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  • Post last modified:May 7, 2023

if…: Spirit of ’68


David Wood, Richard Warwick and Malcolm McDowell. Photo: Memorial Enterprises

When Stanley Kubrick sat down to watch if…, he found his leading man for the upcoming A Clockwork Orange. In Malcolm McDowell, whose film debut this was, Kubrick saw someone who had the kind of cheekiness, appeal and youthful vitality needed for the part of Alexander DeLarge. During the making of A Clockwork Orange, McDowell reached out to Lindsay Anderson, the director of if…, for advice. He wasn’t sure of how to play his role. Anderson reminded the young, insecure talent of how they worked on certain scenes in if…, and eventually McDowell found the help he needed. His performance in Kubrick’s film became iconic. These movies also have another thing in common: controversy.

A new semester begins
Summer has ended and it’s time for a new semester to begin at a British public school for boys. Things haven’t changed much, even if Mick Travis (McDowell) has managed to grow a mustache, which he quickly shaves off. He’s in sixth form, getting near the top of the teen hierarchy, but still under the control of 18-year-old ”Whips”, who serve as prefects over the other boys. Part of their job, it would seem, is to harass anyone younger; the 13-year-olds are especially targeted, often the butt of sexual jokes and the target of abuse.

Obviously, the housemasters and the headmaster should be in control of their school, but they are easily manipulated and far too occupied with other recreational habits; in other words, the boys are free to wreak havoc. Mick has two friends, Wallace and Knightly (Richard Warwick, David Wood), and together they begin to fantasize about starting a revolution…

A satire of British society
Anderson’s most famous film premiered the same year as student riots took place all over the world; no wonder that if… made quite an impact, its story set in a country that has always upheld a strict class system. The film is a satire targeting the British society, its script initially called ”Crusaders”. Writer David Sherwin (who came up with the story together with John Howlett) was inspired by his own experiences at Tonbridge School and Anderson borrowed some of the structure from Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct (1933). Among the surreal ingredients in the film, there’s a violent, bloody attack in the end, featuring automatic weapons and grenades. In 1968, the sequence came across as shocking, the main reason why the film got an X rating in the U.S. Watching if… now makes one realize how it has lost some of its original impact; modern audiences read about school shootings almost every day now.

Still, the revolutionary theme will always resonate and there is at times a certain tenderness among the boys. That’s more than you can say about Mick’s wooing of a local girl (Christine Noonan), where the sexual tension has an aggressive touch. In the end though, when revolution comes, the three boys are joined by their love objects, the girl without a name and Bobby Phillips (Rupert Webster), a young teen that Wallace falls for.

The cinematography shifts from color to black-and-white and back again, but most of the time it looks like random decisions.

There are moments when Anderson seems unsure of what he’s doing artistically. The cinematography shifts from color to black-and-white and back again, but most of the time it looks like random decisions, serving no clear purpose. Anderson simply liked the effect, but all it does is distract us. Then again, a minor quibble when it comes to a film that fit so well into the current mood at the premiere. 

if… 1968-U.K. 111 min. Color-B/W. Produced by Lindsay Anderson, Michael Medwin. Directed by Lindsay Anderson. Screenplay: David Sherwin. Cinematography: Miroslav Ondricek. Cast: Malcolm McDowell (Michael”Mick” Travis), David Wood (Johnny Knightly), Richard Warwick (Wallace), Robert Swann, Christine Noonan, Arthur Lowe. 

Trivia: Nicholas Ray was considered for directing duties. Stephen Frears and Chris Menges worked on the film as an assistant to the director and a cameraman. McDowell returned as Travis in O Lucky Man! (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982).

Cannes: Palme d’Or. 

Last word: “One of the problems is that [Anderson] did not know the language of film. When you work on a film you work with technicians who work for 50 weeks of the year, so they know a hell of a lot more than you do. And because he had long gaps between filmmaking, it didn’t come naturally to him in a way. I saw if… quite recently and I think the everyday bits of it are quite awkward. On the other hand the surrealist bits are absolutely brilliant. But he wasn’t familiar with the language. And always the crew know far more than you. They just know an enormous amount. Lindsay never fully understood Miroslav and his use of lenses. He was always quite bewildered by what he was shooting.” (Frears, interview by Dennis Cooper)

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