The timing could hardly have been better. Two months after Lindsay Anderson started shooting If.… in March 1968, Paris erupted in a month of rioting that nearly toppled De Gaulle’s government - and by the time the film was released nine months later, riots, insurrections and anti-war demos had flared everywhere from Prague to Chicago via Grosvenor Square, and the entrenched old order seemed to be tottering towards terminal meltdown. If ever a film had the zeitgeist by the tail...
It all started eight years earlier when Oxford undergraduates David Sherwin and John Howlett penned a script called Crusaders, based on the experiences they’d shared at their public school, Tonbridge. Initially they offered it to Ealing veteran Seth Holt, who felt unqualified to direct it but offered to act as producer, then to Nicholas Ray. Ray was enthusiastic, but his breakdown while directing 55 Days At Peking (1963) ruled him out. Then, in a Soho pub, Holt introduced Sherwin to Lindsay Anderson.
Anderson, himself the product – or should that be victim? – of a public school education, instantly latched on to the script’s poetic and satirical potential. Working intensively with Sherwin over several months, he introduced surrealist and epic elements and added an explosive ending lifted straight from one of his favourite movies, Jean Vigo’s Zéro De Conduite (1933). The result, as young star Malcolm McDowell gleefully observed, amounted to “an H-bomb under the British establishment”.
If…., shot partly at Anderson’s own former school in Cheltenham, captures with skin-crawling immediacy the atmosphere of a traditional British public school, a poisonous mix of snobbery, sadism, crap food and sentimental religious pomposity. Arriving back for the new term, the pupils are lined up for peremptory interrogation: (“Ringworm? Eye disease? Confirmation class?”), while the Matron (Mona Washbourne) inspects their genitals with a torch. The prefects (or ‘whips’), with their flowery waistcoats and gold-topped swagger-sticks, lord it over the younger boys and exercise far more real power than the masters, and the ‘progressive’ Head (Peter Vaughan) spouts windy platitudes: “Today is a day for the future – and also a day for the past.”
But the film’s target is far wider than the public-school system. Unmistakably, If…. is an allegory of hidebound, class-ridden, hierarchical Britain. The school, Anderson noted, “is a microcosm – particularly in England, where the educational system is such an exact image of the social system”. On Field Day the pupils, in army uniform, are led out to mock battle by the Chaplain, following a bellicose sermon. (“Jesus Christ is our Commanding Officer and if we desert Him we can expect no mercy. And – we are all deserters.”) At the film’s climax, armed insurrection breaks out on Parents’ Day when our hero Mick Travis (McDowell, mesmerising in his screen debut) launches a machine-gun attack from the school roof. The staff and visitors – who include an army general and a bishop in full regalia – scatter for cover. The Head, desperately trying to mediate (“Boys, boys, I understand you! Listen to reason and trust me!”), is promptly shot between the eyes. The school song swells on the soundtrack; Mick, clad in iconic WW2 bomber jacket, hunches over his chattering Bren gun. Cut to black...
Some people took the film all too literally – not least its alarmed distributor, Paramount, who described it as “an incitement to revolution”. True, Mick’s given to ’60s-ish slogans like “Violence and revolution are the only pure acts.” But with a less hysterical eye it’s not too hard to see where Anderson is pushing well past the bounds of reality. There are those Brechtian titles that split the film into sections: “Ritual and Romance”, “Discipline”, “Revolt” and so on. There’s the way the film keeps flipping between colour and black-and-white: initially B&W was adopted for the chapel scenes to make them easier to light, but Anderson then latched on to the idea of using it arbitrarily, “to remind people they’re watching a film”. There are also moments of sheer surreal comedy, as when the Chaplain is revealed lying in a long coffin-shaped drawer in the Head’s study.
But there’s nothing unreal about the viciousness with which Mick and his two mates are beaten by the sneering house captain. Against this, though, are moments of unexpected lyrical beauty – long-shots of the school chapel, its gothic spires slim against the morning light, with distant boys’ voices raised in a hymn. An affair between two of the lads is handled with quiet tenderness. Lindsay Anderson loved and loathed England with equal passion and that ambivalence comes through in every frame. The film violently divided the critics; Anderson at once devised a poster with anti quotes on one side, pro quotes on the other, and headed it “Which Side Are You On?” When If.... scooped the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1969, it was furiously denounced by the British Ambassador to France as “an insult to the nation”. Anderson, of course, was doubly delighted.