A Clockwork Orange at 40

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Kubrick's dystopian 1972 vision sparked both moral outrage and admiration. Jonathan Romney, and those involved, look back on a monument of modern cinema

The word has been bled dry, but few films have been so genuinely iconic as A Clockwork Orange. Its imagery was sufficiently powerful to take on a life of its own, even to eclipse the movie. I was too young to see it in 1972, but I read about it, read Anthony Burgess's novel, pored over the abundant stills. When I finally saw the film on its re-release in 1990, it was more like revisiting it (but I was disappointed to see how crudely sitcom-like much of the humour was).

The flamboyance of its style and imagery has made A Clockwork Orange a monument of modern cinema – but, arguably, less of an enduring work. Stanley Kubrick's genius at imagining entire worlds meant his images quickly acquired an autonomous power, and in Malcolm McDowell's charismatic thug, Alex (above), the film had a horribly seductive anti-hero. Pop-culture notables who have kitted up in homage include Kylie Minogue, Rihanna and Dragon Tattoo star Rooney Mara.

Everything in the film felt new, sexy, outrageous: the designer John Barry created a hyper-eroticised pop-art world; Walter Carlos synthesised Rossini on a pioneering soundtrack; "Singin' in the Rain" accompanied scenes of rape and murder. And Burgess's future slang, "nadsat", gave the film a marketing tool like no other.

Luis Buñuel, no less, hailed it as "the only movie about what the modern world really means". But did A Clockwork Orange make sense as social satire, as dystopian warning – or did its exuberance derail its meaning? What, finally, did it really mean? And did Kubrick have control of that meaning? I think not: while he was one of cinema's greatest world-makers, he wasn't quite so strong as a storyteller.

Released in the UK only after vetting from the Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling, Kubrick's film was attacked by moral watchdogs, and repeatedly alleged to be a factor in violence in Britain. Kubrick withdrew the film in 1974 after threats to his family. This extraordinary case of a director censoring his own work was perhaps partly an admission that the film had escaped its creator.

A Clockwork Orange, for better or worse, now belonged to its public, not its director. That, one suspects, was something that Kubrick – the all-controlling Napoleon of cinema – couldn't stand.

Steven Berkoff

Played a policeman in the film

"When I saw it I did not think it was that controversial. I thought there were some achingly archaic bits in it, the prison scenes, the little bit of winky winky, you know, were from someone who's not familiar enough with British life. I remember feeling it wasn't quite up to his [Stanley Kubrick's] usual being ahead of time – it was behind the times. I suppose he felt it made the violence too seductive and maybe he felt guilty about that. I don't think it was cutting edge, no. I don't think it should have been withdrawn."

Michael Tarn

Played the droog Pete. Now 58, he was a teenager and fresh out of stage school when he got the part

"I think probably the over-riding thought is – why didn't we make any money out of it? You got paid more on a chocolate commercial than working for Stanley. While filming was the experience of a lifetime, it was veiled in secrecy. Being a 16-year-old doing this fabulous thing and not being able to say a word about it was a little bit limiting in my social life. [If Kubrick had not pulled the film] I rather expect ... interest in it would have died a death within six, seven, eight months. I think it's the imagery that's kept the film alive, not the subject matter."

Virginia Wetherell

Went topless in a scene in the film, making Malcolm McDowell sick. She now lives in London running a vintage fashion shop

"I remember we had fun showing Malcolm how to belch because he has to look at me and then recoil and be sick at my feet. It was fun rehearsing that. But because it was Kubrick you don't question it. It's bizarre because I'd done my share of horror films and dramas with directors trying to get me to take my kit off and I didn't want to, but it wasn't in the slightest bit sordid... he was just totally respectful."

John Clive

Played a character who attacks McDowell. Now an established character actor and author

"When I had to slap Malcolm, Kubrick went mad in rehearsal and said 'hit him'. Malcolm said 'don't argue with him'. I had to hit him so hard the spit flew out of his mouth – I've never hit someone so hard. Then we had to do it all again in the actual piece. I wasn't surprised by the controversy and I knew that it would be controversial. It was a particularly strange film. Even if it hadn't been banned it would have still had the status it does – it is brilliant."

Christiane Kubrick

The director's widow lived through the frenzy of controversy over the film

"Stanley was mesmerised by the language of the book. Not for one moment did I think, 'Oh my God, there will be trouble'. The film didn't show any true cruelty ... We had press in front of our house, we started receiving horrible letters, and then came the detailed death threats. The police said: 'I think you would be better off leaving the country.' Then we were really alarmed. So Stanley phoned Warner Bros and begged to have the film withdrawn. He was right to do it."

Interviews by Paul Bignell, Jonathan Owen and Thomas Goodenough

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project