Directed by Lindsay Anderson
Written by David Sherwin
By 1968, America and Europe were completely amerced in the sociological shift between its former Silent Generation traditions and impeding counterculture. Shocking concepts, like anti-establishment thinking, racial integration, drug dependency, and sexual awareness, revolutionized the way society viewed the environment around them. Among these eye-opening revolutions, the medium of New Wave cinema not only explored these alternative live styles, but did so in a way that gave succeeding generations the chance to explore counterculture hands on, through a first-person lens of emotion and deceit. Films like Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde glorifies youthful alienation with violent portrayals never before seen on screen, whereas Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider explores the societal tension between conservative America and the hippie movement through a passive-aggressive lens. Then there is the 1969 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winner, If.. by Lindsay Anderson, that manages to fall right in between these two moral dilemmas.
The film tells the story of rebellious students at an English private school that plan a violent revolt against their repressive environment. Centering on a small group of non-conformists led by Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell), the film paints a distinctly negative picture of the British school system and thus, English society itself. Seeing the powers-that-be as bureaucratic, and needlessly restrictive, Mick and his cohorts indulge in small acts of rebellion, including sneaking into town to romance a local waitress (Christine Noonan). Their actions are discovered and punished with harsh beatings, leading the students to plot a fatal revenge. This effort culminates in the film’s most famous sequence, a surrealistic depiction of a bloody uprising by the students against the adult world.
Controversial yet unpredictable, If… seamlessly mixes color and black-and-white cinematography as easily as it mingles satire with dark comedy. Thought to be influential for its youth audience, commentators saw the film as a potential incitement to violence. It became a great success among the younger counterculture that appreciated the audacious shock tactics and embraced the anti-establishment message. Often compared to Jean Vigo’s French classic Zéro de conduite, which also featured school revolts, If… has become a touching stone in the cinema of youth rebellion.
Shocking as it may be, and metaphorically perceptive in hindsight, If… is very must a direct statement of its era from content to form. Although the film analogically links the British school system with society in general, the film was a response to the May 1968 protests that occupied universities and factories across France. Many might also equate the black and white scenes to artistically reflect Travis’ inner thoughts, when in reality was done due to budgetary constraints with lighting. It’s interesting to see how, when left to the mind of the audience, poetry derives from fact. Thus, is the self-evident relevancy of If… to the mainstream, not just counter culture. Like many films of its New Wave generation, and contrary to modern filmmaking, If… explores its present day issues through expression, not necessarily handfed observation. Controversial back in the late 60s as it was, the film is still seen as such today. For many, its direct implications can be overlooked due to artistic vision. If the expression is seen as an observation of its time, the film’s true merit can still be much appreciated to a modern audience. Face value is something modern audiences take for granted, because it’s overdone nowadays. Yet with films like If…, that make the audience actually think and be in the driver seat of cultural emotion, bold messages can be acceptingly obliged for its content and not obstructively shunned for its craft.
– Christopher Clemente