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If...

Posted on the 20 October 2014 by Christopher Saunders
If...Lindsay Anderson started as a critic, co-founded the Free Cinema Movement and debuted with This Sporting Life (1963). That film's Expressionist touches soon morphed to outright surrealism. If... (1968) is the first of three movies featuring Malcolm McDowell as Mick Travis, each stranger than the last. Anderson treats Britain's ruling class as something not to be condemned, but dynamited.
Set in an English public school, If... focuses on Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell), a sixth form student dissatisfied with campus life. The faculty seems remote and indifferent, obsessed with tradition over teaching and allowing upperclassmen (the "Whips") to tyrannize students. Mick and two friends (Richard Warwick and David Wood) confronts the Whips through petty rebellion, receiving a violent response. Now Mick decides on violence, recruiting his friends and lover (Christine Noonan) to strike back.
Made at the apex of '60s activism, If... is strange by any standards. The title evokes Rudyard Kipling, and Anderson pointedly rebukes schoolyard tales like Tom Brown's Schooldays. The Headmaster (Peter Jeffrey) sympathizes with Mick, which only makes him a target: he must be eliminated to "heighten the contradictions." There's a pompous priest (Geoffrey Chater) who fondles his charges and a wimpy Housemaster (Arthur Lowe) who gives the Whips free rein. Anderson contrasts scriptural readings and Christian hymns with ritualized brutality: the Establishment embodies violence, control and depravity.
Scenarists David Sherwin and John Howlett craft Mick into an Everyman rebel. He plasters his dorm with revolutionary images and muses about social decay, "brittle black bodies peeling into ash." He's singled out not for infractions but his general attitude. He earns the Whips' wrath refusing to "lick your frigid fingers for the rest of my life." Mick's not explicitly political, but every word and grimace breathes hatred of the Establishment - and unlike his kitchen sink predecessors, he takes action. He's Jimmy Porter reborn as Eldridge Cleaver.
If...Anderson's off-kilter direction makes Richard Lester look staid. Miroslav's photography switches between color and black-and-white, the latter reflecting idealized school rituals and character fantasies (Mick's wild sex with the Girl, a homoerotic gymnastics scene). Anderson folds in allegory imagery: a student watches bacteria multiplying under a microscope as Mick's flogging commences. If... grows more unreal, from the elaborate war games to someone wearing a suit of armor! We think Mick and friends murder someone, until they turn up unharmed a scene later. What's real and what's feverish fantasy?
If... fits snugly amongst The Charge of the Light Brigade and The Ruling Class, ridiculing Britain's establishment as stupid and anachronistic at best, murderous at worst. Anderson goes much further, however, than ridicule. The movie ends in homicidal fantasy, with Mick and his cohorts massacring grandees with machine guns and mortars. Today it plays in excruciatingly bad taste, with lines like "one man can change the world with a bullet in the right place" especially uncomfortable. Yet it undeniably captures the zeitgeist of 1968, with turmoil raging from Chicago to Paris and Saigon.
Malcolm McDowell immediately establishes his unique persona: penetrating intelligence and mischevious charm, which mask resentment bordering on psychosis. It's a small step to A Clockwork Orange, though Mick's more likeable than Alex. McDowell dominates the film, though Anderson gives choice bits to character actors. Arthur Lowe's (The Ruling Class) beetle-browed bumptiousness is always welcome; Graham Crowden amuses as a crack-brained history teacher. Peter Jeffrey (Becket) scores as the exasperated Headmaster. Christine Noonan is fetching though her role's mainly decorative.
Anderson and McDowell revisited Mick Travis in O Lucky Man! (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982), films that are even weirder than his debut. But If...'s wild, unrepentant anarchism still stands apart. It's undeniably a relic of its era: what film today would celebrate students massacring teachers? But Anderson's oddball artistry remains undeniable.

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