Growing up my favorite time of the week was Sunday nights, which was Disney night. At the ripe old age of 22, though, I ditched Mickey and his crummy club, looking for something more ‘mature’. That is when I discovered A Clockwork Orange, a masterpiece in surrealism and ultra-violent sexual deviancy. I instantly became a huge fan of Malcolm McDowell’s devilish grin and acting prowess so I sought out his other films. Unsurprisingly, in “if…” he plays the same confrontational little bastard that would foreshadow his status as one of Britain‘s most coveted actors.
Upon its release, if… was slapped with an X certificate by the British Board of Film Censors, which did not do wonders for its success. The rating is no surprise though, since the movie deals with the radical uprising of youths in a public school. The controversial nature of the movie, which promotes revolt against autocracy, was inspired by similar events taking place in Paris. In 1968, French students and workers orchestrated a massive strike which led to a citywide clash against police. It had an enormous impact on society and created a liberal morality that had not yet been achieved in Britain.
In if… McDowell plays Mick Travis, an abrasive yet poetic idealist who is fed up with the stifling conformism of his boarding school (in Britain, a public school is actually a private school because it is owned by “the public” and not the government. Go figure). Through a series of vignettes Mick and his crusaders (Wally and Johnny) exemplify youth rebellion of the era by doing their best Guy Fawkes impersonations and plot to destroy the stagnant and out-dated belief system of their school. Mick says it best when dreaming of his future accomplishment: “There is no such thing as a wrong war. Violence and revolution are the only pure acts. War is the last possible creative act.”
The movie really emphasizes several key themes; the importance of the individual over the institution, the right to freedom and the uprising against tradition in a country that is currently undergoing massive social reform. if… encapsulates the British class system and its ignorance of the revolution that is taking place outside its doors. Director Lindsay Anderson was so fond of McDowell’s performance in this role that he used him two more times in the so-called “Mick Travis trilogy” comprised of if…, O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital. Anderson had also been inspired by the French classic Zéro de conduite by Jean Vigo, a surrealist depiction of a similar youth uprising. His filming technique throughout the production was a much improvised one and he was able to blend fantasy and fact in a unique way, most notably by using several black and white scenes interspersed with the colored ones towards the end of the movie. The shift in color and tint really grabs your attention and serves to prevent the visual style from being too repetitive. It becomes extremely relevant at the climactic end, when the grainy film shows Mick and his gang taking matters into their own hands and going berserk on the school’s administration, its bullying prefects and even the students’ parents. Quentin Tarantino would have been proud!
if… you are looking for a clear and definitive moral to emerge from this movie, try looking at the bigger picture itself. The important question lies in the role of activism; should its advocates be labeled as freedom fighters or terrorists? Does the ultimate blame lie on society or on the government? “One man can change the world with a bullet in the right place…” Mick’s controversial mantra remains relevant to this day and so does if…, an absolutely fantastic tribute to the rebellious sixties, the unfairness of oppression and the power of activism.