Anarchists’ Academy: Lindsay Anderson’s If…. (1968) – Blu-ray review
The Bonnie And Clyde of British cinema, as Anderson lights the fuse that unleashed a generation of malcontents. Its revolutionary fervour remains vital.
(Lindsay Anderson, 1968)
Full disclosure: I went to a private school 20 years or so after If…. was released and, to be honest, remarkably little had changed. Sure, the really extreme stuff, the canings and sado-masochistic use of ‘scum’ as servants, had stopped. Yet the militaristic obsession with obedience and team spirit, the stifled sexuality, the emphasis on learning by rote, the sneering at locals (“bloody oiks!”) and the cruel power games that come with being older and privileged parts of the school Establishment – none of this had been shamed into submission by Anderson’s film.
Indeed, today, with a Cabinet largely staffed by the privately educated, things are arguably worse now. If…. has lost none of its allegorical power; accordingly, nor has it lost its revolutionary fervour. The difference is that If…. probably wouldn’t be funded today (giving the title a particularly bittersweet flavour), but it probably wouldn’t have been funded back then either, were it not for the state of the world circa 1968.
That remains an iconic year in European history, as a wave of revolutions swept across the continent. Many films have fair claim to be the definitive document of those times, yet surely none more so than If…. for the simple reason that it’s British. If…. things are this bad in England, then surely something massive must be happening elsewhere.
Aptly, Lindsay Anderson’s film itself is in flux. The director had made his name initially in documentary and then as one of the architects of social realism with This Sporting Life. If…., however, is a work of rampant surrealism, hiding its insurrection in plain sight amidst the starched uniforms and rituals of a British public school. It wasn’t the first film of the 1960s to chart the fantasies of a youngster – that’d be Billy Liar – nor was it the first to use an institution as an allegory of British life (see Sidney Lumet’s The Hill).
Yet Anderson brought visionary violence that sparked several years of genuinely counter-cultural, irreverent and disreputable British cinema, just as Bonnie And Clyde did in Hollywood. Films such as The Ruling Class, The Devils, Straw Dogs and (most obviously) A Clockwork Orange probably wouldn’t exist without this. In a lovely coincidence, a member of this film’s crew shares his name with Michael Caine’s character in Get Carter, another of the great post-If…. Brit-hits.
Just as importantly, there are future talents galore here. Anderson’s assistants were Stephen Frears (now one of Britain’s major directors) and Stuart Baird (later an A-list editor and director of Executive Decision); the cameraman was future double-Oscar winner Chris Menges; the cast includes Confessions star Robin Askwith and Hi-De-Hi‘s David Griffin.
Yet none made a mark as big as Malcolm McDowell, whose smirking, sneering insolence redefined the British star. He wasn’t a rough-and-tumble working class man’s man like Caine oe Albert Finney, nor a suave pretty boy like Terence Stamp or Peter O’Toole. McDowell is the spirit of anarchy, a clown and a joker, the forerunner of punk and an instant icon.
Anderson keeps the film loose, most obviously in the (apparently random) mix of colour and monochrome. Just when you think you’ve decoded it, Anderson changes what appeared to be the rules, so that it’s reductive to assume that (for example) the black-and-white sequences are fantasies. Instead, it’s a Brechtian attack on form, a means of warning us to stop and pay attention. And the film doesn’t make sense, from the school’s odd traditions (“run in the corridor!”) to the hypocritical headteacher trying to be down with the modern world while cementing 500 years of tradition, to the Bunuelian spectre of the padre hiding in a drawer.
Arguably, it’s too loose. After building up to Travis’ humiliating punishment at the hands of the prefects, the third act is killing time until payback. But what payback! A whole sub-genre has sprung up in recent years about the terrible effect of violence in schools (Elephant, We Need To Talk About Kevin), but If…. remains pretty much unique in daring to suggest that going on a kill-crazy shooting spree might be a good thing. The flippantly amoral, semi-comic tone that Anderson uses here is just ironic enough to be read as a satirical allegory, but Anderson, like me, was a public schoolboy. Don’t doubt for a minute that there’s a genuine, vicarious anger rippling through the gunfire.