“One man can change the world with a bullet in the right place,” proclaims Mick Travis, the boarding school rebel who spearheads a revolution in Lindsay Anderson’s anarchic social satire if…. Malcolm McDowell plays the role, three years before he starred as the nihilistic Alex in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and his international celebrity exploded. While the two parts share some similarities—a smiling, cocksure refusal to play by societal rules or toady up to authority figures—their motivation to destroy is quite different. Alex sees the world as a decadent playground for his entertainment, whereas Mick Travis dreams of something better and commits to the idea of burning down the old establishment to make way for the new order. As for what that new order is, he never clarifies, but it will certainly be a reaction against the oppressive, class-conscious regime of pompous, condescending headmasters and the sadistic, smug, paddle-wielding gang of senior classmates called The Whips.
if… opens with the arrival of students after their summer break. Ground rules are laid out: there are the oppressors and the oppressed, with the younger children (labeled “Scum”) attending to the beck and call of their elders. At its most lenient, this involves running back and forth to bring toast and jam during tea time, but if the rules of politesse are not followed to the letter, heads are dunked in toilet bowls or flunkies are instructed to stand under ice cold showers for two-minute intervals. Mick Travis and his handful of bright, idealistic friends are among the seemingly powerless, and they find their strength through cunning subversion. On the first day of the semester, Mick arrives wearing a black hat and scarf covering his entire face, and when he reveals himself he has a neatly trimmed moustache as an act of minor rebellion—a gentle “fuck you” to the powers that be. Mick promptly shaves it off, but not before complaining, “When do we live? That’s what I want to know.” As said by McDowell, with the boyish insouciance that became his trademark, it doesn’t sound sanctimonious.
Played with that deadpan quality we come to expect from highbrow, stiff upper lip British comedy, if… is told with rigorous control, with unobtrusive camerawork and naturalistic, unpretentious sound design. In seemingly arbitrary fashion, the film stock jumps back and forth between black and white and color (with black and white lending a more dreamlike or delicate quality to certain passages). It’s not kitchen sink social realism as seen in the films of Ken Loach (whose Poor Cow also touched a nerve in the late 1960s), since the performances are slightly heightened—even borderline caricature. While Mick’s moustache isn’t weird in and of itself, and there’s nothing radically out of the ordinary in his listening to a beautiful African chant with accompanying drumbeat on his record player, and it’s perfectly befitting that he would have photographs of guerrillas on his wall, these images and ideas build up a cumulative power so that when if… ventures into more overt surrealism, it doesn’t feel like much of a stretch. When Mick steals a motorcycle, slips away from school and has a spontaneous romance with a good looking waitress (Christine Noonan), their courtship involves a slap, snarling at each other like wild animals, and finally rolling around on the floor—clothed and naked in a series of jump cuts.
This surreal quality is playful and often anachronistic (one of the characters who dies suddenly reappears in the headmaster’s study, popping out of a cabinet to say a line of dialogue before lying back, corpse-like, as the drawer is shut upon him). The prefect’s wife takes off her clothes and roams freely through the empty hallways while everyone else is caught up in an occasion of pomp and circumstance. Mick and his friends have an elaborate fencing match, play-acting their way through it like the Three Musketeers until they are entranced by the appearance of “blood…real blood!” It all feels like part of existentialist shrink R.D. Laing’s once-popular belief that madness is the only sane response to an insane world.
All that mania seems like a necessary release from repressive school life, which can stand in as allegory for whatever you like: the routine humiliations of working in an office, the government crushing individualism under its thumb, the necessary catharsis of art and expression in an increasingly corporate landscape, or even a nostalgic trip down memory lane as we realize that the rules laid down in school are often the same ones set forth in life. Reality grows especially harsh as the dictatorial Whips close in on our heroes and dole out a series of brutal beatings—culminating in an after-school paddling in the gymnasium that both hobbles Mick and strengthens his resolve.
While the paddling doesn’t have the blood and spittle of The Passion of the Christ, it plays just as rough. Tension builds when Mick has to wait outside the gym and listen to the beating of two other boys, and then when he takes his twenty lashes we cut away to younger schoolchildren listening in fear as he has to take his lumps. The scene has incredible dramatic power as Mick wipes away a single tear and is called upon to thank his oppressors. This turning point in the film leads to the grand finale, where Mick and his revolutionaries utter no more spoken dialogue and somehow come across a cache of guns and hand grenades that they lethally break out when the parents visit the school on Founders’ Day. It is pure Guy Hawkes-style mayhem, again with a surrealist bent. (One of the villains gets shot in the head and immediately bursts into flame.)
Anderson was well known as a provocateur, both abrasive and caustically funny. He gleefully poked mocking holes into all sorts of cultural institutions—yet he too was repressed in his own way. Quiet about being gay, he never allows the homosexuality in if… to move beyond suggestion. However, if the gymnasium hazing and the climactic shootout are the most iconic sequences, the gay subtext leads to the most striking visual poetry. Young Bobby Phillips (Rupert Webster) shyly watches from a balcony as Mick’s handsome pal Wallace (Richard Warwick) does graceful acrobatics and somersaults on a balance beam. Slow motion transforms Wallace into a moving sculpture, and as Bobby regards him with silent adoration, it becomes homoeroticism at its most transcendent. While not as spirited and confrontational as the rest of if… (it’s almost timid in its mildness), it provides a gentle and touching counterpoint to the sharply drawn ironies that abound throughout.
if… was wildly popular in Great Britain, a parallel reaction to the counterculture youth movement’s rage against the conservative regime, but it was equally embraced in countries that suffered under corrupt totalitarian governments. Nowadays, where global culture grows increasingly homogenized, we associate survival with conformity, and it’s refreshing to look back at this late-60s time capsule when young people violently disagreed with that notion. Naughty behavior and a taste for the ridiculous can be, in and of themselves, revolutionary—a refusal to adapt to constructed norms. Mick pushes it to the limit and, as reason and logic take a reprieve, the fantastic and the absurd take over.
Image/Sound/Extras: The high-def transfer of if…, presented in anamorphic 1.66:1, is first rate, with incredible clarity in the image. It is approved by director of photography Miroslav Ondricek, who outdoes himself with beautifully vivid black and white contrasting nicely with evenly lit color sequences. The audio track is likewise restored, and the Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono is clean and clear, with no noticeable hiss. Supplemental materials on the two-disc set are generous, including a feature length commentary by Malcolm McDowell and film historian David Robinson. McDowell’s anecdotes are both informative and funny, and always reverential towards the director who discovered him. Robinson makes an excellent foil, particularly in their lively exchanges about Anderson’s directorial choices. “It was completely arbitrary,” McDowell howls, even as Robinson points out the clever cross-cutting between the Whips, shot in vivid color as they laze about their study playing games of one-upsmanship, and the Scums, in black-and-white as they cheerily make do with a humble meal of pork and beans. The ever-lively, charismatic McDowell adds a personal touch when discussing his first audition for Anderson, as well as some of his shrewd directorial advice and one-liners, and Robinson too seems to have a clear understanding of the director’s character as well as his aesthetics. “His indifference to being liked was matched by his need to be loved.”
Disc Two contains a brief but lively interview with actor Graham Crowden, who plays the whimsical history teacher in if… and discusses Anderson’s paternal, supportive approach to actors. Anderson’s short, Academy Award winning documentary, Thursday’s Children, about a school for deaf children, is a fascinating and humanitarian social document. An episode of BBC Scotland’s Cast & Crew has several crew members and Anderson’s protégé Stephen Frears discussing the long shadow if… has cast over the years—and a pre-taped Malcolm McDowell shares even more anecdotes, including the one where he asked Anderson if he could roll around on the floor naked with his co-star Christine Noonan, and his gleeful delight when the director agreed—o lucky man, indeed!
Jeremiah Kipp’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Filmmaker, Fangoria and other publications.