Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Movie Review: If....

If...was avant-garde director Lindsay Anderson's damning indictment of the British public school system. In Britain, "public" school actually connotes elite, expensive education which is both decidedly exclusive and exceedingly private. Indeed the public school is designed to teach and train the upper echelon of British society for forthcoming roles as Members of Parliament, top military leaders, and other highly visible positions of distinction with the nation itself. Anderson himself was quite familiar with this highly regimented system of boarding schools for the upper crust, as he himself spent several miserable years at college, the very same college, in fact, where most of the film is shot. His repulsion towards the brutality, inhumanity, and strict discipline of his college year stayed with him during his adult life. As such, If.... turns a negative eye towards everyone and everything associated with it: sadistic masters who punish students with both physical and emotional abuse, spiteful classmates whose goal in life seems to be to shame and humiliate their peers, a closeted homosexual reverend who advocates empty religious platitudes no one seems to take seriously, nor live up to in reality, and the ever present haughty student leaders, the whips, who dole out corporal punishment towards all those who resist. After watching nearly two hours of spleen and bile, one wonders if anything in the whole sordid mess is worth saving.

After watching If.... I myself had a similar visceral response. As I viewed the film, I remembered rather painfully what it was like to be a young adolescent male. Everything came back to me---the uniform teasing, the one boy specifically targeted by all the rest for intense bullying, the embarrassingly crude banter regarding the opposite sex and the act of fornication, the leaden drudgery of routine, and the crushing indignity which came with the realization that the supposed adults in charge were always either blissfully unaware of the abuses or totally apathetic towards what was going on under their watch. Many of the adults which comprise the faculty and staff of the school are immobilized by boredom, living lives years behind the times, little more than impotent and passionless. Thus rebellion would seem to be inevitable. So it is that a gang of three nonconformist older boys take it upon themselves to fight back. In contrast with most of the other character who make up the establishment of the public school, the rebels who openly resist these injustices are given a slightly sympathetic portrayal; yet they still appear by turns slightly naive and severely immature. This close-knit band of openly defiant crusaders were after all meant to be no older than high school age, although some of the actors were actually in their early twenties at the time of filming.

The shocking end of the film often gets the most attention. I would, however, caution viewers not to take the dramatic conclusion too literally. If.... shows us a few surrealistic sequences beforehand to prepare us, the audience, for the infamous and highly controversial last ten minutes. Anderson's cinematic aim, after all, was to assert that the system itself was fundamentally flawed and as such should be destroyed, not reformed. Still, while he at times claimed to be an anarchist bent on total destruction without showing even a hint of mercy, for all his revolutionary zeal, there were elements of the public school for which he clearly retained a fondness. The quirky history master, is one good example of this. This character, who rides a bicycle directly into the classroom and then offhandedly and glibly tosses graded essays into the air, is itself an affectionate portrayal of an actual teacher who taught the director back in his schoolboy days. However, it should also be noted that this scene is one of the few lighthearted passages in an otherwise grim feature film.

While If.... has dated slightly over the years, it was deliberately constructed in such a way as to be immune from the passage of time. No references to current events, nor any examples of the music of the late 1960s is included, elements which would have immediately put a heavy time stamp upon the film. Though the clothing styles, eyeglasses, and hairdos have dated a bit in forty years, the events themselves as presented in the picture could still occur today. Its setting, a country even to the present day justifiably proud of its esteemable tradition and still strongly inclined to disregard reform in place of the old tried-and-true methods insists no less. Still, this pronounced foolish consistency also serves as Anderson's extended metaphor for the state of the United Kingdom at the time of shooting. Ruinous economic policy had reduced the country to a shadow of its former self. Stuck in the past, Great Britain was utterly unprepared to face the challenges of the future. Britons have since described that in those times it felt as though the entire country was suffering collectively from a nervous breakdown. Anderson's radical proposal: in order to revive the nation's fortunes, the whole of it needed to be pulled down and summarily destroyed brick by brick. That remains a shockingly controversial notion even today.


Batocchio said...

It's a very interesting, daring film. It's been several years since I saw it. Going through most of the era, huh?

Bob Miles said...

"If" was not to be taken as seriously as you have taken it. It was sheer fantasy, a bit of fun; nothing more.
And your description of Public Schools is completely wrong, too.
They were as you say they were -- until about the early 1940s; then they changed, and they changed even more since then.

Comrade Kevin said...


I probably should have made it more clear that the movie's version of public school was dated at the time of its release. Anderson's experiences in a public school happened well before the late 1960s. He attended college in the 1930's, but chose to set If.... in some dubious time neither the present nor the past.