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Our review of If... (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published September 19th, 2011, is also available.
Mick Travis: There's no such thing as a wrong war. Violence and revolution are the only pure acts.
The timing of adding Lindsay Anderson's (O Lucky Man) 1968 masterwork If… to the Criterion Collection as title #391 seems a touch disturbing and misguided despite its classic status. After recent events in Virginia, a picture that climaxes with school boys armed with murderous machine guns on the roof of a school church seems insensitive. The oddest thing is when the film originally took the Golden Palm at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival it was followed by a rash of student riots in France. The movie's release then as now seemed distasteful and prophetic simultaneously. The saving grace is If… is not a realistic film, and the violence is so stylized it comes off as fantasy. Many have suggested the movie's climactic shoot out is a product of the lead character's fevered imagination, since it is played out in a surreal haze of bullets exchanged between students and clergy. As ragged and rough as it is, If…does stand the test of time to become a cult classic of iconic proportions. It is where the world first caught a glimpse of A Clockwork Orange's future lead Malcolm McDowell. It is the film where British cinema imploded in a messy satire of the middle class. It has undoubtedly inspired generations of filmmakers though it may be hard to watch. It is an anarchic true punk classic with an orchestral score.
If…'s first few reels are a picturesque essay on a "day in the life" of boys committed to an education at a traditional English boarding school. We see the students, observe the rituals, gasp at the homoerotic innuendo, and learn to despise the class system where the head men are called "whips" who abuse power at every turn. We almost cheer the film's anti-hero, Mick Travis (McDowell) when he begins to subvert the draconian system. But each time he tries to spark rebellion authority slaps him down and raises the fight to a new level. By the end our hero decides only flying bullets will change things, and he holds fast to the idea a civil war is the romantic ideal solution. The film grows darker and darker until there is no good side to root for, and the inevitable stylized violence when it does come seems heartless since we care little who survives.
Paramount pictures funded this epic under a deal that required the studio to shoot films in the UK, and that meant a British cast and crew. The director former critic Lindsay Anderson had come from the theatre, so he chose struggling actors in and around London to fill the roles. He fulfilled his wish to shoot a picture meant to be a satire of England set in its educational system. It was a remake of a 1933 French film called Zero de conduite: Jeunes diables au college (a title that remains not well known). Anderson chose a realistic looking cast, went to his own boarding school, and shot one of the most shocking visions of boarding school life committed to celluloid. Yet he made it all so surreal that it came off as poetic rather than simply harsh. Anderson was a lover of men, and he fetishized the boys of the school on camera. It gave the production a lush feel of fantasy. He also randomly shot certain sequences in black and white. It was a technique that rumor has held cut budgetary corners, but the director simply wanted to create a disorientation to his work. Equally off kilter is the title which came from a 1909 poem by Kipling, a suitably lyric literary work.
Although the cast is an ensemble, you'll notice the lead played by Malcolm McDowell more than the rest of the cast. At first I thought it was just because I revere the man's acting, but even divorcing myself from fandom revealed he is the magnetic center even when he is off the screen. There are plenty of other fine performances in this beautifully shot film, but his face and eyes take charge of every second they appear. Kubrick has admitted to watching the film many times, and it was If… that became Malcolm's audition for his most iconic role as the lead in A Clockwork Orange.
Criterion continues its grand tradition of treating films right, and offers this title for the first time on DVD with a two disc set. The transfer is astoundingly clear although it does have moments of dirt and grain that give away the age of the elements used especially in the first reels. Oddly enough as the film becomes more fantastic as it drifts on, the transfer gets more and more sharply focused and cleaned up. The entire piece was restored under the approval of original cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek (Amadeus) and the assistant editor. This is an amazing effort to restore the picture, and probably improve it a great deal. The monaural soundtrack is crisp, and dialogue is well represented along with the classical score. The only sin the company has committed is showing the US/UK theatrical version which is R-rated and omits any hint of frontal male nudity. This lack of naked boys actually subverts one of the themes and dulls the shock of the homosexual material. Revival prints have sometimes restored the footage that was shown at festivals, but we see none of it here. Were this a director's cut we'd certainly see it. Funny how the violence is never trimmed, but male nudity is still after all these years a far more touchy subject.
Extras are spread out over two discs. On the feature we get detailed wonderful commentary from both lead actor Malcolm McDowell as well as film critic and historian David Robinson. The two were recorded separately, but spliced so well together you'd swear they were in the same room. The second disc contains three features that flesh out the rest of the set. First up is a 2003 television round table discussion produced for an episode of the Scottish series Cast and Crew. We get all the major players including video taped segments of McDowell in LA, and archival interviews with Lindsay Anderson. It runs forty-five minutes, and covers the film's lore and legacy well. Next up is a fourteen minute video interview with actor Graham Crowden. He's a funny old codger with a sharp wit. Last is an Academy Award winning documentary called Thursday's Children. It is directed by Anderson, and focusses on a school for deaf children.
Surreal and honestly shocking even almost forty years later, If… is the rare rebellious film that has lost none of its swagger over time. It feels freshly ripped from the headlines, and remains a vicious indictment of the class system that remains in effect in the United Kingdom. The film will be remembered as a satiric masterpiece that feels all too real. Criterion has chosen a ripe time to release If… on DVD. Perhaps some should criticize them for letting the title slip out so soon after we've seen the fantasy merge with our headlines. I suppose prophecy should be ragged and rough, and this one hurts as much as it did then. But somehow If… deserves to be seen again and again. It is the masterwork of Anderson, and the debut of Malcolm McDowell. And the fact it still makes people uncomfortable? Something tells me they relish that thought.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Actor Malcolm McDowell and Film Historian David Robinson
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