Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) is a young coffee salesman, or at least that's the profession he has recently joined. He is shown around the factory and makes an attempt to chat up one of the girls working there until he is brought to heel by his boss. Then he and his fellow trainees are handed over to one of the company executives (Arthur Lowe) for a pep talk and a chat with the resident psychologist (Rachel Roberts) who is quite taken with Mick's charms. Therefore, when one of the top salesmen resigns from his North East division, Mick is drafted in to replace him - the beginning of a journey that will take him all over...
One of the longest of all cult movies, O Lucky Man! was based on an idea by its star, and director Lindsay Anderson thought it would fit the bill for their second film together after If.... five years earlier. This was the second in the Mick Travis trilogy, as the lesser Britannia Hospital would follow around ten years later, and in all respects was the most ambitious. It rambles, it strays from the point, and it comes across like a joke everyone in the film except Mick is in on never mind what the audience thinks, yet the film is so compelling, so utterly different in its scope and design from anything else at the time.
Or very much since, for that matter, as the Candide-like tale is one of a kind in its own wilfull manner. As our hero, McDowell is ambitious but naive, and at every turn is bested by the authorities and establishment that he wishes to be a part of. Once he is despatched to the North East his adventures begin, and if there's humour here it's of the most caustic variety as there's very little that will have you laughing out loud. Mainly you'll be immersed in a world of nineteen-seventies Britain that is evoked so well by Anderson and his screenwriter David Sherwin, even in its most surreal moments.
Mick seems to settle into his new position fairly well, despite witnessing a car accident on his way up to his destination - he is warned by the police attending that he will be charged with manslaughter if he wishes to make a statement. This is an early sign that he will be given a rough time by those in power, whether they be the cops or the government as none of them escape with reputation intact after this film has had its way with them. After a night out at an incredibly seedy working men's club, Mick gets to bed his landlady and everything's coming up roses as far as he's concerned.
But then, the next morning, he receives a telephone call from London telling him to venture up to Scotland. Unfortunately on the way there he gets lost and winds up at a top secret government base where he is arrested by the guards there and taken for interrogation. The undercurrent of menace running through the film erupts at various stages, as here when Mick is tortured into giving a confession about something he knows nothing of. But his bacon is saved by an emergency at the base (it explodes!) and he is sent off on another experience to drain his reserves of cheery optimism.
As this lasts three hours, there are many experiences to be packed in, and all of them are memorable, not least because the same actors reappear throughout the film in different guises. This can be highly amusing, as when Arthur Lowe is not only the coffee businessman, but a shady hotel owner and most remarkably a black President of an African state. And Alan Price's songs are heard to comment on the action, while he shows up as himself to give Mick a lift after he escapes from a medical institute (what he sees there is one of the most bizarre and shocking moments in British film). Helen Mirren is the object of Mick's desire, an heiress who can't understand why Mick wants to be wealthy while he can't understand why not. O Lucky Man! is rich with incident and subtext, yet chiefly it's engrossing as an example of the kind of film hardly anyone dares to make - the fact that it entertains and provokes so often is testament to its creators.