Criterion Reflections – If…. (1968) – #391

David’s Quick Take for the tl;dr Media Consumer:

If…. is an important film of its time, occasionally droll and inspiring in its provocation of middle-class establishment values but more often charged with unsettling anger and resentment toward the intense pain registered by its various characters. Focusing through a darkly comedic lens on the torments inflicted by authorities on a trio of misfits in a regimented, highly traditional English boarding school, viewers are prodded to answer the question asked in the above poster: which side will you be on? When If…. reaches its explosive conclusion, our response is likely to be urgently felt and quickly resolved, but it’s not the kind of answer that’s likely to rest all that comfortably on our conscience if we let its implications sink in.

Director Lindsay Anderson had already established himself as a creative trailblazer in the British theater and cinema scenes, and this film ratcheted up his reputation for making confrontational films driven by intensely troubled and charismatic personalities. Anderson’s other Criterion Collection entry This Sporting Life helped establish the career of Richard Harris by putting him in the role of a violent alcoholic rugby star. Here in If…., Anderson again hit the jackpot by casting Malcolm McDowell as Mick Travis, the clear-eyed epitome of insolence who quietly endures all the condescension, degradation and humiliation that the authoritarian customs of an old boy hierarchy cares to heap upon him. If you haven’t seen the film yet, just look at McDowell’s face on the cover photo of the Criterion disc (borrowed from theatrical release posters) – that withering gaze, the bemused expression, the presumptive defiance encoded into the placement of his hands and the gesture of his fingers. The boy’s a thorough-going nonconformist, patiently biding his time, the kind of perceived miscreant who brings out all the worst in those charged with the task of enforcing dominance.

In bringing the role of Travis to life, McDowell maintains that rebellious poise from his first moments on screen, when all we can see are his eyes peeking out from under a wide brim, the lower half of his face shrouded in a black scarf, through until nearly the end, just before he unleashes a decade of pent-up schoolboy rage in the lethal spasm hinted at in the poster image. While Anderson’s directorial vision, his personal insight of public school culture and his bold flights of artistic fancy created some memorable moments in the film, I’m of the opinion that If….. mainly succeeds in drawing us in due to McDowell’s wickedly fascinating display of resilience in the face of soul-crushing dehumanization. His performance is almost enough to make the more comfortable among its viewers to wish they had a bit more persecution in our lives, just so we could put his instructions on how to resist it into practice.

How the Film Speaks to 1968:

If…. pulls off an impressive trick of feeling simultaneously timeless – nestled within the hallowed halls of its tranquil academic setting, the cruel pecking order is of the sort that naturally establishes itself in any decade – and decidedly of its moment, released at the tail end of one of the most notoriously convulsive years in living memory. With a surrealistic disregard for narrative conventions (arbitrary switches from color to monochrome, from linear exposition to unexpected interludes of poetic, sensual dream imagery), Lindsey Anderson constructs sequences that claw their way into our memories and quietly do their disruptive work. The tigers seducing each other in the coffee shop… the fetus found in a jar… the parallel bar gymnastic routine… the schoolmaster’s wife silently walking naked through the dormitory while the boys play at their war games… Semi-hallucinatory bits abound and are used to great effect, though they’re tinged with a dark, decidedly non-euphoric tone and the boys show no affinity with the psychedelic scenes then blossoming (or burning out) all around the world in that era. Sure, a few scoldings are handed out for hair that’s too long, and yes, the magazine photos of Chairman Mao and Che Guevara taped to the sweat room walls are practically cartoon caricatures screaming 1968!!! to most any historically-informed observer of youth culture. But these accents are thankfully kept mostly on the margins, minor notes of context rather than overly eager efforts to cash in on the more commercial aspects of the “rebel youth” market. The incongruities provide some of the most engaging moments of If…., welcome diversions from  an otherwise fairly predictable accumulation of affronts to the protagonist’s dignity and self-respect that even a first time viewer figures will erupt into some sort of critical release toward the end.

But even if the flow of events follows a familiar path from undeserved insult to justly-earned retaliation, that predictability doesn’t necessarily diminish the film’s power, or the underlying truth of its outrageous climax. If…. is a profoundly angry movie, undoubtedly shaped by revulsions on both personal and global scales, and crafted to appeal to audiences every bit as disturbed by the status quo as the people who made it. Unable to fundamentally implode or alter the powerful institutions of this world, Anderson, McDowell and their collaborators dispensed with any bows in the direction of civility and long-suffering endurance for the sake of righteousness. Landing in cinemas when it did, in late December 1968 as one turbulent year came to a close and the world awaited the arrival of the newly elected Nixon administration, along with all the aftermaths of so many other violent putdowns of scattered revolutionary uprisings, If…. served as a perfectly realized howl of protest in that winter of discontent.

How the Film Speaks to Me Today:

So even though I stand by the positive things I’ve said about If….‘s importance, its striking imagery and the strong impression it leaves after first impact and upon closer consideration, I also have to acknowledge that I can’t calmly embrace and endorse it without substantial reservations. The schoolyard massacre at the end of the show, though mostly lacking in blood and gore (what little we do see is purely whimsical), has played itself out way too often in our society over the past twenty years for me to just give it a casual shrug. And I really can’t get on board with allusions to the sexual initiation of an underage boy by one of the upperclassmen, no matter how sweetly it may be portrayed. I can and do appreciate much of what If…. achieved, what it stands for and the impressive careers it either extended or launched, the real world implications of this rebel fantasy prove to be as problematic in their own way as the old corrupted order that Mick Travis and his fellow Crusaders are trying to overthrow. Revolutions, whether in art or in politics, often occur because a decadent regime needs to finally collapse in on itself so that some new alignment can emerge from the wreckage. Sometimes revolutions happen just for the hell of it, because some anarchist mischief makers have seized the opportunity to wreak havoc when the vigil wasn’t maintained. But every revolution bears fruit that carries the seeds of its eventual undoing. What exactly would grow from the calamity that Mick Travis, and too many self-pitying nihilists who follow his example, so recklessly sowed? Our society has a way of trampling on and tearing up such tender sprouts, but if left to reach their full maturity, what then? The answer to these questions, I suppose, is a big If….

Recommended Reviews and Resources:

Previously: Faces

Next: Monterey Pop

David Blakeslee

David hosts the Criterion Reflections podcast, a series that reviews the films of the Criterion Collection in their chronological order of release. The series began in 2009 and those essays (covering the years 1921-1967) can be found via the website link provided below. In March 2016, the blog transferred to this site, and in August 2017, the blog changed over to a podcast format. David also contributes to other reviews and podcasts on this site. He lives near Grand Rapids, Michigan and works in social services. Twitter / Criterion Reflections