Celebrating Malcolm McDowell’s most memorable film roles

To mark his involvement in Silent Hill: Revelation 3D, we celebrate the finest film roles of Malcolm McDowell…

In over four decades of acting on the big screen, Malcolm McDowell has become an icon amongst British actors, with a number of memorable roles and feature films to his name. Ahead of his role as Leonard Wolf in the upcoming Silent Hill: Revelation 3D, we look back and celebrate some of the most memorable characters to his name.

Alex DeLarge – A Clockwork Orange

Its inclusion may be a formality, but McDowell’s most iconic character is always worth a mention. If you’re behind the curve on this one, the story of the film, and Anthony Burgess’ novel, follows a teenage delinquent who’s subjected to harsh aversion therapy, after leading his gang of droogs on an ultra-violent rampage, culminating in his conviction for murder.

Interestingly, the character was once ranked by the American Film Institute as the 12th greatest film villain of all time. Nevertheless, he’s our protagonist, and he makes a truly despicable and sociopathic anti-hero, with his unique rendition of Singin’ In The Rain amongst the terrible acts depicted in the film. 

Arguably, it’s McDowell’s fresh-faced yet frightening performance that makes Alex into such a successful satirical object for Kubrick’s classic film. His Northern accent makes him so much more menacing for the softer sound of his voice, even though his character is capable of shocking bursts of the old ultra-violence.

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Mick Travis – if…./O Lucky Man/Britannia Hospital

Even though Alex might be more ingrained in the public consciousness, McDowell’s first major role, and the character that he has reprised most often, is that of Mick Travis, the everyman who appears in the loosely connected trilogy of British social satire directed by Lindsay Anderson and written by David Sherwin. Between each film, Mick’s purpose changes to fit the needs of the story.

In the highly controversial if…., in which Anderson skewers the public school establishment and memorably concludes the proceedings with the pupils turning on their teachers and parents, Mick Travis is a rebellious schoolboy. By the time of O Lucky Man, there’s a semi-biographical bent that draws upon McDowell’s early career as a coffee salesman in real life; Mick is seen ascending from that profession to that of a film star (via the arms trade and a spell in prison).

Like most of the cast of O Lucky Man, McDowell plays two roles, appearing in the prologue as a plantation worker who gets his hands chopped off for stealing a paltry amount of coffee beans, setting the stage for the film’s satire of the capitalist system that benefits Travis. McDowell counts O Lucky Man as his favourite film that he worked on.

The third in the trilogy, Britannia Hospital, is less fondly remembered – it was slammed on release for its broad, unspecific critique of the NHS, and Mick, now a reporter trying to document the titular hospital’s involvement in murder and experimentation, is killed and used as part of a Frankenstein-esque experiment halfway through the film.

It’s not hard to perceive the danger of having an everyman character who could have slipped into being a cipher as his purpose changed, but McDowell keeps the archetype of Mick Travis on the level by giving three charismatic turns in the role, developing the character without the crutch of continuity between films.

Captain Harry Flashman – Royal Flash

With less of a satirical angle than the aforementioned roles, McDowell brought George McDonald Fraser’s Flashman to the big screen in 1975’s Royal Flash, a comedy adventure directed by Richard Lester. Following the story structure of The Prisoner Of Zenda, Oliver Reed’s Otto von Bismarck coerces Flashman into impersonating a prince from Denmark, in order to upset a potential union between the royal and a German princess, and ultimately expand German territory.

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McDowell brings the lairy anti-hero to life with great gusto, clearly relishing the opportunity to play a scoundrel of Flashman’s ilk. Through swashbuckling and illicit dalliances, culminating in a tongue-in-cheek “Hungarian roulette” showdown between Flash and Alan Bates’ Rudi von Sternberg, it’s a lighter affair than many of the actor’s other films. The film is currently unavailable on DVD in the UK, but there’s a Region 1 release that’s worth considering.

Caligula – Caligula

Caligula has become something of a legend as a massively opulent B-movie, with a troubled production that lasted four years. Any one of the tales of its creation would be enough to make any present-day studio executive quake in their boots. Featuring stars like John Gielgud, Peter O’Toole, Helen Mirren, and McDowell himself of course, this telling of the infamous Roman emperor’s rise and fall was the first movie to feature both eminent film actors and pornographic scenes.

It’s as if there wasn’t enough decadence and lunacy to be had in the course of Caligula’s imperial rule, which entails political backstabbing, incestuous affections and relationships, and acts of horrific sexual violence. Director Tinto Brass conducts the ridiculously over-the-top proceedings, and McDowell seems to rise to meet him with a suitably big performance.

Look no further than the scene in which he declares himself a God to the Senate that he despises, and goads them into agreement, whereupon he’s disgusted enough to “baa” at them like a sheep, just to hear the refrain go around the chamber. It’s powerfully deranged stuff, and shows how well he performs, even against the yoke of a bloated historical epic that was steadily being transformed into a porn movie by meddling producers.

HG Wells – Time After Time

Of his rare role as a good guy in Time After Time, McDowell told The AV Club, “The thing is, I’ve never been a handsome leading-man type, so let’s not kid ourselves. I’m very happy to be where I am.” Of all the films on this list, Wells was the biggest departure from type for McDowell, in an underrated sci-fi romance from Nicholas Meyer, who would go on to direct two Star Trek films.

When Jack the Ripper escapes into the future using Wells’ time machine, the author is forced to follow him to San Francisco at the tail end of the 1970s, with the aim of apprehending the infamous villain. Although many of the culture shock elements of time-travel stories such as these are present and correct, both McDowell and Warner are on top form.

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Going against his own aversion to researching roles, McDowell attempted to embellish his performance by listening to BBC radio interviews, but decided against affecting the high-pitched accent that he discovered, instead resolving to simply grow the moustache and follow his own instincts. 

It’s the stuff that Doctor Who stories are made of, and it’s a very sweet and enjoyable film to boot. With its San Francisco-set romance, and the time-travelling pursuit of a villain who’s trying to postpone his death, it’s more than a little reminiscent of the 1996 TV movie, starring Paul McGann, but that’s not the whole reason why this under-appreciated gem still seems ahead of its time.

Dr Tolian Soran – Star Trek Generations

To readers of this site in particular, it may well be that McDowell is best remembered as “the man who killed Captain Kirk”. With his dastardly plan to re-enter the Nexus, a realm where fantasy becomes reality, by destroying a whole star system, Solan menaced both Captains Kirk and Picard with his mad science.

At the climax of the film, however, Kirk falls to his death after disabling Soran’s plan. The scene was actually re-shot, after a poor reaction to the originally scripted ending, which saw Soran shoot Kirk in the back. It would have been an even more ignominious death if the deleted scene (which can be seen on the DVD) had been retained, but McDowell is aware of the fans’ dissatisfaction with that moment.

He recently told the Canadian Press, “They should have given him a glorious death. If they’re going to kill one of the icons of American television, then get rid of him in a beautiful way. I was very disappointed that they didn’t come up with something a little better.”

It’s definitely not McDowell’s best work, but in celebrating his most memorable roles, especially on Den Of Geek, it’s only sensible to mention his role in the history of one of geekdom’s most iconic franchises.

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Honourable mentions

While we’re on the topic of geek TV, we should also pay tribute to some of McDowell’s memorable small-screen roles, too. He had a recurring role in Heroes as Linderman, the mysterious healer behind the machinations of the Company in the first season. And of course, he had a live-action guest role in South Park as ‘a British person’ in season four’s Masterpiece Theatre spoof, Pip.

But over a long career, there’s bound to be some other performances of his that you remember fondly, so why not share them in the comments? Do you prefer him as a hero, or a villain? And which do you think is his best role?

Silent Hill: Revelation 3D is released in cinemas on Wednesday October 31st.

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