Even though I had seen Lindsey Anderson’s “If…” some years ago, and it did not make much of an impression on me, it’s so highly regarded in certain parts of the American left, I decided to see if I could “get it” the second time around. I did, but I remain perplexed about its popularity in the United States. “If!” is a very British film. The difficulties I had on my first viewing were mostly about the fact that I’m not British. The 1960s were before my time, and, like most Americans, I have little or no understanding about what goes on at a ruling class British “public school” (that’s “private school” for you Americans).
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 “Rowndtree,” 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.
But perhaps that’s intentional. A British “public school” has traditionally been more than just a place to learn how to read and write. Rather, the great public schools like Eton, Harrow, Winchester, Rugby, and Cheltenham, the real life basis for the school in “If!,” were essentially boot camps for the future military and administrative elite of the British Empire. The culture of bullying that thrived in these places was no accident. It was similar to the culture of bullying you find at army bases, or at fraternities. It’s designed to make young men hard and ruthless, to breed the kind of discipline and camaraderie that allowed England to rule most of the world. “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton” was a cliche among the British ruling class. “The Battle of Gettysburg was won on the playing fields of the Boston Latin School”‘ just sounds ridiculous.
By 1968, of course, the British Empire was no more. The United Kingdom was just another western European democracy with its foreign policy subordinated to that of the United States. To understand “If!” you have to keep in mind that while the reality of the British Empire was a thing of the past, the outward form, the rituals and the ethic of the British ruling class lived on. Indeed, the public school in “If!” is almost an arena of “dual cultural power.” While the senior masters and clergyman are doddery old man who blather away as if they were still living under Queen Victoria and the “whips” maintain a fascistic style of discipline over the first year boys as if they were in the British Army, Travis, played by McDowell, and his friends and fellow rebels Johnny and Wallace line their walls with 8 x 10 photos of Mao, Che, and Lenin. I didn’t see Malcolm X or Ho Chi Minh, but they would have fit in. The heroes, in other words, are left wingers, and the villains conservatives.
That being said, the film’s attitude towards homosexuality might, perhaps, confuse some Americans. Homosexuality, in “If!” does not follow the same narrative as it does in the United States. Gay men aren’t the victims. Rather, they’re the oppressors. The first year boys are constantly ogled by the leering 20-something “whips.” The climatic scene where Rowntree flogs Travis, an excruciating few minutes where McDowell is made to drop his pants, and place his arms across railing while the sneering “whip” makes pass after pass with a heavy wooden stick against his exposed buttocks, is far more intense than any of the prison rapes in The Shawshank Redemption.
What’s more, Travis is the hero at least partly because he’s clearly heterosexual. His friend “Wallace” has an affair with a first year boy named Bobby Philips, but boys don’t interest Travis. In one of the most liberating, and visually beautiful scenes in “If!,” Travis and his friends steal a motorcycle, and drive to a local coffee shop. There the waitress, “the girl,” a sultry dark haired beauty played by Christine Noonan, asks if they like their coffee “white or black.” Travis tells her “black” (we’re clearly supposed to think he’s cool because he prefers black over white) then grabs her, pulls her across the counter, and sticks his tongue down her throat. Far from being offended, she pulls him into a dance, where he fantasizes that they’re having a nude wrestling match, accompanies him on a ride on the stolen motorcycle, and later joins the him and the rebels in their armed rebellion.
While some critics have spoken about the surrealistic armed rebellion that closes “If!” as a warning against the kind of mass school shooting that regularly takes place in the United States, I think that’s stretching it. Travis and his friends aren’t engaged in indiscriminate mass murder, but, rather, in assassination. “A single bullet,” Travis opines early in the film, can change history. But mostly its just style over substance, an excuse to get an automatic rifle in the hands of “the girl,” an opportunity to show McDowell as a posh British Che Guevera. “If!” was an early star turn for McDowell, the inspiration for Kubrick Clock Work Orange. There’s very little blood and guts. Mostly it’s just a fireworks show, the aesthetic not a critique, or glorification, of Columbine or the Sandy Hook massacre, but a display of third world radical chic, similar to what my Maoist Facebook friends do when they post photos of sexy female guerillas from Nepal.
In the end, I suppose I’d recommend that you give “If!” a look. The main problem I had with the film is purely idiosyncratic. I loath Malcolm McDowell. As such, it was very difficult for me to get involved in a film that glorifies him as a sexy new left rebel. Your mileage may vary. I suppose that his look, the thick lips, the heavy brow, the swaggering manner appeals more to the British than it does to Americans. McDowell’s hedonistic individualism is the negation of the long tradition of ruling class, imperial austerity. McDowell’s Travis is a kind of Mick Jagger or Keith Richards, a white man who’s assimilated enough black culture to make him a “bad boy.” For me it just fell flat.
I think there’s also a weakness to the film that goes beyond my dislike of Malcolm McDowell. If you’re going involve the film goer in an armed rebellion, you need to build up a credible villain. Rowntree, who symbolically rapes Travis isn’t the target. That “well placed bullet” winds up being scatter shot fire against a faceless group of visiting dignitaries. An old general, who makes a ridiculous speech about patriotism and imperial honor is more of a target for mockery than gunfire. The final shot “the girl” fires kills a theretofore rather bland headmaster, not one of the “whips.” The satisfaction of revenge, the catharsis that would come from an genuinely apocalyptic bloodbath is denied us, and we’re left feeling unsatisfied, the 1960s radical chic so badly dated it just leaves us scratching our heads.
I would, nevertheless, like to see an American remake of “If!.” While Americans often ruin great European films by remaking them, I think as far as guns go, we could probably improve upon the original. So, Quentin Tarantino, are you listening? Make a movie about Phillips Exeter or St. Albans. Put some guns in the hands of some colorful malcontents and let’s see the fictional slaughter of some of the children of the 1%.