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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn