Financed by Paramount Pictures and then nearly shelved when executives saw its bold ending involving machine guns, If…. brought controversy and criticism to director Lindsay Anderson (This Sporting Life) and made an instant star of pouty young Malcolm McDowell, who shines in the role of Mick Travis, a rebellious senior student at a posh English public school (a private school in America). In hindsight, it’s remarkable that this 1968 tale of school brutality isn’t more notorious than it is.
The boarding school in If…. is a place that’s expected to produce Great Britain’s next generation of leaders in business, industry, politics and the arts. The hierarchy has been the same for the past 500 years: seniors treat juniors as “scum” while the seniors are ruled with an iron fist by a handpicked group of their own peers called “whips” who happily enforce the school´s strict regulations. Students are watched constantly to see that they adhere to the dress code, keep their hair the proper length, and maintain proper hygiene. Failure to comply leads to harsh punishments.
Making his entrance for the new term with a black hat and pulled-up scarf (hiding a forbidden mustache), Mick has spent the summer absorbing London’s burgeoning counter-culture. He peers into a mirror, slowly unraveling the scarf. He stares at himself for a moment, his wild eyes flaring, and then grabs a razor to erase his rebellion for the time being. Mick quickly meets up with Johnny (David Wood) and Wallace (Richard Warwick). Friends to the end, they’ll help each other navigate the hazards of senior year.
Despite all the strict rules, the boys at the school are attracted to everything forbidden. In their study room, Mick and the others tack up pictures of fighting men in threatening poses while hiding their skin mags out of sight. They drink and th smoke, and occasionally they sneak off the grounds to test the boundaries even further. Predictably, the boys aren’t the only ones to break the rules. The ruling element does it whenever it suits them, even going so far as to try to tempt Bobby (Rupert Webster), a boy who serves as their butler, into performing other services for them.
Aside from a couple brief acts of kindness, If… is devoid of any real warmth. Mick accuses the head of the Whips, the smug Rowntree (Robert Swann), of being frigid, and when the opportunity presents itself, Rowntree subjects Mick to a sadistic act of anger which will serve as a reminder that hat he and his kind are destined to be exploited.
Naturally, it’s not long before Mick and his friends have had enough. Ditching a rugby match and taking a joyride on a stolen motorcycle, Mick and Johnny finally get a taste of the freedom they long for. Riding down a country highway, they stop at a roadside café, where they meet “The Girl” (Christine Noonan). Acting with the same sense of entitlement as those in charge at school, Mick attempts to kiss her. Not amused, “The Girl” lashed out at him. By standing up to him, she has unleashed something in Mick that eventually allows him to realize it’s not man’s natural instinct to take orders.
It’s fitting that this is one of the many scenes in If…. that Lindsay Anderson decided to shoot in black-and-white. Whenever the image shifts to black-and-white, the whole mood shifts with it; somehow there’s a heightened sense of anger an disillusionment when the color is drained out of a scene.
The final chapter of If…. takes place during one of the school’s pompous ceremonies. Parents have gathered in the chapel with the teachers and students to hear the praises of the institution sung by an aging general who refuses to loosen his grip on tradition. the Priests wear their most ostentatious costumes, and another member of the staff dresses in a full suit of armor. Blind to the dissent brewing all around, the school officials run right into the ambush.
Mick and his buddies smoke out the attendees and take potshots at the scattering crowd from the rooftop. By they point, the film has blended fantasy and reality so well, it’s often difficult to tell whether the last scene “really” happens, or it’s simply a bit of fantasy fulfillment on the part of the boys.
Given what we’ve been watching, the violence in the final scene isn’t a surprise. They’re finally able to exhale after getting back at the tormentors. Smartly, Lindsay Anderson doesn’t go for a nice tidy ending. Instead, he stops the climax in mid-action, cutting to a black screen and the title printed in blood red letters. The viewers are left to decide how things are resolved.
Presented in aspect ratio of 1.66:1, this 1080p transfer is absolutely beautiful. The films colors are bright and vibrant, as well as being free of any bleeding issues. The light macroblocking from Criterion’s SDVD release of If…. is nowhere to be found and detail and image quality are both superb. It should also be said that blacks are inky and whites are appropriately bright, but not over the top. Criterion has delivered another stellar transfer.
The audio track is a English LPCM 1.0. While the track isn’t particularly dynamic, the dialogue is clean and easy to follow. The music score by Marc Wilkinson benefits from the loseless treatment, but it doesn’t really play a key role in the story. As one might expect from criterion, any audio distortions, hisses, crackles and pops have been removed.
English SDH subtitles are available.
We get the following special features:
- Cast and Crew – in this episode of Cast and Crew, a television series produced by BBC Scotland, director’s assistant Stephen Frears, producer Michael Medwin, assistant editor Ian Rakoff, cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek, and screenwriter David Sherwin discuss Lindsay Anderson and his legacy, If…, its production history, and its status as one of the greatest British films ever made. Excerpts from a video interview with Malcolm McDowell are also included. (43 min, 1080i).
- Graham Crowden – a video interview with actor Graham Crowden, who had a long working relationship with director Lindsay Anderson. The actor recalls his work on If…. and the character he played, the History Master. The interview was recorded in London in 2007. (15 min, 1080i).
- Thursday’s Children – a documentary film about a school for deaf children narrated by Richard Burton and directed by Lindsay Anderson and Guy Brenton. In 1955, the film won Academy Award for Best Short Documentary. B&W. (23 min, 1080p).
- Commentary – this is the same audio commentary that appears on Criterion’s SDVD release of If….. It features film critic and historian David Robinson and actor Malcolm McDowell. The commentary was recorded in 2007 (with Malcolm McDowell’s contribution taken from an interview conducted in 2002).
- Booklet – an illustrated booklet featuring an essay by critic David Ehrenstein as well as reprinted pieces by David Sherwin and Lindsay Anderson.