While Lindsay Anderson’s film “If….”, the story of a violent rebellion at a fictional English boarding school, is usually considered a classic of the 1960s counterculture, it’s always left me feeling cold. As I wrote last year, I’m not English. I’ve never been to a “public” (that is private) school, and I’ve always hated Malcolm McDowell. I also found the use of professional actors in their 20s to play teenage boys confusing.
“Another difficulty is the decision the director made to cast actors in their mid-20s as public school “boys.’” The lead, Malcolm McDowell, was born in 1943. That made him 25 when they filmed “If!.” Christine Noonan, “the girl,” was born in 1945. That made her 23. Since the premise of the film is a rebellion by the juniors against the “whips,” upper sixth form boys who are given the power to discipline the younger students in lieu of the school’s faculty members, that adds yet another level of complexity. Robert Swan, who plays “Rowntree,” McDowell’s nemesis, was only 23 at the time of the film, but he’s got thinning hair and looks positively middle-aged. It’s easy to go through the whole film just assuming “the whips” are teachers.”
If…. is an homage and a loose remake of Zero for Conduct, a film by the great French director Jean Vigo.
Vigo,who died at the age of 29 after directing the classic film L’Atalante, was the son of the French anarchist Miguel Almereyda. Almereyda, a well-known opponent of French militarism, was imprisoned twice, once in 1908, for writing in favor of the mutiny at Narbonne, and the second time in 1917. Accused of treason – of taking payments from the German government – he was later found dead in his cell, strangled with his own bootlaces. The official cause of death was suicide.
Since Jean Vigo and his parents had to spend most of the First World War on the run, the stress of his childhood probably contributed to his early death. Nevertheless, while Zero for Conduct, which was banned in France for 13 years, was inspired by Vigo’s early years of being shuttled from boarding school to boarding school, living under assumed name, always one step ahead of his father’s reputation, it is not an angry, or a hopeless film. Quite the contrary, Zero for Conduct, like If…., is a celebration of youthful rebellion against tyranny. The difference between the two films, however, is that while If… is violent and heavy-handed, Zero for Conduct is light and playful. If…. is a political attack on the authoritarianism of the English ruling class. Zero for Conduct, on the other hand, while also a political film, goes deeper. It’s an assertion of spontaneity against the rigid mentality of bourgeois civilization, of play against work, a gesture of rebellion against the very idea of becoming an adult.
After having watched Zero for Conduct, I believe that Lindsay Anderson intentionally cast adult actors in his remake. The world is a much darker place than even Jean Vigo realized, Anderson is saying. Vigo’s playful teenage rebels become, in Anderson’s film, violent young adults. The British Empire has colonized, not only India, but childhood itself. If….’s Rowntree, a sneering middle-aged adult in the body of a 23-year-old teenager, is an example of how imperialism not only changes borders, but human nature. There can be no playful assertion of childhood against maturity because the class-bound English system of education has preempted it. The teachers in Zero for Conduct are either benign or ineffectual. The headmaster in If… is a distant old man, but he’s anything but ineffectual since he’s successfully delegated his authority to the older boys, who have become, by consequence, swaggering bullies, leering pedophiles, or effete snobs. The “deatheaters” (to use a term currently popular on social media) have reached their grubby fingers into the dreams of boyhood and strangled the poetic imagination in its cradle.
Malcolm McDowell’s Travis, therefore, and Christine Noonan’s The Girl, therefore, are not only violent rebels against the authoritarian class-system, they are a warning of what kind of monsters even the diminished British Empire can produce. Where Jean Vigo’s prep school rebels throw fruit, Anderson’s young adults fire machine guns and throw grenades. Indeed, while If… was filmed in 1968, Lindsey Anderson effectively predicted the Columbine and Sandy Hook Massacres. If the childlike instinct of play is not allowed to grow and flourish, it can, in extreme cases, come back in its demonic form, as the young adult urge to commit mass murder. Anderson, who probably saw McDowell’s Travis as a hero and a rebel, did not quite realize how far ahead of his time he was. That would take Stanley Kubrick, who would cast Malcolm McDowell, only two years later, as the young fascist Alex in his nightmarish A Clockwork Orange.