A Clockwork Orange's Controversy Explained

Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" was once an X-rated film that Roman Catholics in the U.S. were forbidden from seeing. The movie, which earned a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars, is now in the National Film Registry, and it made AFI's list of the 100 greatest American movies of all time. Since it was a British co-production, it also made BFI's list of the 100 best British films. However, Warner Bros. withdrew it from release in the U.K. in 1973 — at Kubrick's behest — and it was not until after his death in 1999 that it became available there again.

In short, "A Clockwork Orange" is a classic with a controversial history. Kubrick was infamous for his methodical nature as a filmmaker, and The Ringer notes that "A Clockwork Orange" almost "plays like a critique of control-freakery made by a control freak." Upon its rerelease in the U.K. in 2000, The Guardian questioned, "Was Kubrick effectively the victim of censorship, or its most notorious and autocratic perpetrator?"

There are other classics that received an X rating in their day, with "Midnight Cowboy" being a second one featured on AFI's list. The MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) eventually did away with the X rating altogether after it became associated with pornography. Part of what made "A Clockwork Orange" a source of such intense controversy was the sexual violence in it.

Kubrick's film went into wide release in the U.S. in 1972, but the Anthony Burgess novel it adapts and lifts voiceovers from had already been published 10 years earlier. After the movie, however, the book started getting banned in schools and libraries across the country. The power of the moving image had a strong effect on how people perceived it.

A Bit of the Old Ultraviolence

"A Clockwork Orange" introduces the character of Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell), who enjoys "a bit of the old ultraviolence," as he calls it. Unfortunately for those in his path, what that entails is shocking.

Rape and murder are the order of the day for Alex and his droogs, as they take to the streets in their codpieces, fake eyelashes, and bowler hats. The most notorious scene in "A Clockwork Orange" is perhaps the home invasion, where the thugs leave a writer paralyzed and Alex sexually assaults his wife to the tune of "Singing in the Rain" — a song previously associated with the beloved Gene Kelly musical of the same name. Unlike that film, there is no romance in "A Clockwork Orange," and what comedy there is can only be described as the darkest of gallows humor.

Yet the home invasion scene (via the AFI Catalog) was based on a real crime perpetrated against Burgess' own wife by four soldiers in 1944. Concerns over copycat violence, buoyed by the murder of a homeless person in England, still arose. It did not help that other random acts of violence pervade Kubrick's film, which went on to influence the stylized cruelty of later movies like "Reservoir Dogs." 

In "A Clockwork Orange," Alex attacks a homeless man and kills a cat lady before his crimes land him in jail, and he subsequently volunteers for rehabilitation via governmental aversion therapy, whereby his eyes are literally pried open and he is forced to watch disturbing images until the very thought of sex and violence makes him sick. It's not so different from the reaction that the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures had when it condemned "A Clockwork Orange."

Kubrick removed two explicit scenes to garner an R-rating, and ultimately, the movie's legacy rose above censorship and endured. Nevertheless, given the visceral subject matter, it's understandable why "A Clockwork Orange" was so controversial in its day.