if…. (cert 15)
1 Disc Blu-ray (Distributor: Eureka) Running Time: 112 minutes approx.
It is with some sad irony that the timing of this long overdue Blu-ray release of such an influential and superbly sublime controversial cult British film comes amidst another senseless tragedy involving a school shooting. That is not to say that one begat the other but recent events make if…. frighteningly prescient yet still potently relevant.
Lindsay Anderson’s surreal yet scathing satire on the public school system shocked and delighted in equal measures in 1968, its release also ironically coinciding with the French Student Revolution which began in May of that year. The overwhelming anti-establishment stance may have appalled many at the time but at the Cannes film festival it was awarded the Palme d’or and has since been recognised as one of the greatest British films of all time and deservedly so.
For the uninitiated the story, based on the experiences of its writer David Sherwin originally called Crusaders, concerns three students – Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell), Wallace (Richard Warwick) and Johnny (David Wood) who refuse to kowtow to the autocratic system of the public school they attend. The senior boys, known as “Whips”, are given special privileges over the first year boys or “Scum” are their servants, running errands, waiting on them and even warming their toilet seats. Considered unruly and disruptive Travis and his friends are forever in the sights of the head Whip Rowntree (Robert Swann) who is quick to mete out punishment, resulting in a bullet laden rebellion to end all acts of school boy disobedience.
We’ve all heard about the peculiar practices and peccadilloes of British public Schools and Anderson is keen to lampoon these with wry and irreverent intent, while showing up the caste system that blights society to this day. This is demonstrated almost immediately when new boy Jute (Sean Bury) asks an older boy, Stephans (Guy Ross), for help who sneers “You don’t talk to us. You’re scum aren’t you?” Then Rowntree tells “Scum” and they all rush to where he stands to see who will be chosen to do his bidding.
Anderson doesn’t just use the students to criticise class divide, he is equally damming with his portrayal of the teachers too, creating a cast of oddballs stuck in their old ways and oblivious to their foibles. Graham Crowden is a history master who rides his bicycle into class; Arthur Lowe is Kemp, a nervy drama teacher with a younger wife (Mary MacLeod); a pompous chaplain (Geoffrey Chater) equates school life to the Bible; and headmaster (Peter Jeffrey) is a toadying buffoon who claims he understand the boys but clearly doesn’t.
Perhaps boldly for the time, the idea of homosexuality is breached via the relationships between the Whips and their personal scum. While Rowntree and his colleagues lust after pretty boy Bobby Phillips (Rupert Webster), only Denson (Hugh Thomas) objects to this “juvenile fantasy” so Rowntree assigns Philips as Denson’s personal scum to test him. Whereas today we would no doubt be subject to some challenging or even explicit scenes, Anderson keep everything above board and suggestive and nothing more., but the point he is making is blatantly clear.
For many the film is noted for its many surreal moments to highlight the eccentricities and the pomposity of the public school system and their traditions which were just as risible and anachronistic then as they are now, some 45 years later. Anderson also applies this deviant approach to other scenes when depicting the struggle and yearnings of Travis and co. in their plight to live a normal life. Possibly the most well known would be when Travis and Johnny abscond during sports day and enter the forbidden zone of town, stealing a motorbike from a showroom and arriving at a small café. The young waitress (Christine Noonan) immediately excites the young men, leading to a bizarre scene where she and Travis wrestle on the floor pretending to be tigers!
While the iconic final scene of the gunfight is often talked about and equally imitated, the other major talking point is the switching between colour and black and white. For years the rumours were that Anderson ran out of colour film and black and white was cheaper, but the truth is that certain scenes, including those in the chapel, didn’t light well in colour but did in black and white so Anderson went with that and decided it would be a jolly jape if the film alternated between the two visual appearances.
Keen eyes viewers will notice some familiar faces among the students, including a young Robin Askwith (Confessions of…) and David Griffin (Hi-De-Hi), but the film’s most noted star is unquestionably Malcolm McDowell. In his big screen debut, McDowell carries the film – albeit with sterling support from his co-stars – with the ease and gravitas of a seasoned veteran delivering a chillingly confident and empathetic performance. This career defining performance as Mick Travis, a role he would reprise in two more Lindsay Anderson films O Lucky Man (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982), earned him the starring role in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange three years later.
The Blu-ray has a superb picture transfer with smooth, clean images and vibrant colours giving the film a whole new lease of life, while the aforementioned black and white scenes are given a new polish to lift them above the grainy and bleak mood they once created. The disc is loaded with insightful interviews in the extras, along with there early short films by Anderson and a fascinating booklet to boot!
If…. is a genuine cult classic and a masterpiece of British cinema that reveals something new upon every viewing. It amuses, provokes, challenges, baffles and attacks but most importantly it engages on numerous levels. Hopefully this Blu-ray will find it a whole new appreciative audience and will continue to do so for years to come.
Unquestionably essential viewing.
New 1080p presentation in original 1:66:1 aspect ratio
English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing
Audio commentary by David Robinson and Malcolm McDowell
Director, Writer, Cast and Crew Video Interviews x 11
- Three Installations (1952)
- Thursday’s Children (1954)
- Henry (1955)
Rating – *****
Man In Black