"IF . . ." is so good and strong that even those things in the movie that strike me as being first-class mistakes are of more interest than entire movies made by smoothly consistent, lesser directors. Lindsay Anderson's second feature (his first, "This Sporting Life," was released here in 1963) is a very human, very British social comedy that aspires to the cool, anarchic grandeur of Godard movies like "Band of Outsiders" and "La Chinoise."
As an artist, however, Anderson, unlike Godard, is more ageless than young. He was born in 1923. His movie about a revolution within a British public school is clear-eyed reality pushed to its outer reaches. The movie's compassion for the individual in the structured society is classic, post-World War II liberal, yet "If . . ." is also oddly nostalgic, as if it missed all that sadism and masochism that turned boys into adolescents for life.
Mick and his two roommates, Johnny and Wallace, are nonconforming seniors at College House, a part of a posh boarding school that is collapsing under the weight of its 1,000-year history.
"Cheering at college matches has deteriorated completely," warns the student head of College House.
"Education in Britain," says the complacent headmaster a little later, "is a nubile Cinderella, sparsely clad and often interfered with."
As the winter term progresses through rituals that haven't varied since the Armada, Mick, Johnny and Wallace move mindlessly toward armed rebellion. On Speech Day, armed with bazookas and rifles, they take to the roofs and stage a reception for teachers, students and parents—and at least one Royal Highness—comparable to that given by Mohammed Ali to end the control of the Mamelukes.
I can't quarrel with the aim of Anderson and David Sherwin, who wrote the screenplay, to turn the public school into the private metaphor, only with the apparent attempt to equate this sort of lethal protest with what's been happening on real-life campuses around the world. Revolution as a life style, as an end in itself, is the fundamental form of "La Chinoise," but it's confusing and too grotesque to have real meaning attached to what is otherwise a beautifully and solidly constructed satire. In such a conventional context, the revolutionary act becomes one of paranoia.
Anderson, a fine documentary moviemaker, develops his fiction movie with all the care of someone recording the amazing habits of a newly discovered tribe of aborigines. The movie is a chronicle of bizarre details — Mick's first appearance wearing a black slouch hat, his face hidden behind a black scarf, looking like a teen-age Mack the Knife; the hazing of a boy by hanging him upside down over (and partially in) a toilet bowl, and a moment of first love, written on the face of a lower form student as he watches an older boy whose exercises on the crossbar become a sort of mating dance.
As a former movie critic, Anderson quite consciously reflects his feelings about the movies of others in his own film. "If . . . ," an ironic reference to Kipling's formula for manhood, uses a lot of terms most recently associated with Godard. There are title cards between sequences ("Ritual and Rebellion," "Discipline," etc.), and he arbitrarily switches from full color to monochromatic footage, as if to remind us that, after all, we are watching a movie. There is also an enigmatic girl (Christine Noonan), a waitress picked up at the Packhorse Cafe, who joins the revolt. Miss Noonan suggests a plump, English, mutton-chop version of Anna Karina, even without looking much like Miss Karina.
Less successful are visualized, split-second fantasies—or what I, take to be fantasies. When the three boys are told to apologize to the chaplain for having attacked him during a cadet field corps exercise, the headmaster withdraws the chaplain's body from a morgue-like drawer. The fantasies just aren't very different from a crazy, believable reality in which a master's inhibited wife wanders nude through a deserted dormitory, lightly caressing objects that belong to the boys.
The movie is well acted by a cast that is completely new to me. Especially good are Malcolm McDowell (Mick), who looks like a cross between Steve McQueen and Michael J. Pollard; Richard Warwick (Wallace), Peter Jeffrey (the headmaster), Robert Swann (the student leader) and Mary McLeod (the lady who likes to walk unclothed).
"If . . . ," which opened yesterday at the Plaza Theater, is such an interesting movie (and one that I suspect will be very popular) that the chances are there will not be another six-year gap between Anderson features. After making "This Sporting Life," Anderson worked in the British theater and turned out two shorts, "The White Bus" and "The Singing Lesson," which will be shown here at the Museum of Modern Art April 30.
-By VINCENT CANBY, March 10, 1969, The New York Times