if…. (1968)

Review first published by FilmLand Empire

“College is a symbol of many things,” declares the Headmaster (Peter Jeffrey) in Lindsay Anderson’s second feature if…., which transplants motifs and ideas from Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite (1933) to an England swinging between legacy and change in the late Sixties. The boarding school College House is a bastion of tradition, inculcating class values, hierarchical attitudes and the ideology of privilege to its young men, all in the paradoxical service of preparing Britain’s new generation for what the liberal(ish) Headmaster describes as the nation’s current “powerhouse of ideas, experiment, imagination, on everything from pop music to pig breeding, from atom power stations to miniskirts” – or at least of producing an army of obedient cannon fodder for any future war.

There is an obvious contradiction here: how can an antiquated institution, with its stuffy rituals and entrenched corruption, create the sort of modern minds that the country now needs, and what will happen when such minds start challenging the very structures that have engendered them? An answer of sorts comes in the person of ‘degenerate’ Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell, mesmerising in his debut rôle), an intelligent sixth former right at home in the House, yet insolent and antagonistic towards its every rule and convention. “Good God, it’s Guy Fawkes back again!”, comments one boy as Mick makes his first entrance, his face wrapped in a scarf to conceal the forbidden moustache that he has grown during the vacation – and like Fawkes, or like any of the armed rebels whose ‘fantastic’ images decorate his study wall, Mick is the spirit of insurrection made flesh, his every look and gesture designed to destabilise the status quo.

Which is to say that Mick embodies that mood of ‘something happening here‘ that permeated the Sixties. Shot a few months before the student riots in Paris of May 1968, if…. captures the rebelliousness and anti-authoritarianism of the time, while raising troubling questions about where it might all be leading, and what risked being lost. Shot at Cheltenham College (Anderson’s own alma mater) as well as at Aldenham School, if…. realistically depicts the hermetic repressiveness, sexual apartheid and dystopian values of a British Public School – but at the same time the College is, as the Headmaster suggests, a polyvalent symbol for much broader societal concerns, so that Mick’s ultimate act of violent revolt seems aimed not just at the school itself, but at all the cornerstones of the British Establishment. It is significant that the film’s final scene is attended not only by masters and pupils, but also by the boys’ parents (who comprise the previous moneyed generation) as well as by a Bishop, a General, several Lords, and even a ‘Royal Highness’ (unseen, but several times addressed). All these pillars of the community will come under intense fire.

The fly-on-the-wall naturalism of the early sequences is gradually infiltrated and subverted by scenes of increasing surrealism which, along with arbitrary seeming shifts from colour to monochrome, disrupt the film’s own sense of order, leaving us unsure in the end what is real and what is pure schoolboy fantasy. Not that it matters – for as its title suggests, if…. is allegory of a decidedly hypothetical bent, merely speculating on what might be, and so inviting us all to take imaginary sides along the battle-lines that it so vividly draws between suffocating stasis and scattershot movement. After all, College, like any symbol, is ripe for aggressive brick-and-mortar deconstruction.

Anton Bitel