Director: Lindsay Anderson / Script: David Sherwin & John Howlett / Editing: David Gladwell / DP: Miroslav Ondricek / Score: Marc Wilkinson
Cast: Malcolm McDowell / David Wood / Richard Warwick / Christine Noonan / Robert Swann / Hugh Thomas / Peter Jeffrey / Arthur Lowe / Ben Aris / Graham Crowden
Run! Run in the Corridor..!
Crikey. What an extraordinary picture is If….
To begin at the beginning… The film’s title is a riff on Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem of the same title, the opening lines of which are: ‘If you can keep your head when all about you, are losing theirs and blaming it on you…’
Bear this sentiment in mind then, when watching the film and all becomes clear-ish. Springing from the experiences of writers David Sherwin and John Howlett, this could only have been made in the Sixties. Moreover, it could only have been realised at the hand of someone like Lindsay Anderson. A cult director in the vanguard of the 1950’s ‘New Wave of British Cinema’, Anderson was an advocate for realism as a driving theme for cinema, paving the way for later Directors working in the field, such as Ken Loach. A committed anti-establishment figure, it’s no surprise he was attracted to a project like this, with its subversive themes and cutting satire.
The year of the film’s release – 1968 – saw social unrest in places as diverse as Detroit and Paris, and reflected a desire for a new re-balancing of society, as a youthful generation, disempowered by the very societies in which they lived, began to question the status-quo. An emerging youth culture, embodied in rock & pop music, new fashions and a more permissive attitude, was beginning to permeate wider culture: the film’s very existence was proof of that. I can’t see how If…. would’ve been made just five years earlier, but tastes – and the political will to make films that better reflected them – had changed.
At least, that’s what people believed. Trouble is, wider society doesn’t always move forward, to embrace the new. In retrospect, while it’s true that many fossilised norms were being swept aside, it’s equally the case that, by the mid-Seventies, as the UK lurched from one financial crisis to another, the Establishment had to reassert itself in order to save the ‘body politic’. Salvation arrived in the form of Mrs Thatcher, for good and ill.
So then to 2018. Fifty years after Anderson’s masterpiece. Much has changed and much has stayed resolutely the same. When asked in an interview, recent Prime Minister David Cameron, cited If…. as his favourite film, though one wonders if that’s the just the old Etonian in him, hankering after a Golden Age before the compromises of Government skewered his judgement?
So what is If….? At its heart, Sherwin & Howlett delivered a primal scream spanning seven chapters, that railed against a conformist ideology and a brutal institutionalism, every bit as horrific as that of Borstal (see: Scum (1979) for further details). The only difference between ‘College House’ and being a ‘guest’ of Her Majesty, is that you have to pay handsomely for the former ‘privilege’. These seven chapters, chart the gradual desensitisation and alienation of Mick Travis, a cocky sixth-former who’s leadership over a tight ‘band of brothers’ will, ultimately, lead to their doom.
Or does it?
Malcolm McDowell made his film debut with the piece and it’s immediately obvious he’s destined for great things as a film actor; one only has to see his unforced naturalism and peculiar brand of nuanced emotion to get that. For Anderson’s vision to have even half-chance of succeeding, ripe as it is with surreality, his leads needed to demonstrate total belief in the material as-presented, and it’s to McDowell’s credit – and that of all leads, really – that they were able to rise to the challenge. Travis’s band style themselves ‘Crusaders’ and include the excellent David Wood as Knightley and Richard Warwick as a sexually conflicted Wallace.
Chapter One: College House – Return has the school – and more specifically – College House, reassembling after the summer break. Anderson gives an elegantly-sketched overview in a series of vignettes, showing how the Crusaders are engaged in passive-aggressive skirmishes with the House Prefects, known as ‘Whips’, prefiguring the Palace of Westminster in which, no doubt, many of these boys will one-day find themselves, having exchanged one institution for another… The Whips of College House – a quartet of over-entitled, obnoxious teenage sadists – are led by Rowntree (Robert Swann), whose supercilious braying tone, is a perfect fit. It’s to Swann’s credit, then – and to his fellow Whips – that they make a fine counterbalance to the Crusaders; the frisson of mutual loathing, held in-check at this stage. I also want to mention the Staff. Under wishy-washy Head-Master from Central Casting (Peter Jeffrey) we have the Master of College House, Kemp, played by an incongruous Arthur Lowe, who’d later be better known as Captain Mainwearing from Dad’s Army but here plays a sexually repressed wallflower, married to a younger woman, who dreams of an emotional life on any terms: and who wouldn’t, surrounded by dozens of hormonal schoolboys, day-in, day-out? This first day of term, sees the arrival of a new ‘Under-Master’: the amusingly named John Thomas, who’s shown to his bleak attic room by Mrs Kemp; the highlight of the tour, being its coin-fed gas meter.
Anderson shoots this scene, as he does with several others – apparently at random – in Black & White. At the time of the film’s release, Anderson concocted several cryptic reasons for this ‘artistic’ choice, but a plainer explanation eventually emerged: that the film stock being used by DP Miroslav Ondricek, was too ‘fast’ for the production’s lighting rig, so opting for B&W for certain interiors, was deemed a worthwhile compromise and gave a better story into the bargain…
Oh, and Mrs Kemp would also provide another landmark moment in British cinema, in the shape of the UK’s first-ever prolonged full-frontal female nude depicted on-screen.
Chapter Two: College – Once Again Assembled sees the school find its natural rhythm. To underline both the likely eccentricities of some long-serving staff and the idea of a curriculum unchanging over the passing years, the second chapter is dominated by the magnificent Graham Crowden as a History Master, who freewheels into class on a bike, distributes essays with casual nonchalance, then proceeds to recite an opening argument to an essay, relating the rise of certain technologies in the Nineteenth Century and concluding with the reason why Kaiser Wilhelm couldn’t avoid The First World War. I took this to be perhaps the subject of a paper he’d written in the past, such was the look of smug satisfaction on his face at its conclusion. When no boy is prepared to comment, he throws-out a ‘twenty minute essay’ on an equally obscure topic and reads the newspaper! I found this sequence a joy to watch, but then Crowden was seldom disappointing. Years later, he’d star in the surreal British TV drama A Very Peculiar Practice, where his twinkling delivery would shine.
Chapter Three: Term Time shows the school having settled-in to a pattern. The Whips are eating toasted crumpets and treating their ‘scum’ (usually known as ‘fags’, the OED puts it thus: ‘A junior pupil at a public school who does minor chores for a senior pupil’). In other words: scum. Hmm. There’s a theme here… Watching this, I kept thinking this: Hogwarts is a long, long way from here… Oh, and we begin to see the first signs that Travis might be crumbling, when a Whip named Denson (an acerbic Hugh Thomas) punishes the Crusaders for some minor infringement, with cold showers of two minutes each: except Travis goes last and when his time’s up, Denson leaves him there, waiting under the cold shower until he returns. Thing is, Travis does stay. It’s as though he realises the futility of his situation, and how – as he puts it – ‘War is the ultimate creative act’. He’s beginning to embrace images of crude militarism, clipped from magazines and from the glimpses we see of the Crusaders in their study, drinking illicit vodka, there’s a vague sense of disconnection abroad as though Anderson is gently coaxing us to join-the-dots along with him.
Chapter Four: Ritual & Romance is dominated by a visit to the nearby town, by Travis & Knightly, in which Travis steals a motorcycle from a dealership (a BSA, if you’re interested) and, with Knightley riding pillion, an afternoon of freedom awaits. They end up at the ‘Packhorse Café’ – a dreary coffee bar that, apparently, used to exist, on the A5, north of Cheltenham (the town where most exteriors were shot). Inside, once again shot in B&W, we get a surreal sequence in which Travis engages in aggressive petting with The Girl (Christine Noonan) and eventually writhes naked with her, on the café floor, only for the sequence to end and dissolve to a more mundane scene with the three of them; this is Anderson tipping-us the wink; that he’s not above venturing into a dreamlike surreality. Which is just as well, given what follows.
Chapter Five: Discipline, begins with a provocative scene all its own: Travis is ‘playing’ an auto-asphyxiation ‘game’ with a plastic bag, so we already get a sense he’s becoming ‘unglued’ from his moral centre; as are the other Crusaders, it seems, for not intervening. Or are they just as bored? This poisonous mood is perpetuated by the Whips, led by a vindictive Rowntree. Tired of the Crusaders’ insolence, he intends to punish them ‘properly’ and ‘nip their casual slackness in the bud’ by making examples of them. After getting the ineffectual Kemp to acquiesce, there then follows a caning in the gym for the Crusaders. The other two are punished first but, once again, ring-leader Travis is singled-out and Rowntree canes him with a gleefully sadistic leer; Anderson unflinching in his long takes and discomfiting sound design.
Chapter Six: Resistance. While the Whips are learning Latin, in perpetuation of their unwitting institutionalisation, Travis is shooting what looks like tranquilliser darts into his wall of cuttings; Anderson locking-on to rote Establishment figures such as the Queen. This culminates in Travis sealing a blood pact with the other Crusaders: ‘One man can change the world with a bullet in the right place’. Again: is this a wish-fulfilment fantasy?
Chapter Seven: Forth to War. After a school-wide military exercise, with the boys revealed to be army cadets, and the Masters as officers, the Crusaders end-up taking pot-shots at the catering van’s tea-urn, before ‘shooting’ then ‘bayonetting’ the school’s Padre (ironically, the school’s most-senior officer). Although it looks convincing, we’re immediately rocked on our heels. In a scene within the Head-Master’s office, he merely states that the Padre ‘might easily have been seriously injured’, at which point, he opens a large, deep map-drawer from a wall-cupboard, from which rises the Padre himself, like Christ from the tomb, before he’s pushed back, out of sight.
For many contemporary reviewers, this was the point where Anderson’s vision stepped over into farce, but I would argue it’s merely another of Travis’s visions, that began back at the café.
The Head-Master’s token punishment for such horseplay? Clear-out the junk from below the College Theatre’s stage, in readiness for an upcoming ceremony. It’s there, that the Crusaders ‘find’ a cache of live ammunition, machine guns and even a bazooka: but again, how much is this mere wishful thinking?
The ceremony begins and smoke rises through the floorboards of the stage. Everyone – guests, boys, guests and staff – duly pile outdoors and are met with a hail of gunfire from the Crusaders up on the roof. There’s but one clue in this section, that things are not all as they might appear, when the Head-Master is shot and subsequently explodes as if made from TNT. The clue? Anderson jump-cuts away from the Head-Master’s body to a pyrotechnic effect: the Head-Master never actually explodes…
And that’s it. Any conclusions are for us to draw. Beyond the obvious issues with Travis’s visions, the film’s not without other problems. For a start, its politics weigh heavy on its sleeve; Anderson almost using it as a direct incitement to cause trouble. Furthermore, in the light of recent mass shootings, the finale is also somewhat troubling. If viewed as a fantasy, then one might be able to make a case. But we live now in a world far removed from that of 1968. A pervasive online culture has left us more judgmental and quick to rise to the bait; cooler heads don’t prevail as quickly as we might like. Viewed in those terms, If…. could ONLY have been made in the Sixties…
Not that it had an easy ride at the outset. The studio was initially hesitant about giving it a full theatrical release but, as luck had it, its other Great White Hope of the time – Barbarella – was tanking at the box office, so If…. had to step-in to its spotlight: and became an instant classic, embodying a ground-swell of sentiment out in the country, that mainstream films hadn’t addressed: which brings us back to my opening: Crikey. What an extraordinary picture is If….
And what an extraordinary director.
Sorry, Travis. I mislaid your’s somewhere in the Mont-Blanc Tunnel.