Title: If… (1968)
Director: Lindsay Anderson
Cast: Malcolm McDowell
Last January, I did a three day long blog collaboration with my buddy Neil Fulwood from the excellent film blog, The Agitation of the Mind. The collaboration gave us the opportunity to explore the theme of revolution on films; films on which ‘the people’ strike back against ‘the system’. Many films where mentioned, reviewed and suggested during those three days of VIVA LA REVOLUTION! During one of his articles, Neil mentioned an English film called If…(1968) from director Lindsay Anderson. Little did I know that If… was going to end up being the perfect embodiment of the kind of film I wanted to talk about in that collaboration. It captures perfectly the reasons for e rebellion, why it happens, and how it’s done.
If… takes place inside of a traditional British Public School where the youth of the nation get educated on religion, morale, sports, war and politics. The school is run by a group of individuals who are extreme conservatives. With them everything is a rule, a regulation. The rulers of this educational institution lead their lives according to the states laws and according to old traditions. It goes without saying that religion plays a very important part of their lives, they sing and pray at the church everyday. In this educational institution, there’s even an assigned time for shutting down the lights! So basically, these kids live in a prison. Problem is, not everyone in the school agrees with living this rigid, boring lifestyle filled with rules and regulations. There is a group of students who enjoy going out every once in a while and having some fun, enjoying their freedom, cutting loose and actually living their lives. They’ve been restrained long enough and they’ve decided they are young, and they will have their day in the sun. How will the system react to this rebellious behavior?
If you ask me, I’d say that this is the nadir of revolutionary films, it’s the grand daddy of all of them, showcasing truly intense moments of complete and utter anarchy! The first half of the film is a set up; we get to see how this all boy school treats its youngsters, the future of the nation. We get to see these kids go through intense indoctrination in regards to both religion and politics. “Jesus Christ is our commanding officer, and if we desert Him, we can expect no mercy. And- we are all deserters” preaches the sermon given at the school church. The students are even trained for war in this school by participating in a simulated war in which they have to wear uniforms and use guns with blanks. If you do not follow the strict rules and regulations of the school you get reprimanded. If you go full blown rebel, smirking at and disrespecting authority, then you get a firmer form of discipline. Basically they take you into a room and whip your ass senseless until you cry. Worst part is after they beat your ass to a bloody pulp with a stick, and squeeze a couple of tears from you, you have to walk up to these bastards, shake their fucking hands and say ‘thank you’. Making you forcefully accept that you needed the discipline, that you were getting out of hand and that you should be thankful that your superiors brought you down from that cloud. These scenes reminded me of Alex DeLarge’s forced rehabilitation in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971). When you don’t play by societies rules, then you are forced to play by their rules.
The school in If…is extremely representative of how many governments operate. I’ve personally seen the techniques used by the school masters in If…being used in my own country. Anyone with long hair and a beard is immediately labeled as a hippy, or a rebel. If you complaint to much or too loudly, you are taken away. Youth in general is trampled upon in the media; the headlines are always degrading young people, labeling them as drunkards, drug addicts and civil disobedients with no direction in life. Just the other day, the government sent a bunch of police officers to literally hit all the young people hanging out on the streets, drinking a beer with their friends. I mean, literally, cops came, formed a freaking line and proceeded to whip young kids senseless with their clubs. They didn’t even look at who they were bludgeoning with their clubs! Then of course there was the gas and the pepper spray. I personally saw one cop running at ramming speed towards a crowd, knocking a bunch of kids down with his body, like a bunch of bowling pins. It was such a nauseating show of force! That was only the beginning of what would be a never ending battle (that continues to this day) between the ‘conservatives’ and the new generation. This open attack on the younger generations can only mean one thing. The powers that be see the younger generation as a threat. And it’s with every right they feel this way; it’s the youth of the world that is telling older generations they are wrong. Look at what’s going on in Egypt, its mostly young men who are out on the streets angry at how their government is running things.
I mention all these real life rebellious events because If…is a film that uses its premise as a microcosm for society. The rebellious students in the film represent the rebels of society, fighting against the status quo, fighting for the liberty to do whatever it is they want to do with their lives. Trying to have fun, to enjoy themselves, to laugh, to party, to have sex; which by the way these students have to go out of the school and get, because it’s prohibited. It is an all boy school after all. The fight is against loosing humanity, against loosing freedom. The whole first half of If…shows us how the Headmaster of the school and his prefects abuse and drive the kids of the school crazy with all their excessive rules and their discipline. Of course the young kids feel the abuse and the oppression; one feels that their acts of rebellion are completely justified. And this is why the first half of the film is absolutely necessary; it explores the ‘why’ in the rebellious equation. When a part of a society rebels, the other half, the conservative half, sees them as ‘crazy’ people, immediately labeling them as civil disobedients, quickly dismissing their behavior as a nuisance. Why don’t they ask themselves instead why such a thing as a rebel exists within their society? Why don’t they ask themselves where all that anger and discontent comes from? Aren’t rebels simply a symptom of a much larger ailment in society? Aren’t rebels after all a sign that things aren't being done right?
And this film has the biggest rebel of all in the character of Mick Travis, played by Malcolm McDowell. From the very beginning we see a character who is always going against the rules. In the first day of class, Mick walks in with a mustache, a big no-no in this school. His friends refer to him as Guy Fawkes, he breaks out of the school every now and then to go out into the real world and wreck some havoc. And he even has some followers, willing to go into full blown anarchy with him. After seeing McDowell’s performance on this film, its easy to see why Stanley Kubrick chose him to star in A Clockwork Orange. Mick Travis embodies rebellion; Alex DeLarge was the embodiment of that rebellious nature, and then some. Another way in which If… was influential is because it served as the blue print for one of my favorite comedies ever: Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983). In that brilliant comedy/musical, the film is also divided into chapters, just like If…, and it plays with many of the same themes and situations, only in an extremely funny way.
If… ends violently, and many saw the film as an outright “incitement to revolution”. By the way that quote comes from Paramount Pictures, the very studio that distributed the film in the United States. Cant say I blame these guys for thinking this way, after all the film ends with a bunch of kids shooting at everybody with machine guns from the schools rooftop and shooting the Headmaster of the school right in the forehead. Then the film fades to black, followed by the words If…on the screen. The ending is positively chilling, and daring. The words If... on screen appear there, as if asking us, what if this was to happen? What if? In my opinion, the theme of rebellion is one that should be explored as much as any other theme in films. Why is it suddenly wrong to do a movie about kids rebelling? Doesn’t this happen in our society when it has to? Why should it not be represented and explored in a film? Rebellion is something people resort to whenever their governments prove to be oppressive, abusive and murderous. It is not a taboo subject not to be mentioned, it should be explored. And If… does just that. But when the film came out, it caused uproar. Half of the critics loved it and called it a masterpiece, not to be missed. The other half called it “an insult to the nation”, yet it won the Palm d’Or at Cannes Film Festival in 1969. It was only natural for audiences to divide, over this film; after all, its main themes are politics and religion, two of the most dividing forces on the planet.
Rating: 5 out of 5