Lindsay Anderson’s If…. (1968) introduced filmgoers to a young TV actor named Malcolm McDowell and led to what would ultimately be Anderson’s trilogy of films with McDowell’s character. If… is one of the undisputed classics of modern British cinema. The story is simple—simmering resentment at an English boys school ultimately turns into open, violent, bloody revolution. Anderson’s idea was to use this ultra-traditional microcosm of British society to make a larger, allegorical point about what was happening in the country (indeed, in a lot of countries) on a broader scale. At the time, the idea of a revolt at a boys school probably seemed almost like science fiction (despite the fact that the film’s roots are in Jean Vigo’s 1933 surrealist short feature Zero de Conduite). Today, the story is all too believable, even if the conditions surrounding have altered a bit. Anderson’s is a bold film, an angry one. There’s little of the humor that punctuates its more fanciful sequel, O Lucky Man! (1973), and not even much of the intensely bitter comedy of the final film in the set, Britannia Hospital (1982).
It’s an unrestrained swipe at society—and even at counter-culture society. There are really no heroes here. Even Mick Travers (McDowell) is hardly that. We first meet him wearing a slouch hat with a scarf pulled up to hide his face. This turns out to be to hide the fact that he’s grown a mustache (“to hide my sins”)—an act of very mild defiance, since he hides it from the school authorities and shaves it off before they see it. But it’s the first gesture of what will follow. Anderson chose to approach the material in a way that makes it all vaguely surreal, so that it’s often hard to tell if everything we see is real (is the school chaplain really in a large coffin-like drawer after the bogus attempt on his life by Mick and his companions?), making the film just that much more powerfully compelling. It’s an essential film for anyone interested in cinema.