The angry young men of Lindsay Anderson’s seminal If…. act like sheep until they can no longer stand the blatant absurdities surrounding them. So they become wolves, first turning on each other, then the establishment. Anderson’s bastion of seething protagonists falls into one of two groups: abuser or abused. A social middle ground doesn’t exist in the film’s 1960s posh prep school dormitory, College House; there are just finite and threatening deviations from the classic tormentor-victim mold. Anderson spends If…. circling around the his male protagonists’ brimming anger, watching and waiting until their increasingly volatile outbursts create a whirlpool of hate. Each boy eventually gets sucked into the vortex, and the traditionalist school administrators can’t fathom the violent consequences to come.
Caught squarely in the middle of this psychological war zone is Mick (Malcolm McDowell), a rebel-in-waiting simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by the trauma around him. Mick’s introduction confirms his position as a cipher. Shrouded in a scarf, to hide a recently grown mustache, he struts through the cramped hallways of College House in the opening moments of If…. as if he were strolling through a living graveyard. He jumps over bodies to avoid detection and slips through doorways to evade the guise of the Whips, a group of four older boys tasked with policing the collective. Only when Mick arrives at his sectioned-off domicile does he unveil his face. Immediately, Mick begins pinning new pictures of iconic 1960s imagery on his bedroom wall, a trend that continues throughout If…. Eventually Mick’s Vietnam-era snapshots take on the quality of a family album—equal parts deep-seated repression, political anger, and reactionary expression.
Symbolism isn’t a manifesto or an answered prayer in If….; it’s weapons-grade plutonium threatening to explode established traditions at any moment. Not only is Mick’s collage of photographs incendiary in nature, these images make a permanent ideological impact on his lethargic friends, Johnny (David Wood) and Wallace (Richard Warwick). Newspaper clippings of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and Che Guevara sparks in all three men an anti-establishment lust, which comes to a boil when Mick meets an attractive young woman (Christine Noonan) working at a diner in town. His fleeting but abrasive sexual advances spin the entire film into a void of Buñuelian surrealism. Cause and effect doesn’t matter here, only the touch and feel of youth running amok. As Mick and his trio of followers pile into an insanely small car, their rowdy joy ride through the fields of rural England represents a form of poetic expression they can’t find within the stifling universe of College House.
Anderson’s narrative may seem thin on the surface, loosely based around the violent and passive-aggressive hierarchies at an English boarding school. Yet the striking imagery and symbolic sound design convey the suffocation of daily life as a slowly spreading disease. One evocative cutaway to a growing organism under a student’s microscope further signifies how ideology acts as an all-consuming airborne toxin. Later, the physical and psychological violence escalates, with Mick taping a plastic bag over his head to simulate a sense of drowning and the Whips exacting swift and unfair punishment in a numbingly cruel torture sequence set in a locker room. Mick’s crew eventually exacts revenge in a shocking set piece of school violence, but their machine-gun assault on classmates, teachers, and parents during a devout day of prayer is purely absurdist, confrontational, and most likely a figment of their burning imaginations. Still, by merely posing the ending as a potential endgame for British traditionalism, Anderson suggests a seismic shift in class dynamics with this virtuoso cinematic earthquake.
The famous last words of If…. (“I understand you!”) are brashly spoken by the mostly clueless headmaster during the final volley of gunfire and mortars. His verbal contradictions represent the hilariously indecent and immoral falsities that define the school as an institution. As a result, the man’s wide forehead promptly becomes a ten ring for a bullet fired by Mick’s still nameless and probably imaginary girlfriend. Born from the political cinema of Godard and the ultra violence of Peckinpah, If…. unforgettably depicts a swift and darkly comic last stand against state-sanctioned torture. Mick’s face, caught in close-up, is awash in the glory of his own violent destruction. How did it come to this? We’re not sure if Mick even knows the answer, but he feels right at home in the chaos.
The 1080p hi-def transfer of If.... varnishes the washed-out qualities of Miroslac Ondricek and Chris Menges's imagery. Interior sequences are lit to maximize the polish and glisten of floorboards and banisters. Lengthy camera movements glide between countless running boys and posing teachers with effortless glee. Exteriors are blown out with layers of sunlight and greenery, and these sublime moments allow Mick a certain freedom of expression and serenity in between his rigorous experiences at College House. I wish the substandard monaural soundtrack were equally as impressive. At times muddled and at others nearly inaudible, the sound design falters at some of the most inopportune times. Key dialogue exchanges are even overwhelmed by the overlapping ambient sound flooding the space.
Film critic David Robinson's deft and knowing audio commentary for If.... begins with a great story. "When the film's original screenwriters David Sherwin and John Howlett showed their script to two of England's most prestigious producers, one said they should both be horsewhipped, and the other said it was the most evil and perverted script he'd ever read, and should never see the light of day." Criterion intercuts Robinson's words with an audio commentary by actor Malcolm McDowell, who talks lovingly about his first meeting with Lindsay Anderson and the decades-long friendship that followed. The disc also includes an episode of the British television series Cast and Crew that woodenly celebrates If.... three decades after it won the Palme d'Or at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival. The show reunites screenwriter David Sherwin, producer Michael Medwin, and cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek, among others. Actor Graham Sharman recollects his disastrous first meeting with Lindsay Anderson in a short and sincere video interview. Lindsay Anderson's Academy Award-winning short documentary, 1954's Thursday's Children, is also included. Narrated by actor Richard Burton, the film enters a school for deaf children and finds a tender process of self-realization in a world of silence. David Eherenstein's essay, "School Days," is a stellar political contextualization of If.... and the film's stylistic subversions. Reprinted pieces by Sherwin and Anderson are also included in the booklet.
If.... this is my prison cell, then I have every right to violently break free from these debilitating walls blurring past and present. And I will break free!