A couple of weeks before Christmas 1968, the queues snaked down London’s Lower Regent Street outside the Plaza cinema. Roger Vadim’s soft-core science fiction fantasy Barbarella, starring Jane Fonda, had been taken off after attracting poor audiences, and been replaced at short notice by a new British film, Lindsay Anderson’s If…. The film was funded by Paramount, an American studio, yet it was set in an elite English public school. It didn’t feature any well-known stars, there was no rock music on the soundtrack, and the film had little advance publicity. Nevertheless, its reputation had spread largely by word of mouth. If…. was the unexpected box office hit of the year: it took £40,000 in its first few weeks, and was quickly given a national release.
1968 had been a turbulent year. In May, a series of demonstrations among university students in Paris had led on to a nationwide general strike: the occupations and street fighting lasted for almost two months, and the French government was effectively paralyzed. In the USA, protests against the Vietnam War were intensifying, and the assassination of Martin Luther King led to large-scale rioting in major cities. The Prague Spring, a brief moment of liberalization behind the Iron Curtain, was brought to an abrupt end when the Soviet tanks rolled in. Unrest also reached the UK, although it was more muted. There were mass demonstrations against the Vietnam War in London’s Grosvenor Square in March and again in October, as well as large civil rights marches in Northern Ireland. Talk of revolution was in the air. The Rolling Stones song ‘Street Fighting Man’ – ‘summer’s here and the time is right for fighting in the streets, boy’ – became the soundtrack of the protests: it was famously banned by radio stations in Chicago during the demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention in August.
To many critics at the time and since, If…. has seemed to embody the spirit of its age. However, the film was first conceived many years previously. It began life as a script called Crusaders, written between 1958 and 1960 by David Sherwin and John Howlett when they were still undergraduates at Oxford. Implausibly, Sherwin and Howlett attempted to interest their favourite American director Nicholas Ray (of Rebel Without a Cause) and then went to the Hammer Horror director Seth Holt. It was not until 1966 that the script was passed to Lindsay Anderson, who then spent many difficult months working with Sherwin on a revised version that eventually became If…. The title is drawn from a famous paean to masculine self-discipline written in the late 1890s by the English poet Rudyard Kipling. Anderson had been attempting to persuade the headmaster of his own former school, Cheltenham College, to grant permission for the film to be shot there, and he needed to make the script more palatable to him. Apparently, it was re-titled on the suggestion of the producer’s secretary. Using Kipling’s title seemed (in Anderson’s words) appropriately ‘old-fashioned, corny and patriotic’; although he also added four dots to indicate a degree of uncertainty about whether the film was merely a fantasy.
Whether or not they actually liked the film, the reviewers of the time were fairly unanimous about its message. According to Life, the film was ‘angry, tough and full of sting’; while the London Evening Standard saw it as ‘a hand-grenade of a film’. They were also fairly unambiguous about who the film was aimed at. ‘If you’re young, you’ll really dig If…’, wrote Cosmopolitan. ‘If you’re not so young, it’s more reason than ever to go see what it’s all about.’ Even the film’s critics seemed to share this view of its revolutionary political message. According to BBC critics, the film was ‘one sided’ and ‘very close to the borders of fascism’; while The Listener called it ‘the most hating film I know of’. Meanwhile, the right-wing journal The Spectator argued that ‘Anderson is still lashing out at nanny’.
This view of the film has also been actively promulgated by its star, Malcolm MacDowell. The film, he said in his one-man tribute to Anderson, Never Apologise (2008), ‘stuck a knife at the heart of the establishment’; while in an Open University broadcast a few years earlier, he went further – ‘it was like an H-bomb had gone off under the British establishment’. Subsequent reviewers have echoed such assessments. Online commentators routinely describe If…. as ‘incendiary’, ‘a subversive, anti-authoritarian masterpiece’ and a ‘counter-culture classic’. The publicity blurb for its video release describes it as ‘one of cinema’s most unforgettable rebel yells’. And in his breathless catalogue of ‘the 100 best teen movies’, Stranded at the Drive-In, Garry Mulholland praises its ‘images of English revolution’, and asserts that ‘no teen movie has ever come close to emulating its fervour’.
Thirty five years later, as a new print of the film was released, Anderson’s lifelong friend Gavin Lambert wrote in the Guardian newspaper that If…. ‘encapsulated the radical spirit of 1968’. It was, he said, ‘an astonishingly youthful film’, despite the fact that its director was 45 years old when it was first released. Albeit some years after the Sex Pistols, Lambert’s article was entitled ‘Anarchy in the UK’; and the posters for the film’s re-release described it as ‘an anarchist punk dream’ and as ‘deliciously subversive’. For its advocates, the film seems to have retained all its youthful allure and relevance: it is, according to MacDowell, ‘as fresh as it ever was’. Yet the film’s enduring reputation goes further. It is regularly described as a ‘masterpiece’ and a ‘modern classic’, and as proof of Anderson’s status as a ‘major artist’ in the cinema. It was number 12 in the British Film Institute’s list of the greatest British films of all time, compiled in 1999; and ninth in a Time Out list in 2011. Following its re-release in 2002, the film was the focus of two short books, in both the BFI Film Classics and the Turner Film Classics series (written by Mark Sinker and Paul Sutton respectively).
Despite all this, Anderson himself was always somewhat ambivalent about the film’s revolutionary reputation. He was obviously pleased and excited about its success: at the time it was made, his career as a film director had stalled somewhat after his first feature film, This Sporting Life (1963), although he had continued to work in the theatre. Seeing his opportunity, he oversaw a publicity campaign that was clearly designed to inflame the controversy. The main poster featured the London Evening News ‘hand grenade’ line alongside a collage of shots framed in a large grenade, with MacDowell toting a machine gun standing in front. Other posters set positive and negative reviews on either side, and bore the legend ‘which side will you be on’? In May 1969, a year after the evenements of Paris, If…. went on to win the Palme d’Or for best film at the Cannes Festival (although it may have been something of a compromise choice for the jury). It was the first British film with a British setting and a British cast and director ever to do so; and (no doubt to Anderson’s pleasure), the British Ambassador attracted further publicity by describing it as ‘an insult to the nation’.
However, in developing the script, Anderson was very wary of the idea that the film should directly reflect – or even echo – the events of the time: he did not wish to be seen as ‘journalistic’ or ‘trendy’, as he put it. He was also keen to refute the idea that the film had a straightforward political message, and cautioned against those who seemed to be taking it at face value. MacDowell’s character, Mick Travis, is a kind of revolutionary, and the film famously climaxes in him leading an armed massacre. Yet Anderson himself was less certain about whether he wanted audiences to regard Mick as a kind of revolutionary hero, or to identify with him. He seems to have regarded the film’s success as fortuitous or coincidental: it was, he wrote, ‘providential’ that it appeared when it did, but he was not actually setting out to encapsulate the spirit of the age.
Fifty years since If…. was first released, it seems a timely moment to re-examine the film, and to question its revolutionary reputation. In this essay, I will be focusing primarily on the film itself, looking at its representation of the school system, its innovative style, and its political messages. I will also look briefly at the two subsequent films that featured its main character Mick Travis, O Lucky Man! (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982). Hindsight is indeed a wonderful thing; but these two later films draw attention to issues that have been somewhat obscured in the celebration of Anderson’s most successful film.
The story of If….
If…. was produced by a small independent company called Memorial Films. The company had been set up by the actor Albert Finney, using earnings from his successful role in Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963). It was headed by Michael Medwin, who eventually became the producer of If…. It was largely down to Finney that the film managed to get funding. By 1967, Sherwin and Anderson’s script had been turned down by every major production and distribution company in the UK, but when Finney contacted an executive at Paramount in the US (who happened to be a fan), he obtained a budget of £250,000 without the script even having been read. Most of the shooting at Cheltenham College took place between March and May 1968, and some scenes were later shot at two other schools. Famously, some of the film was shot in black-and-white, not because of any artistic intention, but because it proved too expensive to provide adequate lighting.
Briefly, the plot is as follows. The film is set in a traditional English public school in the late 1960s (in the UK, the term ‘public school’ refers – paradoxically – to selective, fee-paying private schools). It begins as the boys return for a new term. Mick Travis, Wallace, and Johnny Knightley are three non-conformist boys in the lower sixth form, their penultimate year. Their housemaster is somewhat ineffectual, and allows the prefects (a group of upper sixth formers who are known as ‘whips’) a free hand in enforcing discipline. The junior boys are made to act as ‘fags’ or ‘scum’ – that is, personal servants – for the whips, who discuss them as sex objects. The headmaster is a more ‘modern’ and liberal figure, and some of the other teachers are quite eccentric; while the school chaplain is a disciplinarian, who has a sadistic erotic interest in some of the boys.
One day, Mick and Johnny sneak off into town and steal a motorbike from a showroom. They ride to a transport café, where Mick engages in a mock fight and then appears to have sex with the waitress. Meanwhile, back at school, Wallace flirts with a younger boy, Bobby Phillips, and the two are eventually seen in bed together. The three boys lounge about drinking vodka in their study, talking about death and the possibility of violent revolution. Following a series of clashes with the whips, they are given a brutal flogging by the chief whip, Rowntree, who singles out Mick for extra punishment. The rebels then take an oath of revenge, vowing ‘death to the oppressor’: ‘one man can change the world with a bullet in the right place’, Mick tells them.
During a military drill of the school’s Combined Cadet Force, Mick appears to get hold of live ammunition, which the boys use to open fire on a group of pupils and teachers. When the chaplain orders the boys to drop their weapons, Mick knocks him to the ground and appears to attack him with a bayonet. Later, the headmaster orders the group into his study and asks them to apologise to the chaplain, whom he appears to be keeping in a large drawer in his bookcase (and who seems to have survived unscathed). As punishment, and as an opportunity for the boys to give ‘service’, the headmaster requires them to clean out a large storeroom beneath the main school hall, where they discover a cache of firearms.
Amid the pageantry of Founders’ Day, when parents are visiting the school, the group (the three boys, along with Phillips and the café waitress), starts a fire under the stage, smoking everyone out of the building onto the lawn, where they open fire on them from the rooftop. Led by a visiting army general, the staff, students and parents break open the school armoury and begin firing back. The headmaster tries to stop the fight, imploring the group to listen to reason, but is shot dead by the café waitress. The final shot is of Mick’s determined face as he keeps firing. The screen abruptly cuts to black and the word ‘if….’ is seen in red letters.
Before agreeing the final cut of the film, Anderson had to undergo some negotiations both with the studio and with the film censors. Paramount apparently wanted some of the scenes to be more clearly marked as fantasy (the sex scene in the café, the attack on the chaplain, and his subsequent appearance in the bookcase drawer). Anderson seems to have successfully resisted this, although he did make some small cuts for the censors: some shots of male genitalia were removed from a shower scene, apparently in exchange for the censor approving a full-frontal long shot of the housemaster’s wife wandering naked in the school corridor.