FILM REVIEW: If.... (1968)

If.... (UK, 1968)
Directed by Lindsay Anderson
Starring Malcolm McDowell, Richard Warwick, Christine Noonan, Arthur Lowe

In selecting the greatest high school movie of all time, there are a number of different 'schools' from which to choose. We have the light-hearted nostalgia of The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller's Day Off; the awkward indie spirit of Napoleon Dynamite and Grosse Point Blank; the adolescent gross-out of Porky's and American Pie; and the twisted one-upmanship of Carrie and Heathers.But while all of these entries are valid and have their own merits (even Porky's), they cannot hold a candle to the overall winner: a film which combines earthy black comedy with artistic flights of fantasy, and savage satire of the establishment with personal quandaries about sex, servitude, romance and rebellion. And, as a bonus, it is the film which launched the career of Malcolm McDowell. The film is If...., the director is Lindsay Anderson, and the result is one of the greatest films of the 1960s.If.... might seem an odd choice for the greatest ever high school film when we consider the kind of schooling on which it focuses. Set in the fictional College School deep in the conservative heartlands of 1960s England, it explores the kind of education and school system which the vast majority of us will never have to endure. It's the kind of school that would serve as an ideal backdrop for a story like Goodbye Mr. Chips or The Browning Version: while capable of producing fine drama, it doesn't smack of rebellion, let alone revolution.Fortunately, If.... has both qualities in spades, and it captures all the essential elements of adolescence that have been replicated in often putrid detail by its American progeny. It manages to be aware of the intelligence and sophistication of public school while overtly and sarcastically mocking everything it stands for. The very title is an act of thinly-veiled defiance: If... is a famous poem by the staunchly patriotic Rudyard Kipling, with the extra '.' in the ellipsis being an impudent revision of the way of life it encapsulates. The final scenes in particular give new meaning to the poem's penultimate line: "Yours is the earth, and everything that's in it."Like many films of the counter-cultural period, If.... depicts the relationship between the older and younger generations as being one of bitter opposition. The older generation, embodied by the masters, parents and prefects, are entrenched in the pre-war, imperial mindset with an emphasis on serving one's country and knowing one's place. The younger boys, including Mick Travis, feel no attachment to these values, regarding them as irrelevant, out-dated, stuffy and dull.But while there is this broad divide in outlooks between the generations, there are instances of crossover on both sides. Some of the teachers harbour relatively subversive thoughts and attempt to convey them, such as Graham Crowden's history teacher who cycles right into the classroom and then proceeds to outline his own peculiar take on key historical events. The headmaster is less successful in this, calling Travis into his office and repeating the phrase "I understand" to a point of desperation.Just as not all of the teachers are straightforwardly stuffy and backward, so not all the students in If.... are didactic flag-wavers. The students who rebel are not politically motivated like their counterparts in Zabriskie Point; in the words of the headmaster, "You're not rebels. That would be too easy." Travis may have posters of Lenin and Che Guevara on his wall, but his monologues are more concerned with the beauty of freedom, and the need to live a truly meaningful and joyous life even in the shadow of a possible nuclear holocaust. He rejects and flouts all forms of authority, despising the very essence of anything which inhibits him from free expression and the passionate act of being himself.One aspect of free expression on which If.... focuses is sexual liberation. In one of the film's more surreal segments, Travis and one of his friends steal a motorbike and drive some distance to a roadside café. Once there, they order coffee, Travis plays some classical music on the jukebox and, without any notice or questions asked, begins an affair with the waitress. In other section, a young boy spots Wallace training on the parallel bars, and they develop a homoerotic relationship. Anderson may not be encouraging free love in the now-clichéd manner of hippie movies, but he uses these scenes to reinforce his point about needing a society shaped by the people, rather than the other way around.If.... is Anderson's stand against the traditional values of England - everything from duty and propriety to the barmy traditions of private clubs. The film is part of his continued attempt to destroy the post-war malaise of British cinema, just as his political heroes had tried to destroy it through guns and social democracy. Throughout the film we see bastions of the community attempting to drill their students with values of 'honour', 'duty' and 'fighting the good fight', only for these ideas to crumble into absurdity and insignificance when applied.Two examples perfectly illustrate this point. The first comes at the three-quarter mark, where the chaplain gives a sermon on fighting for Christ, and how desertion or failure to fulfil duty is the greatest and most unforgivable of sins. But less than ten minutes later, he is cornered by Malcolm McDowell during the war games and becomes a quivering coward, terrified by the prospect of there being real bullets in Travis' gun. At the end of the film a visiting General gives a speech about how "the cynics" have nothing to replace the old values which they criticise. But what starts as convincing soon descends into the absurd: he speaks about discipline, only for his public to stumble into the aisles in blind panic while the stage beneath him goes up in flames.The film is built around the central performance of Malcolm McDowell, who is little short of magnificent. It's a very close rival for his work in A Clockwork Orange, which could be described as the more cynical cousin of this film. Stanley Kubrick and Lindsay Anderson may direct in totally different ways, but they both use McDowell superbly, utilising those huge, puppy-dog eyes, perfect hair, curled lips and upstart demeanour. And then there is the voice, which is note-perfect when delivering his poetic musings and savage put-downs to the uptight prefects.There is a further comparison with Kubrick in the idea of discipline and degradation being used by the establishment in a manner which ultimately destroys it. The brutal scene of Travis being caned repeatedly in the gym is like an artier, moodier version of the boot camp scenes in Full Metal Jacket. Travis may not take on the psychotic quality of Private Pile, but his experience of brutality makes him more determined than ever to fight against the system and reclaim his identity.The visuals of If.... are distinctive in their combination of colour and monochrome cinematography. When the film was first released, people read into the black-and-white sections as having some deeper artistic meaning, with a variety of theories being posited. In fact, these sections exist for the simple reason that Anderson ran out of money - or, as in the chapels scenes, it was quicker and easier to light for monochrome on a tight production schedule. Whichever is the more true, the film benefits from its unique look - it's a happy accident which reinforces the artistic and personal tone even if it doesn't bring much in the way of meaning.If.... remains as incendiary and as perfectly formed as it was over 40 years ago. Anderson's masterful yet understated direction gifts us with a series of properly believable performances, and his balanced of the natural and the surreal is effortless, particularly in the final shootout. While the revolutionary zeal and optimism surrounding it have long since faded, the film remains both a truthful product of its time and a work of timeless genius. It is an extraordinary piece of British cinema and is essential viewing.

Verdict: Magn-IF....-icent


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