If…. is the first in director Lindsay Anderson’s trilogy of films featuring Malcolm McDowell as the Mick Travis, whose misadventures continue in O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital. Everything I read about the trilogy repeats the same word to descibe Travis: “everyman.” On the evidence, I take this instance particular of “everyman” to mean Travis is a blank slate, a shapeless person pushed and molded by the forces of society about him. If…. begins with the epigram “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom; and with all thy getting, get understanding” from The Book of Proverbs, but an even better statement of the film’s themes is spoken my Travis himself: “When do we live? That’s what I want to know.”
The initially realistic portrayal of life at a British public school, filmed at Cheltenham College but referred to simply as “College”, includes frank depictions of the corporal punishment and homosexuality (mostly repressed but in one case, genuine young love). The pupils’ lives are so regimented and ordered that even virtuous activities such as studying are forbidden if not conducted at the proper time and place. Most of the rampant cruelty and capriciousness comes from Whips (the senior class, with privileges) and is sanctioned, or rather, willfully ignored by the aloof adult faculty. It becomes clear the school is satirical microcosm of the British class society: a self-perpetuating system in which the young underclassmen “Scum” eventually grow into the roles of the oppressors.
Much of the students’ time is preoccupied with paramilitary war games couched in religion. As the school chaplain admonishes them, “Jesus is your commanding officer.” The sermon also instructs that desertion is the worst wartime crime, and as all Christians are born with original sin, all are likewise deserters. During one war game, Travis and friends deliberately shoot live rounds at their own comrades. Curiously, the headmaster mildly scolds them as if they had committed an infraction as naughty as nipping at the communal wine. But the first irrefutable instance of the film’s turn towards surreality is when the headmaster produces a faculty member from within a cupboard drawer for whom Travis to apologize.
From this point on, it is clear at least some of Travis’ experiences are fantasy. And what do teenage boys fantasize about but hooking up with hot girls and violently lashing out at enemies? He beds a beautiful waitress (Christine Noonan) in a violently animalistic coupling, who might very well be another figment of his imagination. Together they uncover a cache of weapons and pickled medical anomalies in the school basement (his subconscious?), including a grotesque human fetus. Travis’ anarchic adolescent fantasies climax with a massive school shooting during a nauseatingly patriotic festival honoring The Crusades. Unlike the considerably more tragic school shootings typical to films made in an era of actual teen massacres like Columbine (in films as diverse as Elephant, Empire Falls, and The Basketball Diaries), Travis’ war is a comically carnivalesque affair and the consequences fall offscreen.
• The otherwise spiffy Criterion Collection DVD edition appears to be a censored cut, not the X-rated full version originally screened in some parts of the world.
• The assistant director was Steven Frears, who went on to direct Dangerous Liaisons, High Fidelity, and The Queen. In the Criterion DVD bonus features, Frears states that If…. was filmed at the same time as the Paris Riots in 1968, lending powerful immediacy to the theme of violent student rebellion.
• The film alternates between black & white and color film stock. There are conflicting explanations according to Wikipedia, but the primary motivations seemed to have been that of budget and time (black & white film taking less time to light for). Anderson, however, liked the “texture” and continued to use the device. It is apparently not to be understood to delineate reality vs. fantasy.
• Mick repeatedly plays the music “Sanctus” from Missa Luba, an African-tinged version of the Latin Mass. Difficult for modern ears to believe, but it was a hit single at the time. (also from Wikipedia)
• Full of interesting tidbits, Wikipedia also cites a visual allusion to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger in McDowell’s first appearance, showcasing his instantly recognizable eyes.
Must read: everything you could possibly want to know about If…. from MalcolmMcDowell.net