Directed by Lindsay Anderson
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 112 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 mono
Release Date: June 18, 2007
Review Date: June 3, 2007
As one of the “angry young directors” of the British cinema movement of the late 1950s and 1960s (along with Tony Richardson, Jack Clayton, Karel Reisz, and John Schlesinger), Lindsay Anderson found a great attraction in anarchy. In many of his films including This Sporting Life, O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital, he has often shown a supreme interest in rebels, those who have a growing impatience with the status quo and who long for something new, different, and exciting. With If. . . ., Anderson reached the zenith of his career in examining life, finding it wanting, and doing something drastic to change it.
If. . . . takes place at College House, a typical British public school with the mostly middle class students following the routines and rituals of those who had trod the same paths for over a century. Into the mix of upper and lower classmen, headmasters, and teachers are three young rebels: the athletic Wallace (Richard Warwick), the faithful as a birddog Johnny (David Wood), and their leader in all things unruly, Travis (Malcolm McDowell). Little by little, the boys edge closer and closer to outright mutiny leading to reprimands and eventually a brutal caning by the “whips,” the senior prefects at the school who have a low tolerance for insubordination. After that, their mission seems clear: bring down the school in the showiest way possible.
The incisive script by David Sherwin (based on an earlier screenplay by Sherwin and John Howlett) and with contributions by writer/director Anderson is really about more than just one English public school. It its own allegorical way, it’s also a scathing indictment of the complacent British government and the monstrous class system which at the time was nearly impossible to break free of. Anderson felt drastic measures were needed to shake the ruling class to its very marrow, and If. . . . provided his symbolic, sometimes surrealistic solution to the problem.
Malcolm McDowell’s incredible debut performance in If. . . . is the stuff of legends. Those wild, fiery eyes, the shocking tension in his face, and the near-demonic expressions of inspiration and calculation are a marvel to behold. It’s no wonder that Stanley Kubrick chose him to play the depraved Alex in A Clockwork Orange after seeing his mesmerizing work in this film. And his fellow classmates are entirely worthy of him. This group of naturalistic actors playing students both high and low gives collectively one of the most believable sets of youthful performances in cinema history. Comparisons to the actors playing students in an American movie released around the same time, Up the Down Staircase, have the British youngsters easily coming out on top. And a great group of older British character actors, among them Mona Washbourne as the house matron, Peter Jeffrey as the Headmaster, and Anthony Nicholls as a dimwitted general, also add greatly to the film’s effectiveness.
The majority of the film was photographed in rich color, but there are arbitrary scenes shot in black and white, just because director Anderson thought they’d look stupendous in monochrome (they do). There’s no deeper meaning to which scenes were shot in black and white; the rebellious Anderson simply had to do things his way, emblematic of the entire risky venture. If. . . . takes its rightful place among cinema’s more revolutionary (in more ways than one) achievements.
The film’s theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1 is presented in a faithful anamorphic video transfer. The film’s sharpness is excellent in the color scenes (some of the the black and white ones are intentionally grainy and less sharp which make for sometimes ill-suited pairings), and flesh tones retain a realism which surprises. These scenes never look dated or betray the age of the movie. There are some occasional moiré patterns glimpsed, but they are very fleeting and not problematic. The film has been divided into nine chapters, paralleling the nine chapters which the screenplay has divided the film into.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono sound is typical of the era, but sounds appropriate for the presentation. There’s no hiss, flutter, or distortion to be heard, and the volume has been set to a reasonable level contrary to some other recent Criterion discs.
Disc one features a running commentary recorded in 2007 featuring critic David Robinson offering valuable background on the making of the film and analysis of the filmmakers’ techniques and accomplishments. Interspersed with this commentary are comments recorded in 2002 by star Malcolm McDowell recounting his memories of filming the picture. The combination of these two tracks into one unified whole makes for a scintillating commentary that’s well worth listening to.
A 2003 episode of the Scottish arts show “Cast and Crew” features members of the production staff discussing their memories of working on the film and its impact on their lives and careers. Intercut with their interviews are filmed comments from Malcolm McDowell and a 1985 interview with director Lindsay Anderson. The 41-minute program is divided into four chapters and is presented in anamorphic widescreen.
Actor Graham Crowden who played the school’s history master participates in a 14-minute interview filmed in 2007. In it he expresses his great admiration for director Anderson and his awe at Malcolm McDowell’s confidence for one so young. The interview is presented in anamorphic video.
The DVD’s most outstanding bonus feature is the 1954 Oscar-winning documentary short Thursday’s Children directed and written by Lindsay Anderson and Guy Brenton. The 22-minute film deals with the instruction of four year old deaf children at the Royal School for Deaf Children, and it offers an inspiring and heartwarming look at the initial efforts of these youngsters to learn sounds, words, and speech. The 4:3 black and white transfer shows its age but is nevertheless a wonder. It’s narrated by Richard Burton.
The DVD packaging also contains a 30-page booklet containing a few stills from the film (many more would have been appreciated), critic David Ehrenstein’s look back at the cinematic influences on If. . . . , excerpts from screenwriter David Sherwin’s published diary Going Mad about the lengthy process of writing the script, and a fascinating bit of self-publicity where writer Lindsay Anderson interviews director Lindsay Anderson about his new film If. . . . which was published to coincide with the movie’s debut engagements.
If. . . . certainly earns its reputation among Britain’s most memorable films of insurgence made during the tumultuous 1960s. That it continues to awe today’s filmgoer without seeming dated in the least is a true testament to its outstanding quality and accomplishment. It’s a film I can most enthusiastically recommend.