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Hellions of a rebellion populate `If...'

Lindsay Anderson's alleged counterculture metaphor nevertheless predicted the unrest on the horizon in the '60s.

June 17, 2007|Dennis Lim | Special to The Times

SEEN one way, Lindsay Anderson's "If ... " is a quintessential artifact of the 1960s counterculture. Set in a British boarding school where students are incited to armed rebellion by a tyrannical system, the film went into production in early 1968, just before the largest student protests of the 20th century began to erupt throughout the campuses of Europe and America.

Even as it was being made, Anderson's poetic vision of anarchy took on a documentary quality. "The photographs in the newspapers suddenly began to look like stills from 'If.... ,' " he told the Times of London. The film opened in Britain that December, attracting lines around the block. The following May, it won the Palme d'Or at Cannes -- a year after the festival's 1968 edition had been successfully derailed by student activists and sympathetic filmmakers.

But "If.... " -- which finally arrives on DVD this week, in a two-disc edition from the Criterion Collection -- is a strange sort of time capsule: inseparable from its zeitgeist and yet dreamily removed from that historical moment. Anderson, who died in 1994, said the timing was coincidental, and that the film, despite its air of prophecy, was meant metaphorically.

Aside from the obligatory Che and Mao posters glimpsed on the dormitory walls, "If.... " is largely devoid of temporal markers. It's rooted not in the specific political struggles of the year of the barricades but in broader eternal conflicts. Anderson's intention, as he noted in a preface to the film's published screenplay, was to explore the tensions "between hierarchy and anarchy, independence and tradition, liberty and law."

To this day, the genre of the public-school movie -- a British staple from 1939's "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" to last year's "The History Boys" -- has never seen a rebel schoolboy quite like Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell), the diabolically charming hero of "If.... " The institution here is a microcosm of English society and Anderson emphasizes class differences more than generational ones. The real tormentors are not the clueless adults but the fascistic prefects, known as whips, who inflict verbal abuse, cold showers and floggings on the other students.

Subjected to increasingly brutal humiliations, Mick issues a call to arms both plaintive and urgent: "When do we live? That's what I want to know." The famous finale -- in which Mick and his friends open fire from the rooftops -- is a direct quote from Jean Vigo's ode to anti-authoritarian rebellion, "Zero for Conduct" (1933), except in Vigo's film the students hurl old shoes and tin cans.

Anderson's massacre today unavoidably brings to mind Columbine and Virginia Tech. On the matter of whether his movie could be seen as advocating violence, he chose his words carefully. "The work is not a propagandist one," he said in an "interview" that he conducted with himself for the original press kit (reprinted in the DVD booklet). "It gives you a situation and shows what happens ... when certain forces on the one side are set against certain forces on the other, without any mutual understanding."

A former critic and documentarian, Anderson began his fiction filmmaking career as part of the British New Wave of socially aware realists. His first feature, "This Sporting Life" (1963), which earned Richard Harris an Oscar nomination, is among the best of the so-called kitchen-sink dramas, but by the time he made "If.... " he was altogether less interested in naturalism.

The film dips into the toolkit of '60s art cinema, using chapter titles, surrealist interludes and arbitrary switches between black-and-white and color. Its most memorable scenes have a faintly unreal quality -- one slow-motion reverie, in which one boy longingly watches another on the gymnastics high bar, is remarkable for its candor and tenderness.

"If.... " was McDowell's big-screen debut and it made him a star. Two years later he sealed his bad-boy image with "A Clockwork Orange." He worked with Anderson a few more times and in fact played characters named Mick Travis in 1973's "O Lucky Man!" and 1982's "Brittania Hospital." Both films, though inferior to "If ...," have their moments and the trilogy constitutes a dogged, damning attack on the institutions of British society. Their stance could be summed up by the title of Anderson's collected writings: "Never Apologize."

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