Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding. ~Proverbs 4:7
This film opens with the aforementioned quote. Set in a public boarding school in the United Kingdom, If…. follows a group of young miscreants intent on fighting the status quo against both the corrupt upperclassmen and the school administration.
Early scenes establish the mood of the film and the school’s many traditions. Mick (Malcolm McDowell), Wallace (Richard Warwick), and Johnny (David Wood), are the three principal characters, as they return for another term of school, this time in the lower sixth form (equivalent to their junior year of high school). The upper sixth formers (equivalent to seniors) are known as the “Whips,” and greatly enjoy their emphatic dominance over the younger boys. They’re also shown to suck up to their housemaster, Mr. Kemp (Arthur Lowe), in order to assert themselves more and gain favor with the school authorities, as well as enforcing discipline on the younger boys.
Mick and Johnny play fast and loose with the rules, growing out their hair, drinking hard liquor and smoking secretly, and plastering the walls of their room with pin-up models and politically-motivated cutouts. One day, Mick and Johnny run off campus, steal a motorcycle, and encounter a beautiful girl (Christine Noonan) at a local coffee shop, where Mick has a surreal fantasy about sleeping with her. Meanwhile, Wallace develops a crush on a younger boy named Bobby. The three boys’ daring behavior causes more and more clashes with the Whips, culminating in Johnny and Mick’s brutal caning in the school gymnasium. The Whips seem to have it in for Mick even more than Johnny, and the tension is palpable. However, in line with school tradition, Mick thanks the Whips for the discipline and shakes their hands after the caning. The three boys have had enough. They embark on a daring mission to take down the system and revolt against their would-be masters. Mick stands shoulder-to-shoulder with his friends and his girl, willing to do whatever it takes to assert himself as more than a pawn in the school’s game.
This film is very strange and often surreal, mixing fantasy and reality as well as black-and-white versus color. It was filmed at Cheltenham College in Gloucestershire, where my father, Saami, attended. Therefore, for me, this is a special film, partially because I can picture my dad in that type of an environment.
Originally titled Crusaders, If…. was the brainchild of writer David Sherwin, who wrote the film in 1960 based on his experiences at Tonbridge School in Kent. He and co-writer John Howlett took the script to Seth Holt, a young director who would later become famous in the UK for Taste of Fear (1961) and The Nanny (1965). Holt, inexperienced at the time, declined to direct the project. Nicholas Ray, Sherwin’s boyhood hero who had directed Rebel Without a Cause (1955), was also interested, but health issues ultimately prevented him from taking part in the film that became If…. .
When Sherwin met with Lindsay Anderson (who was recommended by Holt), he felt very confident in the direction of the script. Anderson, an alumnus of Cheltenham, approached the school — and then-headmaster David Ashcroft — to shoot the film. The crew also shot additional scenes at Aldenham School in Hertfordshire. Filming on a small budget, Anderson used actual students as extras and paid out-of-pocket for rental and facility fees.
If…. also marks the film debut of Malcolm McDowell, who was 25 years old when the film was released. McDowell, who later became notorious for a similar role in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, instantly made an impression on director Lindsay Anderson, and they later worked together on numerous projects. Both Anderson and McDowell remained close friends until Anderson’s death in August 1994.
If…. is a crazy, surreal, and significantly controversial film that is a damning social commentary. Considering the simmering tension and outright violence that was happening in the western world in the late 60s, this film was beyond relevant. If…. faced serious censorship due to its subversive, rebellious themes. Released around the time of the student riots in Paris and the Martin Luther King assassination, this was a difficult time to push buttons and incite uproar, especially on film. In addition to the undercurrent and subtext of anarchy and violence, there is some brief nudity towards the end of the film. Anderson, long considered a counter-cultural filmmaker, never blinked, and the film racked up major acclaim despite the controversy surrounding it. It ended up winning the Palme d’Or at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival, and currently holds a 97% rating at Rotten Tomatoes. In 2004, If…. was voted the 16th-greatest British film of all time by Total Film magazine.
Directed by Lindsay Anderson
Produced by Lindsay Anderson and Michael Medwin
Screenplay by David Sherwin and John Howlett
Starring Malcolm McDowell, David Wood, Richard Warwick, Rupert Webster, Christine Noonan, Robert Swann, Hugh Thomas, Peter Sproule, Michael Cadman, Arthur Lowe, Mary MacLeod, Anthony Nicholls, Robin Askwith, and Peter Jeffrey