(1968, Lindsay Anderson)
“Violence and revolution are the only pure acts”
I’m not entirely sure why this film is called If…., because I’m not sure how the film expects that to carry on. It also bugs me that that there’s an extra dot in the ellipsis. But hey, apparently this is one of the major counterculture movies of the 1960s, a film set in the stuffy British boarding school system.
The film takes on a very slice of life style in its approach to telling its story. Much of the early parts of the movie show groups of students going about their daily lives in the boarding school, and it’s clear that there is something very wrong with the system. Young underclassmen are dubbed “Scum” and used as servants by the older boys. The staff are incredibly stiff and emotionless, although some have creepy fetishes, such as a teacher who shows a love for young boys and a matron who enjoys wandering naked through the halls.
But some students are rebelling against all of this. Key among these is Mick Travis, played by Malcolm McDowell, who constantly talks about revolution and collects photos of African conflicts. He clearly has plans, but what exactly are they?
The film, despite adopting a fairly realistic slice-of-life style, feels very surreal much of the time. The way we skip between the assorted characters feels almost dreamlike, and some of the seedier aspects of the boarding school are presented so matter-of-factly that it feels kind of jarring when a teacher just shoves his hand down a boy’s shirt out of the blue.
The movie also has a bizarre tendency to keep switching between colour and black and white. I kept trying to spot some reason for this, but it seemed fairly random, sometimes even switching when characters enter a different room. I couldn’t understand the purpose of this. Research suggests it may simply be a matter of a lack of money for any more colour stock, and if that’s true, I’m highly disappointed.
Perhaps this surreal stuff is the point though. The film isn’t exactly setting out to make the boarding school system look good, and as well as the jarring scenes, there’s also a brooding predatory homosexual undertone to much of the film beyond just teachers preying on young boys.
Things also get a little weird with the introduction of the girl (Christine Noonan). That’s what she’s referred to in the credits, since she’s never given a name. Travis meets her working at a roadside café, and they immediately begin a wild, passionate affair starting with a fairly explicit sex scene right on the floor of the café as they growl like tigers. She then crops up in a scene involving a telescope and then later at the film’s dramatic conclusion, with no explanation in either case.
I didn’t really know what to think of if….. It was very effective at showing the stuffiness of the British boarding school system but also seemed a little all over the place. The surreal elements sometimes felt a little out of place, particularly with the inclusion of “the girl”, and the film generally feels a little meandering.
Oddly, this lack of a definite opinion either way on the movie is probably a good thing, since it does make me want to watch it again to see if I can make more sense of it. It certainly feels like the kind of movie you can watch thousands of times, analysing it more and more each time. Which is a good thing, particularly as this seems to be a film with a message – a protest movie saying that things need to be done very differently.
So yeah, I strangely like and strangely dislike if….. Give me a few more sittings with this movie and maybe then I’ll be able to come back with something more definitive.
Starring Malcolm McDowell, Christine Noonan, Richard Warwick, David Wood & Robert Swann
Written by David Sherwin
Produced by Michael Medwin & Lindsay Anderson
Music by Marc Wilkinson
Cinematography by Miroslav Ondricek
Edited by David Gladwell
Favourite Scene: The caning scene is incredibly effective at showing just how flawed the school system is
Scene That Bugged Me: Um…why is the matron walking naked through the halls? That came out of nowhere
Watch it if: You despise the private school system
Avoid it if: You get disorientated easily by changing colour palettes