if... (1968)

if... (1968), directed by Lindsay Anderson.

A satirical portrait of an English boys school with both realistic and fantasy segments, filmed with alternating color and monochrome scenes.

This was like a bomb going off in the UK. Everyone who ran the country -- government, broadcasting and arts, industry, military -- had been through these schools and the presentation hit them where it hurt, either because they agreed or disagreed with the content. Someone said the writers should be horse-whipped. The more working-class audiences mobbed the theaters to have their worst opinions of the higher classes confirmed.

The school is shown operating on snobbery and viciousness, each older boy degrading the younger cohort, and so on down. The student prefects (called "whips" here) are evil vengeful little gods, caning troublemakers with pleasure. The noble sentiments of the teachers and clergy are all phony.

It's a "portrait" because we just don't know much about any of the characters. At the center is Malcolm McDowell (film debut) and two pals who are troublesome malcontents. They yearn for war, revolution and murder, but their actual rebellions are pretty minor gestures. In fantasy segments McDowell goes to town, steals a motorcycle, gets a girlfriend, shoots the padre and finally leads the massacre of a school assembly.

That final bit has always been controversial but it's obviously meant to be a comical fantasy: we have clergy and crusader knights and mothers with big hats picking up machine guns and firing back. The film does not cue us as to what is meant to be real and what fantasy, but it's not too hard to figure.

They used real schools for filming and it's curious how shabby are the dorms, studies and bathrooms. It's not quite the Hogwarts of Harry Potter.

Anderson was another in the long list of directors who idolize John Ford. He tended to fall in love with the leading men in his films, all of whom were straight and unobtainable.

There are a couple of gay subplots. We contrast the perverse interests of the padre and a guilty prefect with the innocent involvement of a couple of other boys. Nothing very explicit. By comparison, McDowell and Christine Noonan grapple like tigers and roll naked on the floor. Definitely a fantasy.

That reminds me of stories from Stephen Fry's autobiography. He went through the system a few years later and confirms what we see here: although they all condemn homosexuality, the older boys make lascivious comments about the younger ones. He also notes that, whatever is wrong with him, boys school and being caned there were not the cause, although I doubt if he was beaten as viciously as is shown here. Finally: school was the perfect preparation for those few months he spent in prison for credit card theft.

Brief nudity. McDowell says he personally went into the editing room and excised all shots of his penis.

He also describes the hidden camera scene on a city street where he and a pal were pretending to have a knife fight. A truck driver stopped, ran over and hit him in the back of the head with a hammer.

The studio hated the film and weren't going to release it, but Barbarella (1968) was a flop in the UK and they need a replacement.

Criterion Blu-ray, not available at either Netflix or Classicflix. Netflix has the Criterion DVD. The commentary track has McDowell and a film critic, intermixed and done at different times.