Lindsay Anderson‘s masterpiece, If…., is finally given a DVD release in the UK in June. Anderson’s film—the dramatic resistance to authority by three boys at an unnamed British school—was made in 1968 but I didn’t get to see it until (as I recall) 1977. I was 15 at the time and feeling increasingly desperate and hidebound by school-life so this film was explosive in its psychological impact as well as its story (that grenade on the poster was very apt). Given my age and the year, I’m supposed to have cult yearnings toward the wretched Star Wars but it was If…. that made the lasting impression.
Poster for the 2002 re-release.
If…. was important for a number of reasons, not all of them obvious during that first viewing. I didn’t go to an all-boys public school (note for Americans: “public school” in Britain actually means an expensive, private establishment) but my grammar school had been an all-boys place a few years before I arrived. Some teachers wore gowns at assembly and many of the older teachers there were of a rigid, brutalist mindset exactly like the ones in Anderson’s film. Bullying was endemic, uniform rules were enforced to a degree that would make an army colonel proud and you stood out from the crowd at your peril; I had friends there but I hated every minute. So here comes young Malcolm McDowell on the television screen, effortlessly charismatic and insouciant in his first film role, portraying the ultimate Luciferan rebel, one who (as Anderson writes in the screenplay preface below) says “No” in the face of overwhelming odds. Reader, I identified so very much…. The famous ending (borrowed from Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite) where Mick and the other “Crusaders” fire guns and throw grenades at the rest of the school was headily wish-fulfilling. (And given recent events, you’ll also see below that Anderson and screenwriter David Sherwin regarded that ending as metaphorical, not literal.)