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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 for a full year on the shelf. According to screenwriter David Sherwin, the show finally reached London screens when Roger Vadim's disappointing Barbarella turned belly-up at the box office, requiring a quick 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 haze of marijuana smoke.
The story recounts an ultimately anarchic year at College House, 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). These outsiders paste pictures of guerrilla fighters next to their girlie pinups and nurture their 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 that now feels 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.
Some of the 'mysteries' of If.... disappear with simple explanations. The odd title, a reference to the poetry of Rudyard Kipling, 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 proclaims 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 overly comic.
If.... is occasionally funny, but it isn't much of a black comedy. Lindsay Anderson 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 innocent 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 their 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. The funniest scene in the movie shows a history teacher (Graham Crowden) giving up in the face of his uncooperative students. Miffed that his boring questions generate no enthusiasm, he assigns them some writing to do and uses his class time to read the morning paper. Any teacher will find this hilarious.
Anderson's surreal intentions come to the fore as events drift into the realm of fantasy. Wallace's performance on the parallel bars becomes an eroticized slow-motion dream. Did Travis and Johnny really steal a motorcycle or encounter a dream rebel girl in an empty café? At this point If.... 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 Blu-ray of If.... improves on the company's excellent 2-disc DVD set from 2007. The impressive HD image enriches the dark interiors of College House while the full-bodied audio track will have us all humming the haunting 'Missa Luba' needle-drop cue. The feature commentary is 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. A 2003 Scottish TV show on the film interviews McDowell, Ondrícek, Sherwin, producer Michael Medwin and then- assistant director Stephen Frears. Sherwin says that the film's darker 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 offers 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,
If.... Blu-ray rates:
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.
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T'was Ever Thus.