The center film of Lindsay Anderson’s Mick Travers trilogy, O Lucky Man! (1973), is one of the glories of 1970s British cinema. It is by no means necessary to have seen its predecessor If … (1968) nor its more uneven successor Britannia Hospital (1982) in order to follow the film. (With that in mind, however, the viewer who’s seen If … will get more from Mick Travers’ answer to the question of whether his headmaster was right to expel him.) The three films are held together by the presence of Malcolm McDowell as Travers, but otherwise more complement each other than directly connect. For me, this magnificently challenging film is simply Anderson’s masterpiece. Though very much a part of its time (just look at the multi-language sing-along titles during Alan Price’s song “Everyone Is Going Through Changes”), there’s really nothing quite like this long (183 minutes), darkly humorous variant on Candide.
After a completely silent prologue with McDowell made up as a South American coffee picker whose hands are chopped off for stealing (causing him to be branded—via intertitle—as “unlucky”), the film moves to a recording studio where Alan Price (former keyboardist for The Animals) and his band perform the title song (with Lindsay Anderson looking on). Only then does the plot proper get underway. We meet Mick as one of a group of men being trained to work as coffee salesmen. Thanks to his outgoing nature—and the fact that his instructor, Gloria Rowe (Rachel Roberts), is sexually attracted to him—Mick is quickly shunted into a salesman position when the company’s top salesman mysteriously vanishes. Thus begins Mick’s strange journey through the film’s peculiar episodes and even more peculiar characters. From coffee salesman, to suspected revolutionary, to near medical experiment, to assistant, to a business tycoon, to convict, to quickly disillusioned humanitarian, to a chance at becoming a movie star, Mick wanders through everything the film throws at him—and a good bit more.
To the degree that O Lucky Man! has a plot, that’s it. It’s not hard to follow, but it confuses some viewers by Anderson’s approach. The key to part of this lies in the lyrics of Price’s “Everyone Is Going Through Changes” (set to the tune of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”)—“Everyone is going through changes/No one knows what’s going on/Everybody changes places/But the world still carries on.” To this end, not only do neither Mick, nor the viewer quite know what’s going on, but also actors keep reappearing as different characters—literally going through changes and changing places. Complicating the approach further is Anderson continually returning to Price in the recording studio—only to also have Price, his band and their rich girl groupie (Helen Mirren) enter the plot at one point as sort of musicians ex machina.
It sounds more confusing than it is—assuming the viewer is willing to go with it all the way through its self-referential, Brechtian ending. (Similar endings are on Michael Sarne’s Joanna (1968) and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain, but Anderson’s is the most fully realized and the most effective.) The film leans rather heavily on Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971)—sometimes to the point of parodying it—which is not too surprising, since McDowell stars in both and suggested the idea for O Lucky Man! to Anderson in the first place. Rich, densely layered, disturbing, unique and strangely satisfying in a way few films ever have been.