs him that they have no room for him, having adopted a lodger while he was in prison. With nowhere to go Alex wanders the streets and is assaulted by a pack of wino’s when one of them recognizes him as the boy that beat him years ago. Luckily he is saved by two police officers, but suddenly realizes they are Georgie and Dim, now running the same games as before but in the guise of authority. The two cops escort Alex into the woods and beat him, nearly drowning him in a water trough. Alex makes his way to a house he does not recognize, with the small sign “Home” out front.

The owner, Frank Alexander (Patrick Magee)–now in a wheelchair–and his nurse/bodybuilder Julian (David Prowse) take the beaten boy in. Knowing that Alex is “the boy from the papers” Frank feels sorry for Alex. But a short while later as Alex is enjoying a bath, Frank realizes that this is the same lad that crippled him and killed his wife when he hears Alex singing “Singing in the Rain.” Frank calls some friends thinking that they might be able to use Alex as an example of how evil the current Government administration is. They drug Alex, and lock him in a room, turning up Beethoven’s Ninth. This drives Alex into madness and he leaps from the window in an attempt to put himself out of his misery.

Fortunately Alex survives and is hospitalized for months while recovering. His parents show up to visit, but he tells them he’s no longer interested in their friendship or support. Alex informs the nurse that he’s had a strange dream, as if people had been messing around with his gulliver. She shows him some flashcards, and asks for him to fill in the word balloons of the characters. His responses are violent, coarse and sexually vulgar. A government minister introduces himself and asks Alex if he will help the government show that they have atoned for the sins. The minister puts on Beethoven’s Ninth and Alex smiles, fantasizing about an orgy in front of many onlookers. He is cured and back to his old self again.

Goodness is something to be chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.” – Prison Chaplain

A Clockwork Orange

Alex and his droogs start the evening beating up a wino.

History in the Making

Stanley Kubrick is back at it again. Only 3 years after his magnum-opus science-fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey, he returned to the screens with an adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. But unlike the optimistic and hopeful 2001, Clockwork is a dark dystopian piece of fiction that focuses on the worst elements of mankind. It follows a young hoodlum, whose violent delights underscore the worst parts of society. Alex and his mates practice assault, murder, rape and all told, show no remorse for their actions.

As with Fahrenheit 451, the question can be raised about whether the film is in fact science-fiction. Again I’ll argue that the dystopian future-world the film is set in, with its advanced criminal rehabilitation techniques, equates to an adequate science-fiction template. Much like George Orwell’s novel “1984,” A Clockwork Orange, and its original novel, use the dystopian future as a setting to tell a parable warning audiences of the perils of specific social actions. And much like Fahrenheit 451, the future is not so different looking than the present. Only the satirical nature–the over-the-top violence and sly references to modern politics–separates the two on a thematic level.

A Clockwork Orange would be Kubrick’s last sci-fi film. His career would continue with films about haunted hotels and the horrors of war. But the film did introduce audiences to Malcolm McDowell who would go on to appear in several classic sci-fi films such as Time After Time, where he portrayed HG Wells who uses his time machine to visit the present day, and also Star Trek Generations, the 7th film in that franchise where his villainous Soran would help transition the vintage cast to the next generation.

A Clockwork Orange

The seminal ‘Singing in the Rain’ scene, as Alex beats an old man and rapes his wife.


In the late 60s and early 70s satire became an important part of sci-fi films, and cinema in general. Films like Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming–two comedic satires–or films like Dark Star and Brazil, satire is used to mock social conventions, institutions, and stereotypes in hopes of creating a parable for audiences–pointing out absurdity through situations.

A Clockwork Orange does so, but uses ultra-violent and sexual imagery to create that connection. Unfortunately the use of such taboo subjects tend to lead to censorship, even with the best intentions. As an example, in the two major Kubrick satires Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange, the films both present over-the-top characters and situations. Strangelove deals with the glorification of nuclear war by a character, while Clockwork spotlights violence. It is inconceivable that an audience would view Dr. Strangelove as a film that glorifies nuclear holocaust, due to the actions of a single character, but that’s how many view Clockwork. The satirical prospect of a General so wrapped up in nuclear armageddon that he wishes for it is ludicrous. But compared to the use of violent imagery from A Clockwork Orange, some find it challenging to separate the glorification of such imagery, from its satirical use. This complaint scored Clockwork an initial X-rating and a ban in several locales for it’s overt imagery. Other sci-fi films that featured satirical uses of violence also received complaints, censorship, and outrage from the public. Coincidentally both examples I’m thinking of were created by the Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, Robocop and Starship Troopers.

One other thing that A Clockwork Orange lends to the genre is its use of a provocative title. Just what is a ‘clockwork orange?’ Much like the titles of Philip K. Dick’s Blade Runner or A Scanner Darkly, sci-fi film titles should evoke a newness and challenge the viewer in interpretation. Burgess has stated that phrase for the title was an English slang term he had heard, but that report seems as if it’s apocryphal. Either way, the title seems to describe an organic element (the orange) with mechanical insides (clockwork) which aptly depicts Alex’s change throughout the film.

A Clockwork Orange

The droogs enjoy some milk-plus at the local milk bar.

Societal Commentary

Of course the biggest commentary is the films thematic issues about society, specifically, victimization, rehabilitation, and the concepts of free will and choice in life. The film presents itself as an extension of the protagonist Alex. It is told from his point of view, and is narrated by him–sharing with the audience his insights on his mental state and his thoughts on his punishments. As such, the glee and earnestness that is seen in the violent scenes is meant to show Alex’s glee and earnestness in his actions, not necessarily the filmmakers.

Alex attacks random citizens with his friends, just having a lark. Alex is arrested by the police who beat him during questioning. After his rehabilitation he is again attacked by two policemen who turn out to be two of his (former) friends, before being victimized by Frank as revenge for Alex’s earlier crimes. “Violence makes violence,” one of the police officers says after Alex is arrested. Clockwork describes a perpetual state of violence and terror that seems to feed on itself. People are victimized, and rather than turning the other cheek, they continue to victimize someone else, on and on. It’s a problem that is still all too clear in society today.

A Clockwork Orange

‘Violence makes violence,’ as the police brutalize Alex before his trial.

The film also comments on the nature of rehabilitation. Alex is cured, but no one trusts or believes that he has been reformed. Not his parents, not his friends, not his guards. It’s as if the one black mark on his record has become a permanent scar that he is unable to rid himself of. The commentary in this case is the lack of respect that felons receive when released from prison. Are they actually cured? Will they commit more crimes? But of course in the case of Alex, the mental conditioning has proved extremely effective. The audience understands that now Alex is actually at a deficit in society, being unable to even defend himself from being wrongfully attacked. He has lost is choice in the matter.

His prison chaplain effectively argues this point with the doctors and politicians. That “when a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.” Alex used his free will irresponsibly so the State then chooses to remove that choice from him. He becomes a pawn in their political game that he has no control over. In the end he gets his wish and gets his free will back. By this time the audience realizes that he is truly evil, as his time in prison and the conditioning have done nothing for him. If anything his tendencies have been made worse, as it has showed Alex how power can be used in much more effective ways. Rather than physical damage, he can do so much more damage as a political tool.

A Clockwork Orange

After being cured and released, Alex is assaulted by his former friends and taken in by Frank and Julian.

The Science in The Fiction

Scientifically, A Clockwork Orange seems to be satirizing the quack science of the day. Whether it was the crystals and energy healing of the 70s, or the conversion therapy of the modern age. Its take on the Ludovico Technique is one of great celebration, but also flippancy. While there’s no real therapy that change a persons feelings the way it’s shown in the film (though many “doctors” may say otherwise), the film shows that this technique is extremely successful. This science, which was created as a means for helping society, then becomes a tool by political rivals to turn off and then turn on again criminal habits.In the reality of the film a piece of technology has been used outside of its intended purpose for purposes undreamt of by its creator. A common theme in science-fiction.

The side effects of conditioning are also an unforeseen element. The doctor, upon hearing that Alex is particularly attached to Beethoven’s Ninth, considers the implications for a second but feels that the risk or sacrifice is for the greater good. If the boy loses the ability to like one song, even if he is cured of his violent urges, it’s much better for society. Kubrick’s assertion is that not only does the cure heal the illness, but also takes a toll in some other manner that is unexpected. In this case, the loss of a favored song. It’s even possible, though not explored, that this music Alex was so attached to could have been used in an alternative cure, that may have worked for him.

A Clockwork Orange

Hallelujah! Alex can hear the wondrous strains of Ludwig Van again. He is cured!

The Final Frontier

While looked at by many as a film about violence and sex, at least on the surface, A Clockwork Orange provides a much deeper, and darker satire of Western Culture. It is the first film to take an audience intimately into the world of beatings, assault, rape and other dark desires–but it was not the last. It would inspire other films, some in the science-fiction genre and some not, such as Robocop, Starship Troopers, American Psycho, and Fight Club.

Much like Alex’s eyes being forced open to his treatment, audiences were “forced” to see some very uncomfortable things in hopes that it would educate them to certain hypocrisy. A Clockwork Orange’s messages seem equally appropriate, if not moreso, in current society than they did in 1971. The satire seems almost pales as the things that Alex goes through seem ripped from headlines today.

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