A bit of a personal review this; in 1969 after this film came out, I was part of the first comprehensive school intake following the Labour government’s shake-up of education which included the abandoning of the 11-plus. The secondary school I ultimately attended, and this was in the days before choice when attendance was down to encachement areas, was created by combining a former grammar school and the neighbouring secondary modern. First and second years attended at the grammar school site, and then third and fourth years were spent at the secondary modern site, with a return to the grammar school for the fifth year, and sixth form if chosen. Both sites preserved their unique characters; the secondary modern building was a former institution of some kind and at times there was an atmosphere of imminent violence. The grammar school was a late 19th century building, staff still wore gowns, there was mixed ability streaming in contravention of government guidelines, there were prefects, and the school population was allocated to ‘houses’, and competed for cups and shields at sporting and cultural events.
Late in my school life, when I seemed to have all but abandoned regular study beyond actual attendance of lessons, I discovered a copy of David Sherwin’s screenplay for If… in the school library. Boarding school life was familiar to anyone who read regularly in those days: it was featured in comic strips, in the ‘Jennings’ novels of Anthony Buckeridge, and the rather more satirical ‘Molesworth’ books by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle. As regards the film, in those days of declining cinema audiences, films had to be at least six years old before release to television, and consequently in the mid-1970s a host of films made in the late 1960s were becoming available to television screening. For a time BBC1 showed films from this period on Monday evenings and they were of particular interest to a teenage boy because they were relatively modern and usually had a high sexual content. The mid to late 1960s had of course seen a renaissance in home-grown cinema, until the bubble burst with the withdrawal of American funding and the short-sighted lack of any comparable funding by the British government.
If… was a revelation, with its themes of rebellion, and with only the slightest stretch of imagination the school, with its arcane practices, could have been my school. Although not particularly bad or disruptive, I was getting into trouble quite regularly, more for my ‘attitude’, the same crime that Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell, A Clockwork Orange, 1971), finds himself beaten for in the film’s pivotal sequence. The only part of the film which I found baffling was the boys’ membership of the Combined Cadet Force which was totally outside of my experience; the increasing surrealism of the events in the film following the introduction of the Cadet Force were easily palatable after the realisation that this military entity existed in schools. Many years later, delivering letters on a Saturday morning for Royal Mail, I observed young schoolboys in fatigues drilling on the asphalt playground of a local grammar school, which took me right back to my feelings on first seeing If…
Mick Travis returns to school and College House with an attitude of questioning rebellion; his room and the study area he shares with Johnny (David Wood), and Wallace (Richard Warwick), are covered with images of sex and violence as well as some pictures representing the establishment, which he uses for target practice with an air pistol. Travis comes out with provocative statements about war and rebellion and killing but they are no more than any inexperienced teenage boy might articulate. Travis and Johnny steal a motorbike, and fondle a girl they meet in a café. Warwick has an emergent relationship with the pretty Bobby Phillips. The film for the most part is made up of the little details of school life, the activities of the prefects, known as whips, and their petty rivalries, the jaded distracted staff, and the idealistic Headmaster (Peter Jeffrey) with his progressive outlook. When the whips beat Travis and his friends for their ‘general attitude’ the young men begin to fight back, action culminating in a violent machine-gun attack on the Founders Day service. As the staff, pupils and parents fight back, one realises there can be only one outcome. The film, despite criticism at home, won the Golden Palm at Cannes in 1969; by a happy coincidence the streets of Paris had erupted in violence with the student riots at the time of filming in 1968.
Malcolm McDowell is hypnotic in his first film role. He was 25 years old, and although he had done some TV work previously his scenes in Poor Cow (1967) had been cut; his next film role was alongside Robert Shaw as one of the fugitives pursued by helicopters in the minimalist Figures In A Landscape (1970).
The character of Mick Travis was to appear again, in Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (1973) – as a knowing and self-serving but ultimately vulnerable ‘Candide’ figure, and finally in Britannia Hospital (1982), in which he has his head sawn off by Graham Crowden. All three films use metaphor to make a comment on the state of the nation, accurately dissecting the British class system and the abuse of privilege.
This DVD release includes a commentary by McDowell, and David Robinson; an interview with members of the production staff including Stephen Frears, Michael Medwin and David Sherwin, hosted by Kirsty Wark; an interview with actor Graham Crowden; and Anderson’s short film Thursday’s Children (1954), about teaching profoundly deaf children, which won the Oscar for best documentary in 1955. Thursday’s Children is written and co-directed by Anderson, with Guy Brenton, narrated by Richard Burton, and features beautifully expressive camerawork by the great cinematographer Walter Lassally.