Were the Cameroons ever inspired by If…. (1968)? I thought they might have been, once. This is, at its base, a film about public schoolboys turning on the system of which they’re a part; just as a group of Old Etonians might look to elevate state schools to the level of private ones, even-out the privileges of birth, or just generally kick down the oak panelling that surrounds British politics like a coffin. Of course, those OEs have furthered some of these causes. But much of the early passion and promise has dissipated.
If…. is itself a product of the public school system. Its director, Lindsay Anderson, came out of Cheltenham College. And its writer, David Sherwin, was educated at Tonbridge, and based his screenplay on one, called Crusaders, that he’d bashed out with a schoolmate. This is, I guess, part of what makes it such a seditious movie. Its anger comes from inside.
And “inside” really is the word. If…. was shot mainly on location at Anderson’s alma mater, after he reassured the serving Headmaster that Cheltenham wouldn’t receive any credit for, or in, the end result. The schoolrooms are real. The cloisters are real. The chapel is real. And even those things that aren’t real – the characters, the situations, all of the magical movie stuff – are often something more than artificial. A teacher in the film is based on one from Anderson’s youth who, in the director’s own words, “had the nasty habits of smacking you suddenly on the back of the head, and twisting your nipples”. The scenes have a sense of randomness and open-endedness to them, so you feel as though you’ve just stumbled into a classroom or dormitory.
And, God, how you sometimes wish you could stumble out! The nipple-twisting teacher is just the start of it. This is a school that, like all schools, has an unforgiving hierarchy: the teachers patronise their favourites who lord it over their peers who take it out on the “scum” in the years below, and so on. And that hierarchy is preserved by institutional forms of punishment. The most brutal scene in If…. has our hero Mick Travis (played by some first-timer called Malcolm McDowell) caned raw by one of the seniors. And it leads directly on to Mick’s most brutal observation: “One man can change the world with a bullet in the right place.”
For all of that, Anderson’s aim was never just to shine a torch on the dark recesses of public school life. He wanted this film to stand for more, and so he made it more. Scattered in with the realism is out-and-out surrealism, such as when Mick and his friends visit a character known only as The Girl. They order coffee, turn on the jukebox, start threatening to kill each other, end up on the floor naked and growling like tigers… you know how it is.
This scene, like a few others in If…., is shot in black-and-white. Originally, this was a choice brought on by necessity: the director of photography was finding it difficult to work with colour film stock in the low-light of the school chapel. But Anderson liked the effect so much – how it “broke up the surface of the film” – that he made it one of design. This shifting tone undermines certainty. Is it real? Is it a dream? Is it just some schoolboy’s masturbatory fantasy?
And the shifting tone is part of the reason why I think If…. is one of the greatest of British films. Here we have a film that is halfway, in both time and style, between the documentaries of Anderson’s early career and the straight-up fantasies he would produce later. And that means it belongs to two distinct, British cinematic traditions: the sturdy realism of, say, John Grierson and It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), and the wild invention of Powell & Pressburger and Hammer and Bond. It’s the best of British precisely because it represents the best of British.
Although, yeah, there is that bit where Mick shoots a dart at a picture of the Queen. That’s hardly “Rule, Britannia!”, you’re right. But that shouldn’t put anyone off: Anderson’s own politics – developed through two more Mick Travis films, O Lucky Man! (1973) and the underrated Britannia Hospital (1982) – are too ambiguous and interesting to dismiss out of hand. The final scene of Britannia Hospital, in which a brain wired to machinery intones the “What a piece of work is man…” speech from Hamlet, just about sums them up. He’s on the side of the humans.
But, before that, there’s If….’s own final scene. Mick and his mates climb up on to the roof of the chapel and start shooting the teachers and pupils below. It’s shocking, sure, but by now we know that we’re firmly in dreamland. Travis doesn’t get his revolution. It’s as much comedown as carnage.
> If…. is released in a new Blu-ray edition on Monday, 9th June. This will contain, in its accompanying booklet, some of Peter Hoskin’s notes on Lindsay Anderson’s short films.