The key study of revolution and rebellion from 1968, the year of unrest.
The first of Lindsay Anderson’s loose trilogy of films that darkly satirise British culture (the other two being O Lucky Man and the criminally neglected Britannia Hospital), If…. is an extraordinarily revolutionary work that is very much of its time, albeit coincidentally – shot in 1968, the film appeared before the civil unrest that swept the world in that year but seems to foreshadow it. It’s also a film that arguably predicts school shootings, with its teenage snipers, though the setting of a backward, repressed English boarding school couldn’t be further from the locations of most school massacres. Even the Daily Mail might struggle to draw a connection between the film and the events it predicts.
This is is a film with a fairly minimalist narrative, truth be told. You don’t always need a dense plot to be profound, and If…. certainly proves that. For the most part, it is a series of incidents and observations, slowly building to a point where the civil nature of upper-class English life is finally torn apart. Set in a particularly pompous and tradition public school (for American readers, think private school, a much more accurate description for places that were anything but public), the film follows three sixth form pupils – Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell), Wallace (Richard Warwick), and Johnny (David Wood) – as they return for a new term. They are the school rebels, though their rebellions seem rather small and petty – Travis turns up sporting a forbidden moustache, but is quick to shave it off, and their room is decorated with fashionable images of revolutionaries – the sort that would probably have put such privileged youths up against the wall.
The early parts of the film show the life of the school, the obsession with tradition, the ridiculous hierarchy that exists (older sixth formers are ‘whips’ who have power and authority and use it to dominate the others and engage in petty displays of superiority; younger boys are ‘scum’ – ‘fags’ in traditional public school parlance, though you can see why that was changed – who are made to act as virtual slaves for the whips). This is the sort of school that, even today, provides our leaders – our top politicians, our judges, our military leaders (no one from these schools ever served in the ranks) and our civil servants – as well as those who want to tell us what to do in our lives, the ‘trustafarians’ who can be ‘activists’ because they never have to worry about getting a real job. These are the people who have been taught from birth that they are better than the rest of us, and Travis and friends are arguably not that different. They might be rebels by the standards of this society, but you know they are destined for well-paid careers in a ‘we know best’ organisations.
But things are slowly moving in the film. The whips convince housemaster Mr Kemp (Arthur Lowe) to give them more power, while the three rebels become ever more discontented. One day, they slip off campus to run riot in the local town. It’s all very middle-class misbehaviour – they arse around in the street (some great hidden camera footage getting genuine public reactions here), steal a motorbike and visit a greasy spoon run by The Girl (Christine Noonan), who Travis fantasises about. Back in school, Wallace draws a younger boy, Bobby Phillips (Rupert Webster) – the beautiful object of desire for the whips and others alike – into their world. Eventually, they push too far and are subjected to caning by the whips. While Wallace and Johnny get off fairly lightly, Travis is beaten until they think he is broken.
This is the pivotal scene. While it looks as though Travis is still bound by the rules of his society – after wiping away a tear, he shakes hands with and thanks his tormenters, seemingly put back in his place once more – the act of abuse finally makes them move from fantasising about revolution to carrying it out. Travis has bullets, and points out that “one man can change the world with a bullet in the right place”. After a test run during school war games, they decide to act.
If…. is that most cunning of films. It starts out as a straight-forward, if knowingly cool narrative – a film for teenagers who might not have attended a school like this but could relate to the idea of not fitting in, of wanting to give authority the finger. And then it becomes slowly, almost in perceptively strange. You perhaps know that this is far from a straight-forward public school drama when the colour movie suddenly cuts to black and white. This would hardly be the first or last film to flick from colour to monochrome (or vice versa) for dramatic effect – but here, it seems random. There’s no suggestion that the black and white scenes are, in general, different from the main narrative. They are not solely fantasy sequences, for instance. But they do keep the viewer on edge. They keep you aware that yes, this is a fiction. You know you are watching a film because you are reminded of it. And so when the film eventually leaves the realm of reality, you don’t feel that it is especially jarring. It feels natural.
And leaving reality is interesting because there comes a point where you can no longer trust the narrative. Are the events we see real? Are they fantasy? They certainly make more sense as the latter. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter. If…. builds to one of the most cathartically satisfying moments in film history and because IT IS A FICTION ANYWAY, we can accept it regardless of how much narrative sense it might make.
With Malcolm McDowell making a startling and iconic screen debut – seriously, how many actors have had such a beginning? – and a cast of excellent supports, If…. positively crackles with discontent. It might be the misplaced frustrations of the privileged who know nothing of actual oppression, but thanks to Anderson’s perfect direction, we are drawn into the story as if it is a genuine tale of rebellion. And besides, who is to say that the idle rich can’t be angry at their place in life, one that might be as narrow and restrictive as any other? It’s a daring film (not just in narrative structure, concept and visual style but also because of the edgy sexuality, nudity and general challenge to a polite society) and one that has humour and pathos mixed in with the anger. It’s genuinely astonishing filmmaking, as potent now as it ever was. One of the great films of the 1960s and British cinema, it is essential viewing.