A great work that launched a remarkable trilogy, If . . . . examines the culture in a British boys’ public school—what in the States would be called a private school—dedicated to training social and cultural leaders and the political leaders of tomorrow. It’s a work that seamlessly blends naturalism and fantasy, realism and surrealism, ending on the cautionary note that the title, from Kipling, implies. Indeed, the prophetic tone of the piece is so distinct and powerful that the film almost seems to be arguing that reality itself is headed for a dive into errant and disastrous fantasy. The school’s oppressive atmosphere triggers a murderous rebellion by a few students that’s as hilarious as it is terrifying. Written by David Sherwin and John Howlett, and terrifically directed by Lindsay Anderson, If . . . . won the top prize at Cannes.
At first, it seems that the film’s protagonist will be Jute, the small, freckle-faced freshman whose discovery of the school’s complicated ways, its rules and hierarchic intricacies, provides the occasion for our own education on the matter. But three returning seniors, Mick, Johnny and Wallace, come to occupy and share that position—especially Mick, the trio’s rebel leader, who sweeps into the hall with a scarf bandaging the lower part of his face to conceal the mustache he has grown over summer recess. It seems impossible to believe that Mick was ever as pliant and innocent as Jute; and yet the zigzagging between the two boys at least suggests the possibility, and it’s not such a stretch to see something of Jute in Wallace. In any case, the narrative flexibility that allows for the surprising shift in protagonists is typical of the film’s method.
However, the fact that the film retains a protagonist at all is significant also. In any number of ways, the film combines traditional and classical elements with wild, surprising ones. The former set of elements is correlative to the school’s history, the self-seriousness of its mission, and its religious underpinnings. (The school song and the church chorales seem to drift in and out of one another.) On the other hand, the latter set of elements, which includes the film’s abundant surrealism, is correlative to the wild nature of the boys themselves and their wish to spring from the fetters that the discipline of the school imposes on them. On occasion, fantasy provides the only possible relief. Thus the film has been widely compared to Jean Vigo’s Zéro du conduit (1933), an anarchic, surreal (and cherished) work about the antics of boys in a boarding school. Vigo’s film, though, escapes into a world of the boys’ imagination; Anderson’s film, by contrast, allows each of its disparate sets of elements to reflect on and temper the other.
Structurally, the film is divided into eight sections—another example of the imposition of order that reflects both the film’s theme and method. Here are the titles: “College House: return,” “College: once again assembled,” “Term time,” “Ritual and romance,” “Discipline,” “Resistance,” “Forth to war” and “Crusaders.” In the last of these, accompanied by two others, the trio of rebels disrupt an assembly in church (in which a decorated soldier, an important alumnus, is giving a hollow speech to parents and students) by pelting the school with artillery and opening fire as officials, guests and students rush out. It is the school itself that has trained the rebels, along with all other students, to be warriors—a part of the school’s mission. (At the time of If . . . ., Britain was engaged in the Vietnam War.) But there is more here than irony; Sherwin, Howlett and Anderson suggest the reactionary intertwining of Church, military, and traditional schooling, all to (by this point in time) maintain the illusion of the British Empire and its global importance. Mick and his cohorts are opening fire on that incestuous fabric of national power.
There are two bases, both bogus, on which some viewers have complained about the film. One is so silly it can be disposed of easily. In the shooting, Anderson switched back and forth between color and black and white. He explained this on the basis of economic necessity, but those trying to relate one mode to “reality” and the other to “fantasy” got their overregulated brains fried in the process. If we take Anderson’s explanation at face value, the shifts between color and black and white are nonetheless electric—as, for example, when a play sword fight inside the school gym in black and white moves suddenly outdoors and into color, whereupon a spot of blood is drawn. Mick, the one who has been cut, is ecstatic; for him, “violence is the only pure act.” Whatever. The point is this: A film such as If . . . ., which is chock full of surprises and reversals, can easily absorb the shifts in film stock, and only someone opposed to the thematic interests of If . . . . would obsess on placing all instances of the film’s color into one category and all instances of its black and white into another. If . . . . is an expansive film, not a reductive one like The Wizard of Oz (1939).
The other recurrent complaint concerns what some viewers take to be the intrusion of fantasy at the end of the film when, the three seniors having been whipped, Mick and his cohorts exact their revenge. It simply isn’t the case that surrealism has been reserved for this stunning conclusion. There is no stylistic rupture, no matter to how many inattentive viewers this seems to be the case. Although the film begins naturalistically enough, it soon slides delicately and intriguingly into a more complex mode of heightened reality and fantasy. There are odd touches, such as the whack that a teacher during class plants on the back of a young student’s head for no good reason and the headmaster’s pulling out a huge drawer in which the chaplain is lying in wait to chide Mick for shooting him during a simulated military exercise; but I have in mind more than incongruous touches such as these. There are whole sequences that tweak reality, suggesting the film’s gathering storm of surrealism through their delicious ambiguity. An example is Mick and Johnny’s excursion into town in section IV, “Ritual and romance,” when Mick steals a motorcycle and adopts the counter girl in a small eatery as his girlfriend and a subsequent member of his revolutionary crew. At some point we learn from Rowntree, the supercilious senior all but in charge of the house who will order Mick’s and the others’ corporal punishment, that the town is strictly off-limits to students. Question: Did Mick and Johnny ever really steal away to town? It’s certainly possible, and their having done so may then contribute to the reasons for their being beaten, to make of them “an example” for the underclassmen. But details suggest that the boys’ afternoon flight of freedom is pure fantasy. For instance, Mick and “The Girl,” who is never given a name, are abruptly shown naked on the restaurant floor, growling at each other like tigers and making passionate love. Cut to Johnny, seated at a table, calmly drinking coffee. Mick and the girl join him, entering the frame fully dressed and perfectly composed, neither of them the least bit hot or breathless. Question: Does the girl realistically even exist, or is she the spirit of revolution that seizes Mick, as subsequent inserts of her face during the boys’ resistance suggest? Anderson’s richly textured film is full of ambiguities like this that more than prepare us for the film’s finale. Indeed, the simulated war exercises that Mick and his buddies convert to something closer to the real thing toes a similar line of ambiguity.
Moreover, the chaplain provides more than an instance of Eisensteinian caricature. He is plainly batty, a religionist so lost in his own rhetoric that he is oblivious to how frighteningly little sense he makes. He tells his last congregation something like this: “Jesus Christ is our commander. If we desert him, we should expect to be punished. And we are all deserters!” This is the closed-box mentality, ripe with futility, to which Mick and the boys and, of course, Anderson is responding. Such insanity, if it is posited as some sort of reality, requires fantasy as a response for one at least to imagine oneself outside of the box. In short, such stressful “reality” points to the likelihood that we are to come down on the side of fantasy at all sorts of ambiguous junctures in the film.
Anderson was a homosexual (as was Vigo, by the way), and the film is dense with homoeroticism, for instance, young male nudity. (But one of the loveliest shots—reality? fantasy?—has the headmaster’s wife, naked, forlornly walking through the dining hall in the middle of the night.) Is this material self-indulgent and therefore dubious, Anderson’s insertion of home movie-stuff for his own delectation, or is it thematically relevant? I go with the latter. For one thing, what may be the fantasy of The Girl becomes all the more urgent given the adolescent male atmosphere that Anderson accurately conjures at the school. (In a dining scene, the boys react to the headmaster’s wife with an extraordinary blend of flirtatiousness and contempt.) But isn’t Anderson also implying one of the poisonous social outcomes of the school’s homoeroticism? Won’t some heterosexual graduates, as adults, contribute to their culture’s homophobia in an effort to suppress and deny the homoerotic aspect of their own formative school experience?
Indeed, Anderson contrasts the unwholesome homoerotic atmosphere at the school with the actual homosexual relationship that develops between Wallace and Bobby Phillips, an underclassman. This relationship is portrayed as warm, gentle, comforting and mutually supportive. (It is the one relationship at the school in which power doesn’t come into play.) Of course, this may be one more fantasy, an expression of Wallace’s wish for such a relationship, but, either way, Anderson is able to distinguish between an indiscriminately oppressive adolescent culture in the school and the attractive bonding that occurs between Wallace and Bobby. Moreover, it is one more thing in Mick’s favor that he accepts without reservation his friend’s homosexuality—a truly refreshing circumstance in a film made more than 35 years ago.
Another signature aspect of If . . . . is the “Sanctus Chorale” from the Missa Luba that ennobles the soundtrack. These achingly lovely, powerful strains of the Congolese Mass perfectly express the film’s stylistic and thematic conjoining of liberation and formal restraint. Music is essential to many films, and to none more so than this one.
Malcolm McDowell, who regards If . . . . as his best film, is superb as Mick Travis. (His best line reading: “When do we live, that’s what I want to know.”) McDowell would play the same character again in the other two parts of Anderson’s trilogy, O Lucky Man! (1973) and the rapaciously funny Britannia Hospital (1982), the most brilliant and most important of all Frankenstein movies.
B(U)Y THE BOOK
MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB IN LONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.