English Title: If...
Country of Origin: Britain
Director: Lindsay Anderson
Cinematographer: Miroslav Ondříček
Editor: David Gladwell
Runtime: 107 minutes
If… pulls back the curtain on the British public school in the late 1960s. Following the daily lives of the first-years right up to the school Whips, it picks apart the traditions, friendships, fights, punishments and rituals of this very British institution. Three rebellious boys, headed up by Mick Travis, drink, mock and push against the system that is trying to form them. But the school and the institution will not accept such insolence; there are clashes with the Whips and punishments to try to bring them back in line. Stumbling across a stash of guns and grenades, the boys take to the roof of the school to strike back.
An uprising is in full flow. A student stands astride a school rooftop, grasping a machine gun. This is a striking image – all the more so because it happened during France’s 1968 student riots which started two months before If… went into production. That a similar scene plays out underlines the deftness of Anderson’s success in capturing and pre-empting the unrest of the time. Very much a Clockwork Orange proto-Droog, Malcolm McDowell’s Travis’ ruthless retort to this crushing institution is perhaps nothing more than a surreal ‘if...', but it caught the rebellious mood of the late 1960s. Its counter-cultural message captured young people's mood for change as well as deepening criticisms of the class system, of British institutions, and of authority around the world.
Ostensibly charting the goings-on at a public school, the film unsettlingly shifts in tone and from colour to black and white to suggest some deeper change is emerging. Anderson admitted that budgetary restraints meant he had to shoot one scene in black and white, and he was so pleased with the result he decided to use it again. But, collectively, these shifts in colour heighten the film's increasingly surreal touches and its historical and cultural symbolism.
If... is an important film and something of a sacred cow, satirizing stuffy traditions and skewering the class system, all the while pushing the boundaries of what cinema can achieve. While its themes and messages remain relevant, the problems of class and the stifling nature of tradition now seem somewhat more oblique and diffuse, which makes it interesting as a snapshot of a cultural moment. Its depictions of daily school life remain contemporary; Anderson did not want to recreate the upper-class public schools of Tom Brown’s School Days; he wanted the film to have, in his words, ‘larger implications than the surface realities might suggest’. If… is a bold and striking attempt to mix social realism and rebellion against the conservatism of the day.
Author of this review: Adam Richmond
Peer reviewer: Adam Richmond