Travis, Knightly and Wallace routinely defy the traditions and Establishment values of their public school. In an attempt to bring them into line, they are beaten viciously by head prefect, Rowntree. This triggers an increasingly surreal series of episodes culminating in an attack from the rooftops with automatic weapons on parents, dignitaries, and boys gathered for the annual Founder’s Day service.
Being firmly located within the public school environment If … announces itself clearly as a British film and yet the use of this quintessentially national institution as a metaphor for society means the film has much wider resonance. The school system has a clear hierarchy of power and authority maintained by ritual and physical discipline. New boys, like Jute, are indoctrinated into this quasi-society with frightening aggression by those just above them in the pecking order, who are themselves cowed into compliance by the threat of physical violence. Nonconformists, like Travis, Knightly and Wallace, who question the values of the current social order, receive brutal, often sadistic, treatment.
The striking use of images of revolution helps to place this film within the context of a period of intense social upheaval. The boys’ common-room walls have pictures of Che Guevara and Geronimo in direct opposition to the paintings of traditionalists, past headmasters or benefactors, looking down on the boys from the dining hall walls. A magazine photograph of a black freedom fighter on Travis’s wall is referred to by him as ‘magnificent’ and the images of lions asleep in a tree may well reference Percy Shelley’s ‘The Mask of Anarchy’: 1
Rise like lions after slumber In unvanquishable number –
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep have fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few.
The year the film was released saw the youth-led drive towards social change2 which was such a feature of the early 1960s in the West, culminate in riots in Paris that threatened the future of the de Gaulle government. This is a film that has at its heart contemporary student concerns from the period such as the threat of a nuclear holocaust (‘The whole world will end very soon – black brittle bones peeling into ash’ 3 ) and Third World poverty and inequality in the distribution of wealth (‘In Calcutta somebody dies of starvation every eight minutes’).
Anderson was a key figure in the Free Cinema documentary movement and is often associated with the early 1960s British New Wave; but this film actually sits a little uneasily in relation to the focus on working-class life found in much New Wave filmmaking. Free Cinema did focus on ordinary people and everyday life, and as a result did in some sense point towards the social realism, but it also emphasised the importance of personal film statements and artistic freedom. This was Anderson’s focus, highlighting directors as artists, or auteurs, who were bringing their own distinctive visions to the screen. At the heart of Free Cinema for Anderson was a belief in filmmaking as an art that centred on personal expression and rejected commercial values.
If … is clearly of its time and yet also distinctively different from other British films of the period. Both its form and its content, expressed in the radical attitudes and actions of the central characters, made it challenging to the conservative mainstream. These characteristics link it to an earlier film, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Richardson, 1962); and these two films, one based firmly within an upper middle-class experience and the other within the working class, suggest the widespread nature of the challenge to the old order in the 60s.4 And yet, Anderson had his own view on the extent to which If… could be said to advocate revolutionary change since he saw the right to challenge authority as central to the British tradition:
“You could say the boys in If… were traditionalists. They are part of the tradition of independence, the rights of the individual, the right to question authority, and to behave freely. When traditions have become fossilized, and instances of reaction as well, then they have to be rebelled against. That act in itself is a tradition.” (Friedman and Stewart 1994: 167)
“Anarchy is a social and political philosophy which puts the highest possible values on responsibility. The film is not about responsibility against irresponsibility. It is about rival notions of responsibility and consequently well within a strong Puritan tradition.” (Aldgate and Richards 2002: 209)
Coming from a theatre background, Anderson was interested in exploring the use of Brecht’s ‘alienation effect’ 5 within film. This film offered him the opportunity of bringing to a wider commercial audience the sort of challenging material theatre audiences were becoming used to seeing in the 60s. The film is divided into eight chapters much as a novel might be with chapter headings appearing on screen as intertitles. On the stage Brecht used text in a similar way; in Mother Courage and Her Children, for example, a summary of what is about to happen is displayed before each scene. This is an anti-illusionistic technique designed to prevent the audience becoming passive watchers and encourage them to become actively engaged in thinking about what is being presented on stage or screen. The act of reading breaks the illusion of reality that film (and drama) has conventionally been so interested in attempting to achieve, forcing the reader to see the work as a construct that demands to be thought about in an active way. Theoretically, this enables what is shown to be considered in relation to the way in which the viewer can see society as operating outside of the cinema (or theatre). It was a technique employed in theatre in Britain in the period; for example in John Arden’s Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance directed by Anderson at the Royal Court when it was first staged in 1959.6 This play which according to Arden does not ‘advocate bloody revolution’ contains a third act in which a group of army deserters train a Gatling gun on a group of townspeople and threaten to open fire.
Anderson also uses the device of changing from colour to black and white film stock to further prevent the audience becoming engaged with the film as a realist text. These changes occur between scenes but also within sequences, and indeed as has been noted seem to obey no particular logic. Anderson’s use of colour and black and white seems to obey a not always comprehensible logic. (Murphy 1992: 158)
In Brechtian terms this lack of clear patterning within the choice is part and parcel of the process of disrupting the audience’s viewing of the film. The process of film construction is again foregrounded in such a way that the audience is unable to forget they are watching a film that has been put together or constructed. The aim is again to encourage them to think about what is being presented. Usually mainstream film (certainly prior to 1960) would do everything possible to suggest what was on offer was a realistic slice of life. Anderson works to bring this reality status into question, to make the nature of film and the audience experience of it problematic and open to reflection and intellectual consideration. The supposed and usually taken for granted ‘truth’ of film is brought into question and our position as readers who need to make sense of the text is emphasised. The status of the classic realist narrative (in this particular film but also in all other films claiming that status) is undermined and brought into question.
The third key method used by Anderson to disrupt the viewing process is the movement between fantasy and realism, and indeed making the viewer unsure as to whether what he or she is watching is fantasy or realism. In his book on the director John Ford, Anderson quotes the scriptwriter Dudley Nichols saying Hollywood had been half destroyed by its efforts to achieve ‘realism’: ‘making everything appear exactly as it does to the average man, or to a goat, instead of sifting it through the feelings of an artist’ (Anderson 1981: 86).
Unlike Sillitoe, the author of the original short story and script-writer for The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Anderson and those involved in writing the script for If… are from the Oxbridge middle classes and their connection with the working class can never be more than that of privileged outsiders. Every Day Except Christmas (1957), one of Anderson’s key contributions to Free Cinema was supposed to make ordinary people ‘feel their dignity and their importance’ (Armes 1978: 266) but in fact comes across as patronising. With the subject matter of If… Anderson is able to work from material comfortably within his own experience and create a film that can be seen to stand as a metaphor for society as a whole.
1. And perhaps points towards the final scenes although it is noticeable that the boys do not rise in ‘unvanquishable’ numbers with most of them continuing to align themselves with the current order.
2. In Britain, through popular music and fashion, and in their lifestyle choices, young people were challenging tradition values. In America, in cities such as Los Angeles and Detroit, there were black uprisings and increasing identification with the revolutionary aims of the Black Panthers. In 1968 there were student demonstrations and occupations of university buildings across the United States and Europe. The most dramatic events occurred in France where on the ‘Night of the Barricades’ (May 10) the police were driven from the Left Bank in Paris by students and there followed two weeks of strikes and factory occupations as workers joined the protests.
3. In 1962 the Cuban Missile Crisis had brought the world to the edge of nuclear war.
4. At times If… seems to directly parallel The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner: In the final scenes of both, for example, representatives of the various elements of the upper/ruling classes gather to witness the final act of rebellion. But Anderson’s film should also be seen alongside Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite (1933) not only in terms of storyline and themes but also in relation to notions of the auteur and the challenge to mainstream society.
5. Brecht’s idea was that the audience needed to be ‘alienated’ from what they were seeing, distanced from what they were watching in order to be able to maintain the position of thoughtful, detached observers. His effort was to break the illusion of reality and prevent that identification with characters he saw other dramatists as attempting to create.
6. Arden described this as ‘a realistic play, but not a naturalistic play’ and this is very much in line with Anderson’s thoughts on If….
Cast and Crew:
[Country: UK. Production Company: Memorial Enterprises. Director: Lindsay Anderson. Screenwriters: David Sherwin and Anderson from script ‘Crusaders’ by Sherwin and John Howlett. Cinematographer: Miroslav Ondricek. Music: Marc Wilkinson. Editor: David Gladwell. Cast: Malcolm McDowell (Mick Travis), David Wood (Johnny Knightly), Richard Warwick (Wallace), Christine Noonan (The Girl), Rupert Webster (Bobby Phillips), Robert Swann (Rowntree), Hugh Thomas (Denson), Peter Jeffrey (Headmaster), Arthur Lowe (Mr Kemp), Mary MacLeod (Mrs Kemp).]
Anthony Aldgate and Jeffrey Richards, Best of British: Cinema and Society from 1930 to the Present, London and New York, I.B.Tauris, 2002.
Lindsay Anderson, About John Ford, London, Plexus, 1981.
Roy Armes, A Critical History of British Cinema, London, Secker and Warburg, 1978.
Ali Catterall and Simon Wells, Your Face Here: British Cult Movies Since the Sixties, London, Fourth Estate, 2002.
Lester Friedman and Scott Stewart, ‘The Tradition of Independence: An Interview with Lindsay Anderson’ in Wheeler Winston Dixon (ed.), ReViewing British Cinema, 1900–1992, New York, State University of New York, 1994, pp. 165–76.
Jonathan Hacker and David Price, Take 10: Contemporary British Film Directors, New York, Oxford University Press, 1991.
Erik Hedling, Lindsay Anderson: Maverick Film-Maker, London and New York, Cassell, 1998.
Gavin Lambert, Mainly About Lindsay Anderson, London, Faber, 2000. Robert Murphy, Sixties British Cinema, London, BFI, 1992.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.