Reviews, Vintage Vault — January 12, 2012 at 3:00 pm



“Help the House … and you’ll be helped by the House”


The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, recently noted that one of his favourite films is Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 counter-cultural-classic If…. By happy coincidence, LOVEFiLM actually sent the title to me this weekend ready for todays “Classic Columb”. I must say, agreeing with this article in The Guardian, the choice seems highly ironic or proves how deeply deluded Mr Cameron actually is. Rebellious youth, destroying traditional values and archaic expectations – and crucially the values and expectations of the upper echelons of society. This is an important part of British Cinema. Thtough his performance in If…, Stanley Kubrick called on Malcolm McDowell for his seminal film-role in A Clockwork Orange. In terms of British Cinema, the film was named 16th Greatest British Film of all-time by Total Film and won the Palme D’Or in 1969. Lots of praise for a film that culminates in a graphic, horrific depiction of a high-school massacre.

Seniors and Juniors

The conventions and expectations of a public-boy school life is unique. Traditions often extend to centuries prior whilst the strange behaviour and attitudes are alien to the vast majority of society. The group-of-three rebels in the guise of Travis (McDowell), Wallace (Richard Warwick) and Johnny (David Wood) are non-conformist and their lack of respect for these traditions constantly place them in a position whereby sanctions are delivered. And in the sixties, this would be in the form of “lashings” – namely whipping the child on the buttocks a number of times. As an example of the ridiculous rules of this establishment, following 10 lashings, Travis (like all pupils) still has to shake hands and say “Thank you Rowntree” to the “whip” Rowntree (Robert Swann) for his excessive lashing.

Contradictions and ignorance is rife. The fact that we vaguely follow a group of junior pupils alongside our three protaganists in the seniors clearly associates the nature of influence and the example that we are setting for the future. The regular abuse of these traditions merely ensure that, though the traditions continue, the elitist and superior attitudes towards power and control continue too. Bullying in the form of “washing” others (tying a pupil by their legs high above a toilet so that their head is flushed in the toilet) and then other “role-model” students treat others unfairly by forcing boys to stand in cold-showers for a substantial amount of time. Traditions continue. The ossification of these upper-sections of society continue … until someone breaks the norm.

Fitting into the Canon of 60’s Cinema

It is strange to consider a connection between If…  – a surreal-take on conservative Britain – and Deliverance, John Boorman’s attack on small-town life in the deep south of USA. But indeed Lindsay Anderson and John Boorman both belonged to a movement titled the British New Wave. In the vein as the French New Wave, the movement consisted of film critics and documentary filmmakers – John Boorman, prior to making Catch Us If You Can (A rehash of A Hard Days Night) was a documentary filmmaker whilst Lindsay Anderson was a film critic for Sequence magazine. The movement was all about depicting social realism and, by 1968, the movement had all but ended – largely due to the escapist and entertaining James Bond films amongst others. If… was one of the last of these social-realist films in Britain, depicting anti-establishment anti-heroes.

A Strange Trip

Whenever I think of 1969, I automatically think about Easy Rider. The drug-sequence towards the end of the film is a fascinating example of surrealist filmmaking. Only a year before Easy Rider, If… was approaching filmmaking in a similar surrealist style. The film, due to budget-reasons, is half filmmed in colour and the other half filmed in monochrome, presenting an almost dreamlike state as you watch each sequence. In one, stand-out sequence, Mrs Kemp appears to wander the hallways naked. It is a strange concept, the idea of a naked woman wandering the rooms and hallways of a public boys school. Almost as if the fantasies and obsessions of the boys becomes a reality. In another section, Travis first meets a girl (Christine Noonan) and, initially rejected by his advances, she then tells him how she likes to be ‘tiger’ sometimes and consequently the two start wresting and roaring like animals. As if to show the freedom and liberation Travis desperately seeked, it works wonderfully and the naked Mrs Kemp was additionally groundbreaking as it was the first full-frontal female nudity passed by the BBFC that was a prolonged scene (opposed to flashes of nudity). Alongside The Graduate and Easy Rider, it really is great to see such exciting and innovative uses of filmmaking at this point in cinema-history.

“We’re all in this together!”

This is the last place to see a vicar in a drawer, but surrealism is the root of If… and to close this analysis, it is worth harking back to Mr Cameron’s opening speech as Prime Minitser. Shortly after his election, the focus point remained that Britain must be “in this together” regarding the financial crisis that had recently hit the Western economy. Ironically, it seems this is the same sentiment the “whip” and Headmaster live by. The multiple lines that the public school stand by constantly reiterate how much we are expected to trust the powers-that-be – and I am positive a paraphrased version of the words “We’re all in this together” was used by Rowntree at one point in the film.

At one point, Travis insults Rowntree by stating:

“The thing I hate about you, Rowntree, is the way you give Coca-Cola to your scum, and your best teddy bear to Oxfam, and expect us to lick your frigid fingers for the rest of your frigid life.”

Rowntree treats the boys around him well, he gives the impression that he is doing what is right for society and treats the ‘long-haired’ rebels with contempt. He is clearly abusing the position he has been given but manages to stay in power by looking after those closest to him and giving-off the right image. The truth is not seen. I think we can draw many parrallel’s in society today with that one summary. The reality is that clearly this complete abuse of power and inbred social divide is what needs to be destroyed. Because, at the end of the film, we are all with Travis on the rooftop …

Tags British New WaveIf...Lindsay AndersonMalcolm McDowell