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 & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
tvGrace Dent on The Crimson Field
Arts & Entertainment
Gian Sammarco plays Adrian Mole in 'The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole'
books

Sue Townsend's much-loved character will live on
Arts & Entertainment
Kylie has helped to boost viewing figures for the talent show
TV

Kylie Minogue quits The Voice UK

Arts & Entertainment
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Favour Asikpa and Thandie Newton in 'Half of a Yellow Sun'
film

Review: Half of A Yellow Sun

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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
    Supersize art

    Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

    The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act
    Catch-22: How the cult classic was adapted for the stage

    How a cult classic was adapted for the stage

    More than half a century after it was published 'Catch-22' will make its British stage debut next week
    10 best activity books for children

    10 best activity books for children

    Keep little ones busy this bank holiday with one of these creative, educational and fun books
    Arsenal 3 West Ham United 1: Five things we learnt from the battle between the London sides

    Five things we learnt from Arsenal's win over West Ham

    Arsenal still in driving seat for Champions League spot and Carroll can make late charge into England’s World Cup squad
    Copa del Rey final: Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right

    Pete Jenson on the Copa del Rey final

    Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right
    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    With the tennis circus now rolling on to the slowest surface, Paul Newman highlights who'll be making the headlines – and why
    Exclusive: NHS faces financial disaster in 2015 as politicians urged to find radical solution

    NHS faces financial disaster in 2015

    Politicians urged to find radical solution
    Ukraine crisis: How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?

    Ukraine crisis

    How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    A history of the First World War in 100 moments
    Fires could turn Amazon rainforest into a desert as human activity and climate change threaten ‘lungs of the world’, says study

    New threat to the Amazon rainforest:

    Fires that scorch the ‘lungs of the Earth’
    Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City: And the winner of this season’s Premier League title will be...

    Who’s in box seat now? The winner of the title will be ...

    Who is in best shape to take the Premier League prize?