Director: Lindsay Anderson
Screenplay: David Sherwin
Based on a Script by: David Sherwin & John Howlett
Starring: Malcolm McDowell, David Wood, Richard Warwick, Robert Swann, Hugh Thomas, Guy Ross
Producers: Lindsay Anderson, Michael Medwin & Albert Finney (uncredited)
Running Time: 112 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
My year of catching up on unseen classics roles on with Lindsay Anderson’s if…. (the four full stops and lower case ‘i’ are intentional). Winning the Palme d’Or back in 1969 and still regularly cropping up in the upper echelons of lists of the greatest British films ever made, if…. is the director’s follow up to the also highly regarded This Sporting Life, which I should be getting a screener for to review in the near future (Network are releasing it on Blu-Ray in June).
Released on Blu-Ray as part of Eureka’s illustrious Masters of Cinema series, if…. charts events during a year at a British boys-only public school (a.k.a. boarding or private school). A vicious hierarchy is in place, with the headmaster and staff on top, then the ‘whips’ (a type of prefect that has control over other students), the seniors (lower sixth formers) and then the rest of the younger students. The lowest of the low are the ‘scum’, who act as slaves to the whips.
We watch the students suffer in this evil institution of strict regimes and ludicrous rules, largely following a new boy to begin with, helping show the audience the ropes. As the film moves on, we focus on a small group of senior students, led by Travis (Malcolm McDowell), who are fed up with life within the college walls. Cocky and arrogant, Travis has already been singled out by the whips and is regularly punished for having long hair or other such questionable reasons. The boys are eventually pushed too far though and vow to strike back at their superiors, leading to an explosive finale (which may or may not be a fiction of their imaginations).
Now I never went to a public or boarding school (thank God), but I get the feeling that much of what is portrayed in if…. isn’t too far from the truth (at least of the time). There are some surreal and satirical embellishments here and there which I will get to shortly, but generally the microcosmic class system, the failure to tolerate free thought or modern trends as well as hints of sexual abuse all feel frighteningly feasible. I’m not sure any establishments (or not many) were quite as harsh as this one and the film plays on a heightened reality of course, but I imagine the writers drew a lot from experience and interviews with them on the Blu-Ray confirm this.
What if…. is great at doing is balancing this believability and social commentary with the playful and the surreal. These unusual moments can be quite subtle to begin with, but by the last third it often becomes downright bizarre. As soon as the ‘crusaders’ (Travis and his rebellious friends) steal a bike and pick up an attractive girl (who Travis shares a literally animalistic interlude with), the film gets quite trippy and it isn’t clear whether the protagonists are dreaming a lot of this or not. The infamous and controversial finale in particular comes about in a peculiar fashion. It ends on a freeze frame of Travis, cutting to a repeat of the title, which in itself suggests it was all a piece of wish fulfilment.
Real or not, it’s all fantastically well handled. Drawing influence from the French New Wave and Godard in particular, Anderson is unafraid to experiment and does what he likes to give the film its impact. The most notable trick he plays with the audience is in using both black and white and colour photography. This is jarring at times and the placement of the black and white scenes doesn’t always follow a perfectly strict system, but this seems to be the intention. In one of the interviews it is claimed that it was because the DOP and Anderson were struggling to capture the colours of the chapel, but, whatever the reasoning, it works as an attention grabber and the black and white highlights the drudgery of day to day life at the school. Travis and his friends’ antics always burst through into colour, that’s for sure.
Speaking of Travis, McDowell is stunningly good in this film. The whole cast is highly effective, but Anderson struck gold with the young Yorkshire lad who had previously only appeared in a handful of TV programmes. McDowell brings true life to the stuffy establishment and the film itself, yet he’s not all sunshine and lollipops. His love of war and lust for pain (the only sign of life he can experience) is ever present behind his wild eyes and wicked smile. It’s no surprise that Stanley Kubrick, a fan of the film, cast McDowell three years later in A Clockwork Orange and reportedly asked him to play the part as he did in a single shot of if….
Being such an unusual, mischievously playful film, there isn’t a clear plot to grasp onto, but the film remains utterly captivating. Like the iconic hand grenade which features on most of the posters for the film, if…. sees the pin being pulled out as the boys suffer under the college’s tough regime and we can only wait for the inevitable explosion. Like in Do The Right Thing 20 years later, it feeds on the tensions rising to a boil.
Overall, it’s a unique, angry but wonderfully controlled piece of cinema. There’s plenty to chew on in terms of satire and social commentary, yet it remains exciting and engrossing throughout. I’ve hesitated to give it a full 5 stars, probably because it’s a first time watch and I don’t like to hand them out too easily, or because a couple of the surreal touches feel a little too ‘of their time’. However, I’m fairly sure a second watch would rank it in my list of all time favourites and I can certainly see why it has troubled so many lists of the greats of British cinema. Rarely has a film from this country been so effectively bold and daring without losing sight of its core strengths and themes.
if…. is out on 9th June in the UK on Blu-Ray, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema Series. The picture quality is impeccable. I couldn’t spot so much as a hint of damage or wear, yet it retains its natural film grain. The audio was spot on too.
If a flawless transfer weren’t enough you also get a healthy dose of extras. New to this edition are almost an hour’s worth of interviews with various cast and crew members. These are great although it would have been nice to have had them compiled into one documentary to prevent overlap and make it easier to watch all at once (there is no ‘play all’ option). Malcolm McDowell is missing from the interviews but he features in an audio commentary where an interview with the great actor is mixed with facts and analysis from film historian David Robinson. This was included in a previous UK DVD release and probably some of the American versions, but is still a welcome addition here.
Anderson’s short documentary Thursday’s Children (1954) is included again as it was in the DVD edition, but in addition to this Eureka provide us with another two of his shorts, Henry (1955) and Three Installations (1952). I must admit I haven’t got around to watching these yet, but watching more of Anderson’s work is an exciting prospect.
Also included are the customary trailers and booklet looking further in depth into the film. The latter is as indispensable as always.
The original theatrical trailer: