Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 33 No. 11. 22 July 1970
Lindsay Anderson's latest film, If.., pleases me greatly for two main reasons. The first is that the film is sufficiently entertaining and thoughtful to erase unpleasant memories of some of Anderson's previous efforts, notably those tedious, interminable documentaries spawned by the British Free Cinema movement in the 'fifties (which proclaimed a mistaken belief in "the significance of the everyday") and his later This Sporting Life, a particularly grating piece about a loutish (but sensitive) rugby player. In If . . . Anderson appears to have eschewed the bleeding heart liberalism which permeates and stifles his earlier films. There is a refreshing cynicism here which is much at odds with Anderson's previous concerns, and this new-found awareness is seen in the fact that the protagonists are Public School rebels rather than dregs of the Free Cinema's kitchen sink. Perhaps it has finally dawned on Anderson that the working classes in Western industrial societies have been, and remain, the pillars of conservatism.
The second reason is that If . . . is the nearest thing to an anarchist film I've yet come across. The revolutionary stance is that the enemies are the forces of authority. No programmes of reconstruction are offered, no blueprints for a 'just', 'socialist' society, no appeals to the rights of the individual in the face of his masters. This has always seemed to me to be the only way working for real social improvement. After all, the school masters and prefects in If . . . might just as easily be the scungy politicians and policemen in our own country. It is gratifying to see the lines battle drawn up on film. We have come to expect from many British movies, either by way of incidental vignette or clearly stated theme, a criticism of society and its accepted values. Anderson wields his scalpel wider than most, and even those concepts deemed sacred by conventionally radical film makers are whittled into the rubbish bin with all the other shibboleths. Let not these remarks deter prospective viewers: If . . . is a vastly enjoyable and many-faceted film, not a political tract.
The narrative is divided into chapter-like sections, each marking a further stage in the developing consciousness of the chapel-and-ivy guerillas. This device, besides being attractive simply as an unusual change, lends an air of impending conflict to a film otherwise noteworthy for its many brilliant and amusing diversions. The acting throughout is extremely good. The renegades concoct their schemes with suitably nonchalant fervour, while the instruments of authority, whether corrupt in youth or beyond redemption in old age, bleat, bray, and posture about in convincing and varying manifestations of their despicable condition. There is a parade of characters and caricatures that melds both familiar and unseen aspects of school life: the rector who is both sadist and pervert, the teacher (there's one in every school) who lounges indolently during prayers and conducts his own rebellion in the classroom, the pimply and obsequious dormitory prefect, the headmaster who shouts his understanding and liberalism from the turrets, and in so doing perpetrates the systems he claims to suspect. The camera peels the veneer from these and many other characters, acutely observing every foible and nuance of behaviour. The way in which every gesture is defined and then exploited to maximum effect is one of the outstanding features of the film.
If . . . is not without its occasional fault, though these are few and far between. There didn't seem to be much justification for the odd passage filmed in tinted monochrome, but it's quite likely I missed a point here. I was having such a good time watching the film that not much urgency attached itself to trying to apprehend the rationale behind this visual jugglery. The pseudo-violent ending is a wee bit confusing. Presumably the intrepid band escapes injury for an uncommonly long time in order that we might appreciate the clam loathing directed at the motley. The final shot, that of the youth blazing away with casual contempt at the louts and lackeys gathered below, is a powerful and lingering image. Lindsay Anderson, with creditable support from his actors and technicians, has mad remarkable film. As entertainment it is a trenchant yet often amusing story of youthful rebellion within strict and stringent confines. As something of an anarchist testament it might make a few people, both conservatives and 'radicals', sit up and take notice. One of the high points of this year's filmgoing.