24 August 2008 | slokes
With All Thy Getting, Get Under Cover
Lindsay Anderson's "if...." presents a fable disguised (most of the time) as a slice-of-life set in a British upper-class boarding school. Bouyed by the twin-barreled audacity of Anderson and the film's breakout star, Malcolm McDowell, "if...." fiercely, timelessly encapsulates the spirit of 1960s rebellion even as it threatens to go off the rails every five minutes in the second half.
McDowell is Mick Travis, a returning upperclassman at College House, one of several houses that constitute a British boarding school. While other older boys, called "whips", enforce a nasty form of discipline on their juniors, called "scum", Mick and two friends contemplate an act of revolution to disturb College House's rigid hierarchy once and for all.
"Violence and revolution are the only pure acts," Mick declares.
In case one doubts his cold-blooded dedication and impatience for change, his next line sends Columbine chills up your spine. Told someone dies of starvation in Calcutta every eight minutes, his reply is a succinct: "Eight minutes is a long time."
There are points where one can't help feeling the script needed another round of polishing, like the way it introduces characters like the teacher Mr. Thomas and the "scum" Biles and Jute only to drop them in the second half as Mick's story takes over completely. But Mick's hardcore attitude of radical chic and the surreal nonsense that spurts out now and then before taking over entirely actually give "if...." much of its rich, iconoclastic majesty. With its attention to institutional detail, the sound of boyish babble echoing off the linoleum, you really feel yourself another inmate in College House, and are eager for Mick to effect your escape as well as his.
For me, that's why the first half works so much better than the second half. It sends up the public-school culture in such a way that its actual demolition later on seems unnecessary. Robert Swann sets the right tone as the head whip Rowntree, a toffee-nosed princeling who carries his thrashing cane like a kingly scepter and tells one young scum: "Markland, warm a lavatory seat for me. I'll be ready in three minutes." Swann's as brilliant a villain as McDowell himself would be in many later films.
Watching McDowell here is to see his Alex from "Clockwork Orange" in embryonic form, his simpering smile, his animalistic fury, his waggish ease-putting charm. A case can be made that Mick is a more disturbing character than Alex, since he is presented so much more sympathetically and acts out even more violently by the film's end.
Ah, the end, what can be said about that that hasn't been said. I won't spoil anything, but I do think the film's surrealism needs to be factored in more than it has in considering the moral implications of Mick & Co's final act. Logic seems to flee from the corners of the screen long before. One long sequence features Mick and friend Johnny stealing a motorbike without consequence and Mick coupling on the floor of a coffee house with a town girl, who later waves to him when he spots her with a high-powered telescope. If you can't see the madness in moments like that, then maybe you deserve to think the end of the film was played straight.
I'm not much for the ending of the film. "Do you find it facile?" asks the History Master played by the marvelous Graham Crowden, and my answer would be yes. As I said, I think it's a flawed finish, not just for its unpleasant resonances but the way nothing is resolved, no narrative or character arc.
But "if...." is still bracing, still tough, and still refreshing in the way it presents McDowell in raw, undistilled form, in a setting fully deserving of his visible scorn. Anderson makes you want to lash out, too, making the most of "if...."'s enigmatic tagline: "Which side will you be on?"