If.... - Classic Film Pick
If “no” is the most powerful word in the English language then “if” runs a close second for its power to provoke action. “Crusaders” was the original title screenwriters David Sherwin and John Howlett gave their widely rejected script before director Lindsay Anderson took it over to stamp the film with his own experiences as a schoolboy growing up in the English boarding school system. Jean Vigo’s autobiographical 1933 film of youthful rebellion “Zero for Conduct” provided inspiration for the tone of the groundbreaking narrative that swings into gradually wider surrealistic realms. Anderson’s arbitrary switch between color and black-and-white sequences keeps the viewer questioning the cinematic form as the episodic narrative accelerates haltingly toward a shocking climax of violent youthful revolt.
Malcolm McDowell makes an auspicious film debut as Mick Travis, a non-conformist schoolboy condescendingly referred to as Guy Fawkes by one of the school’s bullying “Whips” who lord over their junior students--aged 11 to 18. Dressed in a black hat and overcoat, with a scarf masking his convention-defying but temporary mustache, McDowell’s confrontational character makes an immediate impression. His portrayal in “If…” caused Stanley Kubrick to cast McDowell as Alex, the futuristic anti-hero in “A Clockwork Orange” two years later.
Mick settles into school life in the company of his two best friends with whom he carries on political discussions. During one such conversation Mick categorically states, "There's no such thing as a wrong war. Violence and revolution are the only pure acts."
Mick decorates the walls of his room with a collage of topical magazine images that inform the audience as to his restless inner monologue. Mick wants to live a life of unbridled freedom, but doesn’t know where or when it will begin. His caustic “attitude” is a problem that head Whip Rowntree (Robert Swann) mistakenly attempts to cure with a 10-stroke caning session that only serves to put Mick in an even more radical state of mind.
In a nutshell, “If…” is a bold commentary on the adverse effects of abusive regimented indoctrination techniques used by British boarding schools and military outfits alike. The film is a rebel yell in the face of such intimidation tactics to express the seething liberation of freethinkers who must surely turn on their captors with a vengeance when opportunity permits. That the film’s release coincided with the 1968 student revolt in Paris speaks to the era’s zeitgeist that Anderson captures with audacious yet economical precision. The film won the Grand International Prize at Cannes in 1969.
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