FILM REVIEW: O Lucky Man! (1973)

O Lucky Man! (UK, 1973)
Directed by Lindsay Anderson
Starring Malcolm McDowell, Ralph Richardson, Arthur Lowe, Graham Crowden

After If.... won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1969, Malcolm McDowell was desperate to work with Lindsay Anderson again. Teaming up with If.... screenwriter David Sherwin, McDowell spent the years in and around A Clockwork Orange churning out draft after draft of a screenplay based loosely on his life. Anderson wanted a film of epic proportions, and what he delivered is at once epic, joyous, frustrating and utterly perplexing.O Lucky Man! is the second instalment of Anderson's Mick Travis trilogy, following If.... and preceding Britannia Hospital. It is not so much a sequel as a companion piece to If...., with this Mick Travis being an everyman figure rather than just the grown-up version of the revolutionary schoolboy. Many of the cast of If.... return playing multiple, completely different roles, and aside from Travis there is little or no attempt made at direct continuity.Where If.... was based on Anderson's experiences at public school, O Lucky Man! is loosely based on the life of Malcolm McDowell, who started out as a coffee salesman before wandering into acting and being cast in If.... almost by accident. The story of Mick Travis has been likened to Candide, Voltaire's sprawling 18th-century epic about an everyman indoctrinated with optimism, who journeys out into the world on a series of exciting and terrifying adventures.As with Candide, O Lucky Man! has a picaresque structure, with an episodic, incredibly rambling storyline which is very difficult to summarise in a paragraph. It begins with Travis working for Imperial Coffee as a salesman and being put in charge of the North-East of England. Following his apparent success he is given Scotland as well, but ends up being interrogated by the military who believe he is a Russian agent. He manages to escape their torture after the base is attacked and evacuated.With no money to speak of, Travis volunteers for a series of experiments led by Dr. Millar (Graham Crowden), who talks about using science to unlock the full potential of mankind. Upon his discovery of a patient who is half-man, half-sheep, Travis flees in fright, hitching a lift to London with Alan Price's band and falling in love with their groupie (Helen Mirren). Having wangled his way into meeting her father, the richest man in the world (Ralph Richardson), Travis becomes his personal assistant, only to be dragged into shady government dealings and imprisoned for fraud. Upon release he is robbed and beaten up by the homeless, leading him to wander into an audition with a film director, played self-referentially by Lindsay Anderson.At this point you would normally have every reason to berate me for giving away the whole plot of the film. But the fact is that O Lucky Man! is very difficult to follow unless you have some prior idea of where it is going. At a slow-moving 183 minutes, it requires a massive amount of patience both to sit through and to tolerate the contrivances and oddities of its plot. There is still substance to be found, but many of its interesting ideas are severely compromised by their execution.As with Candide, O Lucky Man! is at heart a social satire wrapped up in romantic and adventure elements. Like Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Voltaire was looking to create a work which could satirise society by means of elaborate, whimsical allegory - so elaborate and whimsical that it would slip through the net of church wrath or state censorship. Anderson attempts the same here with less immediate success, although his intentions are noble and his film has dated somewhat better than other contemporary satires, if only because its scope and themes are so universal.O Lucky Man! is a satire of commercialism and ambition in a capitalist society. Travis begins the film guided by optimism, ambition and his willingness to do anything to get rich. Even before his success with Imperial Coffee, he seems to have totally abandoned his revolutionary principles, acknowledging either through maturity or base self-interest that the only way to make it in life is to fake it. Anderson's re-tuning of the character reflects both the selling-out of many of his left-wing comrades and Britain as a whole, which was slowly eroding or reversing its post-war achievements (something he would return to in Britannia Hospital).The film is also about luck, with most of Travis' adventures coming about mostly from being in the right place at the right time. His success in the North-East comes largely from networking with the locals in a crowded showing of a porn film. When interrogated by the army, he begins to pretend that he is Russian to get it over with, and only escapes because the base is bombed. He becomes Sir James' assistant not because he has the skills or experience, but because he knew his daughter and just happened to be there when Professor Stewart (Crowden) committed suicide. "It's not what you know, it's who you know" may be a trite point to make, but Anderson plays it through with relish to show how hollow capitalist meritocracy can be.As perfectly valid and interesting as these points may be, they often get misplaced or buried amongst the increasingly ridiculous series of events. Travis is supposed to be an everyman and yet his experiences become so fantastical that even when the allegory is played for obvious effect, they never quite tap into the nub of the issues. One could argue that this was done out of respect for the audience, with Anderson believing they could fill in the blanks rather than needing to be lectured. But there is too little for us to grip onto in our bid to decode the most esoteric elements, and at its worst the film resembles Sleeper, having to constantly be outlandish or wacky to keep things moving forward.The tone of O Lucky Man! lurches around uncontrollably. The scenes in Dr. Millar's institute are played straight to maximise the horror, with certain scenes resembling H. G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau. But other scenes are almost parodies of Anderson's earlier work - the scene where Travis attempts to coax Mrs. Richards out of committing suicide is a total piss-take of kitchen-sink dialogue. Mrs. Richards is played by Rachael Roberts, star of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and This Sporting Life, who would tragically take her own life in 1980.The recurrence of cast members like Graham Crowden, Rachael Roberts and Arthur Lowe give the impression that O Lucky Man! was partly or wholly made to get the old gang back together. Anderson was less confident that he had been on If.... and parts of the film feel that he was making it up as he went along (albeit not without success). Alan Price's band were incorporated into the film as a modern-day Greek chorus because Anderson had wanted to make a documentary about them but couldn't afford the licensing costs.On top of all that, O Lucky Man! is littered with moments which are so completely out of left field that you have to pinch yourself. The strangest of these comes at Travis' trial when the judge goes back into his chambers, strips off to reveal next to nothing under his gown and is roundly whipped by the usher. Anderson could be making a point about public school habits or sexual perversity behind closed doors. But it does feel like we've wandered into the Monty Python sketch where the two judges strip off while talking about "waggling wigs" and "banging gavels".O Lucky Man! is a sprawling and bizarre follow-up from Anderson, which confuses as much as it stimulates or enthrals. McDowell is excellent in the lead, giving us some form of a charismatic anchor for the story as it floats on increasingly choppy waters. Like The Bed-Sitting Room before it, it has a number of interesting and relevant ideas which are let down by their peculiar execution, and both films require immense patience to be fulfilling. It's massively and tragically flawed, but somehow still compelling.

Rating: Photobucket
Verdict: Sprawing but somewhat satisfying


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