253. IF…. (1968)

“What child has ever been silly enough to ask, when Cinderella’s pumpkin turns into a golden coach, where reality ends and fantasy begins?”–Lindsay Anderson

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , David Wood, Richard Warwick, Robert Swann, Hugh Thomas, Peter Jeffrey, Christine Noonan

PLOT: Mick Travis is a rebellious teenage boy at a British boarding school. Because of “general attitude,” he and two friends are persecuted and beaten by the “whips,” older students given privileges to enforce discipline. During military exercises, Mick and his friends discover a cache of automatic weapons and make plans to disrupt the school’s Founders’s Day celebration.

Still from If.... (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • In England if…. was controversial due to its unflattering portrayal of English boarding schools (particularly, one suspects, of the depiction of pervasive homosexuality) and, by extension, of English traditions in general. When David Sherwin and John Howlett brought their original screenplay to one producer, he called it “the most evil and perverted script he’s ever read.”
  • The film was inspired by ‘s 1933 Certified Weird anarchist screed Zéro de conduite, relocated from 1930s France to then-contemporary Britain.
  • if… was filmed mostly on location at Cheltenham College, director Lindsay Anderson’s alma mater. Many of the boys who appear in smaller roles were students there at the time. A doctored script, missing the final scenes, was given to the college, since the school never would have granted permission to shoot if they had known if…’s climax beforehand.
  • This was Malcolm McDowell’s film debut.
  • Look for portraits of famous revolutionaries and icons of rebellion like Che Guevara, Geronimo, Vladimir Lenin, James Dean and others hanging on the boys’s walls.
  • There is a legend that the film shifted from black and white to color because the producers ran out of money for color stock. Lindsay Anderson contradicted these rumors, saying that they decided to shoot the first chapel scene in black and white due to lighting considerations. He liked the effect so much that he inserted black and white scenes at random to disorient the viewer and to hint at the fantasy elements to come later.  Anderson insists there is no symbolic “code” or reasoning for why some scenes are monochrome and some in color.
  • Distributor Paramount was horrified by the film and certain it would bomb in Britain. They wanted to bury it, but at the last minute they needed a movie to screen in London to replace their current flop: Barbarella. if… went on to be a hit.
  • if…. won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, although in the commentary Malcolm McDowell recalls that he was told that the film actually came in third in the voting, but was chosen as a compromise because the jury could not break a deadlock between supporters of Costa-Gavras’s Z and Bo Widerberg’s Adalen 31.
  • Lindsay Anderson and Malcolm McDowell made three films together, in three different decades. In each of them McDowell plays a character named “Mick Travis,” although based on their varying personalities it’s unlikely that they are intended to be the same person. The other two “Mick Travis” films are 1973’s O Lucky Man! and 1982’s Britannia Hospital.
  • Anderson actually wrote a proper sequel for if…, which was to take place at a class reunion, which was unfilmed at the time of his death in 1993.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The final shootout, as a whole; it’s both a troubling massacre and an immensely satisfying revenge. Early posters of if… favored shots of star McDowell or the photogenic Girl; we prefer the brief image of a dowager who grabs a machine gun and pitches in for the defense of the school.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Tiger mating ritual; chaplain in a drawer; granny with a machine gun

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Throughout most of its run time if… is a viciously realistic boarding school drama. But when the Headmaster sternly tells the boys “I take this seriously… very seriously indeed” after Mick shoots a chaplain and bayonets a teacher during the school’s campus war games, we suddenly realize the line between realism and fantasy has been thinner than we thought.


Original U.S. release trailer for if….

COMMENTS: if…‘s theme is the conflict between tradition and rebellion, age and youth, especially resonant concerns in the tumultuous year of 1968, when the firebrand film was fortuitously released a few months after the student riots in Paris. Structurally, ifreflects that eternal conflict between old and new with opposing styles. The meticulous depiction of College House’s regimented culture, where classroom activities are secondary to memorizing the school’s informal catechism (incoming students, known as “scum,” will be beaten for getting one word of the formula wrong) and learning to respect the authorities (especially the “whips,” older students who are the boys’s immediate overseers), is conveyed with  a harsh realism. These scenes contrast with the flights of surreal fantasy and imagination associated with Mick Travis, the leader of a trio of (younger) nonconformists. Traditional and experimental narrative forms collide, but blend together to form a satisfying whole, and a portrait of the times that feels truer than it would have had one method or the other dominated. The conflict between old and new is even embedded in the film’s theme song, the “Missa Luba”: a traditional Latin mass, but revolutionary in that is was sung by a third world choir of Congolese children with African percussion, harmonizing Western and African music. The opposing aesthetic choices synthesize to form a great movie, but the thematic combatants remain deadly enemies: youth’s apparent triumph, if it’s meant as metaphor, is an illusion, and if meant literally, an atrocity.

The (often) seamless mix of fantasy and reality is if…’s calling card. Aside from the random switches from color to black and white, a simple distancing gambit that does not otherwise effect the reality of the narrative, the first recognizably fantastic scene occurs when Mick and Johnny sneak off to town, an act of rebellion that occurs almost exactly at the midpoint of the film. We can’t believe that Mick and the Girl (she’s not even real enough to get a name) end their brief flirtation by clawing at each other like jungle animals and wrestling naked on the cafe floor while Johnny patiently stares down at his cup of coffee. But besides that obvious fantasy, how much of the excursion really could have taken place? Could the boys really have stolen a motorcycle so easily out of the showroom, and escaped with no repercussions whatsoever? Although it’s shown, for the most part, with the same strict realism as the earlier sequences, from the very beginning their entire frolic outside the college—the only off-campus scenes in the film—is most likely a complete fantasy, Mick’s dream of teenage freedom. I always thought it was odd that Mick and Johnny seem to be holding hands when they run across the traffic circle; I didn’t notice until my third viewing that the boys are actually handcuffed together, like prisoners escaping from a chain gang. Their shackles disappear as soon as they reach the other side of the highway.

If the reality of the boys’s trip into town to steal a couple of hogs and experiment with heterosexuality is in question, the lads are brought down to solid earth for if…‘s harrowing centerpiece. Insouciant Mick and buddies are taken before the whips, accused not of playing hooky and stealing motorcycles, but of slouching, showing poor school spirit, and having a bad “general attitude.” Told that he will be caned for his infractions, in the good old English manner, an unrepentant Mick makes things worse by unleashing a classic line of abuse against chief oppressor Rowntree. It’s a turning point; expecting an unpleasant but tolerable bout of corporal punishment, Mick has underestimated his superior’s determination to break his spirit. Mick is beaten, literally; and, more importantly, beaten figuratively when, buttocks still smarting and his proud face stained with tears, he’s forced to enact a humiliating ritual and thank his torturer for the privilege of being corrected. There is no element of fantasy here. The savagery shown by the whips is completely believable: these are unsupervised young men who have been given permission, and the moral authority backed by centuries of tradition, to punish those who offend or challenge them. And insubordinate Mick has defiantly declared he his lack of respect for them. They hold all the cards, and of course they will unleash their fury on him. Before this scene, we merely preferred Mick and his Crusaders to the authorities; now, we are actively rooting for him to revenge himself.

If…‘s final chapters are clearly imaginary and surreal. These scenes still disappoint many who thrilled to the sordid sociological realism of the movie’s earlier segments. But it seems the only way for Mick and his Crusaders to overthrow their masters is by overthrowing logical causality first. While the rest of the class sleeps, Mick peers through a telescope and sees the Girl, who waves to him. The trio then disrupts the school’s war games in impossible ways, inspiring an absurd personal lecture from the usually remote headmaster, who offers the conciliatory opinion that their bloody revolt boils down to a “quite blameless form of existentialism” while declaiming about the “great hair problem.” Their punishment involves clearing the chapel basement of detritus, including a stuffed crocodile that they throw on a bonfire made of discarded chairs. While engaged in this work they discover the school’s hidden cache of automatic weapons, along with its collection of embalmed fetuses and medical abnormalities locked away in a closet. Suddenly the Girl, whose very existence is doubtful, is there with them. These fantastical and foreboding scenes are a prelude to the film’s gory and phantasmagorical climax; there is no doubt that none of it “really” happens, at least not in the way it is shown.

Perhaps the boys created some minor disturbance at the war games, and enacted a prank at the Founders’s Day ceremony, and these grandiose and surreal scenes are Mick’s subjective aggrandizement of his little acts of rebellion, seen through the telescopic lens of romantic youth. But, like running a sonnet through a grammar checker, figuring out precisely what is real and what is fantasy in if… misses the point. By definition, no work of fiction is “real”; so why discriminate between plausible and implausible unreal stories? Mick’s fantasies are as emotionally true as his realities, and it is his interior reality, not a chronicle of incidents that occurred at College House during the 1968 term, that is if…‘s true story. Mick’s resistance occurs in his imagination. But the arbitrariness of the school’s power hierarchy, and of all analogous structures, inevitably sows resentment among those at the bottom of the social ladder. The only thing saving those at the top from being overthrown is the lower class’s faith in the system, in their hope that if they stick it out and follow the rules they will someday climb up and become oppressors themselves. This structure is supported by belief in tradition, God and country, and buttressed with hymns, rituals and jargon.

And by the fact that those at the bottom have no weapons to strike back with.

But what if…

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There are so many muddy undercurrents in this film that even the best sequences are often baffling, and the ways in which Anderson tries to illustrate the desire for freedom don’t carry any conviction.”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (contemporaneous)

“…so good and strong that even those things in the movie that strike me as being first-class mistakes are of more interest than entire movies made by smoothly consistent, lesser directors… The movie is a chronicle of bizarre details…”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“The film stands up well with the exception of the odd surreal moment…”–Angus Wolfe Murray, Eye for Film (DVD)

IMDB LINK: If…. (1968)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

if… (1968) – The Criterion Collection – Criterion’s page has a film clip and David Ehrenstein’s essay

Anarchy in the UK – Lindsay Anderson scholar Gavin Lambert reminisces about the Mick Travis trilogy on the occasion of if…‘s 2002 rerelease

RICHARD LINKLATER’S FIVE FAVORITE FILMS – Two-time Certified Weird director names if… as one of his five favorites

The Music of If…. (1968, Lindsay Anderson) – Adam Scovell analyzes the film’s use of musical cues

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

if... (BFI Film Classics) – Mark Sinker’s monograph on the film for the British Film Institute

If…: Turner Classic Movies British Film Guide (British Film Guides) – Paul Sutton’s book-length essay on if…

Your Face Here: British Cult Movies Since the Sixties – contains a chapter on if…, as well as entries for several other movies featured on this site (A Clockwork Orange, Performance, The Wicker Man)

DVD INFO: The Criterion Collection edition comes on two DVDs (buy) or a single Blu-ray (buy). A fond and nostalgic commentary by Malcolm McDowell (recycled from a 2002 interview), intercut with observations from film critic David Robinson, is the main attraction. Other extra features include interviews with a number of the cast and crew (including McDowell) from a 2003 TV show, a separate interview with Graham Crowden (who played the eccentric history professor), and Lindsay Anderson’s Academy Award winning documentary short Thursday’s Children, about a school for the deaf. Of course, the film is remastered to the highest possible quality and the whole package comes with the usual Criterion booklet of essays and interviews.

(This movie was nominated for review by “Caleb,” who said he was “amazed by the combination of black and white with color, almost breaking it into a surrealistic, dreamlike world.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

4 thoughts on “253. IF…. (1968)”

  1. An decent film I give it a 6.5 on the 1 to 10 scale. A bit ahead of its time. I remember the controversy at the time.

  2. I’m happy to hear this is indeed a weird movie, it was a (loose?) inspiration for Shin Megami Tensei: if…, a video game in the frequently weird Megami Tensei franchise. So I’ve always been curious about it.

  3. Saw this for the first time just this evening and I’m glad the site gave the green-light for a lengthy review. I’m not sure if I agree to the Certification, but the movie assuredly deserves the accompanying long-form write-up that only Certified films get.

    Had I watched this back in my late teen years, I shudder to think how mind-blowing I would have thought it to be. Having watched it just now as an “old” person, it provided me a strange visit to my more impressionable days. That doesn’t happen often.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *