It's the first day of a new term at a British public school for boys, and as usual the new arrivals - or "scum" as they are named by the older pupils - are having trouble finding exactly where to go to in an unfamiliar place. However, while sixteen-year-old Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) is having no trouble locating his destination, it's fitting in that he has problems with as he turns up in his dorm wrapped in a scarf, large coat and wide-brimmed hat as if in disguise. He attracts the ire of the other boys by his behaviour, but he's actually hiding a moustache grown over the summer which he proceeds to shave off. His delinquency is only beginning...
Other European countries had the Prague Spring or the Paris riots during the year of 1968; Britain on the other hand had Lindsay Anderson's If...., an act of rebellion in cinematic form. Scripted by David Sherwin and John Howlett, the film, like its creators, were products of the public school system and begins as if it were an examination of the various hierarchies involved in such an arrangement, with all the rules and regulations and abuses of power inherent in it. Yet as the story progresses, Travis's dreams of revolution start to warp the documentary-like reality of the film, and it grows increasingly bizarre.
Anderson said his inspiration for If.... was Jean Vigo's classic short film Zéro de Conduite, and it not only shares the setting of a boarding school but also the same feeling of playfulness. But where Vigo was content to send up the establishment he portrays, Anderson and his writers grit their teeth and a palpable anger at the injustices we see breaks through, an outrage embodied by its lead character. The schoolmasters are shown as self-impressed and all too comfortable in a society that exists to discipline those members lower than the highest class, who naturally hold all the aces.
But how natural is that? The film detests such complacency, and Travis emerges as a heroic figure after a while. Early on, you might notice a poster of Che Guevara here, a reference to Guy Fawkes there, marking out the territory of subversion that is carried through to its logical conclusion. Logical in the mind of Travis, that is, as he's essentially an idealist - a simplistic idealist at that - whose notions of overthrowing the old guard dominate the action, leading up to the famous final sequence where he and his young allies take their revenge on those higher up the social ladder who would readily trample them underfoot.
Even the boys enforce this system among themselves, whether through bullying or the oldest ones ordering about or punishing the younger years. Travis and his two friends bear the brunt of this behaviour when their insolent attitude, an attitude Anderson ensures looks absolutely reasonable to us watching, leads them to be caned, and Travis gets more than his fair share. Throughout the film, the perfectly-cast McDowell (in his debut) breaks rules, stealing a motorbike and heading off to meet, by chance, a girl in a cafe (Christine Noonan) who from then on looms large in his fantasies, eventually becoming his right hand woman for the finale as endorsement. Some of the surrealism looks a little pretentious and calculated, but the spirit of fighting back against authority and institutionalised oppression sweeps you up, both encapsulating the year it was made and stirring audiences for decades afterwards. Flawed, but one of the great films of the sixties. Music by Marc Wilkinson.