by Jef Burnham
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if…, from director Lindsay Anderson, takes place at the allegorical College House, a private school in which the corrupt class system allows for a myriad of injustices at the hands of the staff and upper-classmen. if… is no ordinary teen drama, examining adolescent disillusionment. It offers the viewer a portrait of a semester at an English boarding school, culminating in an unsettlingly comical scene of widespread violence. With its counter cultural message and depiction of school violence decades ahead of its time, if… stirred up a lot of controversy upon its release, but has since drifted into obscurity—that is, until its recent re-release by The Criterion Collection.
The film comes on at first with the randomness of your average 1980’s American high school or summer camp movies, with disjointed scenes of general tom-foolery draped over a skeleton plot, charming in the lackadaisical way in which the film meanders through to its curious climax. The concept of reality versus fantasy becomes irrelevant, as the inner workings of the characters are as important as the exterior factors. The result is a world of idiosyncratic frankness in which anything is possible.
The all boys’ College House is controlled by The Whips, four seniors who, though in the minority, are entrusted by the staff to maintain order. Their motto: “I serve the nation.” They take upon themselves servants from amongst the newest students, the Scum, with whom The Whips share uncomfortably forced homosexual relationships. The power bestowed upon The Whips turns slowly into the complete oppression of the discontented middle class, Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) and his friends Johnny and Wallace.
Mick is immediately set up as the archetypal vision of subversion. While the other boys wear suits and ties on the first day of the semester, he dons a black trench coat and hat with a black scarf obscuring his mustachioed visage. Young, but sexually charged and compelled by violence, Mick cannot stay his hand from mischief. At the House where Mick and his compatriots receive the most injurious of repercussions, their rebellious behavior is relatively subdued, characterized by minor infractions, whilst their actions in town, such as fighting in the streets and stealing a motorcycle from the shop, incur no punishment. Mick reveals to his friends that he has in his possession seven live rounds of ammunition, and so begins The Crusaders’ revolution.
The symbolic upper, middle and lower classes (respectively the staff and The Whips, the juniors, and the Scum) shine on their own, but key scenes, highlighting the mundane and repressive ways in which these metaphorical classes interact are shot in black and white. The primary use of this technique is to illustrate the way in which religion is used by the upper class to suppress the lower classes. The criticism of religion remains constant, equating the love of religion with the love of war to the extreme point at which a Bishop, with head held high as others cower, is suggestively placed at the forefront of violent confrontation in the climactic scene.
Also notably effective is the examination of love and sexuality, which begins in the upper tier. The Whips declare homosexual relationships (in this case, representative of all sexual relationships) to be overtly perverse, making a blanket condemnation of the whole of their society whilst hypocritically practicing it themselves. Addressed in the subtextual love triangle between Wallace, a Whip and their common love interest (a beautiful Scum boy named Philips), we see that sexual attraction, which remains an emotionless perversion to the upper class, can result in personal affection in the more open-minded lower classes.
Though if… is a film teeming with critiques of the injustices of the class system, religion, and sexual expression, it is by no means the melodramatic picture you might imagine. Even in the throes of extreme acts of aggression, the film manages to maintain an air of light-hearted satire, rather than heavy-handed lecturing, making for a thoroughly enjoyable viewing.
Jef Burnham is a writer and film critic living in Chicago.
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