*. One response to watching this film today is that without some experience of the English class system and/or English public boarding schools you’re not going to really understand it. But then the school was always meant to be a metaphor or microcosm, and when all hell breaks loose in the final minutes you realize we might still be in Kansas, or Colorado. That explosion of rage is universal.
*. I’m reminded of the second film version of Golding’s Lord of the Flies (released in 1990), where the stranded schoolboys go from being British to being American military cadets. I think every critic who reviewed that film when it came out made the obvious joke that American schoolkids were already murderous savages so that what happened was no surprise.
*. Fair? Probably not, but we’re talking about national mythologies here and in a global culture they all start to bleed into one another anyway. I mean — or at least one of the things I mean — is that the Girl at the end is clearly Patty Hearst years before she joined the SLA. I do think If …. has a resonance that takes it outside its particular time and place, something that was very much Lindsay Anderson’s aim (note the lack of any contemporary “swinging” music on the soundtrack). But I don’t think it takes us far outside a more basic, almost biological ambit.
*. OK, you’re probably wondering what I’m talking about. Let’s start with the obvious: what is the problem at College House? Repression. The authority figures are all closet (or semi-closeted) cases, taking their sadistic frustrations out on the kids. If you’re starting to hum Pink Floyd’s The Wall about now, you know what that was coming out of.
*. Our animal passions need an outlet, in squirts of blood or sperm (or both). Even the few female characters we meet are snarling beasts of fury beneath their matronly facades.
*. Given this rebellion vs. authority, id vs. superego dichotomy, I wonder if something more could have been done with regard to the most-talked about aspect of the filmmaking: the jumps between colour and black-and-white photography. Apparently the initial decision to go with this arose out of problems they were having filming inside the chapel, but from there it was driven by “intuition, pattern, and convenience,” without any heed to thematic relevance. This is much the way Oliver Stone uses it in movies like JFK and Nixon: to set up a visual rhythm. Malcolm McDowell thought it was totally arbitrary, an aspect of Anderson’s anarchism, while Michael Medwin describes it as “purely economic.” My point is that given the movie’s theme it could very easily have been used in a way that worked in combination with that theme. Or would that have been too obvious?
*. It’s interesting how often what seem to be important creative decisions are brought about almost by accident or through improvisation. The changes in film here are a good example, but another is the striking nude wrestling scene in the roadside diner. According to Malcolm McDowell it was just as a suggestion he made to Anderson, so that McDowell could get to roll around naked with Christine Noonan. And it turned out to be one of the most memorable parts of the film.
*. To bleed, or not to bleed. When Mick gets cut during the duel scene it’s obviously meant to be a turning point. He is amazed at the sight of “real blood,” and later he’ll initiate his chums into the plot by making them blood brothers with cuts on their hands. But in the final battle scene the only blood we see is when the headmaster is shot between the eyes by the Girl. To a contemporary audience, used to lots of exploding squibs or CGI geysers of the red stuff, it all looks pretty silly.
*. I don’t think the absence of blood in this scene was a creative decision, though some people have seen it that way. They point to how the climax is all a fantasy, something that is underlined by one particularly bad or at least noticeable edit where the quad is full of people and then miraculously cleared a second later.
*. But blood would have involved all kinds of problems. For one thing, squib technology was still pretty new. I’ve mentioned before in my commentaries on Night of the Living Dead and Bullitt — both released in 1968, the same year as this film — that both those films claim to have been the first to have used them (which is historically incorrect but still a point worth keeping in mind).
*. There might also have been a problem with censors, whom they had already provoked enough to receive an X rating.
*. And finally there is the matter, again, of economy. The crowd was apparently made up of extras who had been told to wear their Sunday best, so it’s doubtful Anderson could have got them to go along with becoming victims of a bloody massacre.
*. But to return to my original line of thought: what does it all mean?
*. School sucks. Even I’ll sign on to that, and I never had it half this bad. But more than that, what we have here is a familiar burst of ’60s anti-establishment violence. Only here we have to ask what it’s all in aid of.
*. In his Criterion essay, critic David Ehrenstein says that “If …. is about both dreaming and mastering, revolting against the status quo and daring to imagine what it might be like to put something else in its place.” I think this goes too far. What is this “something else”? What sort of new society is being born at the end? Even if the rebel forces never run out of ammunition and manage to kill all the screws, so what? Would this usher in the Age of Aquarius? Free love? Anderson was a self-professed anarchist whose only desire was to tear the whole system down. He didn’t have a model (as some anarchists do) for what was going to take its place.
*. The reason the question is worth asking is because we know what Sixties rebelliousness resulted in: not much. If the story of If …. was about anything, Anderson said, it was about freedom. Can we avoid hearing an Austin Powers “baby!” after that? Is this all that freedom means? A chance to run away with our beautiful lovers?
*. No. Sex is secondary. On the commentary track David Robinson says that in 1968 there was still an air of nobility that attached to revolutionary acts, and that this was the film’s true meaning. “Death to the oppressor” and “liberty” are the rebels’ watchwords. Their targets helpfully come in uniforms: the bishop, the general, the headmaster, the fellow in a suit of armour. By all means get rid of these clowns. But then what?
*. Then nothing. Robinson on the commentary gives the last word to Anderson: “While there are still minds to be moved, imaginations to be stirred, a true film may yet perform its explosive, life-enhancing function. We may yet be revenged.” That final note, I think, is key. Revenge is all.
*. All of which suggests that the ending is more Columbine than revolution. The massacre is a total dead end: a revenge fantasy and not a political act. There is no larger meaning.
*. Revenge is a powerful and dangerous emotional force. It’s always been a favourite of drama, back through Elizabethan days all the way to the plays of the Homeric cycle. We want our stories to give us a sense of seeing ultimate justice being served, of scores being settled, of things being set right. So while it would be nice to see our youthful heroes riding off into the sunset with their girl- and boyfriends, that isn’t what’s important. What’s important is bloody vengeance.
*. I like anger in filmmakers. I think it’s a great fuel for art. This, however, strikes me as something different, as just being mean. Maybe that’s what Kubrick saw in McDowell. For all the idealism and “nobility” of the revolutionaries of the 1960s, it wasn’t a big jump from Mick and his fellow crusaders to Alex and his droogs.