If… , a film by Lindsay Anderson that introduced Malcolm McDowell to the world in 1968. The tale of a an oppressive English public, i.e., private school, and the violent rebellion it engenders, or does it? One of those films I’ve heard about for years, and finally saw. A film that is often referred to with terms like iconic of the 60’s.
In the lengthy notes with the Criterion DVD, Lindsay Anderson says that he didn’t intend this film to be like those other works of the 40’s and 50’s in which middle-class Englishmen reveal just how frightfully awful their childhood experiences in school were (cf. George Orwell and Roald Dahl). Well, that’s exactly how it appeared to me! McDowell comments that Anderson was a celibate homosexual – he never came out – so perhaps he was repressing more than his erotic urges.
The film is rather long, and nearly all of it is about the brutality, indignity and stupidity of the school social life, in which new boys are “scums” to be ordered around as slaves by upper-classmen, and a few “whips” rule the student body like dictatorial dandies, using the cane and other punishments to keep everyone in line. All of this is tacitly accepted by the school masters: no doubt they were brought up the same way. It’s all rather boring.
Still, I couldn’t get the film out of my head. Mostly it’s McDowell, as Travis, who is weird, confused, but basically humane, keeping his sanity by hanging out with two like-minded friends. He is the center of the film, with his adolescent glorification of violence and rebellion – pictures of Che and guerilla fighters are pinned up over his bed with the sexy girls – and his superficial praise of war. But what do you expect? He’s just a kid, trapped, by his parents and British society, in this idiotic, destructive system that explicitly glorifies, and trains boys for war.
The film is sometimes realist, sometimes comically satiric. It shifts at random from color to black and white. Dreamlike scenes are interspersed without explanation, e.g. the school mistress walking naked through the boys’ dormitory while they are away.
In the end, Travis and his confederates smoke everyone out of the chapel during an assembly and then open fire on them from a roof. The military men in the crowd return fire. The film ends with a close shot of McDowell gunning away. Shown realistically, the sudden cutaway at the end leaves us concluding it was a dream. “What I would do to these sods if…”
Many have commented on the “political” nature of the film, but I can’t see it. Nobody in it rebels against the system in reality. It’s a story about successful of indoctrination of youth. After all, Anderson himself commented that there is a lot of “affection” for the school in it.