Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Film critic-turned-director Lindsay Anderson made a definite splash in 1969 with his experimental ode to revolution If...., which Paramount released after letting it sit a year on the shelf. According to screenwriter David Sherwin, the show finally reached London screens when Roger Vadim's disappointing Barbarella turned belly-up, and a replacement was needed.
An instant critical controversy, If.... inspired a lot of head-scratching by confused movie fans. What did the title mean? Why were parts of the film not in color? And what was that clergyman doing in that big oaken drawer? If.... was about 'revolution', the trendiest film theme of 1969. Around college campuses it was one of those post- 2001 - A Space Odyssey movies meant to be experienced, not explained, and preferably screened in a smoky haze.
College House is a rigid English public school overseen by dotty professors and a headmaster obsessed with public relations catchphrases. Real authority over the students is placed with the Whips, appointed seniors who rule with an iron fist. Bizarre rituals and oppressive regimentation is the norm in a situation made more troubling by an entrenched culture of homosexual servitude. Resisting the rules are seniors Mick Travis, Johnny and Wallace (Malcolm McDowell, David Wood & Richard Warwick). They paste pictures of guerrilla fighters next to their girlie pinups, and think rebellious thoughts while listening to the African Missa Luba chant on the phonograph. They eventually play hooky and have a (possibly imagined) sexual encounter with a local bar girl (Christine Noonan). The sneering Whips punish all three, but a reprisal of sorts occurs when Wallace seduces the desirable underclassman Bobby Phillips (Rupert Webster) away from their enemies. By the time the class prepares to participate in military maneuvers, our heroes have located a cache of weapons in an attic and are arranging an (imagined?) ambush ... with real bullets.
In 1969 audiences applauded Mick, Johnny and Wallace's payback massacre of their parents, student peers and faculty superiors, a finale now uncomfortably similar to events at places like Columbine. The distinction is that the gun battle at the end of If.... is a surreal fantasy, as opposed to a practical reality. The 'heroes' are joined in the ambush by their fantasy girlfriend, as if the solution to the frustration of College House is a violent wet dream.
The 'mysteries' of If.... disappear with simple explanations. The title is a reference to the poetry of Rudyard Kipling that places the story in a semi-classical context of national pride. Likewise, the openly gay activities in College House are an exaggeration that associates the Whips' cruel authority with sexual dominance. For a supposedly obscure film, If.... frequently comes out with direct statements of intent. Travis insolently refuses to "lick your frigid fingers for the rest of your frigid life." He stares at an image of a powerful African with a machine gun and states that "violence and revolution are the only pure acts."
Likewise, the use of B&W signifies nothing more than a desire to keep the audience on its toes. Cameraman Miroslav Ondrícek couldn't adequately illuminate the inside of the church for color film, so the cash-strapped director Anderson opted for monochrome. He then selectively added more B&W sequences just for effect. In the case of Mary Kemp's weird naked stroll through the boy's quarters, the B&W makes the scene just strange enough, that it does not become comic.
If.... is occasionally funny, but it isn't much of a black comedy. Lindsay Anderson's is after his own brand of fundamental surrealism, an intent announced by the introduction of Mick dressed in black with a muffler wrapped tightly around his face. That Feuillade- like image is lifted directly from Jean Vigo's Zero for Conduct, an old French film also about anti-authoritarian anarchy in a boy's school. 1 Writers Sherwin and John Howlett invert the clichés of inspirational school tales like Tom Brown's School Days and Goodbye, Mr. Chips. In this story, the young beginner Jute (Sean Bury) struggles to fit in but makes little if any progress.
The teachers are an eccentric bunch of coots as maladjusted as the students. The sexually warped chaplain hits his students and fondles their nipples, and then preaches that in war, "Jesus Christ is our commander-in-chief." The insufferably pompous and patronizing headmaster gives odious pep talks to the Whips, who gather around like puppies eager for more power.
Anderson's surreal intentions come to the fore as events drift away from reality. Wallace's performance on the parallel bars becomes an eroticised slow-motion dream. Did Travis and Johnny really steal a motorcycle or encounter a dream rebel girl in an empty café. If.... then more or less dissolves into oddball comic anarchy. The boys offer their apologies to a man they've just killed as the headmaster sweeps an 'unfortunate incident' under the rug. But that's not enough. The conclusion splinters into a violent fantasy with the rebels firing from the roof on Parents' Day. Blocky compositions and editing purposely avoid 'action movie' thrills to concentrate on Mick's inner fantasy. The final shot is of Travis firing directly into the camera lens.
If.... put Malcolm McDowell on the map as an actor and led to two follow-up pictures from Lindsay Anderson, O Lucky Man and Britannia Hospital. Both feature Anderson's stock company from If....: Graham Crowden, Mona Washbourne, Arthur Lowe, etc.
Criterion's 2-disc set of If.... presents the Paramount picture in perfect shape, including its haunting 'Missa Luba' needle-drop cue. The feature has a commentary from critic David Robinson, a close associate of Lindsay Anderson, and actor Malcolm McDowell, who relates the story of his first film role with many personal details. The second disc has a 2003 Scottish TV show on the film that interviews McDowell, Ondrícek, Sherwin, producer Michael Medwin and then- assistant director Stephen Frears. Sherwin says that the film's surrealism slipped in as an afterthought during production. A separate new interview is offered with actor Graham Crowden, who traces his career with Anderson back to the theater.
Lindsay Anderson's early Academy Award-winning 1954 film Thursday's Children is here as well. It's an absorbing study of the methods used to teach deaf children, delightful little kids with the kind of joyful personalities one hopes never come in contact with places like College House. The fat insert booklet has a good essay from David Ehrenstein, diary excerpts from David Sherwin and an interview with director Anderson.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: Commentary with David Robinson and Malcolm McDowell, 2003 TV show with the filmmakers, 2007 interview with actor Graham Crowden, Lindsay Anderson's 1954 film Thursday's Children, text essay by David Ehrenstein, notes from David Sherwin and a text interviewer with Lindsay Anderson.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 5, 2007
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
1. I'm told by helpful reader Peter Hoskin that I've misremembered part of this ... that the film with the scarf over the 'mystery man's' face is Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson