Cast: Malcolm McDowell, David Wood, Richard Warwick, Robert Swann
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurette, Interview, Short Documentary
"…you'll be a Man, my son!" This is the final statement of Rudyard Kipling's 1895 poem, "If—, " from which Lindsay Anderson's 1968 film derives its name. The poem lays out a series of conditions by which the reader may be socially recognized as a Man, all of which reinforce the stereotypical British attitude of retaining a good head in the most chaotic of circumstances and keeping a stiff upper lip. In 1960s England, however, the tensions between youths and adults were not measured by how stoic one remained in times of unrest so much as by the converse response to the undaunted status quo perpetuated by a society bound by tradition. By the late 1960s, these long-held ideals appeared more self-serving and increasingly supportive of a social hierarchy in which those at the top gained more power and those at the bottom were subject to frequent abuses, until someone else even lower came along.
This hierarchy is at the heart of Anderson's satirical "If….," a scathing indictment of British social politics, examined through the microcosm of a public boarding school. Behind the walls of the distinguished college, it is not education that is imparted on the impressionable young boys in attendance but a strict power system in which everyone is assigned a place on the totem pole. At the top are the faculty members, so oblivious to the needs of their students that they must appoint student officers, appropriately called the Whips, to maintain order in the dorms. The Whips, an elite group of seniors, mete out their power over fellow classmates through strict and often sadistic punishment, ranging from cold showers to actual whippings. At the bottom of the chain are the unseasoned juniors, coldly referred to as "Scum," who are used both as personal servants and objects of lustful desire for the Whips. Those in between each have their own level of subordination and domination, answering to those above them while inflicting their own brand of mistreatment on their inferiors.
The film's protagonists are Mick (Malcolm McDowell), Johnny (David Wood), and Wallace (Richard Warwick), a trio of rebellious seniors who yearn for freedom from their oppressive and repressed surroundings. Mick is the most headstrong of the three, most memorably exemplified by his entrance into the film. Clad in black with a scarf wrapped around the lower half of his face, his eyes the only parts visible, he retreats into his study where, in front of a mirror, he unwraps the scarf to reveal a daring and forbidden mustache. Mick's growing animosity toward the tormenting Whips, particularly the arrogant Rowntree (Robert Swann), leads him to devise a plan of violent revenge. Believing that war and revolution are the two most pure acts, Mick and his companions feel justified in their plotting because what they are doing is, in their minds, an act of poetic and human freedom.
To keep themselves sane during their brutal winter term, Mick and his friends do their best to break out of their repressed, uniformed environment to gain a sense of individuality. For Mick and Johnny, this means ditching a school rugby match to take a day on the town together. They steal a motorcycle and head for a remote coffee shop where they encounter a beautiful, nameless girl (Christine Noonan). She and Mick share a brief but eye-opening carnal experience, literally lashing at each other like tigers. Wallace, the most introverted and reflective of the three, establishes a relationship with Bobby Phillips (Rupert Webster), an attractive junior who becomes the Whips' chief object of homosexual lust. The relationship between Wallace and Bobby, though clearly romantic, is tender and intimate rather than sexual. It is, in fact, the most solid relationship in the entire movie, contrasting sharply with the exploitative nature of the Whips' desires.
Lest we become too involved with the characters onscreen, Lindsay Anderson takes an almost Brechtian approach to the story that never allows us to forget we are watching a movie. The most significant device is his alternating between color and black-and-white photography. Though several rumors have abounded for years about the reason behind this decision, the most popular being that Anderson did not have the budget to shoot the entire film in color, the truth is that he chose to film the school chapel scenes in black and white because the natural light from the stained glass windows made color correction difficult. After seeing the dailies, Anderson liked the look of the scenes and decided to shoot in black and white at random, giving no thought to artistic symbolism. As a result, viewers are allowed to take away what they will from the color changes and interpret them as they see fit.
Even more interesting is the film's escalating segues into surrealism. What begins like any ordinary drama is eventually broken up by what may or may not be fantasy scenes. Mick's first and subsequent encounters with the girl from the coffee shop are just such scenes. By the third act, we are left questioning the realism of nearly every scene, wondering whose fantasy—if they are fantasies—we are seeing. The final, horrific climax is a veritable explosion of surrealism and violence, each one counteracting the other so that we are left speechless and aloof, cut off from the action but intrigued by it just the same. Though a major success in its time, the movie's release was quickly followed by similar school riots, causing some to praise it as prophetic and others to blame it as seditious. To this day, the movie's subject matter still has the power to trouble, especially in light of the Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres in the United States. What saves this from being a gross glorification of such incidents is the film's fantasy elements and its title, "If…." What does this refer to? If only, if I could, if they did. However we choose to read it, there is an undeniable nod to the imagination, and that is where true horror is created.
This film came about during what has journalistically been called the "kitchen sink" movement in England. This referred to a growing artistic adoption of middle-class, ordinary and realistic settings and events as subject matter as opposed to the high-brow drama of the past. Having begun his career in documentaries, Lindsay Anderson seemed ideal for this new wave, and his first feature, the rugby exposé "This Sporting Life," was indeed a prime example. With "If….," however, Anderson moves beyond showing naturalism to a kind of metaphoric representation of reality. His message is political, but his approach is symbolic and self-aware. Because of this, "If…" has aged more gracefully than other films of this period. Even as it so forcefully encapsulates the mood and atmosphere of late 1960s England, it retains a timeless quality that makes it easy to grasp onto even for audiences who are not familiar with that era.
"If…." makes its Region 1 debut on DVD courtesy of the Criterion Collection in a two-disc set, and as usual, they have ensured that it receives the very best treatment. Displayed in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for widescreen TVs, this new high-definition transfer has been cleared almost entirely of dirt and debris. Some fine grain is visible throughout, giving the picture a nice filmic look. For a movie that is nearly 40 years old, the image is impressive, with some good color saturation. The black-and-white scenes look especially good with fine contrast and deep blacks. The image is a tad dark and slightly soft, but the transfer was approved by director of photography Mirolslav Ondrícek and editor Ian Rakoff. Keep in mind that this was not meant to have the appearance of a polished Hollywood production, and as part of the "kitchen sink" movement, Criterion's transfer seems to perfectly convey the realistic atmosphere of the public school setting.
As is Criterion's custom for older films, the audio is presented in its original monaural track. Coming through the center channel, dialogue and background sounds are well-defined. Voices are a bit muffled, but once again the film's age and budget must be taken into account. I detected only a minimum of hiss in the background during some of the quieter moments, but other than that this is a pleasing and faithful representation of the original soundtrack. English subtitles are available.
The film is accompanied by an excellent audio commentary track on Disc 1, featuring a 2002 interview with Malcolm McDowell and a new recording by film critic and historian David Robinson. McDowell is endlessly interesting, offering some great anecdotes and personal experiences during production. Robinson is more staid, but he provides a wealth of information and personal insight. Although the comments were recorded separately, they have been blended together seamlessly, with Robinson often taking McDowell's statements and responding to or elaborating on them. As a result, the frequently screen-specific commentary is well-rounded and cohesive.
Disc 2 holds the rest of the supplements, beginning with a 2003 episode of the Scottish TV program "Cast and Crew" dedicated to "If…." The 42-minute episode, presented in its entirety, features a gathering with screenwriter David Sherwin, producer Michael Medwin, assistant director Stephen Frears, editor Ian Rakoff, and director of photography Mirolslav Ondrícek, as well as a video interview with Malcolm McDowell. The five guests engage in a wonderful discussion on the film, its background, the production, and the critical and public reaction to it. Hostess Kirsty Wark has a tendency to interrupt abruptly, but this is a TV show after all, and she keeps the conversation moving smoothly.
Following this is a delightful interview with character actor Graham Crowden, who portrays the eccentric, bicycle-riding history teacher in the movie. The beloved actor sparked up a close friendship with Lindsay Anderson and later appeared as increasingly bizarre characters in "O Lucky Man!" and "Britannia Hospital." He offers some loving thoughts on his relationship with Anderson and Anderson's relationship with actors in general. Recorded new for the Criterion Collection, this 15-minute interview is a welcome and enlightening supplement.
Also on Disc 2 is "Thursday's Children," Lindsay Anderson's Oscar-winning, 1954 documentary short about a boarding school for deaf children. The title is taken from the popular nursery rhyme line, "Thursday's child has far to go," and refers to the lifelong struggle the deaf children will have to endure in order to communicate with the world outside the school. This enchanting film takes us inside the classroom to see the methods used to teach a group of students to read lips, match objects to their names, and ultimately to speak themselves. Anderson uses only a minimum amount of sound, opting instead to shoot much of the film silently, showing us the class from the deaf students' point of view. Richard Burton eloquently narrates, and the children are absolutely adorable.
Capping off this release, Criterion included an insert booklet with great liner notes. First is a piece called "School Days" by critic David Ehrenstein. Next is "From Crusaders to If….," a series of excerpts from screenwriter David Sherwin's published diary. Lastly, and best of all, we get a mock interview with both questions and answers written entirely by Lindsay Anderson as part of the film's original publicity. This gives us some great insight from the director himself on his ideas about the movie. Criterion definitely pulled out all the stops for this release.
Political and socially relevant, Lindsay Anderson's "If…." is still a fascinating experience. It remains a benchmark for its exploration of social power struggle and a shocking analysis of the reactionary minds who wish to destroy it. That is perhaps its most lasting impact on audiences. Even as we sympathize with the abused heroes, we cannot fully embrace their methods of rebellion. There is no easy answer to be found here, and we are left not with a sermon or a statement, but rather an open-ended condition. After the whole matter is finished, we are left only to wonder "if…."