*. It’s of some significance, I think, that Malcolm McDowell begins his commentary on the O Lucky Man! DVD by saying that the character of Mick Travis in this film has no relation at all to the Mick Travis in If …. (or, one presumes, Britannia Hospital). There were three Mick Travis movies, sometimes referred to as a trilogy because all three were directed by Lindsay Anderson and starred Malcolm McDowell as Mick. But according to McDowell here, the only reason they went with the name Mick Travis in this movie is because they couldn’t think of anything else to call the main character.
*. This is more than a bit glib, but I think it’s a good entry to O Lucky Man! This Mick Travis is almost the exact opposite of the boarding school Mick. Revolution never enters the “lucky” Mick’s mind. He’s ambitious not to overthrow the system but to make it to the top. Anderson wanted McDowell to read Voltaire’s Candide in preparation for playing the part, which in a way is strange because Candide doesn’t have much of a character of his own. He’s just a blank who wanders about, experiencing all the horrors of his world and having his idealistic views tempered by experience.
*. Mick is even less than this, in that he only seems to go with the flow. He can be a capitalist, or he can be a sort of holy fool. McDowell saw him as someone who was “forever searching, forever reaching for something,” but what? Nobody involved seemed to know. From beginning to end he’s just there to slip into different roles, play different parts. But he has no personal investment in any of them. His smile isn’t sincere, it’s just vacant. Even the posh girl he meets (Helen Mirren) finds him “hopelessly conventional.”
*. The movie can get away with this because it isn’t about Mick. Not at all. It’s a “condition of England” movie, or as is said on the commentary, a film about the “nervous breakdown of the United Kingdom.” As such it lines up all the usual targets of Britain’s class system: politicians (local and national), the church, the police, the scientific establishment, the military, the courts, and big business. Anyone in a position of authority is presented as being moronic, cruel, insane, or some combination of all three. At your first sight of the judge you know he’s the wearing fancy underwear under his judicial robes and is being flogged in his chambers. He’s the same type Monty Python made fun of and Pink Floyd wrote songs about. It’s a British thing.
*. The blend of realism and fantasy works surprisingly well. For the most part the cast don’t overplay their roles, despite all the potential to do so. And many points in the script are grounded in real experiences. McDowell’s brief stint as a coffee salesman, for example. Or his fellow boarder who was a tailor giving him a gold suit. Apparently that really happened. And the whole incident of the car accident, down to the radio coming on inexplicably. This is something that screenwriter David Sherwin says happened to him.
*. The movie needs this grounding because so many of the scenarios spin off the rails into craziness. The goat-man (or whatever it is) being only the most bizarre example. But does such trippiness undercut the political message by allowing us to not take it seriously? Probably. But then the politics are so heavy-handed that they need some undercutting to make the film watchable for three hours.
*. Another good move is employing various leitmotifs into the story so as to hold it together a bit better. The plot has no structure, with Mick only wandering from one situation to the next and frequent cuts to black emphasizing the lack of continuity. So in place of narrative flow there’s a musical chorus and recurring images like gold. The business of Mick’s smile also makes a nice way of tying the end up with the beginning.
*. The ending though is also a bit surprising. This is not Candide retiring to his garden, a sadder and a wiser man. Instead, Mick has lost his sincerity and authenticity, becoming a mere actor. So for all the joy of the dance this is about as cynical as it gets. I wonder if that’s a cynicism directed at the movie business specifically though. Sort of like Altman’s invocation of the happy ending in The Player. Either way, Mick’s luck will continue to bounce up and down like those balloons. It’s a less moralistic work in this way than Voltaire. Candide at least comes to a point of rest. For Mick, however, life is a lottery that makes no sense at all. He is closer to being our contemporary.