Director: Lindsay Anderson
Screenplay: David Sherwin
Producers: Lindsay Anderson, Michael Medwin
Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Richard Warwick, Christine Noonan
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 111 min
There are many people who would rather remember the 1960s as a time characterised exclusively by peace, love and great music. Even those who acknowledge that it was otherwise often deliberately misremember a time of euphoric, triumphant political and social change rather than a time of extreme unrest and violence, the like of which is unavoidable if major change is to be brought about. It is an undeniably exhilarating era to view retrospectively but it is certainly not one I would have relished being directly involved in. While 1967 is nostalgically remembered for the Summer of Love, it was also a time when the causes of 1968’s explosive events were reaching a head. 1968 began with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and went on to be characterised by an unbelievable amount of monumental events including the assassination of Martin Luther King, the Sorbonne student riots in Paris and the Tlatelolco massacre ten days before the Mexico City Olympic Games.
Against this historical backdrop, the film industry seemed to be pushing for a regression into cosier times. While the previous year’s Oscars were dominated by the visceral brilliance of Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate and In the Heat of the Night and the following year would award the top honour to the X-Rated Midnight Cowboy, 1968 was one of the blandest Oscar years ever. Best Picture was awarded to Carol Reed’s charming but hardly electric Oliver! and the other nominees included a costume drama, a Shakespeare adaptation and a musical biopic. This was hardly representative of the dominant mood of the year and was quite probably a reaction against it. But if the countercultural revolution was being ignored by the Academy, there was certainly an audience demand for films that addressed the burning issues of the day and this resulted in a small British film that Paramount almost shelved becoming one of the big critical and commercial hits of the year.
Lindsay Anderson’s if… remains one of the most powerful anti-establishment statements in cinema history. Inspired by Jean Vigo’s classic short film Zero de conduite, if… begins with a new term at a British public school and the arrival of Jute (Sean Bury), a shy, polite little boy who does not know the rigid rules and traditions of the institution and is gradually assimilated into the system. In contrast with Jute’s progress, we also follow the iconoclastic adventures of three non-conformist sixth-form boys, lead by Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell, in his debut role). These three boys are determined to assert their individuality while the school, its stuffy ideals personified by head prefect Rowntree (Robert Swann), is determined to keep them in line. Something’s got to give and it eventually does in an unforgettably violent climax.
if… was shot at Cheltenham College in Gloucestershire during term time so many of the pupils in the film are actual schoolchildren who Anderson made use of between lessons. Although some of their performances are understandably amateurish, it’s a great joy to see them obviously relishing the opportunity to appear in such a subversive film. Extra relish is added by the fact that Cheltenham College was Anderson’s own alma mater and that they were not fully aware of the nature of the film that was being shot in their halls (the script submitted to them certainly omitted the climactic massacre). The larger roles are more carefully cast. Malcolm McDowell makes a particularly strong impression as Mick but Robert Swann is also extremely effective as the forceful head prefect Rowntree, a man whose world depends so strongly on established conventions that the threat of their interruption unleashes the sadist in him. The supporting roles of the staff are played with quirky comic panache by a gallery of great British character actors such as Arthur Lowe, Mona Washbourne and, in one of my favourite cameos ever, Graham Crowden as a History master who cycles through the corridors.
In terms of narrative structure, if… is extremely loose. Anderson’s camera roams the halls and dorms of the school, picking out various everyday activities with a documentary realism that owes much to the films of the British New Wave in which Anderson cut his teeth (with 1963’s This Sporting Life). However, this realism is offset by a lurking sense of the surreal which increases throughout the film until the audience becomes unable to determine exactly what is real and what is fantasy. The film also switches between colour and black & white sequences, a technique which, while apparently due to little more than financial and technical considerations, only furthers the disconcerting inability to get a handle on the film. The recognisable is constantly penetrated by the unfamiliar. A boy drinks tea in the bathtub, his poise suggesting that of a fully-clothed person in a drawing room. A communal bullying is observed by a toilet-cubicle guitarist. A visit to a café turns momentarily into a graphic sex scene. Such happenings increasingly take over the film until the realistic is subordinate to the dreamlike.
The surrealist approach taken by David Sherwin’s brilliant screenplay and Anderson’s indelible but subtle imagery (the only exception to this subtlety being a living corpse in a coffin-like drawer, a last-minute touch that seems like an awkward stumble into Pythonesque silliness which the film otherwise avoids) is entirely appropriate for what is essentially an allegorical film. Yes, if… certainly intends to attack the traditions of the public school system but a straightforward approach to narrative would ultimately have made it seem like this was the film’s only target. Frequent excursions into the patently unreal clue us in that this is merely one representative reality, a model for questioning numerous institutions and conventions. Within the confines of the school, Anderson includes several figureheads of these sacred-cow institutions including the school chaplain (religion), a visiting General (the military) and even some medieval knights (history), all of whom march together in a symbolic parade towards the film’s end.
if… famously closes with a firefight between the rogue pupils and the rest of the school in which numerous authority figures, including the school’s headmaster (Peter Jeffrey), are mercilessly wiped out. For the counterculture audiences who made if… such a hit, this scene was the cinematic catharsis they had been waiting for. In terms of a message, it goes little way beyond merely implying that the old order needs taking out by a new way of thinking and stops short of suggesting specific solutions. Whoever should take over from the stuffy sadists of the previous establishment, it certainly shouldn’t be the borderline psychotic Mick Travis who, for all his admirable individualism also makes statements like “There is no such thing as a wrong war. Violence and revolution are the only pure acts”. This is the sort of wrongheaded narcissist whom John Lennon targeted in the song Revolution, the bloodthirsty upstart who mistook that song’s plea for a pacifist approach to peace as a suggestion that revolutionaries should back down from their causes. But in not taking the easy route of making his revolutionaries the unquestioned ‘good guys’, Anderson created a much more astute and complex film which acknowledges the grey area so often ignored by biased texts.
To merely concentrate on if…’s most famous sequence (as so many reviews tend to do) is to do the film a disservice. There are many equally excellent longer scenes that punctuate the fleeting, sketch-like puzzle pieces that make up the majority of the film. Mick’s theft of a motorbike and subsequent joyride, for instance, is a crucial scene which opens the film up and takes us briefly outside the confines of the school in much the same invigorating spirit as the fishing trip sequence in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Later, when Mick places a plastic bag over his head to see how long he can go without air, the suffocation metaphor is all the more apparent for the liberating juxtaposition of the bike ride. But my favourite scene of all is when Mick receives a prolonged session of corporal punishment from the prefects. Adopting a Christ like position over a balance beam (this, and the subsequent forgiveness Mick offers his victimiser, provide further parallels with … Cuckoo’s Nest’s messianic imagery), he is subjected to a brutal caning twice as long and three times as vicious as that meted out to his peers. This scene is both hard to watch and impossible to look away from, encapsulating the tone of if… in a matter of minutes.
The influence of if… can be seen in many subsequent British films including Peter Medak’s similarly establishment-baiting The Ruling Class, the tragi-comic tone of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and the late-60s critiquing of Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I. Although it was denounced by one British ambassador as “an insult to the nation” and by Lord Brabourne as “the most evil and perverted script I’ve ever read”, if… certainly provided a much-needed cinematic representation of a counterculture bored by their country’s film industry. Echoing the plea of the lead character in 1968’s Best Picture winner, the British public were begging for something more and, despite the Secombe-esque disbelief this request prompted in some quarters, Lindsay Anderson answered their prayers.