I’ll admit that, before encountering it through First Takes, my knowledge of If.… was substantially lacking beyond a vague awareness of its high standing amid British cinema. This was perhaps something of a blessing, however, as my ignorance of Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 classic served to sharpen its twists and turns, and elevate the shock value of its violent and rebellious finale.
The film perhaps derives its name from the similarly titled ‘If-’, Rudyard Kipling’s blueprint for the stiff upper lip; a poem consisting of a shopping list of attributes required of each Englishman in order to “be a Man, my son!” A similar act of character assembly is being attempted within the unnamed private school setting of If…., as the children of England’s upper classes are thrown through its gates as snotty-nosed, deep-pocketed brats and emerge years later as the prim and proper young soldiers required to dominate the isles. The opening hour of Anderson’s film documents the process between these stages with a wry and contemptuous glare, meticulously prying away the layers of exclusivity obscuring the arcane rituals of private education. Exposing them in all their absurdity to a viewing public whom, for the most part, these practices remain jealousy hidden within ancient walls. Half the fun in the film’s early moments I found in attempting to decipher the exact rules with which this system operated; as besides the school’s stone-writ scriptures of bows, handshakes and bedtimes runs an apparently ever-shifting common law, enforced by the school’s more senior students upon the years below them. This system of discipline and punishment effectively serves as a semi-autonomous factory line, etching tradition into the hearts and minds of its young subjects.
The highest of the school’s echelons is home to the film’s villainous “whips”, an exclusive group of head boys led with malicious glee by Robert Swann’s Rowntree. Their role is, in effect, that of head warden; overseeing the enforcement of the school’s status quo. It is therefore against these whips whom the war of disobedience of the film’s famous protagonist Mick (Malcolm McDowell) and his Crusaders is initially waged through broken rules and minor slights. What I couldn’t have expected, given my initial ignorance of the film’s exact events, were the levels to which If…. escalates this initially subtle conflict, both in violence and in thematic weight. In this regard Anderson’s film upended my expectations entirely, twisting the film’s prior analysis of the farcical intricacies of boarding school life into a grand, rebellious call-to-arms.
Hints of this escalation emerge as the pseudo-military nature of this hierarchical system of practices and privileges, already exaggerated and parodic (though no less accurate), gives way to a very literal militarism as the students engage in drills and weapons practice with the school’s staff. Anderson also injects some occasional doses of 60s surrealism amid this escalation, interrupting the film’s earlier tone with occasional dips into monochrome alongside some vaguely fantastical visuals and plot developments. While this flight into the absurd may seem like a complete departure from the film’s earlier depiction of private school life, it is delivered with the same wry, deadpan tone as the film’s earlier scenes, and as such it becomes difficult to discern the exact boundary between reality and grossly inflated parody – highlighting the ridiculous nature of the school’s traditions and attitudes.
This escalation climaxes in the film’s finale, which sees Mick and his band of rebels assault, explode and gun down a school hall packed with the pupils’ wealthy parents and visiting military elite. This all-out attack results powerfully absurd images of a knight in full decorative armour fleeing the rebels’ onslaught, or well-to-do grandmothers taking up arms in retaliation. What became apparent in this moment was the full scope of If….’s critique; not limiting itself simply to a critique of the British education system and its wider class connotations, but rather taking the full scope of the British upper classes directly in its crosshairs.
If there was one major sticking point in the film’s thematic attack upon social hierarchy, it would be in the character orchestrating the assault. While McDowell’s character has been praised as a countercultural icon (this was supposedly the role which earned McDowell the part in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange) he nonetheless is, for all intents and purposes, an insufferable tit. McDowell’s character is the picture of self-absorption, often musing to himself in a satisfied tone which does little to endear him to his audience. Any residual empathy I had for Mick departed entirely as, in one scene, our protagonist steals a motorbike from a local shop (one which, given the fees required for his private school attendance, he could no doubt afford many times over), taking it cross-country on a mission to harass a young waitress.
The failings of Mick’s character somewhat robs the film’s final movement of its social conscience, as Mick acts not out of any revolutionary spirit in particular but rather seems to be acting simply out of some disaffected angst – a trait less attractive upon the extremely well-off. Nonetheless, Anderson’s film is worthy of its reputation, in its ability to shock and stir rebellious sentiment against the absurd, archaic and exclusionary conventions of the British private education system. Moreso, If…. remains a darkly comedic two-fingered salute to its nation’s elite, if perhaps delivered by a protagonist more than deserving of one himself.