If… – Lindsay Anderson (1968)

That natural progression from film critic to filmmaker seems to be a route rarely traversed these days.  The natural opposite of this is often a more comfortable way to explore both the medium and the craft, with many filmmakers writing books specifically after they’ve established a film career.  Along with renowned critic and filmmaker, Francois Truffaut, director and critic Lindsay Anderson is one of the few to buck this trend and go from critic to successful filmmaker as a natural progression.  The results are utterly staggering.

If… is his 1968 masterpiece and is easily his most recognised and iconoclastic film.  Though part of an apparent trilogy named the “Mick Travis” trilogy after its main character, If.. is a film that is extremely hard to categorise and dissect.  We are submerged into the life of a classical private school, built in the same mould as Eton or somewhere distinctly upper class.  The strict rules of the system are brought to light under the narrative’s Orwellian magnifying glass, routing out all the necessary evils of a hierarchical, school society.

The film starts off as the usual dramatic tale of bullying prefects and absent, uninspiring teachers.  The only hint of the utter madness and surrealism to come is the use of occasional black and white film, which comes as a shock after minutes of colour.  Though much could be read into the use of it, (hinting at memory, signifying the time lapse and power around the different social groups in the school), it’s been well documented that Anderson simply had some spare film going and needed as many reels as he could find to finish.  This however doesn’t detract from the potential personal readings gained from the film and shouldn’t stop any such enjoyment.

Malcolm McDowell stars in his first film role as the rebellious character of Mick, leading an open rebellion against the powers that run the school.  It’s a powerful performance and one that wonderfully pre-empts his role as Alex the Droog in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.

As the film progresses, the grip on reality is continually loosened until it’s almost impossible to know what’s real and what’s dream.  The allegorical nature of the film means that it doesn’t really matter yet its characters are reacting to the scenarios in earnest.  One scene in particular stands out aside from the film’s finale, where the boys are to apologise to a particular character, yet when they enter the headmasters room, they find that the character in question is living inside a very long draw hidden within the headmaster’s cabinet.

As the surrealism draws to its violent and thought provoking climax, it must be said that it’s extremely difficult to fully understand what’s happening.  With the congregation of students and parents smoked out of the hall, the three rebels open fire upon them from the rooftops with sub-machine guns.  A fight breaks out between them and visiting military but it’s McDowell’s increasingly concerned expression that is most telling.  This isn’t a concern born from the worry of being killed. This is a concern born from why his shooting isn’t killing people.  Is it all a dream?  Did Mick dream up this rebellion in his head?  There will never be a solid answer.

If… is a film about the disenchanted youth of post war Britian.  Failed by the best system possible and ground down by the people in power who abuse it, this is a timeless piece of allegory that is extremely poignant with the planned NUS student demos looming over the coming months.  Let’s just hope they don’t get any similar ideas.

Adam Scovell

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