Lindsay Anderson’s if… first hit cinema screens at the end of 1968. With its incendiary theme of rebellion against an ossified class system, seen through the satirical prism of an oppressive British public school, at first glance, the film appeared to be a mirror, reflecting the potent socio-political landscape in which it emerged. But it is way more than a mere period piece, and if…’s subversive implications continue to reverberate just as loudly today, argues Jamie Holman.
1968 was the year in which the formerly peace and love-expounding counterculture exploded with violent discontent across the globe, reacting and responding to the Vietnam war in particular and to the stultified old order in general. Students led the charge, marching in thousands before tearing up the streets of Paris that May, while their American cousins occupied both Harvard and Columbia universities in demonstrations about wider equalities and civil rights. In Prague, Tokyo and London the momentum was also gaining; the focus of the collective rage may have been diverse, but the underlying sentiments were largely the same. United in dissent, angry at unwarranted global conflicts, entrenched racism, poverty and the many social injustices of the age, the kids fought back. Fuelled, and indeed informed by pop music, cinema, art, poetry and the new bold journalism emerging from underground newspapers, this year saw the sparks of youthful dissatisfaction ignited and explode.
if… appeared sympathetic to the growing anti-establishment tide, prophetic even, as the newsreels played in the same cinemas that showed the film. This was the year that Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis; Enoch Powell made his series of “Rivers of blood” race hate speeches in Britain, while the war in Vietnam escalated into obscene massacres and madness. There was much for the young, and those on the Left, to grate against. By the end of the year, Valerie Solanas had shot Andy Warhol, Richard Nixon was president of the United States and Led Zeppelin had formed in Surrey. The hippies’ peace and love dream was over. The world was suddenly ‘heavy’.
if… seemed to capture this revolutionary fervour immediately as it happened, so perfectly did its themes chime with real world events. The film’s narrative premise of a group of young private school boys (led by a smoulderingly recalcitrant Malcolm McDowell as anti-hero Mick Travis), who, with the recruitment of ‘The Girl’ (played by Christine Noonan) become revolutionaries that stage a bloody ambush outside the school chapel, bombing and machine-gunning the entrenched ‘upper classes’, in the form of oppressive sixth form prefects, teachers, a vicar, an old lady (“Bastards! Bastards!”, she cries as she returns fire) and, finally, the headmaster, from the rooftop of the school, was a shockingly resonant metaphor for insurrectionist times.
But to simply pitch if… as another part of the late ’60s pop-art-politics jigsaw is too easy and dismisses the very particular story of the film’s provenance and genesis. In 1968, director Lindsay Anderson was not a bright young thing, nor was he working class with a chip on his shoulder. Born in 1923, and educated at Oxford, he was firstly a writer and critic, venting his passions for the filmmakers he admired, and being scathing about those he didn’t, initially in magazines like the influential Sequence, and later for Sight & Sound and The New Statesman. He had criticised directors for their lack of social awareness and moral stance as far back as 1947. This writing would lead to books, theatre productions and a series of documentaries at the end of that decade and into the early ’50s. In these, Anderson pointed his camera at aspects of British life that were generally ignored or unseen, and was rewarded with an Oscar in 1953 for a documentary about deaf children. These films were products of the Free Cinema movement (“No film can be too personal” was their credo), as were fledgling works by Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson, all of which had a huge impact on the so-called kitchen sink cinema of the early ’60s. Anderson would add his voice to the genre with his searing 1963 adaptation of David Storey’s novel This Sporting Life, starring Richard Harris in an astonishing ‘angry young man’ performance which won wide acclaim. Anderson had, by this point, established himself as a furious critic of the repressive British class system, of privilege and power, of those who inherited it rather than earned it, and the impact of unquestioned and unchecked hierarchies on the ability of the masses to live lives to their full potential. As a director, Anderson was principally interested in a kind of people’s cinematic poetry, in ‘realistic aesthetics’.
if… would make good on those themes. David Sherwin’s script was concerned with the brutality of public school, the ugly violence of childhood and the repressed tension of sexuality amongst a rigid system of quasi-Victorian values. The film, set in a traditional boarding school that would makes the location of Tom Brown’s Schooldays look like Grange Hill by comparison, is presented in chapters, following the journeys of returning older boys from summer adventures, both real and imagined, and new boys who are lost in this strange new world with its rules, hierarchies and abstract expectations of obedience, team spirit and duty. It is here that the future leaders of the nation will emerge, not from the coal mines of Yorkshire, or from the market stall of London, as featured in earlier Anderson films, but in the private studies of the whips (prefects), the rugby scrums and the ranks of the officer training corps. McDowell’s Mick Travis stands in opposition to all this. He leads a small group of dissenters who cut out striking images from the magazines and newspapers of the day; drink, smoke and immerse themselves in the aesthetics and language of revolution.
There are so many excellent lines and evocative set pieces in Sherwin’s screenplay (whose original title was Crusaders) that it is difficult not to list them, but of all the lines it’s when Travis asks, “When do we live? That’s what I want to know”, he gets straight to the kernel of the film. When he steals a motorbike, during a rare excursion into ‘town’, the camera keeps its distance as two of the crusaders muck about on the streets before a bewildered public – Anderson’s trade-mark realism firmly in place. The boys meet ‘The Girl’ at a café and Anderson cuts to black and white, changing film stock (as he does in several other parts of the film) as she and Travis roll around on the floor, becoming ‘tigers’, biting and clawing each other in manic ritual. Much has been made of this device, and while it certainly supports the allegorical intention of some scenes (a naked school nurse wandering the dorms, for example) the accepted wisdom is that Anderson was running out of money and it was cheaper to finish some scenes in monochrome. In retrospect, the reason doesn’t matter: it works. As does the spare, endlessly evocative soundtrack music: ‘Sanctus’, Missa Luba’s vividly sung Congolese Latin Mass, lending proceedings a redemptive air that is at once exotically incongruous yet numinously apt.
Travis, the girl and the other boys continue on a collision course with authority, becoming bolder by the minute, refusing to conform, thrilled at the sight of blood; growing in confidence as they retreat into their own world of war and revolution, until being beaten and caned by the whips. The intention of those in authority is to break the rebels, but this ritual brutality and humiliation serves only to strengthen their resolve, leading to the epic final scenes of the crusaders on the roof, armed with mortars and machine guns. The final words of the headmaster, arms held up in desperation, “Boys, boys, I understand you!” is punctuated perfectly by the single bullet he receives between the eyes.
if… would go on to win the Palme D’Or at Cannes the following year and was generally well received beyond the shores of Britain where it was to become a cult favourite, misunderstood (or perhaps understood only too well) by the wider public at the time, only to reappear on late night television slots throughout the decades that followed. Sherwin, McDowell and Anderson would continue their creative relationship for two more films based loosely around the Mick Travis’ character, 1973’s O, Lucky Man! and 1982’s Britannia Hospital, and the trio endured different measures of success in the decades that followed. McDowell sealed his iconic status by playing the malignant Alex in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, but arguably never fulfilled his potential before Hollywood grabbed those malevolent blue eyes and perfect sneer and turned them into fake smiles and tan lines. Sherwin attempted to follow-up the Travis scripts with little success, and almost went mad in the process. What reputation Anderson (who died in 1994) maintains is largely down the trilogy, along with his 1967 short film collaboration with Shelagh Delaney, The White Bus, and, even, incongruous as it is, his 1985 Wham! In China documentary.
All three ‘Travis’ films remain essential viewing, however, and capture an evolving Britain at different stages from ’60s idealism to Thatcherite depression, each film with it’s own layers of aesthetics, meaning and reflection for the viewer to unravel. Among critics, opinion is divided as to which is the best of the three. For me, it will always be if… It has stood the test of time, while many of the late’60s cultural landmarks have dated. Seeing it for the first time was as profound, for me, as exposure to The Sex Pistols was for others. It changed everything and sent me on a lifelong journey to surround myself with crusaders of my own.
You’ll find me on the roof.