Winner of the Palm d’Or at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival, Lindsay Anderson’s if…. (1968) is a strange film which shines a light on the trials and tribulations of life at a boarding school for boys. It is the start of a new term at the school. Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) is the ringleader of a group of three boys who have revolutionary ideals which extend beyond the monotonous, classist boarding school life they lead. The film follows this group as their ideals become reality.
This film is a slow starter. However, I think this was meant to be intentional, to give the viewer the feeling of being stuck, just like the boys at the boarding school. We are shown the boring rituals of boarding school life, which make the students feel like herded cattle. Over time, the film builds to a very satisfying conclusion, as Mick Travis and his friends seek to escape their imprisonment at the school, and punish those who have victimised them.
The audio and visuals of the film are impressive. The music, particularly the oft-repeated Sanctus by Missa Loba, is very stirring. The majority of this film is shot in colour, however every now and then there are scenes in black and white; not an intentional aesthetic choice, as apparently the production ran out of money, so they had to use cheaper film for some scenes. The random black and white scenes give rise to an ambiguous tone, because it seems as if they should be dream sequences or similar. There are also some surreal elements to the film: there’s one love scene which is particularly animalistic and strange, and at one point a school staff member emerges from a chest of drawers, as if he sleeps in there normally. These ambiguities seamlessly combined with the ‘real’ moments of the film make it a compelling watch.
if…. was Malcolm McDowell’s screen debut. His performance in this film inspired Stanley Kubrick to cast him for A Clockwork Orange (1971), and it’s possible to see how these characters are similar: the young man wanting more from life, desensitised to violence, a ‘relaxed’ system of morals. McDowell is perfect in this film as someone with borderline sociopathic tendencies. He is, undeniably, incredibly creepy.
The whole film is currently uploaded on Youtube, so if you’re looking for something good to watch that’s easily accessible, it’s worth giving this one a go. This film is quite culturally significant in its distinctive ‘Englishness’. It’s an interesting exploration into boarding school life, and the effects that it can have on revolutionary young men who want to break the mold. It’s worth watching just to see Malcolm McDowell’s very first role, and how it compares to everything else he’s done. He is fantastic in general, and this film is a must see.
Watch a pretty good fan-made trailer here.