Since we’ve last seen Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) in O Lucky Man!, he’s moved to America and rediscovered his lust for power and profiteering. Now a member of the media (with no less than Luke Skywalker – Mark Hammill – on his crew), he has returned to his homeland on a mission to expose corruption at Britannia Hospital. On the eve of a visit from Her Royal Highness the Queen, known to the efficient staff as the time-saving acronym H.R.H., the Hospital board risks all to facilitate Dr. Millar’s (Graham Crowder) insane medical experiments. His atrocities are on a par with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but with special effects and camerawork straight out of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead.
This vision of 1982 British society is crippled on all sides. The unions have pursued their noble aims of workers’ rights to an absurd degree to which virtually all work has come to a halt in favor of perpetual sandwich breaks. The hippies and activists are too enraged and violent to lend any credence to their causes of peace and fairness. Officious red-tape-obsessed suits are barely in control, making insincere compromises just to get through the day. The media fails at their job because they’re too wasted on drugs to even operate their equipment. And most frustrating to all, none of the phones work.
So the final entry in director Lindsay Anderson’s “Mick Travis” trilogy is obviously yet another satire of British society, this time with a hospital serving as its metaphorical microcosm. It sails a bit too far over the top for my tastes, especially in comparison with the excellent If…, which is so much more effective for spending most of its running time in strict realism before spiraling off into anarchic fantasy.
Over the course of its truly epic length of 177 minutes, Lindsay Anderson‘s O Lucky Man! (1973) picks up the continuing saga of Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) from If…. While If…. used a British public school as a metaphorical microcosm with which to satirize British class culture, O Lucky Man! widens its lens to take in all of England for its bleak portrait of capitalism triumphant. Travis appears to have matured out of his schoolboy fantasy of perpetrating a school massacre and has since joined the corporate world. Because of McDowell’s inherently impish persona, one might not expect his character here to be sincere, but Travis is now ruthless and genuinely willing to endure anything to climb the ladder of profit and social advancement. Early on, he is urged by a senior colleague to “try not to die like a dog,” but it’s a warning he is never equipped to quite comprehend.
His journey is so long and involved that it would hardly count as a spoiler to recount it here: Travis is promoted from the lowest rung on the corporate ladder all the way up to a high-level mission set up to fail. As he is ordered around the English countryside by his officebound superiors, he becomes lost on the way to Scotland, is arrested and tortured by the army, survives a military strike by an unseen enemy, stumbles into an idyll, is nursed back to health (er, literally), donates his body to medical research, falls in with Alan Price‘s touring band (including groupie Patricia (Helen Mirren), talks his way into the employ of the most venal businessman in England after his previous assistant’s timely suicide (a prime example of Travis’ alleged “luck”), becomes party to illegal chemical weapons sales in a corporate-funded civil war in a third-world nation, takes the fall for his boss, is imprisoned to five years of hard labor, is evidently reformed, tries and fails to talk a poor woman out of suicide with a hilarious litany of trite platitudes, is robbed and becomes homeless, tries to proselytize like Jesus and is, finally and fittingly, stoned by his peers. But in the the end, he is discovered as a future movie star.
An early form of David Sherwin’s script was written by McDowell himself, based on his own experiences as a coffee salesman. I think it’s fair to presume that the beginning and ending are drawn directly from McDowell’s life story. At opposite ends of the film, the fortunate Travis is chosen from the masses for higher callings. The young man at the beginning is all too eager to commence his journey, but the beaten-down and disillusioned man at the end is no longer able to take any pleasure out of his unlucky luck.
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.
A wicked contemporary satire, distant cousin to Lord of War, if a little less urgent. The level of public anxiety over Big Tobacco isn’t terribly high at the moment, but the larger theme of corporate and governmental spin is a timely one. Also like Lord of War, it kicks off with insane energy: one of the best opening title sequences I’ve ever seen, followed by flurry of pop-up infographics, freeze-frames, and ironic subtitles. Too bad that after the first half hour or so, it settles down into fairly straightforward family melodrama.
I initially dismissed Lord of War when the trailers and posters first appeared. In other words, it got caught in the crude mental filters that routinely handle my first-pass “ignore” of all the crap that flows through my eyes and ears all day every day. But when my regular email newsletter from Amnesty International endorsed the film, it seemed possible this was something more substantial than National Treasure.
And it is. In an impressive marketing slight-of-hand, Lions Gate marketed it as an action comedy. But like Syriana, Lord of War is actually a very strongly-felt topical film loosely based on actual events. It has a more human and darkly comedic tone than Syriana, which often felt like a very consciously-constructed intellectual puzzle. But on the other hand, Syriana’s strict focus is perhaps a virtue; Lord of War’s several dramatic plotlines involving the main character’s marriage and wayward brother don’t always sit very well against the larger themes of entrenched human violence.
For another Nicolas Cage treasure hidden in plain sight, I recommend Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men.