Rewind film: If …, directed by Lindsay Anderson
"Death to the oppressor," Malcolm McDowell tells his friends after a brutal flogging in an English public school. It seems like the typical overblown politicising of a 16-year-old until the bloody denouement of this 1960s counter-culture classic.
Director Lindsay Anderson came to prominence with This Sporting Life (1963), about a working-class rugby player in a northern town. If … is a subject closer to his own life as a middle-class product of a bizarre public school system.
The film begins with the boys returning to "college", with prefects (the "Whips") ordering the "Scum" to warm toilet seats, and a bewildered new boy being indoctrinated into the cultish traditions and argot ."If you get it wrong, we'll be beaten," he's told.
McDowell, in his film debut, is Mick Travis, a senior with no respect for tradition. The satire is such that it's hard to tell what is factual and what is exaggerated. Did boys really drop trousers after dinner for the nurse to inspect their genitals? Did prefects really swap their junior servants according to beauty?
McDowell and his friends progress through minor acts of rebellion from drinking to shooting the chaplain with blanks. The surreality (the chaplain pops out of a filing cabinet in the headmaster's office to receive McDowell's apology) means it's never clear what is real and what isn't, and the flicking between colour and black and white heightens the effect.
"There's no such thing as a wrong war," McDowell says as his non-conformity becomes more and more "harmful to college morale". "Violence and revolution are the only pure acts."
Those thoughts are acted on at the end, a horrific yet blackly comic sequence in which he and his fellow rebels open fire on teachers, parents, ministers and soldiers. Even in these post-Columbine days, it still shocks, even if it might be in Travis' imagination.
Cannes critics gave it the Palme d'Or. McDowell is physical, yet his most powerful moments are subtle, either side of his caning. Stanley Kubrick was so impressed, he signed him for 1971's A Clockwork Orange.