This ground-breaking film of the late 1960s, detailing the unravelling of class privilege through an eruption of revolutionary violence, was largely filmed in and around the rarefied environs of Cheltenham College in Gloucestershire -- a Victorian era, fee-paying boarding school formerly attended by the film’s director Lindsay Anderson; it was distilled from a 1960 screenplay called “Crusaders”, originally conceived as an insider’s attack on the English Public School system but heavily based on the formative experiences of its co-writers David Sherwin and John Howlett while residing at Tonbridge Public School in Kent. But “If …” soon broadens its poetically pugnacious but acutely focused expose of hierarchical and division-promulgating abuse that underpins the exclusive system used by the English to educate its upper-classes since the heyday of the British Empire, to become a freewheeling, anarchic satire -- a sly allegory on the state of the nation from an uncompromising left-leaning director who fashions the somewhat parochial material into an artistic grenade lobbed right into the heart of British culture and its discontents … its title a sardonic reference to Rudyard Kipling’s ode to the manly virtues of service and stoicism that supposedly inform the stiff-upper-lip ideals and values of a patriarchal Establishment trained for centuries in the task of governing the nation and controlling institutions with the aim of carrying out its imperial mission to civilise its colonial acquisitions abroad.
Although this was only Anderson’s second feature film, “If ….” is the result of the culmination of attitudes and artistic influences which had already become pertinent from soon after he’d joined forces with Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz to form the Free Cinema documentary film movement at the National Theatre in the mid-fifties, which had been intended as their riposte to the complacent, cosy middle-brow values of Britain’s postwar cinematic heritage, and which instead looked further back for its inspiration to the poetic eloquence of Humphrey Jennings’ wartime documentaries at the GPO. The movement’s manifesto constituted a critique of an outmoded Britain, ill-prepared for the modern world, and its stance naturally percolated through into its members’ subsequent film adaptations of the works of ‘the angry young men’ of the British theatre in the late-‘50s: playwrights Alan Sillitoe, John Osborne and John Braine, etc. -- producing the British ‘kitchen sink’ drama tradition of the sixties which set out to capture working-class life frankly in gritty ‘realist’ domestic dramas such as “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning”, “Room at the Top” and Anderson’s own contribution to the genre, “This Sporting Life”.
Indian-born and of Scottish parentage, Anderson’s lack of deference and respect for the so-called British ‘Establishment’ (a term coined by the historian A.J.P. Taylor and taken up with enthusiasm during the 1960s to stand for the privileged old boys’ network of social relations that supposedly ran the country to ensure power always remained with the descendants of the self-perpetuating elite in charge of the civil service, the clergy, the media, the military and the parliamentarian class) fed into a more general sense of decline, malaise and irrelevance which had taken root after the Suez Crisis, when British power had visibly waned and when its Empire was now in the process of being dismantled piece by piece. The allegorical portrait painted in “If ….”, its image of Britain as an hermetic, stringent world of patriarchal privilege, repression and class exploitation, had already been implicitly outlined in an excoriating essay Anderson had previously written for an edited collection of writings on the state of the nation, in which he described how returning to Britain after a spell abroad always felt to him like: ‘going back to the nursery … when the outside world, the dangerous world, is shut away …’
The film has usually been interpreted as a straightforward endorsement of the counterculture’s rejection of the power nexus which governs, critiquing the Establishment’s religious, cultural and social traditions for embodying an out-of-date colonial logic that only legitimises and perpetuates imperial expansionism, violence and war. Such a view had particular currency, especially coming as it did in ’68 -- just as oppositional youth rebellion was breaking out in the form of student riots on the streets of Paris in May of that year, to be followed-up a few months later by anti-Vietnam war protests in London’s Grosvenor Square. There are plenty of contemporary social details in the film which back up this interpretation, such as the Headmaster Peter Jeffrey’s wry references to the ‘hair length’ of the film’s central trio of young sixth form rebels, played by newcomers Malcolm McDowell, David Wood and Richard Warwick, who find release for their contained, adolescent pressure cooker world of repressed hormonal desires through fantasy fuelled visions of existential freedom, externalised in a sprawling home-made collage decorating their study wall … its images of glamour and misogyny culled from sexualised magazine advertisements and exotic, fetishized, homoerotic representations of guerrilla bloodshed given coherence and elucidation by Travis in the form of a cobbled-together, Maoist-sounding revolutionary ideology boiled down into a pithy series of aphorisms eulogising war and violent uprising. But the veneer of relevance to contemporary youth movements is highlighted by the flamboyant cockiness in McDowell’s charismatic, career-making performance of the role of privileged would-be Guy Fawkes Mick Travis -- his suppressed undercurrent of insurrectionist fervour igniting around the stratified atmosphere of ritual humiliation and daily injustices maintained in his surroundings, being fuelled by sublimated sexual longings for an idealised vision of Christine Noonan’s bored working-class waitress turned pistol-packing rooftop anarchist, and belying a much deeper, wide-ranging critique of the country’s decaying institutions at a moment in history during which the complacency of the old-guard’s traditional assumptions about Britain’s place in the world only served to highlight the inadequacies of an educational system built to rule an Empire that had by now almost completely vanished.
But Travis, Wallace and Johnny are intrinsically as much a part of, and were formed out of, the background assumptions of this blinkered privileged background, as are their senior year ‘Whip’ persecutors, and could just as easily represent the likes of Philby, Burgess and Maclean, the Cambridge spy ring who sat at the heart of the British establishment undiscovered for so long precisely because they were so much a part of its elite world despite all-the-while nursing their grudge against it. This fact, as well as the trio’s identification with the rebellious vitality and imagination of a burgeoning youth movement newly liberated by pop culture, broadens the scope and lends some ambiguity to Anderson’s attack on the institutions of British life in the late-sixties. For far from presenting himself and the college as a restrictive regime headed by an overtly authoritarian dictator, Philip Jeffrey’s smarmy College Headmaster pays lip-service in his rhetoric to liberal ideals and modernity, seeing public school life as presenting a symbol for ‘integrity in public office, high standards in the world of entertainment, and service in Britain’s wars’. ‘Britain today,’ he proclaims, ‘is a powerhouse of ideas, experiments and imagination in everything from pop music to pig breeding, from atom power stations to miniskirts – and that’s the challenge we’ve got to meet.’ The disparity between this enthusiastic, idealistic image, and the strictly hierarchical social structures implemented by the school in order to perpetuate the class-ridden social systems and institutions at the heart of the county’s means of social control and governance, becomes Anderson’s main theme in the first half of a film broken into eight discrete chapters which anticipate Quentin Tarantino’s favoured episodic form of screenplay construction.
The arrangement of power relations between the staff and the pupils making up the college, and the elucidation of the details of everyday life in this environment, becomes material for an allegory that mimics equivalent relations between the broader institutions that make up British society in general – the same institutions these pupils are being trained to one day inherit, and the mixture of its ideas about obedience, service and superiority informing this expectation, as well as the warping of personal desires and the internalised sexual repressions which are presented as an inevitable result of any such upbringing. The film’s genius resides in Lindsay Anderson’s ability to forge a type of poetics which borrows equally from the techniques of realism and surrealism, but which adds up to something that doesn’t quite fit fully into either category and presents a portrait of a world influenced as much by the approaches of directors such as Jean Vigo (whose 1933 short film “Zéro de conduit”, about a schoolboy rebellion in a French boarding school, was a major influence) and Luis Buñuel, as it is by the kind of realistic portrait and contextual scene-setting of British life which had informed the Kitchen Sink dramas of the early sixties. Any remaining dichotomy between the concepts of dream and reality are further systematically broken down by apparently random changes from black-and-white to colour film stock which, nonetheless, force one to seek order and contrast in their arrangement even when none is immediately apparent. In this way the film attains an ability to present as simultaneously both a realist document, detailing the practices of an arcane form of social conditioning, and as a heightened allegorical, poetic form of representation of an underlying political philosophy, and the psychology at work in its elaboration of an arbitrarily constructed set of customs.
The results are alternately strange, funny, angry, and, just occasionally, display small details that become somehow weirdly touching. The film is at its quirkiest in its portrait of the college’s dignitaries and top brass: the hierarchical structure begins here, with House Masters flitting around the remote and out-of-touch Headmaster looking for favour. The film follows the routine of only one of the College’s Houses … which are in pointless competition with each other on the rugby field and in military war games presided over by a Sergeant who also doubles as the school Chaplain (Geoffrey Chater) – a semi-sinister dog-collared pederast who oversees a world from his chapel pulpit in which the adolescent would-be leaders must deny their awakening sexual urges in the Confessional, but in which a kind of faux ‘homosexual flirtatiousness’ is also cultivated as part of the ritual of ‘scumming’, where junior pupils are made to act as menial servants for the appointed House seniors. Below the Headmaster in the all male hierarchy, the Housemasters are ostensibly responsible for the running of the individual college Houses: Arthur Lowe plays a particularly ineffectual one called Mr Kemp who, together with Mary MacLeod as his bored, childless and sexually repressed wife, is a cruelly comic but well cast caricature of a sort of ineffectual management breed of middle-class insipidness. One of the film’s most peculiarly amusing sequences has the couple in their florally decorated bedroom, perched in their separate single beds while Mr Kemp, in stripped pyjamas, enthusiastically bellows out a hymn, a school-girlish Mrs Kemp with her hair platted at the back accompanying him on a recorder. A dreamlike black-and-white sequence late in the film has the practically catatonic woman wandering the empty school dormitories naked whilst the rest of the school is out on military manoeuvres – a barren symbolic maternal figure surrounded by accoutrements of childhood from which she is excluded. Mr Kemp is only nominally in charge of anything of course … it is really the senior pupils appointed House Prefects, or ‘Whips’, who run the Houses and dormitories and who are allowed to enforce their own rules as they laud it over the other pupils from their personal offices. They get special privileges and can command any of the junior new boys to personally serve them as their ‘scum’. This is an institutionalised form of bullying and exploitation that can involve anything from making junior boys toast their crumpets over the fireplace or hand over a towel as they get out of the bath, to pre-warming the lavatory seat before their superior visits the toilet! And the Whips can take practically any discriminatory action they deem necessary in order to enforce college ‘morale’.
These are the trainee leaders of men – the children of the English upper classes who are being assiduously prepared to one day lead in Government office, to sit in Parliament and to head major institutions such as the judiciary, the army and the banks. They get to strut arrogantly about the corridors in uniforms that mimic Edwardian morning suits, swishing their ‘swagger sticks’ and accustoming themselves to the sense of entitlement and superiority that comes as their birth right. The sixth formers below them and the juniors further down the pecking order each have their own sub-hierarchy with leaders appointed to keep order and maintain standards in the dorms, studies and ‘sweat rooms’ that the pupils inhabit when not in class, their skill and efficiently at doing so constantly being judged by their Whip superiors. The classroom is the only place in the College where the hierarchical rules don’t apply and where the real agenda of the post-imperial power nexus this cloistered system is built to defend emerges in veiled form through the lessons of masters such as Graham Crowden (the eccentric hymn-singing history master who rides his bicycle down the corridors) and Charles Lloyd-Pack’s classics Professor … with the film rapidly resolving itself into a moral stand-off between the imaginative but wilfully insolent sixth formers Travis (McDowell), Johnny (Wood) and Wallace (Warwick), whose adolescent energies are directed towards carefree dreams of violence and sex directed by modern advertising and magazine reportage; and the priggish, rule-bound Whips whose aim is to preserve a stale tradition led by the imperious Rowntree (Robert Swann). Under the guise of countering the danger Travis and his friends supposedly represent to House morale, Rowntree and his co-Whips, which include repressed homosexual Denson (Hugh Thomas), set out to punish the mischievous trio for their tiny, cheeky acts of insubordination, which have really only been aimed at undermining the assumed authority of their less intelligent but all-powerful peers. The injustice and brutality underneath the surface of this apparently genteel, rule-bound system is exposed during one of the film’s most memorable scenes in which Travis, as the charismatic ringleader of the rebellious boys, is ruthlessly caned in the school gym. The ritual of Travis then being made to politely shake hands and thank the deliverer of his unfair punishment with tears of pain and humiliation still streaming down his face, only emphasises the hypocrisy of a system which presents itself as a civilizing norm but which is rife with the abuse of power, unearned privilege and, at root, is utterly brutal and uncompromisingly ruthless in its methods of defending and maintaining itself.
It seems obvious, at least initially, that the viewer is meant to ‘take the side’ of Mick Travis and his two loyal friends: the contrast between the stultifying atmosphere of the college and the sense of freedom Mick and Johnny get to experience when they have a carefree day out in Cheltenham on the high-street, adorned with its colourfully alluring department stores, which culminates in a summer’s afternoon ride through an idyllic part of the English countryside on a stolen BSA Gold Star motorcycle, seems to contextualise their relationship to the hermeticinstitutional environment they’ve temporarily escaped as being one of existential ‘outlaws’ whose desire for fuller involvement in the world in general is attuned to the potential forattaining an authentic lived experience. Similarly, the way in which the relationship between the androgynous, Bowie-channelling junior pupil Bobby Philips (Rupert Webster) and Mick & Johnny’ best friend Wallace develops into a tender mutual friendship based on the younger boy’s homoerotic infatuation with the older but less mature sixth former, stands in marked contrast to the forlorn Whip Denson’s repressed, un-vocalised desires for the same boy -- which can only be addressed by him through the exploitative elements inherent to the scumming system and the intrinsic sexual component to a power dynamic in which junior boys are encouraged to ‘tart’ for favours and haughty Whips openly sexually objectify their younger charges as part of the process of establishing authoritative rank over them.
But there’s a deeper ambiguity at work through the film’s illustration of Mick Travis’s psychological development, which is particularly evident in the iteration of his increasing worship of both the idea of violence and the possibility of its actualisation. An initially playful fencing scene between the three schoolmates emphasises this when it ends with Travis sustaining a minor injury to the hand but becoming almost ecstatic at the sight of his own ‘real blood’, prefiguring the trio’s later blood pact, forged just before their Situationist, guerrilla-style insurrection. Travis and co are in one respect the children of the new Britain which emerged in the sixties from the continuation of technological and industrialisation trends initiated in the 19thcentury (and earlier outlined in class by Graham Crowden’s history master as the precursors of nationalism’s challenge to imperial overlordship) which led to the bloodshed of two World Wars. But their rebellious imaginations are formed out of a desire-sating melange of the contemporary advertising industry’s consumerist dreams, which feeds their fetishisation of the iconography of civil insurrectionism through an anti-establishment filter of sex, glamour and luxury merchandising.
The recurring musical motif, played by Mick on a record player in his study room and on the jukebox in the roadside café he and Johnny visit during their countryside jaunt, speaks to the romanticised form of primitivism which is inherent to their fervent day-dreams of civil rebellion: it’s a piece, popular a few years before the film’s release, called ‘Sanctus’, which is taken from “Miss Luba” – a Latin Mass sung in traditional African style by a Congolese choir; the surreallycombative sex scene which follows in the café scene between McDowell and Noonan, with its suggestive implications of desire leading to the possibilities of both sexual emancipation and gender conflict, where femininity is represented as a dangerous but beguiling otherness that’s akin to one of the wild beasts that might have once been hunted on the colonial plains of Africa, addresses this almost sadomasochistic relish for the prospect of the subjugated masses rising up and taking apart the old order.
Travis’s rebellion in that respect seems like the result of the rigid system’s own internal (and internalised), warped-out-of-shape expression of a self-abnegation. When the boys commit the calculated act of violence that betrays all the accepted norms and values their upbringing has supposedly sought to inculcate, it brings about the film’s final absurdist shift in paradigm for the final act: an uncertain Freudian death wish hinterland of mixed dreams and violence in which the school chaplain might pop out of a drawer in the headmaster’s office to formally shake hands with the schoolboys who’d earlier shot him down (a sequence that owes as much to Monty Python as it does to Buñuel in its absurdist parody of the formalised rituals this world builds around its institutionalised forms of corporal punishment) and in which the tools of the college’s own destruction are stored in a cache of weapons and mortars hidden beneath the chapel under a stage rostra. The college Founders’ Day, which gathers together the entire school, plus parents and dignitaries such as the nation’s war hero General Denson (Anthony Nicholls) and an unseen Royal personage, becomes the site of a revolution that emerges from within and below – a dream or a violent nightmare, in which Travis and his two pals are joined by young Bobby and the café girl -- who appears from nowhere to take up arms once a human foetus is uncovered in a locked chest beneath the rostra alongside the cache of discarded guns and grenades (make of that symbolic juxtaposition what you will) – who each will help to bring their new world kicking and struggling into being …
“If ….” remains an intriguing, provocative and imaginative watch, and thanks to the excellent HD transfer showcased on this new Blu-ray release from Eureka Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema label, it’s imbued with even more power to bring the febrile atmosphere of the late-sixties to life once again – a time when tradition and innovation collided most spectacularly to bring social unrest and artistic innovation. The disc is packed with exploratory analysis and contextualising background information, headed up by an 2007 audio commentary from film critic David Robinson (with contributions from Malcolm McDowell, recorded in 2002) and over two hours of newly filmed interviews with many of the surviving members of the cast and crew, conducted earlier in 2014 by James McCabre. Included are producer Michael Medwin (4:17), writers David Sherwin (4:46) and John Howlett (16:55), production managers David Gladwell (13:19) and Gavrik Losey (5:54), camera operator Brian Harris (2:23), and actors Hugh Thomas (4:32), Geoffrey Chater (7:53), Philip Bagenal (9:01) and Sean Bury (4:13) with an extensive 46 minute interview with actor David Wood at the centre. Two American trailers for the film are included, plus three of Lindsay Anderson’s very early short documentary features from the 1950s: “Three Instillations” was one of nine short films Anderson made at the beginning of his career for businessman Richard Sutcliffe, to promote his conveyer belt business to potential clients. It’s joined by Guy Brenton’s touching Oscar-winning “Thursday’s Children” – a film about the education of deaf children on which Anderson worked as a co-director; and one of four films he also shot for the NSPCC: “Henry” -- which seems to point the way to Anderson’s later career,with its short form fictional vignette presentation documenting a child’s flight into the bewildering city at night as he escapes from the shadow of domestic abuse at home. The Eureka! package is augmented by a packed, full-colour booklet featuring an appreciation by David Cairns; an interview with actor Brian Pettifer, who plays the tormented Biles; a 1968 ‘auto-interview conducted by Lindsay Anderson with himself as a contemporary promotional piece for the film; and a short piece on each of the three documentaries included on the disc, written by Peter Hoskin and Ros Cranston.
“If …” finds ‘60s British cinema at its most innovative and controversial, and also at its most playful. Its compelling performances from then-newcomers such as McDowell and Woods and veterans such as Crowden, Lowe and Jeffrey ensure it continues to be worthy of attention all these years later. Mike Travis became the raw material to which McDowell would turn for inspiration when cast to star in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of “A Clockwork Orange” and Anderson would once again return to the poetic, semi-surreal style of “If …” for two more films in what was to become a loose trilogy, “O Lucky Man!” and “Britannia Hospital” -- although it is “If ….” which continues to hold sway as the innovative apotheosis of Anderson’s career in film.
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