Showing of 'Clockwork' lands theater manager in London court

February 08, 1993|By New York Times News Service

Two decades ago, director Stanley Kubrick and Warner Bros. abruptly withdrew Mr. Kubrick's "Clockwork Orange" from theaters across Britain, an unusual act of self-censorship amid public protests that the movie had stirred a wave of violence.

Last week a London court was asked to affirm the 19-year-old distribution ban on the film by punishing the manager of a London movie house who is accused of showing a bootleg copy to an audience last April.

In arguments in a London courtroom, lawyers for an organization called the Federation Against Copyright Theft said that the program manager of the Scala cinema had knowingly and illegally screened the film without first obtaining permission from Time Warner, which holds the copyright.

While "A Clockwork Orange" has over the years achieved a cult status in the United States and in the rest of Europe and is widely available in most places on videocassette, the film's producers still will not allow it to be legally shown, on either film or cassette, anywhere in Britain, the country where it was both made and set.

The actual lawsuit against the Scala cinema charges a simple criminal breach of copyright.

But in newspapers and public discussion here, the case has recalled the much larger debate that "A Clockwork Orange" provoked at its release 22 years ago, when critics argued that the film represented a danger to society by inspiring the very violence it was seeking to explore and define.

Even now, it is not clear why Warner Brothers, today a part of Time Warner, and Mr. Kubrick decided to withdraw the film from Britain but nowhere else, or why the producers continue to adhere to the distribution ban so many years later.

Officials for Time Warner in both London and Los Angeles refused to comment on the film or the distribution ban, and efforts to reach the reclusive Mr. Kubrick or his agent were unavailing.

The film, based on the novel by Anthony Burgess, portrays Alex, a sadistic British youth, and his bowler-wearing gang of "droogs" as they commit murder, rape and mayhem. It also depicts the brutalization of Alex after he is arrested and subjected to aversion therapy to cure him of his violent ways.

Many critics attacked the movie at the time for what they described as its gratuitous violence, and its release in 1971 provoked a storm of public protest, especially in Britain.

While what was then called the British Board of Film Censors passed the movie, uncut, in 1971, with a rating restricting it to audiences age 18 and older, newspaper clippings from the early '70s in Britain include numerous references to crimes in which the police, judges and defendants were widely quoted as saying the violence was inspired by the film.

In Lancashire, a young woman was raped by a gang of youths who sang "Singin' in the Rain" in imitation of Gene Kelly, just as Alex and the droogs did in the film. In another case, in which a 16-year-old wearing the white overalls, black bowler and combat boots favored by Alex was convicted of a savage beating, a British judge told the court, "We must stamp out this horrible trend, which has been inspired by this horrible film."

Mark Kermode, who writes about film for the British Film Institute's magazine, said that the decision by Mr. Kubrick and Warner Brothers to ban distribution of the film in Britain had always "been shrouded in a bit of mystery."

But one theory is that Mr. Kubrick, who lives in Britain, was troubled by the extreme reaction to the movie, including attempts by local governments to enforce selective bans on its showing.

The movie did play in London for nearly a year, where it drew record audiences at a West End cinema, but it appeared only briefly in outlying cities before Warner Brothers withdrew it permanently from distribution.

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