• If....: School Days

    By David Ehrenstein

    If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
    If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;
    If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
    Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

    If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
    If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;
    If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
    Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

    If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
    And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
    If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,
    And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

    If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
    If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
    If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
    Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!


    So claimed Rudyard Kipling in “If—,” a poem he wrote in 1909, redolent of privilege, “Empire,” and all the “values” Lindsay Anderson’s nearly identically titled 1969 film abhors. One line sports a special pertinence to Anderson: “If you can dream—and not make dreams your master.” For If.... is about both dreaming and mastering, revolting against the status quo and daring to imagine what it might be like to put something else in its place. That, in essence, was what the 1960s were all about. And that’s what If.... does in practice—tears down the wall of sleep that separates imaginative mental activity from active waking life. Unlike a dream, however, If.... tells a story with an identifiable beginning, middle, and end. But it’s relayed through what Anderson called “an atmosphere of poetic license,” where “reality” and “fantasy” converge and become one. In other words, a cinematic realization of the May 1968 watch cry L’imagination au pouvoir.

    The imaginations in question belong to Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) and his friends Wallace (Richard Warwick) and Johnny (David Wood), senior classmen at a British public school that, while nominally supervised by adults, is in fact run by the Whips, specially appointed fellow seniors. Our heroes’ revolt against this establishment, led by the imperious Rowntree (Robert Swann) and the snobbish Dennison (Hugh Thomas), wins them allies in Bobby Philips (Rupert Webster), a young beauty much sought after by the Whips, and a nameless young girl (Christine Noonan), who in the film’s unforgettable climax joins the boys in battle, wielding firearms right along with them on the school’s roof.

    But before that burst of gunfire, the action (which is divided like a novel into titled chapters, like “Ritual and Romance”) touches on all manner of matters large and small. From the way new students are required to learn the school’s special slang, and tested on it by the Whips, to the casual eccentricities of a teacher (Graham Crowden’s history professor, making a grand entrance on a bicycle while singing) to the gentle romance between Wallace and Philips to the buttoned-down savagery of the Whips, who literally whip our heroic trio for their “general attitude,” we are in another world—a parallel universe resembling our own at both its best and worst.

    When it was first released, it was impossible to look at If.... without thinking of Zéro de conduite, Jean Vigo’s classic 1933 featurette about a schoolboy revolt. But Vigo’s rebels pelted their hated teachers with vegetables. Anderson’s are armed with bullets. And more than teachers and school officials, it is their fellow students—the senior classmates who truly rule their lives, treating them not as equals but as prison inmates they’re guarding—who are the real targets. Consequently, it is impossible to look at If.... today without thinking of the Columbine massacre of 1999, when two Colorado high school students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, slaughtered twelve classmates and a teacher before committing suicide (an incident chillingly dramatized by Gus Van Sant in his 2003 drama Elephant). Still, that was real, and Anderson’s slaughter is clearly meant to be metaphoric. Why else end the film with McDowell firing straight into the camera like the nameless bandit in Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903)? By doing so, If...., like so much else of sixties culture, poses a challenging question rather than offering a glib and easy answer.

    There’s nothing quite like a work of art that captures the zeitgeist right at its moment of maximum impact. And more than any other film of its time, If.... nails the sixties. As anyone who lived through that tumultuous era can tell you, it was a decade rife with cinematic expressions of free-spirited utopianism, restless iconoclasm, and woozy, drug-fueled reverie. But while works as diverse as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Blow-Up (1966), Easy Rider (1969), La Chinoise (1967), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) embody the sixties look and feel, none of them sport the emotional and intellectual intensity of Anderson’s darkly comic drama. It has no references to current events. No drugs (though the boys do drink vodka). And instead of a pop-music score, the African Missa Luba is heard playing on the Victrola. Anderson’s interest might best be described as classical rather than topical. If...., that is, concerns youthful yearnings to revolt that are simultaneously of its time and eternal. When the central hero of If.... (less played than virtually embodied by McDowell) says that “violence and revolution are the only pure acts,” he’s being extravagant in a way typical of a youth of his class and education. He also says, “When do we live? That’s what I want to know”—words that almost any impatient-to-live youth, regardless of class or education, would say. For If.... takes place in that protean moment when childhood steps aside as the adult to be is formed. And it’s the formation of that future adult that is the film’s central subject.

    That sounds simple enough, and things might well have taken a much simpler path had Anderson proceeded to film Crusaders, the original screenplay by David Sherwin and John Howlett from which If.... was born. Nicholas Ray was the first to see that version of the script. But the director of Rebel Without a Cause wisely felt a British hand was required. Seth Holt considered producing the project at first, looking for someone else to direct, which is where Anderson came in. But Anderson wasn’t interested in making a film that, as originally conceived, was a straightforward protest against injustice. He wanted something more. And completely reworking the script with Sherwin alone, he found it.

    On the opening page of his invaluable biography Mostly About Lindsay Anderson, Gavin Lambert quotes his principal subject: “I remember very well when my form master at Cheltenham College spoke to me in a very pleasant, polite way, and I think I had been discovered in some peccadillo, and he said to me, ‘You know, Anderson, if you go on like this, you are going to be persona non grata with a great many people.’ And I said to him, ‘You are probably right, sir, but I think it’s too late to do anything about it.’” Indeed it was, for Anderson was a rebel to the manner born. Yet at the same time, he was keenly aware of tradition, more so perhaps than any other British artist of his generation—which besides Lambert included the likes of John Osborne, Tony Richardson, Shelagh Delaney, Karel Reiz, and Joe Orton.

    All were involved in the post–World War II movements that took the artistic forms known as Free Cinema (the style of documentary filmmaking in which Anderson got his start) and the journalistically labeled “kitchen-sink drama,” plays that broke with the upper-middle-class gentility of Noël Coward and Terence Rattigan to expose the roiling ferment of everyday British life. Forging twin careers in the theater (where he memorably staged the plays of David Storey, Orton, and others) and the cinema (where his documentary shorts O Dreamland [1953] and Every Day Except Christmas [1957] had an impact comparable to that of the works Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut were making at the same time in France), Anderson appeared at first to be a thoroughgoing realist, as exemplified by his first feature, This Sporting Life (1963), a dramatic study of the rise of a rugby player that made Richard Harris a star. But it was clear from his next film that Anderson’s real interest lay in something more than the literal and naturalistic.

    The White Bus (shot in 1965 but not seen until 1967) was a featurette originally designed to be included in a three-part omnibus film entitled Red White and Zero. Scripted by Delaney, it’s a considerable departure from A Taste of Honey, the play (later filmed by Richardson) that made her fame. The central figure is a young woman working in a London office who decides to return to her Northern England hometown, taking a tour of the place on the white bus of the title. We learn little about her as a character but much about the British national character as she encounters a number of local citizens, including the mayor, resplendent in full official regalia. The style is completely deadpan, and while the action never quite tips into fantasy, there’s a keen sense that it might, particularly in the finale, where our heroine finds herself amid a landscape of dressmaker’s dummies. Anderson’s cinematographer on the film was Miroslav Ondricek, the great Czech whose work for Miloš Forman (Loves of a Blonde, The Firemen’s Ball) had won him world fame. His clear, plain, precise, brightly lit style proved ideal for what Anderson was looking for with The White Bus, and even more so with If.....

    Ondrícek informed Anderson that he “couldn’t guarantee color consistency in the chapel scenes.” So they were shot in black and white. Anderson liked the way they looked so much that he told the DP, “I’ll just shoot a few other scenes in black and white when I feel like it.” And thus If.... goes from black and white to color and back again without any apparent reason—the result underscoring the fact that we’re watching a movie, not life, and giving the movie the resonance of a half-remembered dream. This mood is everywhere apparent, as in such uncanny moments as the one that finds Mrs. Kemp (Mary MacLeod), the prefect’s sensual yet repressed wife, wandering naked though the boys’ rooms when they’re out, or in such seemingly simple ones as the sight of a boy returned from holidays staring in bemused wonder at the specially wrapped peaches his parents have given him for the new term. It matches a much later scene where our heroes, assigned the job of cleaning out a basement stuffed with all manner of detritus, discover a dead fetus in a jar of liquid, some ghastly laboratory exhibit from years past. And then there’s Peanuts, the most intellectual of the boys, who looks through his telescope and discourses on the nature of the universe to Mick. But what Mick sees through his lens is the girl.

    Her first appearance in the film is a mark of its utter indifference to realism. Mick and Johnny, having decided to skip the weekend rugby match, have gone into town and, in a burst of bravado, stolen a motorcycle from a posh shop. Riding out into the country, they stop at a seemingly ordinary coffee bar, empty save for the girl who works there. With a lock of her long black hair hanging provocatively over one eye, she suggests Veronica Lake—but with considerably more sexual aggression. Mick makes a play for her, and in a flash they’re stark naked and tussling on the floor. Just prior to this tussle, Johnny, clearly anticipating what’s to come, takes his saucer and places it on Mick’s cup of coffee, to keep it warm. It’s a telling gesture, redolent of the comradely affection he feels for Mick—one Anderson felt for so many men in his life.

    Too rough-hewn for the gentility of Rattigan yet not quite ready for the “outness” of Orton, Anderson is a transitional figure in the history of British gay culture. He remains a pivotal one for a decidedly singular sequence in If.... that no one who has seen the film has ever forgotten. Wallace is preparing to do his gymnastics routine, and as he does so he looks up at the gym’s upper balcony, where a group of younger boys are getting ready to leave. Bobby Philips is pulling his sweater over his head. As he does, Wallace grabs the exercise bar and gracefully executes the routine, which we see in ever-so-slightly slow motion, intercut with Philips putting on his sweater while regarding Wallace with awe. Wallace is offering up his body as an act of love, in what remains the most beautiful homoerotic scene ever filmed. It’s why, though we later see these lovers asleep in bed, no sexual act is ever shown between them. That’s what the gym scene is there for. And like the dance duets in Astaire-Rogers musicals, it’s better than sex.

    “His films, like Buñuel’s, are gauntlets thrown to the audience,” says Lambert, who was a Cheltenham classmate of Anderson’s and a friend and colleague for life. And he’s quite right. The same spirit can be found in Anderson’s follow-ups to If...., O Lucky Man! (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982), both starring McDowell as a different version of Mick Travis. In the first, Mick’s a go-getting young salesman who rises to the top as the film takes stock of Great Britain in its London and rural guises, in the style of The Pilgrim’s Progress with a touch of Candide. By contrast, Britannia Hospital is considerably more savage, confronting Thatcherite England when it was just on the rise, with Mick as a television news reporter who quickly finds he’s become part of his own story in a hospital filled with “mad doctors” of every sort. Both films employ If.... stalwarts Arthur Lowe, Mona Washbourne, Dandy Nichols, Peter Jeffrey, and Graham Crowden in a variety of roles, all of them authority figures ripe for satire. Christine Noonan pops up in O Lucky Man! as well, though not as a café waitress. But among the boys, only Brian Pettifer reprises his role of Biles, the most put-upon of youths (unforgettable for the scene in which he gets a “swirly”), in both O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital.

    “Biles, why are you a freak?” the boys say, passing the line down to its intended victim in a dining-room scene in If..... Maybe Anderson’s tender feelings toward Biles have to do with feeling a “freak” himself as a lad. But there’s nothing freakish about Anderson’s art, particularly in If..... The film is, after all, a schoolboy story, one of the most central narratives in British cinema, with such precedents as Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939), Tom Brown’s School Days (1940), and The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950), and most recently reappearing with The History Boys (2006). Still, a very special place must be set apart for a film whose most memorable pronouncement comes just prior to the beating it inspires: “The thing I hate about you, Rowntree, is the way you give Coca-Cola to your scum and your best teddy bear to Oxfam and expect the rest of us to lick your frigid fingers the rest of your frigid life.” It’s a statement that reads almost like surrealist poetry but that, in context, is actually a very direct reference to a concrete dramatic event. And it’s through this bringing together of the surreal and the direct that Anderson’s art comes most vividly to life. It’s the province of dreams made real.

    David Ehrenstein has been writing about film, the arts, and politics since 1965, for such publications as Film Culture, Cahiers du cinéma, Positif, and the Advocate. He is the author of Film: The Front Line—1984, The Scorsese Picture: The Art and Life of Martin Scorsese, and Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928–2000. Born in New York, he lives in Los Angeles. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2007 DVD edition of If.....

3 comments

  • By Lou
    August 20, 2010
    10:04 PM

    An outstanding film, just watched it last night and can´t shake it off my head, Terrible and beautiful.
    Reply
  • By Sam Sleiman
    December 27, 2010
    03:38 PM

    Great essay, but the Columbine massacre took place in '99, not '91.
    Reply

Or using your Criterion.com account.

You are logged in to your Criterion.com account as . Log out.