This review contains plot spoilers.
Given the inevitable length of time it takes to conceive, make and release a feature film, it’s very difficult to be timely – one reason why very topical issues have more often been dealt with on television. But Lindsay Anderson’s second feature – a full-throated roar of outrage at the British establishment, its repressiveness and its outdated values – caught something that was in the air (to quote the contemporary hit single from Thunderclap Newman). Released in 1968, when students were protesting in the streets of Paris and Soviet tanks were crushing rebellion in the Prague spring, if… was very much of its time. It’s a mark of its achievement that it still grips and compels…because its targets are still in place.
if…., written by David Sherwin (adapted from a previous script called Crusaders which he had co-written with John Howlett) studies the Establishment in microcosm, its breeding ground, the public boarding school. A succession of incidents introduce us to a range of characters: the masters, the prefects and their young “fags” (called “scum” here to avoid misinterpretation by non-Britons). Gradually, central characters emerge: Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell), Johnny (David Wood) and Wallace (Richard Warwick), who, together with a mysterious unnamed girl (Christine Noonan) whom Mick has a liaison with in a coffee shop, start a revolt…
Although its intent is clear, part of the fascination of if…. is that its effect is ambiguous. Part of this is due to its director’s contradictory nature. At the same time he loved England, but was its scourge. His film is savage and violent, yet there are moments of beauty too. The much-discussed ending, when the rebels shoot on the assembled masters and parents from the rooftops could be seen as an incitement to armed rebellion – and was at the time, by the top brass at Paramount – something which has gained an awful resonance more recently with school shootings at Columbine and elsewhere. It could be seen as the only appropriate response to a particular situation. Sherwin has said he sees it as the evils of the establishment have created an evil response in the boys and girl. Yet you can’t help seeing something heroic in the final image of Mick blazing away from the roof – not least due to Malcolm McDowell’s undoubted charisma.
Up to then, the film has depicted the ancient, ossified school rituals – the fagging system, with decadent seniors lusting after pretty juniors, the almost sadomasochistic relish that they take in administering canings, the almost comically out-of-touch adults. As a school, so a nation: a younger generation struggling to flex its muscles in a society stiff with deference and nostalgia for wartime and the past, a land so pent up with psychic tension and suppressed violence that an explosion was inevitable, sooner or later. And so it happens.
Anderson, influenced by Jean Vigo (the similarly-themed Zéro de conduite in particular), isn’t however making a work of social realism. He aims for a kind of Brechtian alienation (distancing) effect, in particular by his division of the film into eight chapters and his occasional touches of surrealism. The much-discussed mixing of colour and black and white contributes to this effect, though this was not planned. Anderson had mixed the two in his previous film, the mid-length The White Bus. By 1968, commercial pressures precluded making entire commercial features in black and white, as Anderson had done in his first feature, five years earlier, This Sporting Life. So if…. was to be shot in colour, importing DP Miroslav Ondricek from his native Czechoslovakia for that purpose, with considerable difficulty given the then political situation. (Ondricek, who regularly worked with Milos Forman, had worked with Anderson on The White Bus.) However, the lighting required to film the scenes in the vast school chapel in colour was prohibitively expensive, so Anderson and Ondricek shot these scenes in black and white on fast film stock. Anderson liked the effect so much, that several other scenes were shot in black and white as well, almost by intuition.
The film had problems with the censor. The main problem was the sequence where Mrs Kemp (Mary MacLeod) appears nude, including one shot in a corridor where her pubic hair can be seen. The only precedent for this on British screens was the Swedish film Hugs and Kisses, where a scene of female full-frontal nudity had provoked controversy a year or so earlier. The then Secretary of the BBFC, John Trevelyan, struck a bargain with Anderson: if he removed shots of male genitalia from the shower scene, Trevelyan would not cut Mrs Kemp’s nude scene. Anderson went along with this, the film received an X certificate uncut, and the shower scene remains as-edited to this day. (More can be seen if the film is viewed open-matte though.) With the introduction of the AA certificate (allowing those aged fourteen and over) in 1971, if…. had a brief cut (which may have been a brief glimpse of Christine Noonan’s pubic hair in her naked romp with McDowell in the coffee shop) before being passed at the lower rating. The present DVD is the uncut version with a 15 certificate. Meanwhile, in the USA, the MPAA landed the film with an X rating, though it has since been down-rated to an R.
Anderson and McDowell went on to collaborate in two further films, O Lucky Man! (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982), which make a loose state-of-the-nation trilogy with if….. However, if…. has claims to be the best work of a dogged, often contrary director – it’s a film that provokes, and entertains, to this day.
Paramount’s DVD of if…. is a single dual-layered disc that is encoded for Regions 2 and 4. The transfer is in the correct aspect ratio of 1.66:1, anamorphically enhanced and pillarboxed accordingly. Most of the film is in colour, and it’s that rather heightened colour that’s characteristic of the late 1960s. There’s some grain, but it’s filmlike and not distracting – and the film does look pretty much as I remember it from a cinema viewing. The black and white sections look just right too.
There are no issues with the mono soundtrack, which is clear and well balanced. Two sets of subtitles are available for the feature: English and English hard-of-hearing. Very commendably, English subtitles are available for all the extras, including the commentary. (Given its obvious interest to a deaf audience, it would be a major faux pas not to subtitle Thursday's Children. Fortunately, they have.) There are eight chapter stops, one for each of the film’s chapters.
The commentary is the contribution of film critic David Robinson and Malcolm McDowell, recorded separately and edited together. Robinson describes the film’s making and provides an analysis, while McDowell discusses how he first met Anderson, his casting, and anecdotes from the film’s production. The track is well put together and there are few gaps, making for a consistently interesting commentary.
The remaining extras begin with Thursday’s Children, an Oscar-winning documentary short (22:09) from 1954 co-directed by Anderson and Guy Brenton. Narrated by Richard Burton, this portrait of a school for deaf children is still poignant, showing Anderson’s roots in documentary and the Free Cinema movement. It’s inevitably dated – and the overly-PC should beware the sequence where the teacher, Miss Taylor, reads from and the children act out a section of the now-taboo children’s book Little Black Sambo. The film is presented in 4:3 slightly windowboxed, and begins with the National Film Archive logo and the original 1954 BBFC U certificate.
Cast & Crew (42:07) was a series made for BBC Scotland, which reunited key personnel from a classic film to discuss it. Hosted by Kirsty Wark, this 2003 edition devoted to if…. features David Sherwin, Miroslav Ondricek, co-producer Michael Medwin, assistant director Stephen Frears and assistant editor Ian Rakoff. Malcolm McDowell is interviewed in Los Angeles, and there’s also a section from a 1985 interview with Lindsay Anderson. It’s clear that everyone is proud to have been associated with this film: as McDowell says, he owes his career to it. (Stanley Kubrick saw the film five times, and cast McDowell in A Clockwork Orange on the strength of it.) Ondricek speaks with a heavy accent, though he’s understandable – subtitles are provided.
Finally, Graham Crowden, who played the History Master, is interviewed (14:38). He relates how he first met Anderson at the Royal Court in 1960 – and embarrassingly confused him with Michael Anderson – and became part of the director’s regular repertory company of actors. An engaging talk.
if…. was released in Region 1 by Criterion. That disc is sight unseen by me, but it seems to have identical extras on the disc itself. The only differences are that the Criterion is a two-disc edition while the Region 2/4 from Paramount is single-disc. The Criterion includes a booklet (containing pieces by critic David Ehrenstein, Sherwin and Anderson) while the Paramount has five postcards. The edition available from Amazon UK also includes a copy of the screenplay.
Given that Anderson and several cast members are no longer with us, this DVD does probably as thorough a job as can be imagined. (Possibly The White Bus could have been included, but at 41 minutes might have pushed the capacity of a DVD-9 disc.) Whether you go for the Paramount or the Criterion will depend on region and NTSC/PAL issues, and whether you want the booklet or the postcards, or indeed the screenplay. Either way, this is a major British film and the DVD does it justice.