Okay, something a bit different today, my first film review since Filth last September. Released this week on Blu-ray in Britain as part of Eureka!’s Masters of Cinema Series, if…. is a hymn to youthful rebellion directed by Lindsay Anderson, who in 1968 was still best known for his adaptation of David Storey’s novel This Sporting Life and for his work in London’s Royal Court Theatre.
The film stars a youthful Malcolm McDowell in his breakthrough role (as Mick Travis) and significantly, McDowell, like Anderson and writer David Sherwin were all products of a public school education themselves, although they each had very different experiences there; McDowell has described his time at a minor public school as ‘wonderful’ while Sherwin has compared his school to a ‘Nazi War camp’.
Judging from his film, Anderson definitely wasn’t much of a fan either and here he uses the tradition-ridden public school of if…. as a microcosm of post-war Britain with a clear class system in operation, its pyramid headed by the staff and then the Senior prefects known as Whips, the Seniors and at the bottom the underlings, the Juniors, or ‘Scum’, who are picked on and sadistically bullied for any real or imaginary reason.
The film tells the story of Travis and his roommates, Wallace (Richard Warwick) and Johnny (David Wood), from their return for the first day of a new term until the annual celebration of Founders Day towards the end of the academic year.
McDowell’s entrance is a memorable one. In fact, his whole performance is superb. From the moment we first see him he’s already rebelling albeit in the relatively minor form of having grown a rule-breaking moustache which he hides under a black scarf pulled across his face and soon shaves off.
The film starts naturalistically with Anderson insisting that it should appear as timeless as possible, hence none of the pupils listening to the pop music of the era on tinny transistor radios, so no Beatles or Rolling Stones, no psychedelia, no protest singers asking why we don’t believe we’re on the Eve of Destruction; instead we mainly get snatches of Sanctus from the Missa Luba, sung by an uncredited Congolese choir which had first been released around a decade earlier.
Indeed with the Victorian values embraced by the faculty members, we could almost be back at some point during the reign of Queen Victoria – although the collages assembled on his wall by Travis do hint at the world that he and his comrades are being cocooned from – long hair, the counterculture and far left politics.
The script remains in the same naturalistic vein for some time with Anderson utilising his experience in documentary film making to great effect in scenes such as the pupils being served gloopy stew by a matron who appears to believe this is a feast and a Junior named Biles (Brian Pettifer) being hung upside down over a lavatory and having his head flushed with water. Had Anderson chosen to make a documentary on the subject I’m sure it would have been fascinating although not as incendiary.
Unusually the film flits from black and white to colour at seemingly random intervals but this decision, at least initially, came down purely to economics – lighting the chapel scenes for colour would take much longer than they would if they were lit for black and white, putting further strain on an already tight budget. Anderson then took a subjective approach on which film stock to use on a scene by scene basis.
The headmaster might spout platitudes such as ‘Those who are given most also have most to give’, but our trio of Crusaders (this was the working title of the film) see through the hypocrisy of an institution where rules are rigid and where anybody daring to attack its authoritarianism will be disciplined with vicious beatings which, bizarrely, they are then expected to thank their assailant for administering to them.
Travis’s rebellious steak grows, signalled by his use of the sort of Situationist style slogans that would soon be spreading across Paris and beyond as student uprisings and insurrection stirred in the outside world.
‘When do we live? That’s what I want to know’ he rails. ‘Violence and revolution are the only pure acts.’
Around the half way mark there is a shortish interlude away from the school when Travis and Johnny travel on a motorbike into the local town where they meet a waitress (Christine Noonan) in an empty cafe.Here Anderson’s love of surrealism and, in particular, the Spanish director Luis Buñuel, begins kicking in and from here on in things just get more and more weird.
Before too long it’s hard to distinguish between the fantasy and non fantasy scenes. Does, for example, the Headmaster’s wife really wander naked down corridors? What is the audience supposed to make of the scene in the Headmaster’s office where a morgue-like drawer is opened to reveal the school’s chaplain?
The largely dialogue free last fifteen or so minutes of the movie are remarkable in many ways, but I don’t want to say too much and ruin the ending for you just in case you haven’t already seen the film.
if…. is undoubtedly provocative, passionate and poetic and, almost fifty years on from being made, still surprisingly fresh although in the wake of the Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres, the climax of the film has become a much more uncomfortable watch than before – although McDowell himself argues that the only link between the film and atrocities like those is the fact that both happened to take place in schools.
if…. has remained both a cult and a classic film, the first with a British setting and cast to be awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes; like Look Back in Anger and Anarchy in the UK, it’s a highpoint in British culture of the second half of the 20th century.
Unlike Osborne’s play though, which helped break the stranglehold of the drawing room dramas of playwrights like Terence Rattigan and ushered in the era of the ‘Angry Young Men’, and The Sex Pistols, who kick-started the whole Punk movement in London, Anderson’s film failed to ignite a similar revolution in British cinema.
Five years later many of those involved in its making were reunited for the very loose sequel O Lucky Man! – and later again on the vitriolic but woefully unfunny ‘comedy’ Britannia Hospital – but neither of these efforts had anything like the impact of if….
In fact, of the entire cast and crew, arguably only Malcolm McDowell would ever repeat the success and controversy of if…. when he was cast to play Alex, the droog malcontent of A Clockwork Orange, as a direct result of Stanley Kubrick’s enthusiasm for his portrayal of Mick Travis.
Commentary with David Robinson and Malcolm McDowell and a 36 page booklet featuring a new and exclusive essay about the film by David Cairns and more.