If ....:The Criterion Collection
Your basic British boarding school offers the sort of self-contained microcosm that screenwriters adore. All of the basic elements of society are in place, from the ranks of privilege and class to the abuse of power by the upper levels of grade-based hierarchy, offering an ideal environment in which to set anything from a romantic comedy to a heartfelt coming-of-age picture. But in these post-Columbine days, there's a new level of discomfort that arises when watching films in which bullies enact physical and psychological damage on their less confident peers you can only push an already angst-ridden teen so far, after all, and sometimes when they break, they break in astoundingly violent ways. Lindsay Anderson's intention with his 1968 film If .... was to use the English public school as a metaphor, presenting the brutality, cruelty and inequities of life in the school's College House as an analog for the larger oppression of society during that particularly turbulent time in history. Discussing his movie years later, Anderson said, "If it was anarchistic, it's because I'm anarchistic," and claimed that the picture was never meant to reflect the student uprisings that were on the increase at the time. Instead, he wanted to examine what screenwriter Michael Medwin called the "innate quest for liberty," and the natural response to totalitarian authority. Mixing naturalistic elements with moments of surreal fantasy, Anderson and Sherwin's picture received radically mixed reviews on its release, with detractors calling it humorless, ugly, and a mockery of British culture, while other critics applauded the film's emotional truth and dark comedy. If .... won the Palme d'Or at Cannes (despite a great deal of critical outrage over its selection as a British entry to the film festival), and was nominated for Golden Globe and BAFTA awards. It also launched the film career of 25-year-old Malcolm McDowell, whose audacious, raw performance eerily presages A Clockwork Orange's Alex, whose far more embittered world view could have been created by experiences like those of McDowell's If .... anti-hero.
The events that Sherwin committed to his screenplay (originally titled "Crusaders") were based on his own vivid memories of public school. In an interview at the time of the film's release, he said, "All was straight from my school. The horror of the beating. I can still smell the bleach they used to clean the concrete floors and the lino in my schoolhouse, the biggest and the most horrible in Tonbridge." Sherwin based his main character, Mick Travis (McDowell) on a schoolmate, and McDowell has said that Travis was a "braver" version of himself - an iconoclast and intellectual rebel, Travis and his two best mates, Wallace (Richard Warwick) and Johnny (David Wood) are derminedly non-conformist in an atmosphere that demands constant conformity. The school's codes of conduct are enforced by senior boys called "Whips," prefects who hold special privileges like using underclassmen as "Scums" who must tend to their laundry, run their errands and serve them tea. The Whips, led by the sadistic Rowntree (Robert Swann) repeatedly punish the three "troublemakers," first with the fairly benign punishment of two-minute, ice-cold showers, and then with vicious beatings not because the boys have done anything wrong, but because of their attitude. Of the three, Travis takes the harshest punishments and, when he discovers a long-forgotten cache of weapons in the school's basement, he and his friends have the opportunity to make their nihilistic fantasies a reality.
As dark as the subject matter is, Anderson brings a surprising amount of sweetness and joy to the film, as well. A fencing session in the gym allows the three friends to playact as swashbucklers, cavorting until an unintentional minor injury causes Travis to exclaim in wonder, "Look ... real blood!" First love enters the picture with the Whips' young servant Bobby Phillips (Rupert Webster) falls for handsome, athletic Wallace, and an erotic encounter in a roadside café brings a beautiful and mysterious girl (Christine Noonan) into Travis' life or, possibly, just into his vivid imagination. Anderson, an accomplished stage and documentary director prior to this first film, mixes color with black-and-white footage, and adds increasingly surreal elements to the story as the plot picks up pace, and the picture's conclusion (an homage to Jean Vigo's 1933 boarding school classic Zéro de Conduite) is as shocking as it is inevitable.
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Criterion's high definition digital transfer, presented in the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, is superb, created from a 35mm interpositive source print and digitally cleaned up so as to be absolutely pristine. The remastered Dolby Digital monaural sound is equally impressive. The two-disc release offers the film on Disc One plus a commentary track by critic David Robinson and McDowell, which is by turns dust-dry (Robinson) and wickedly funny (McDowell). Disc Two offers a 2003 episode from the BBC series "Cast and Crew" (42 min.) featuring Anderson and McDowell (in previously taped interviews), Sherwin, Stephen Frears (who served as Anderson's assistant), DP Miroslav Ondricek, producer Michael Medwin and assistant director/editor Ian Rackoff - their reminiscences are funny, smart and informative. Also on board is a new interview with actor Graham Crowden (14 min.) a frequent collaborator of Anderson's who played the history master in If .... plus the Anderson's documentary Thursday's Children (1954), about a school for deaf children, narrated by Richard Burton (22 min.)