Absolute classics: If...(1968)

8th April 2005 at 01:00

Good PR for public schools *

Arthur Lowe dithering ****

Civilian use for officer Training *****

Teaching the British class system to American students, I made Lindsay Anderson's If... into recommended viewing. One student, formerly of an elite prep school, told me that by matching his experiences to scenes in the film he got the point immediately. (He got an A.)

If.... is one of Quadrophenia director Franc Roddam's top 10 cult movies.

Unlike his nostalgic Sixties mods and rockers, If... impresses the viewer with its strong Sixties spirit. It does so through the killer contrast between the empty rituals of the stultified public school and the burning desire of the Crusaders, led by Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell), to escape from the dead weight of official conformity. IfI's Cheltenham college setting is not a place where public school can be played for laughs.

We begin with the "scum call", where new arrivals are chased from the corridors by senior boys. Echoing Anderson's film background, including This Sporting Life (1963), the opening shots have a semi-documentary feel.

Then the school divides into tribes. Teachers are portrayed as remote, ineffectual or sadistic. They have little control over the whips (prefects) who swagger through school, the temporary beneficiaries of the "madras" system (disciplinary duties are carried out by older pupils).

In contrast, the sullen protagonists hang out in their brown sweat room, higher up than the scum but needing to watch their step around the whips.

In the first versions of the script that appeared in the early 1960s, Travis and friends were caught up in a nightmare of beatings and buggery and sought to escape. But by the time shooting wrapped for a 1968 release, the quartet had been reinvented as counter-cultural rebels.

Historically, boarding school fiction is a typically British genre, but by the time If... came along the system couldn't capture the imagination as before. Pupils and teachers were tired of succumbing to the petty tyrannies and ill ease of the modern world. Boarding school reeked of wasted potential, leading the Crusaders to machine-gun the Founder's Day festival in a dreamlike finale.

It's an extreme, self-indulgent response to the generation gap. If If...

today is uncomfortable viewing, perhaps its bloody climax invites comparisons with the Dunblane and Columbine school massacres, not quite so unthinkable now.

Graham Barnfield


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