If…. (1968)

Lindsay Anderson | 1hr 51min

Within the long hallways and hallowed grounds of the British boys boarding school in If…., the seeds of an uprising are sprouting. At the top of its centuries-old hierarchy, there is the headmaster, distantly reigning over the housemasters below, who in turn grant special privileges to the prefects. Beneath them, there are the younger years who have not yet reached seniority, and then right at the bottom are the junior boys – children who are forced into servitude by the prefects. The soon-to-be leader of the looming rebellion is Mick Travis, played be a pre-A Clockwork Orange Malcolm Dowell whose wry smile, pointed intonation, and simmering rage sets a prototype for troubled youth that Stanley Kubrick would study three years later with even greater finesse. Here though, he is but one figure in an empire of leaders, subordinates, and slaves, each of whom are assembled into a microcosm of 60s British politics and its restless, burgeoning counterculture.

There is no surprise that this school’s demographic is incredibly male-dominated, with only women of note in the film being those employees and wives upholding the system that safeguards their social status, and the nameless Girl who is recruited into Mick’s revolt. With such close quarters between teenage boys and such little female contact, the homoerotic implications are clear, as corrective punishments are turned into a sublimination of latent sexual desires, and sex into a weapon of humiliation wielded by the ruling classes to enforce the status quo.

There is frequently a sexual connotation to the prefects’ punishments and displays of dominance, picking at the homoerotic undertones of competitive male relationships.

In this way, there is little privacy to be found. Even shower times see the boys strip down and wash themselves together under the keen eye of the prefects, who on a whim can turn the water to cold and force their inferiors to stay under just for the sadistic pleasure of it. Later when they exact punishment on Mick and his friends through a beating, the bent-over, submissive position they are coerced into can barely be looked past as anything but sexual abuse. As they yelp in pain, we cut to other rooms in the school where fellow students simply listen on in silence, and we quite curiously cut to one of their views beneath a microscope – bacteria steadily multiplying on a petri dish. It is an image of multiplication growing greater numbers, but it is also notably a form of asexual reproduction, hinting at a mounting wave of anti-establishment contempt that wields power not through sex, but through sheer, overwhelming masses.  

Sadomasochism – bending the inferiors over to beat them from behind, caught in a long take.
A curious cutaway to the binary fission of bacteria, asexually reproducing and growing in numbers.

What Lindsay Anderson lacks in visual style in If…. is compensated by his narrative’s electrifying formal texture, dispensing with straightforward plotting in favour of chapters that tease out random pieces of life within this institution. Along one storyline, a secret relationship is struck up between Mick’s friend, Wallace, and a younger boy, Bobby. The moment that infatuation strikes in the gymnasium is rendered in swooning slow-motion, while the school guns that surround their secret rendezvous in the storage room stand erect in as phallic symbols. Further up the food chain, Denson and his fellow prefects court their housemaster over private dinners, manipulating him into granting them greater power. Meanwhile, Mick continues to stew in his dormitory, darkly ruminating that “War is the last possible creative act” and that “One man can change the world with a bullet in the right place.” He is not a hero in any conventional sense, but his dangerous philosophy looks to be the only way for anyone to break free of the school’s tyrannical rulers.

An effective set piece in the gun storage room, standing them upright as if erect.
Malcolm McDowell easily gives the best performance of the film as Mick Travis, it is easy to see why Kubrick picked him out for A Clockwork Orange.

Anderson’s sharp political allegory might almost be considered a piece of realism with its location shooting in authentic schools, if it weren’t for the intermittent rupturing of our belief in this setting as a rational, coherent system. The surrealism that emerges in brief passages brings a wholly unexpected layer of incongruence to these characters, at times purposefully marking the point of distinction from reality as we slip into Mick’s animalistic fantasy of wrestling naked with the Girl, but more often simply dropping absurd images into otherwise normal situations.

A surreal dream of naked, animalistic wrestling between Mick and the Girl, breaking free of society’s cultural restraints.

There is good cause to believe that such surreal scenes as the naked stroll of the housemaster’s wife through the dormitories are purposefully shot in black-and-white to mark a divergence from reality, though the lack of consistency here creates a more disorientating uncertainty than anything else. When ordinary church scenes are rendered in monochrome and the hilariously unexpected rise of the school chaplain from an office drawer appears in full colour, any theorising about the device’s formal meaning beyond its prominent bewildering effect is undermined, leaving it as a strange, unexplained anomaly like so much else we witness here.

Realism and surrealism, black-and-white and colour photography – the distinctions aren’t always clear, but they both offer a nice formal texture to the film.

As If…. approaches its vicious, final minutes, Anderson only continues to ramp up its eccentricity and irony, introducing the school’s Founder’s Day celebrations with an amusingly generic speech on honour, freedom, duty, and upholding traditions while a man wearing full knight armour sits in the audience. As smoke rises from the floorboards and the audience starts coughing, the drone of the speaker persists, proudly ignoring the emergency unfolding in front of him until he is forced to usher everyone outside. There, Mick and his fellow students pour gunfire onto the crowd, who feebly take up their own arms and fight back.

No such luck for the status quo though – the counterculture of an oppressed people is on the rise, and Anderson’s political parable positions it as the only logical outcome of a civilisation so divided among its classes. The implication of the title If…. is not a question, but an unfinished dream, conjecturing a world parallel to our own that cannot bear the weight of its own brutal, twisted, and nonsensical bureaucracy.

An apocalyptic finale, bringing the school’s oppressive, rigid hierarchy to an end through violence.

If…. is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes and Amazon Video.

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