Today: July 18, 2024


Lindsay Anderson’s If… is widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest revolutionary films to ever come out of British cinema. Filled with iconic images and a direct influence on countless cinematic depictions of youthful rebellion, If… is such a stone cold classic that it is difficult to evaluate the film without also casting a critical eye over the means by which classic status is assigned.

The film presents the British public school system as a vast inhuman machine designed to transform small boys into pillars of the British establishment. The inhumanity of the educational system is evident from the fact that despite being nominally responsible for educating the boys in their care, the teachers leave most of the day-to-day running of the school up to a group of sixth-form prefects known as the Whips. However, the Whips in turn spend the bulk of their time eating crumpets and flirting with the younger, prettier boys and so the bulk of the responsibility for educating the boys falls on the boys themselves. Nobody seems to steer the system, it simply perpetuates itself by means of an unspoken threat: Adapt to the system or the system will break you. The plot of If… revolves around a group of students who decide to ignore the threat and rebel against the system.

Divided up into a series of chapters loosely coinciding with term times, the film begins by introducing us to a number of point of view characters mired in various stages of the system. Chief among them is Travis (Malcolm McDowell) a well-liked but largely unexceptional member of the lower sixth form who spent his summer visiting working class pubs and stepping out with girls. Having gained some insight into life beyond the confines of the British establishment, Travis struggles to keep his cynicism under control. At first, he and a group of friends limit themselves to papering their walls with radical images and getting drunk but the second the booze runs out, their cynicism begin to manifest itself in a thousand tiny acts of rebellion from disrespecting a soon-to-be Whip to stealing a motorbike and taking it for a ride. Worried that a group of bohemians might lower the standing of their house and make them all look bad, the Whips begin persecuting Travis and his friends but their petty tyrannies and acts of aggression only serve to force the group out of the system and remind them of how little they stand to gain by submitting and how much they stand to gain by blowing the system sky high.

Much of the film’s reputation comes from its distinctive and sophisticated combination of styles: Sometimes, the film is a forensic examination of the British public school system and the deluge of micro-aggressions that keep it afloat. At other times, the film is an almost mystical coming-of-age story filled with surreal visions that seem to sit somewhere between real-life and outright fantasy. Even the film’s infamously violent ending raises questions about how far the group’s rebellion actually went. The film’s unpredictable movement from one register to another combined with the decision to divide the film up into chapters makes for an oddly detached and surreal viewing experience as ideas, themes and symbols seem to take precedence over more traditional notions of character and plot.

If… does an absolutely wonderful job of capturing what it must have felt like to be alive in a very specific time and place. Indeed, it is easy to imagine Britain’s small circle of public school-educated critics going to see this film in 1968 and declaring it a work of genius because it both reminded them of their school days and of the then-growing belief that the British establishment was in a complete state of crisis. Over fifty years later, the film has undoubtedly lost some of its political bite: Anderson’s depiction of school as a place that turns you into a member of the establishment seems wildly nostalgic in an era when most schools seem more interested in league tables and exam results than they do in instilling values and worldviews. Similarly, the film’s act of rebellion is so lacking in political context and self-awareness that it feels more like an upper-class entitlement whine than a proper revolutionary fantasy. Anyone who has known real poverty and hardship would simply laugh at Travis’s anger at having to have a cold shower.

Anderson and screenwriter David Sherwin were quite correct to see a crisis at the heart of the British establishment but the crisis was one of legitimacy, not authority: The film presents the ethos of the British establishment as one of service. As one of the Whips puts it, they enjoy extraordinary power and status but the price they pay for their privilege is a commitment to serving both the school and the country. This vision of the establishment as a benign patriarchy is still evident in the BBC’s charter to “inform, educate and entertain” but it was once at the heart of most of the institutions in British public life. The crisis that faced the British establishment was one of legitimacy: Increasingly seen as incompetent and hypocritical, the establishment struggled to maintain its control over public life and to pass its values of service and protection on to the next generation of upper-class kids. What started as a cultural revolution in the 1960s concluded as an economic revolution in the 1980s as the Conservative government gutted Britain’s great institutions and handed their leadership over to a new generation of bare-knuckle capitalists for whom the principle of service was always an unbearable imposition. Indeed, it is easy to imagine Travis growing up to be a Richard Branson-type figure, a ruthless businessman who considers himself a rebel and an individualist because he wears his hair long and doesn’t even pretend to take an interest in the welfare of the poor. Far from being a politically progressive film, If… is a reminder that Capital has always been far more revolutionary than the left-wingers and trade unionists who sought to oppose it.

If… is a beautifully made and hugely influential film but its principles and ideas are tied to a time and place that has long-since ceased to be. Once a roadmap to teenaged rebellion, the film now feels more like an oddly naïve snapshot of a collapsed world. As we have come to expect from a Masters of Cinema release, the film comes with a plethora of extras including an insightful commentary track, interviews with actors and filmmakers, a selection of Lindsay Anderson short films, and a 56-page booklet including essays and interviews about the film.

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