The final film in Lindsay Anderson’s loosely grouped trilogy that began with If…. (1968) and O Lucky Man! (1973), Britannia Hospital (1982) is invariably judged as the least successful of the three—an assessment that’s hard to deny. That, however, doesn’t keep it from being a film very much worth seeing. It lacks the precise focus of the first film, and it’s completely devoid of the surprising good humor of the second. Indeed, I suspect that part of the reason Britannia Hospital is often dismissed has to do with the fact that it’s an angry film—perhaps the angriest one I can think of. And that makes it an intensely uncomfortable film. Where If…. took a look at British society in 1968 in the microcosm of a boys’ school, Britannia Hospital attempts something similar with a hospital. But much has happened in the intervening years. This isn’t a vision of England on the edge of rebellion, nor is it the corrupt, yet still viable and even amusingly quirky England of O Lucky Man!. No, this is Mrs. Thatcher’s England, and there’s no hope to be found anywhere. Society has become almost entirely corrupt on every front.
The deranged Prof. Millar (Graham Crowden) of O Lucky Man! no longer carries on his insane experiments in a private clinic, but has moved on to become the star attraction at a famous hospital. The hospital itself is just as uncaring, inhuman and crazy. The film’s opening nails this down as a hapless patient arrives via ambulance just at shift change, and since nobody on the staff can be bothered, he’s left to die in the ER. The revolt from within of If…. has now become a revolt from within and without. Lower echelon members of staff are on strike in the hospital, while outright revolt is taking place just outside the gates—a revolt generated by the extra medical care offered to the hyper-rich patients who can afford the luxury. The powers that be in the hospital are both out of touch and arrogant (symptomatic of Thatcher’s Britain in many ways), and their primary concern lies with the impending visit of the Queen Mother, who is perhaps the last word in out of touch.
There are no heroes here. Even Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell), who over the course of the trilogy goes from revolutionary to coffee salesman to accidental movie star, has become a vile part of this society. Here he’s a sleazy tabloid-TV journalist on the make for a story. (That he will ultimately meet the fate he narrowly escaped in O Lucky Man! is a nice irony.) In Anderson’s view—glimpsed in its more fanciful condemnation of left and right in the previous film—there’s little left but despair and impending anarchy. The inmates haven’t taken over the asylum; it’s simply that the inmates and the asylum staff are not in the least bit different. While the film is a little clunky, I think it’s the bitterness of the satire here that has served to marginalize Anderson’s final chapter. See it, but be aware that it’s a chilly blast of unpleasantly cold air.