Over the course of his career, legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick made movies in various genres tackling a number of ideas. Entirely separate films have been made simply to document the various interpretations of just one of his films, and his attention to detail has been well-documented. Thus, a look at the themes Kubrick presents in his film has always been an intriguing proposition. In three of Kubrick’s films, A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, a major idea that Kubrick draws on is society’s relationship with violence; specifically, that society encourages and promotes violence, punishing its absence, despite its outward condemnation of violent acts.
Take, for example, the story of A Clockwork Orange’s Alex. A violent individual with no concern for the well-being of others, Alex has no issue attacking even his own droogs if he feels the need. His behaviour does not go unnoticed before his arrest, as his teacher even comes by to warn him that he is likely to get in trouble. However, this is the harshest punishment Alex receives, as his absence from school doesn’t even earn him a formal reprimand of any sort. His parents remain passive against him, and the police make no real attempt to capture him, as evidenced by the fact that no police officer is ever glimpsed near the Korova Milk Bar, where the droogs frequently hang out. He is caught entirely by fluke, because his own droogs attacked him.
However, as soon as Alex comes out of therapy, the way people act toward him changes drastically. Beginning at the demonstration, Alex is made to lick the shoe of his attacker, a needlessly cruel act that does nothing to add to the point being made. Likewise, his parents toss him out of the house, choosing a stranger over their own son in the cruelest punishment they inflict on him throughout the film. The subsequent attacks on Alex come without a chance for him to explain what kind of person he now is, from the homeless individuals to Mr. Alexander and his allies, and even Alex’s former droogs. At no point after Alex’s rehabilitation is he encouraged to continue down this new path. Instead, his regression is accompanied by personal favours from government officials and extensive media coverage. The message is clear; despite everything he has been outwardly told, society encourages men like Alex to be violent individuals, and reacts harshly to them when they don’t act on their violent impulses. One need look no further than the fact that Alex’s former droogs, the ones who participated in violence just as gleefully as Alex yet weren’t caught, ended up police officers, almost as if they were rewarded for their violent behaviour with a level of authority.
On the other end of the spectrum is Full Metal Jacket’s Private Leonard Lawrence. A man who displays no violent proclivities whatsoever, Lawrence is immediately belittled by Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, his commander, who re-christens him Gomer Pyle for no reason other than an assertion of authority. While Hartman yells at Lawrence for being unable to complete the obstacle courses and follow orders, his words and actions go far beyond simple reprimands, and Hartman is never as harsh on the others as he is on Lawrence. Hartman gets physically abusive with Lawrence, and makes him do publicly humiliating things like suck his thumb numerous times. In his attempt to turn Lawrence violent, Hartman ends up turning the entire group against him by punishing everyone for his transgressions. This stands in stark comparison to the way Hartman chooses to treat Private Davis or Private Brown. While he yells at other soldiers and gives them belittling nicknames as well, he never goes beyond that when rebuking the rest of the troops. While this may seem like odd behaviour at first, as the movie goes on, it becomes clear that Hartman is singling out Lawrence because he is less violent than the others. Every other private is more comfortable with their rifle than Lawrence is, and it is this fact Hartman is punishing Lawrence for, more than anything else. Through his actions, Lawrence is forced to change his nature to become a violent individual, much like how A Clockwork Orange’s Alex is forced to revert back to his violent nature.
Gunnery Sergeant Hartman himself is another example of a product of a society that encourages violence. In a clear position of power throughout Full Metal Jacket, Hartman is comfortable in his role, indicating that he’s had this power for some time. Yet his actions are eerily reminiscent of a bully. A near-constant berating of his subordinates, punishments which are much harsher than the crime committed, and a number of arbitrary rules are staples of his work, and methods he seems uninterested in altering. To top it off, Hartman lists serial killer Charles Whitman and presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald as figures the Marines should aspire to be like, and in one of the film’s memorable lines, tells the recruits “If you leave my island, you will be weapons. You will be ministers of Death, begging for war.” Far from showing humanity at any point, Hartman is rewarded for his unrepentant violent nature and outlook with a level of authority, just like Alex’s former droogs.
There may be some room for debate as to whether Kubrick meant for the depictions in either film to mirror modern society, as both A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket are set in the future and the military, respectively. While it can be argued that neither setting reflects society at large, the common thread that runs through them is still clear. In fact, the differing settings only serves to further drive home the point on how violence is instilled and condoned by society, as it remains a constant no matter where, or when, one goes.
This idea also briefly pops up in Kubrick’s science-fiction epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Faced with a possible threat, HAL 9000’s first instinct is to try and kill all crewmembers, succeeding in getting rid of all but one of them. HAL’s actions may be seen as the deranged work of a malfunctioning computer, but his insistence on talking when Dave makes his way back into the ship proves that HAL still had reasoning capabilities. This proves that the machine was aware of its actions, and chose violence as the best course of action, which would only happen if human programmers gave HAL that option, and posit it as the most viable one. This once again can be seen as a result of a violence-condoning society. In fact, one can go further to the Dawn of Man segment of the same film, where the apes that used violence ended up victorious, to see the same idea show up once again. The group that wields violence more successfully wins. Violence is rewarded right from the start, almost as if it is part of our fundamental makeup.
Another intriguing aspect Kubrick posits is that a society such as this ends up treating women as inferior almost by default. The most obvious example is the Korova Milk Bar in A Clockwork Orange, where women are displayed as literal objects. Mannequins of the female form make up nearly all the furniture at the bar, from the tables to the milk dispensers, and the only woman glimpsed in the place throughout is in the company of four men, all of whom clearly hold sway over her. The implication is clear; this is a man’s world, and women must be invited in. The idea is also explored in Full Metal Jacket, where Hartman encourages the privates to treat their rifles as a lady, right down to giving them women’s names. Once the soldiers land in Vietnam, the only women seen are prostitutes, until the group encounters another fighter, another woman trained in violence, who doesn’t make it out alive. While she is outwardly punished for shooting at American soldiers, one possible interpretation can also be that she was killed for participating in a man’s world as his equal.
Stanley Kubrick has been shown repeatedly to be a meticulous filmmaker, with reasoning behind everything he did. Thus, with the theme of society not only condoning violence, but punishing its absence showing up in numerous films over the course of his career, it’s clear that this is a message he meant to impart. It’s a fascinating look at how a master artist viewed the world around him, and Kubrick’s ability to portray the same theme over numerous movies that wildly differ in other aspects is just another indication of his immense talent.
— Deepayan Sengupta