Early in 1968, whilst France and America were in the grip of different youth riots, counter-culture director Lindsay Anderson made his brilliant rebellious film IF in England. Set in a fictional boys’ public school, it’s a partly dream-based attack on societal institutions, traditions and imperialism and caught the anti-establishment themes not only of the period but timelessly for every generation that follows.
‘College School’ here is used as a microcosm of British and western society as a whole, serving the same role of a complacent training ground for obedient cogs in the machine of the adult world in the film as public schools do in real life. Here the set-up though is not to sentimentalise them favourably like in GOODBYE MR CHIPS, but to brand them as outmoded breeding grounds of discontent within their aged fabric. There are boys of all ages from pre-pubescent to circa eighteen, each level having its own restrictions and privileges as you earn your way up through seniority of age and merit. The very youngest are treated as servants to their elders, barked at to run at speed through the corridors to perform their duties of meal-fetching and toilet-seat warming among other indignities. This is an accepted rite-of-passsage, tolerable only because later you will pass on the same serfdom role to your own juniors. This is just one of the traditions Anderson keenly observes in the screenplay based upon David Shewin’s own experience at Tonbridge School.
This is an enclosed world of ‘rugger’, cold showers and endless rules punishable by beatings for infractions. The casting and performances are excellent at clearly showing how this world shapes the next generation of, for example, cabinet ministers and civil servants’ behaviours, frames of reference and resentments. Robert Swann is terrific as Rowntree, the imperious Head Prefect of the sixth form. When he pontificates about the mission statement of “this house” he may just as easily be speaking about the House of Commons. Also, Hugh Thomas’s Denson is an effectively sour prefect counterpoint, seemingly loathing everything and everyone including Rowntree’s “homosexual flirtation – so adolescent”, he snorts.
The nucleus of the cast is made up of three winning portrayals. Richard Warwick is a decent, warm-hearted and athletic Wallace, concealing a discreet, tasteful homo-erotic relationship with Philips (Rubert Webster). David Wood is an affable and clubbable Johnny.
Together they support the firebrand of the ‘Crusaders’ as they are known, Michael McDowall, in a spell-binding performance that would make him a name and bring him to the attention of Stanley Kubrick to play the perfect Alex in CLOCKWORK ORANGE. He is Mick Travis, a radical schoolboy idealist possessed by a death complex and a fascination for untamed revolutionary zeal in all its forms. His walls are full of magazine cut-outs of gun-toting African freedom-fighters and he regularly plays the ‘Missa Luba’, the Congolese re-setting of the Latin Mass. For him, Africa seems to represent a primal vision of man and armed insurrection. When he and Johnny bike it to the café in the second half, it’s no coincidence that Mick’s tussle with the sexy waitress is to the sound of tigers fighting. There is a lovely touch when as Mick goes to put the Missa Luba on the jukebox (a highly unlikely selection in a transport caff!), Johnny genially places Mick’s saucer over his cup to keep it warm, knowing his friend will be lost, transported by the reverie of far-off exotic revolution. Mick dreams of a rebellion, hinting at the film’s climax: “War is the last possible creative act”.
Mick also has the soul of a romantic poet; when his pals lust over a nude model’s photo, he declaims that the only thing to do with a girl like her is to “Walk naked into the sea together, make love once…then die”. He also elegantly dismisses Rowntree’s tyranny by referring to the bullying from his “..frigid fingers for the rest of your frigid life”
Mick invites trouble in school, his insouciant attitude continually conflicting with the established order designed to crush individuality, to inculcate a team spirit at all costs. Everywhere, the system seeks to reinforce the need for loyalty and tradition, all staff having drunk the communal Koolaid of conformity. Even Matron on the sidelines at the rugby match hollers: “Fight fight fight college!”. Mick, however, constantly provokes the rigid, preposterous hierarchy, deriding the badges of petty authority conferred on the ruling year above him: “You mean that bit of wool on your tit?” he scoffs at Denson. Inevitably, a sound thrashing is given to him in the gym. McDowell wonderfully brasses it out to begin with, opening the doors with a grand sweep before entering. After a series of whips to the arse accompanied by absurdly long run-ups by Rowntree, the scene is accorded a strangely touching ending; Rowntree extends his hand in the quaintly formal gentleman’s hand-shake. Mick takes it, quietly shattered and tear-streaked. There is no heroic gesture of defiance here - he is cowed containment – for now.
It’s not only Mick that seethes with repressed emotion. Amongst glimpses of the private lives of the staff, we see Mrs Kemp, wife of the Housemaster, whose sexual frustration is almost palpably boiling over. When the boys are out on military training exercises, she wanders dreamily through their bathroom stark naked, savouring the wickedness of private abandonment while she can. Her husband (Arthur Lowe, in a rare and welcome woolly and kindly part) has a penchant for singing dull hymns in his pyjamas before bed while she accompanies him on a flute. . No wonder she has flights of erotic fantasy.
The rest of the school staff are superb character portrayals of smug authority and cruel/benevolent dictatorship. Graham Crowden is a delightfully breezy history master, cycling into the classroom singing ‘To Be a Pilgrim’, throwing open the classroom windows, tossing the boys’ essays to them like a dismissive postman then immediately sitting back and orating forth on auto-pilot with his hands behind his head. He is probably the only affectionately detailed teacher in the place. The most disturbingly well-played one is Geoffrey Chater as the Chaplain, a man of largely religiously-suppressed sadistic urges who nevertheless indiscriminately smacks boys about the head and rummages under Jute’s blazer to adjust his tie. (At least I think that’s what he was doing. Even after re-winding it, disconcertingly I still wasn’t sure…).
Ultimately, after a blood oath between the Crusaders, “Death to the oppressor!”, there is a blistering climactic siege with the three friends and Philips massacring all and sundry with machine-gun fire from the rooftops on Founder’s Day. The possibility that this is all a dream sequence is hinted at in an earlier surreal scene of the non-fatal shooting of one of the masters by Mick during military manoeuvres. The master is shown later alive and well rising up out of a drawer in the Headmaster’s study. The stylised shoot-out involving seemingly everyone suggests it is part of Mick’s fantasy insurrection daydreams, but whether or not it is reality doesn’t actually matter. It happens for us and him and is a great rousing finale to a thought-provoking and exciting anti-establishment crowd-pleaser.
Structurally, it’s worth mentioning the interesting segmentation of the film into titled chapters (for me this gives a feeling of momentum towards the final battle) and also the use of black and white for certain scenes, albeit without clear reasons why. Anderson was inspired in the style and themes for his film by Jean Vigo’s 1933 French classic ZERO DE CONDUITE (ZERO FOR CONDUCT).
IF spawned two follow-ons rather than sequels teaming up Lindsay Anderson and Malcolm McDowell again, in 1973 with O LUCKY MAN! and BRITANNIA HOSPITAL (1982) the first of which I’ll also cover here in the blog. The former in particular centres once again around the further adventures of Mick Travis into adulthood but this is the only real connection between the three films.