If . . . (1968)

The young revolutionary, more often than not, grows up to become the establishment. So what happens to a young revolutionary movie?

It’s been almost 40 years since Lindsay Anderson’s If…. shocked and attacked the British establishment, eerily anticipating the May ’68 revolutions by a matter of weeks after its release. A British ambassador called it “an insult to the nation.” A Lord Brabourne dubbed an early draft, “the most evil and perverted script I’m ever read. It must never see the light of day.”

In an interview for the film’s publicity campaign and reprinted in Criterion’s DVD booklet, Anderson says that he and screenwriter David Sherwin “were being, to some extent, prophetic…I mean forecasting the shape of things to come — the conflict between established tradition and youthful independence that is evidently breaking out all over the world.”

Yet the film’s resilience lies in it not being tied into current events. Anderson and Sherwin took as their template the fantasy-tinged English public school reminiscence, idealized from Tom Brown to Harry Potter, and used its rigid social structures to reveal and criticize the stifling conservatism prevalent in Britain.

The hero of sorts, Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell), is introduced sweeping into the school covered in black. A prefect calls him Guy Fawkes, he retreats into the clubhouse study of his friends Wallace (Richard Warwick) and Johnny (David Wood) and takes off his scarf to reveal buggy blue eyes and a potato paunch of a nose. Looking into a mirror, studying his illicit mustache he announces, “My face is an endless source of fascination.” It’s one of the great pleased-to-meet-me lines in a prominent screen debut; McDowell’s mug – punchy, rude, and removed – is the embodiment of If.…’s provocative yet enigmatic aura.

Mick and his friends are sarcastic seniors, allowed to their private world while still disciplined and chafing under the leadership of the dictatorial prefects called the Whips. The exact time and place is unknown. The boys are shaggy haired and pimply faced; the school is spotty, bare, and rather shabby. This is a mediocre to disappointing public school (what would be considered a boarding in the United States). The headmaster exhorts the pupils with generic political bromides: “work, play, but don’t mix the two”, “life here is a matter of give and take”, “help the house and you will be helped by the house”.

Cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček uses a combination of long shots and hand-held to create a sociological and subtly satirical view of this world, similar to what he created for The Loves of a Blonde and The Firemen’s Ball. The most contentious visual idea is to switch back and forth from color to black & white at random. The first time the change occurs, at the end of the first chapter, still jars in its simple boldness. On an episode of Cast & Crew — a BBC show that “takes a classic movie and reunites some of the key people who made it” – included with the Criterion set, the crew says the choice to shoot in both started off as a relatively arbitrary whim but was absorbed into the film as a “deliberately provocative” and “emotional” technique.

If…. is broken up into eight chapters, which first function to establish the traditions of public school life (“Return”, “Term Time”) and then how this system shapes the main characters (“Discipline”), and radicalizes them (“Resistance”, “Forth to War”). This structure hinges on the fourth chapter “Ritual and Romance”, a poetic interlude that is the movies’s most visually succulent portion, where the characters indulge their youth and freedom before being suppressed by the Whips. In the first of two love scenes Wallace seduces the floppy blond Bobby Philips (Rupert Webster) via a gymnastics routine. In the second Mick and Johnny steal a motorcycle and end up at a roadside café where Mick wrestles the sexy cool waitress (Christine Noonan) in animal pleasure. (“Look at me,” she growls, “look at my eyes, my eyes get bigger and bigger, I’m like a tiger, I’m like a tigress.”) It is the only sequence that takes place outside the school.

Shortly after they return they are reprimanded by the Whips for nothing more than the ironic sneer on their lips, and subsequently caned to “nip unruly elements in the bud”. Subsequently, their naïve leanings towards political radicalism – like yelling “death to tyrants” while mock-playing Douglas Fairbanks and muttering “violence and revolution are the only pure acts” while cutting out magazine photos – start to take on a more sinister tone. Mick says, “death to the oppressor, resistance, liberty, one man can change the world with a bullet in the right place…real bullets.” And he means it, setting up the giddily irreverent and horrifying school shooting finale.

As nearly every commentary accompanying this set points out, it’s impossible to watch this ending, the faculty and student body herded outside to waiting machine guns, and not be sickly reminded of the rash of recent school shootings in the United States, even if the scene is not at all realistic. The headmaster yells, “Boys, boys, I understand you. Listen to reason and trust me, trust me!” before being shot in the head. The parents and staff are handed out guns from an armory to return fire to the rebels. But the ambivalence of this ending provokes a visceral yet confusing reaction. Are we meant to exult in Mick’s shucking off societal bonds, be terrified, or forewarned?

The divisiveness with which the original audience seems to have reacted to Mick has faded. Time has dimmed his rebellious fervor to reveal a more complicated individual. Anderson says Mick “is a hero…who arrives at his own beliefs and stands up for those beliefs, if necessarily against the world.” So Mick is a hero, but to what extent? Anderson, after hemming and hawing for the entire interview concludes that the film is “about law and order, about freedom and responsibility, and love and the denial of the heart.” How to navigate a reality that exists between the Whips (unbearable) and Mick (the problematic ideal) is If….’s ultimate question. That Anderson refuses to venture a solution is the film’s defining stylistic tic, but also its biggest cop-out.

Anderson didn’t want the film to be a tract. “I would hope that it’s an experience, not an illustration.” He seems to have been torn between any definite conclusions and so presents two extremes, which can only end with an apocalyptic scenario. On Cast & Crew Stephen Frears (an assistant director) says “he was a classicist and an anarchist at the same time.” Everyone on that show agrees that he absolutely loved Britain.

In an interview with the actor Graham Crowden, who plays an eccentric history professor, he says, “That was the paradox in the man, he was savagely satirical and at the same time could have loving passages in it where he demonstrates that not all is lost but practically everything is lost unless we do something about it and we’re not going to do anything, are we?” The responsible revolution is where the anarchist and classicist impulses complement each other.

But watching If…. today it still fails to provide any sort of answer for how tradition and change can be reconciled. The most sensible declaration comes from a stodgy clueless priest: “Our England doesn’t change so easily.” For all its beauty and ingenuity, all we’re left with is an ellipse.

RATING 8 / 10
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