June 25, 2007
Before Malcolm McDowell became the poster child for juvenile delinquency with his iconic performance in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), he laid the groundwork in Lindsay Anderson’s ode to youthful rebellion and revolution with If…. (1969). Where Kubrick’s film focused on street gangs, Anderson’s film was set in a British boarding school but both featured the conflict between mischievous youth and a conservative society that tries to contain them.
Anderson hints at the film’s rebellious intentions early on as a group of young students banter while in the background is a poster of legendary revolutionary, Che Guevara. Soon afterward, we are introduced to Mick Travis (McDowell) dressed remarkably like the Shadow and referred to by a fellow student as Guy Fawkes, the infamous anarchist who tried to blow up the British parliament.
The faculty governs through strict rules steeped in longstanding tradition. There is an established hierarchy where a group of specially appointed senior students known as Whips actually police the student body while the faculty supervises. Anderson immerses us in the daily grind of school life: chapel, class, meals and the downtime spent in residence where the dorm rooms are wallpapered with pin-up models and movie stars. We see a new student ruthlessly quizzed on school slang and the nasty hazing ritual that gives the film’s depiction of boarding school life an air of authenticity.
Anderson films certain scenes in black and white with no apparent reason. Traditionally, black and white suggests truthfulness but these scenes aren’t any more real than the ones shot in colour. This only adds to the film’s loose, improvisational feel.
There is the inevitable excursion into town where Mick and a fellow classmate steal a motorcycle. We see that they don’t understand what moral and social responsibility is – that not all of their acts of rebellion are childish pranks. There are hints that Mick harbours darker impulses. In some respects, it is almost as if Alex from Clockwork Orange had richer parents and was able to afford a better education but he would still have his droogs and troublemaking impulses just in a different milieu.
If…. epitomizes the rebellious spirit of the decade in which it was made with the civil rights movement in the United States and the student riots in France. Mick and his friends, Wallace (Warwick) and Johnny (Wood), wage their own small-scale rebellion against the snobbish Whips who punish them for their “general attitude” – each boy is given a good thrashing with Mick – the perceived leader – given the worst beating. This incident plants the seeds for the violent conclusion to the film as Mick and his allies confront the teachers, the students and their parents in a stand-off that eerily echoes the 1991 Columbine massacre – the crucial difference being that Anderson is using the violence as a metaphor rather than being literal.
On the first disc there is an audio commentary by film critic and historian David Robinson and actor Malcolm McDowell. Robinson briefly sets the backstory for the production while McDowell tells the story of how he was cast, including his memorable audition with co-star Christine Noonan. Robinson tends to stick to the facts, providing a historical and cultural context and points out what details are factually correct and what Anderson changed for the film. McDowell speaks quite eloquently about his personal experiences and observations on this top notch track.
The second disc starts off with “Cast and Crew,” an episode of this show that aired on BBC Scotland in 2003 and reunites a few of the key crew members with actor Malcolm McDowell. They discuss how the film was made and speak admiringly of Anderson’s uncompromising vision. They explain that he wasn’t anti-British and loved his country but was not afraid to be critical of it. This is an excellent group discussion about If….
“Graham Crowden Interview.” The actor talks about his long relationship with Anderson. He recounts several anecdotes, including his first embarrassing encounter with the director. Naturally, he talks about his character in If…. and his thoughts about the film in general.
Finally, there is “Thursday’s Children,” a 1955 documentary about a school for deaf children directed by Anderson and narrated by Richard Burton that ended up winning an Academy Award for Best Short Documentary. It takes a fascinating, almost whimsical, at times, look at these kids at play and in the classroom.