“The whole underside of our society has always been violence and still is.” – Sam Peckinpah
In cinema today, violence is nothing new to an audience, looking back over 50 years and things were pretty much the same. Classics such as Hitchcock’s Psycho, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie And Clyde and George Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead all held an amount of unsettling shocks. But something changed in 1971. A realisation perhaps that there were still some boundaries of taste out there to push. Of course it took a fearless attitude to go too far for the sake of art – then again we live within the confines of an unhinged world. Two directors took to task what was usually expected to be portrayed on a screen, and twisted it to create a shock-induced response. Both Stanley Kubrick and Sam Peckinpah had stories to tell, and for better or worse there is a reason as to why they produced the undeniably brilliant works A Clockwork Orange and Straw Dogs.
Upon release both films were the subject of controversy. The use of graphic violence, and sexual assault in both caused outcry. But this is realism, and what happens in society. Perhaps it is fairer to say it was escapism into the horrors of the world. Going one step further, and through that forced overload of violence the audience becomes desensitized to it, and accepts it without knowing. Which is why cinema goers stayed rooted in their seats instead of leaving in disgust. In the same way society in general does not bat an eyelid at the real life stories of murder which appears on the front pages of newspapers, a social media feed or darted across news headlines. It is an inevitable factor of life that death and acts of violence are all around us, whether we choose to accept reality or not.
A Clockwork Orange was banned in many countries (including Ireland) at the time of release. Adapted from the book of the same name by the late author Anthony Burgess, the movie retained much of the book’s menacing quality – but left out some details surrounding an overall redemption. By 1973 however, Kubrick had pulled its release from most countries due to the level of controversy and the fear of ‘copycat’ crimes being committed even upon his own family.
Years later A Clockwork Orange did finally get a wider release in an uncut form a year after Kubrick’s death (1999). The film took its setting in a dystopian-future world of Britain, A Clockwork Orange follows the exploits of the Beethoven loving teenager Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell). Throughout McDowell wryly narrates the thoughts of DeLarge – giving audiences an insight into a corrupt mind. Surrounded by his gang, or collection of ‘Droogs’, together they take part in heinous nightly adventures which are essentially a crime spree, which includes violence, murder and rape. What is widely perceived nowadays as anti-social behavior, is the very essence of gang culture and that portrayal of crime leaps from the movie.
The cinematic marvel is wrapped in a futuristic soundscape of synthesizers by innovator Wendy Carlos, giving it an otherworldly depth and quality. As a result, it also acted as a precursor to such futuristic affairs as Bladerunner. Kubrick also cleverly kept the original novel’s dialogue. It may not be easily comprehensible at times, but in many ways it mirrors the slang that is at the center of every youth collective of every generation: “We were all feeling a bit shagged and fagged and fashed, it being a night of no small expenditure.”
The opening 25 minutes are some of the most revolutionary film making of that era. They push headfirst into the very heart of humanity’s violent nature. A turn of events in the storyline leads to anti-hero Alex being betrayed by his three followers, who by this point become fed up with his dominance and want more. During a planned home invasion where Alex bludgeons a wealthy lady to death with a phallic sculpture, he receives a bottle smashed into his face and is left behind by his Droogs for the authorities to arrest. It is through the rehabilitation that the basis of the story comes to light, the contentious point with A Clockwork Orange is not the graphic nature of the content, it goes deeper than that.
A controversial method of control is used. This introduces the question: can a mind engulfed in violence be changed, programmed into becoming something better? Alex is strapped to a chair with hooks opening back his eyes whilst he is drugged and forced to watch violent films on a big screen. The effects of the drugs make him physically sick, the very sight of violence eventually becomes a source of pain to him.
Regardless of the violence within the character, Alex being robbed of his free will is the essence of A Clockwork Orange. Free will and the ability to act or make choices voluntarily is the basis of humanity. The narration gives the audience an insight to the feelings of desperation and hopelessness of what once was predominantly evil. When the threat of using the music of Beethoven on Alex, the one thing in life he truly loves, he succumbs fully, and is broken.
A Clockwork Orange shows u a world which goes beyond comprehension at times. Stanley Kubrick skillfully asks the questions of how violence and ultimately evil within human existence cannot be changed or controlled; they simply exist. It digs deeper into the soul than that of the other cinematic works by Kubrick, it is a brave form of storytelling to project onto the big screen. Although it is fifty years since the film’s original release, the questions at the very root of it are still being asked today.
Through the method of force-feeding, Alex is brainwashed until he becomes cured of his need to rape, murder, and commit grotesque acts for his own amusement. He in part becomes immune to the pleasure he received from violence, and the thoughts of it makes him physically sick. In this manner, force-fed violence makes him a better person, so acts of barbarity in that respect are good. However, it does not work because violence is ingrained within his nature, he is naturally born to be violent and what he is subjected to cannot change that fact. And that brings us to the next movie.
“..I didn’t want you to enjoy the film. I wanted you to look very closely at your own soul.”- Sam Peckinpah
Based on the book by John Gray, audiences were thrown into the world of Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs which evolved into something different than the author intended. After fifty years, and so many other movies that contain the same disturbing levels of assault, Straw Dogs’ torture remains visceral and vulgar. The director Sam Peckinpah took movie-goers on a journey into the abyss of humanity’s evil, and held a mirror up to the onlookers. It was a change in setting for the filmmaker. Not a western, nor is it based in America, and it certainly does not spare the audience any upheaval. But it was with Straw Dogs where he established himself as a filmmaker who desired to display what lurks in the dark recesses of society – further again into the perverse insanity that lies dormant.
Straw Dogs follows the story of a young, married couple David (Dustin Hoffman), and Amy (Susan George). The pair become disillusioned by late-sixties America in the grips of political unrest. Seeking a quieter life, they decide to return to Amy’s backwater birthplace of Cornwall in the UK. However, there they feel even more isolated, distanced from the locals. That is until things go far, too far. While David is proving his masculinity on a hunting trip, and while Amy is left alone, she is raped. First by an ex-boyfriend from long ago, then at gunpoint by another local. It is this double rape scene which stirs a lot of the controversy, naturally, it is horrific, brutal, and unsettling.
This overlong scene, in some respects, is produced to justify the carnage leading to Straw Dogs final. When David finally becomes the alpha male, protecting his home and his wife from the brutality as five of the locals, including both rapists, attack their home. Though the reasons for the attack seem hazy, it is purity that David is protecting: the twist is that it is not that of his wife, but the childlike innocence of village pariah, the mentally deficient Henry Niles (David Warner). With boiling oil, hunting traps and ingenuity, the locals are brutally murdered.
Upon release Straw Dogs split critics. Some understood the exploration into the dark side of humanity that Peckinpah was trying to execute. Others hammered it, as the movie strays too far from actual entertainment, leaving audiences unnerved and disgusted. It may have sent a flare into the artistic world for directors to become more controversial, more daring. Even though A Clockwork Orange was also released that year, Straw Dogs seemed to have a bigger impact in terms of influence on seventies cinema.
Perhaps that was down to one movie set in the future and the other set very much in the present. We can consider this by looking at other outings such as Deliverance (John Boorman) and Death Wish (Michael Winner) which both use the controversial theme of sexual assault to justify a retaliation of violence. Ultimately, both Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange are films that are unique. You may feel disgust, and in fact horror as the scenes stay with you long after the credits roll. They were movies without heroes, movies which were revolutionary in that context, and the pornography of violence to this day remains shrouded in moral outrage.