Lindsay Anderson (1923 - 1994), the director of If… , was held by his contemporaries as amongst the greatest of British post-war film makers. Although he only completed eight features for the cinema, between 1957 and 1992 Anderson directed 33 plays for the British stage, from Shakespeare, Gogol and Checkov to contemporaries like Christopher Loguei and David Storeyii. With the latter he would collaborate repeatedly and make his feature film debut, This Sporting Life (1963), which would win its star, Richard Harris, an Oscar nomination.
As well as his work with the theatre, Anderson was a prolific critic, founding the influential film journal, Sequence in 1947 with Gavin Lambertiii and Karel Reisziv. From his writing, which was later to include a fantastic book based on his fractious encounters with John Fordv, there would eventually grow the Free Cinema movement.
Rejecting the stuffy artifice of Ealing’s studio bound comedies and sentimental period pieces, Karel Reisz, Tony Richardsonvi and Lorenza Mazzetti, the members of the Free Cinema, would advocate a proto kitchen-sink approach that would aim for a greater intimacy with it’s subject matter.
Announcing a programme of their films at the National Film Theatre, comprising Anderson’s documentary about Dreamland amusement park, Reisz’s piece on a North London jazz club and Mazzetti’s docudrama about deaf mutes in the then bombed out wasteland of East London, the group’s manifesto promised, “No film can be too personal. The image speaks. Sound amplifies and comments. Size is irrelevant. Perfection is not an aim. An attitude means a style. A style means an attitude.”
With modest budgets scrounged from the BFI Experimental Film Fund, these very British films and documentaries would take their subject matter from quotidian existence even as the rhetoric of their makers showed a kinship with the “dangerously continental” ideas of Cinéma vérité . Just as Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol and Bazin were to do a few years later in Paris with Les Cahiers Du Cinemavii, Anderson’s group used the platform of their magazine to gain the freedom to operate largely outside the commercial constraints of the film industry.
The director would also develop an association with the so called “angry young men”, writers and directors associated with The Royal Court Theatre in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, such as John Osborneviii, Shelagh Delaneyix and Arnold Weskerx and these combinations of influence, documentary, theoretical and theatrical, can all be found in the proto-punk If…, which would win its director the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1969, its Jacobin sneer of youth and revolt heard loud and clear.
If… is a film very much of its time, the political unrest of ’68 was being felt in cities across the world and Anderson’s iconoclastic hymn to rebellion pulled much of its imagery and rhetoric directly from the headlines, even the recurrent musical motif, "Sanctus", from an African style version of the Latin Mass, had been a chart hit in Britain a few years earlier.
The film follows its protagonist, Mick Travis, played by Malcolm McDowell, as he returns to the privileged enclave of an English public school, a semi-militarised zone in which the scions of the ruling class enact absurd rituals of hierarchy and status, enforcing discipline with vicious beatings for minor infractions whilst apparently dismissing routine sexual exploitation, the theft of a motorbike and the mock assassination of the school’s chaplain as high jinks (if deeming them worthy of comment at all).
In many ways Anderson was an unlikely rebel. Born in Bangalore, the son of a Scottish major general and Indian mother, he had a privileged upbringing and education, himself attending Cheltenham College (where If… was to be shot) and later reading Classics and English Literature at Oxford. He was to work as a cryptographer in the final year of World War II and, in an early sign of rebellion, nailed a red flag to the ceiling of the junior officer’s mess on hearing of the Labour Party victory in the election of 1945.
A complex man of many contradictions, Anderson remained fiercely in the closet until his deathxi. Though a staunch socialist he would retain an affection for the institutions his work ruthlessly mocked and something of that ambivalence can be seen in If….
David Sherwin’s screenplay (originally titled The Crusaders) drew on his own schooldays but the style of the film was very much Anderson’s. It’s fractured, almost surrealistic atmosphere owed much to Jean Vigo's somewhat more sentimental 1933 French classic, Zéro de conduitexii combined with a guerilla-style approach that emerged from the reality of shooting on location at Cheltenham College using its actual pupils.
The school had been presented with a dummy script and the film’s (still shocking) ending, which was to be shot after the term had ended, had to remain a closely guarded secret. Even the transitions from colour to black and white (which now seems a Godardian nod to filmic artifice) were initially a result of technical and budgetary constraints. Later McDowell would recall that a letter from the headmaster to Anderson had sat unopened for years, the director embarrassed by the recriminations he imagined it contained.
In If… Anderson succeeds in drawing often startling performances from a group of actors he had worked with often on stage and screen, indeed the film was the first of a loose trilogy that would follow the life of its protagonist until his demisexiii. McDowell’s performance as Mick Travis was to capture the attention of Stanley Kubrik who would cast him as Alex in A Clockwork Orange three years later. The actor recalled that, uncertain of how to approach the part, he had solicited Anderson’s advice and Alex’s ironic smile was the same as Travis’ had been as left the school gym after a savage beating.
The pyramidal hierarchy of Masters, Prefects, Fags and Scum that If… depicts bears an uneasy and anachronistic relationship to the world outside of itself, to quote Sherwin’s dialogue, “Help the House ... and you'll be helped by the House.” Though it remains in charge, the grip of authority is always threatening to slip, its sniff upper lip curling into a snarl.
As a would be revolutionary, Travis’ insurrection is more Nietzschian than Marxist and perhaps it is no surprise that British Prime Minister, David Cameron, himself a product of this system, should regard the film (X-rated and considered contraband for many years in British public schools) as amongst his favourites. No doubt Travis, as a self regarding nihilist, would have found himself right at home with the Noblesse (dis)oblige and excessive sense of entitlement of the Bullingdon Clubxiv.
Anderson’s satire today feels slightly Pythonesque, a quaint Hogwarts world where Flashman is still in charge and Tom Brown’s Schooldays are endlessly rerun. With the arch existentialism of its anti-hero Travis embodied in lines like, “One man can change the world with a bullet in the right place,” it is sometimes hard to see the protagonist as any less odious than the pompous self-deception and intellectual bankruptcy of the establishment he confronts.
Pitched against the glowering no-compromise intensity of youth, the school inevitably falters but there is a sense that perhaps it is only a misstep - a more ruthless crop of killers has been bred. The pyramid is under new management. Consider it a hostile takeover.
Malcolm McDowell. The Guardian 2004
Anarchy in the U.K. The growing pains of Lindsay Anderson, Free Cinema's angry young man. Steve Erickson. Moving Image Source 2008
iiDavid Storey, biography at the British Council
iv Reisz, Karel (1926-2002) .Neil Sinyard, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors, at BFI Screenonline:
Anderson and Ford’s meetings are also recounted here:-
vi Richardson, Tony (1928-1991). Sheldon Hall, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors, at BFI Screenonline: http://www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/451352/index.html
viiWhy Cahiers still matters. Charles Darke, Film Comment. Film Society Lincoln Center
viiiJohn Osborne, obituary. Daily Telegraph 1994
ix Shelagh Delaney, obituary. New York Times 2011
xArnold Wesker, playwright
xi “He was gay, but he was a celibate homosexual. All the people that he loved were unattainable because they were heterosexual. I didn't really know that he was gay, and I wasn't going to ask him because it wasn't my business”.
The director was to acknowledge the influence of Vigo’s film (which itself is a cheeky and riotous “back-to-school” story with dream like interludes, which culminates in rooftop insurrection) and indeed Anderson staged screenings of it for the cast and crew.
O Lucky Man (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982) despite notionally featuring the same characters, the two other films in the trilogy bear little formal resemblance to If…, the former being a baggy 3-hour, sub-Brechtian musical and the latter a black comedy about the decline of the National Health Service.
After a long international career exhibiting video installation and photography, David Selden renounced the art world in favor of the far less superficial drag scene and became intimately involved with a number of notorious London fetish clubs. ‘Retiring’ to Berlin in 2007 having run out of pseudonyms, he has written about music for Dorfdisco and about art for Whitehot Magazine as well as contributing numerous catalogue essays and translations for a variety of publications and websites. His misadventures in the world of anti-music can be endured at affeprotokoll.tumblr.com