A Clockwork Orange shows that there's room for morality in the argument against torture.
After each new terrorist attack, before I even know who did it and why, I wonder if it all could have been prevented if a man like Jack Bauer had asked the right questions to the right people with the right force. This American hero was courageous enough to torture his way through terrorists in order to save innocent lives. “Where is the bomb?” He would often say in his half-growl, half-whisper on the television show “24.” “WHERE IS THE BOMB?” And the man or woman would be compelled to answer—saving, at the very last second of the final minute of a long, weary and punishing day, thousands of people from a sure and explosive death.
I thought about Jack’s exploits despite knowing that the United States Army’s own field manual explains that the use of torture "is a poor technique that yields unreliable results.” For a brief, highly emotional moment the logic of torture ebbs to the entertainment of its success, and its success as entertainment. And even later, when the moment has faded, and the tide of reason flows back, I feel like the man who condemns the death penalty because the drugs that kill aren’t quite right... Surely there’s room for morality in the argument against state sanctioned brutality.
In A Clockwork Orange (1971), Stanley Kubrick tosses aside the logics and logistics of effective torture, and distills the film into a discourse on morality. The audience, he hopes, is left to acknowledge that torture of any kind is wrong—even in the face of pure evil and even when its outcome is as effective as the Ludovico Technique, which renders the participant incapable of committing a crime in (an impressive) two weeks or less.
And the crimes Alex, our teenage protagonist, commits are nothing short of pure evil. Within the first act, he beats an old and exposed homeless man; fights a rival teenage gang, who is preparing to rape someone Alex and his mates would rather rape themselves; and, unsatisfied with the night so far, breaks into a couple’s home and terrorizes them in a big song and dance to “Singin’ in the Rain.” The scenes are atrocious to watch and, when the film stops, they are atrocious to remember. This is the man we shouldn’t cure of his urges?
Though when a straightjacketed young Alex has his eyes painfully clamped open and is forced to watch footage of rape and murder to the tune of Beethoven, I feel sorry for him. I forget that in earlier scenes I saw this man, this charming Alex DeLarge, rape, beat and murder with a big fat smile on his face. I feel Kubrick invading my senses and attacking my emotions, using his art like a weapon and becoming some sort of anti-terrorist as he wields it to reveal not just my terror, but the id of all my emotions and the obstacles to my morality.
In her essay “Art Against Torture,” Carolyn Strange explores the social and political context that drove Kubrick’s pursuit of a firm morality. The release of A Clockwork Orange coincided with the mounting concerns over the “penal-welfare complex”—a wild notion, then as it is now, that prisoner reformation should stem from positive encouragement, not disproportionate punishment—and the emergence of allegations that the U.S. military was experimenting with torture.
By the end of the 1960s, just before A Clockwork Orange’s release, with Richard Nixon as the recently elected leader of the free world, the United States was committed to the Vietnam War and the government’s at-all-costs determination to beat Communism abroad and social disunity at home. Reminiscent of the world of A Clockwork Orange, Strange points out, the penal-welfare system was employing and abusing “pharmacological programming, shock therapy, and lobotomies as modern means to control misfits” and by the mid-‘70s it was revealed that university medical teams had helped the CIA perfect torture techniques.
At the same time across the pond, where Kubrick now lived and where the film was shot, the British Government was desperately holding on to its kingdom. In 1969, British troops were deployed to Northern Ireland during the ethno-nationalist conflict and, in 1971 when A Clockwork Orangewas released, interned Irish men were tortured for the sake of unity. With the small protests that followed came big, governmental justifications of the rebalance of a liberal nation to a secure one, which defended the occasional, but always moral, use of torture.
Kubrick’s film was a loud voice among discontented protesters, who directly criticized the hypocritical representatives of the social welfare state. In one scene, men and women in their finest suits patiently wait for the British Minister of the Interior to introduce prisoner 655321—Alex the reformed criminal. One after the other the Minister calls upon inspiring actors who enter the stage and provoke Alex with violence or sex. Incapable of possessing such thoughts after the Ludovico Treatment, lest he feel a “horrible killing sickness,” Alex is forced to lick one’s shoe and cower at another’s bare-breast sexuality. When the actors finish, the audience applauds them offstage.
Like the experts and politicians who hone torture techniques and treat its definition fluidly, the process is all so civilized. The cured murderer is simply reduced to a series of conditioned responses. Alex is less of a man, than an object of considerable scientific interest. He becomes the clockwork orange—a mechanized fruit, a robotic man— his violent nature rendered unnatural. When the chaplain protests that Alex “ceases to be a creature capable of moral choice,” the Minister responds:
We’re not concerned with motives, with the higher ethics. We are concerned only with cutting down crime!
His perspective is utilitarian. The fictional Minister, like the real-life politician, finds a way—devoid of irony—to justify the free world’s capacity to violate human rights.
In 1972, a year after A Clockwork Orange’s release, capital punishment in the United States was discontinued in a Supreme Court ruling and new social justice models on how best to reduce crime were gaining ground. Four years later, the reintroduction of the death penalty and an expanded regime of incarceration led us instead towards a society that continued to cherish security over liberty.
The post-9/11 War on Terror only made things worse. Torture, under the guise of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” reemerged in an effort to maintain national security after the worst terrorist attack in history. The attack was an outlier, but terrorists, who understood that fear could overcome reason, presented a new omnipresent enemy, requiring any means necessary to defeat.
Terrorism also provided us with good entertainment. We were entertained on screen by police officers caught under the rubble of the Twin Towers (in the film World Trade Center) or by the men and women in one of the hijacked planes (United 93). We were entertained by the wars that followed (The Hurt Locker) and the veterans that survived (Brothers). And of course, we were entertained by torture and its effectiveness in films (Zero Dark Thirty) and TV shows like "24".
Trauma is pushed to the sides; they return to work, to home, to their families, and carry on life with a pat on the back, with no scars, mental or physical, making the show’s final cut. Torture is normalized. Moreover, if people are titillated by Primetime torture porn, then torture doesn’t just seem like something that needs to be stopped, but something that feels right to continue.
Modern exceptions to these depictions are rare, confined mainly to documentaries and independent releases, which focus on the "innocent" victims of torture. The importance of A Clockwork Orange lies in its strict damnation of torture regardless of the (perceived) morality of its victims.
In an interview with Sight and Sound in 1971, Kubrick made his intentions explicit: “If [Alex] were a lesser villain, then one could say: ‘Oh, yes, of course, he should not be given this psychological conditioning...’ On the other hand, when you have shown him committing such atrocious acts, and you still realize the immense evil on the part of the government..., then I think the essential moral idea of the book [on which the film is based] is clear.” The essential moral is, of course, that the ends can never justify the means.
The intentions behind torture in “24” were simple according to Kiefer Sutherland, the actor behind Jack Bauer. He has no qualms about torture’s ineffectiveness or immorality; however, asked by Charlie Rose about the implications of its depiction, Sutherland replied:
Within the context of our show, which is a fantastical show to begin with, torture is a dramatic device to show you how desperate a situation is.
He justifies torture as an aesthetic tool. Good art, to Sutherland, must be dramatic and few things are more dramatic than torture.
Torture exploits this weak spot—our desire to see the terrorist suffer, our powerful catharsis when we do see it—and it is that drama that makes art so satisfying. It is that drama that is so valuable for a Primetime TV show to succeed.
Asked whether he had felt any moral responsibility when making A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick answered: “I don’t think any work of art has a responsibility to be anything but a work of art." But a work of art, he believed, “must either make life enjoyable or more endurable." Here lies the convenient inconsistency of the artist: Ask an artist if art is worthless and they will tell you that it inspires people. Ask an artist if this can be good, they will certainly agree. Ask an artist if art can inspire people to be bad or do evil, the artist might patronize you, vehemently disagree, or compare you to the priest who blames masturbation on Rock-N- Roll. To them, art has no role, unless the role is good and moral and fulfilling, then art can revolt and free the world.
Maybe the reason artists find it so difficult to accept this possibility stems from art being such an intense brand of self-expression. And to question the morality of one’s aesthetics, is to question their own morality.
With proper self-reflection, Kubrick may have decided that lingering on two consecutive sexual assault and rape scenes in his signature sardonic style was unnecessary to the message of A Clockwork Orange. Instead, framed in wide shots that invoke the male gaze and pornographic exploitation, the message is muddled, as the audience debates whether or not the film is misogynistic. He may have decided on including more actors of color or more realized female characters, of which there are very few. He may have approached the aesthetics of his film in different ways. Maybe. Maybe not.
A Clockwork Orange is a masterpiece in moral filmmaking. As the world is distracted by a fear that justifies and entertains torture, drone strikes, bombing raids, gun ownership, and a lack of human rights, the film is perhaps more relevant now than at the time of its release.
In this sense, in art’s ability to confront reason, to attack and inspire our emotions, pick them apart or infiltrate them, to hide or be explosively apparent, the artist is like a better skilled, more competent terrorist. Because the artist need not simply rely on terror—they have the full spectrum of emotion at their disposal.
But with this potential comes an incredible responsibility to self-reflect, to consider the consequences of their art, and to be brave in their convictions. We need more films like A Clockwork Orange, but Kubrick owed it to himself to respect the pure power of his artistry, not to conveniently simplify or avoid it.