Film: If… (1968)
Director: Lindsay Anderson
Starring: Malcolm McDowell
Rating: ****

“It’s a natural characteristic of adolescents to want to proclaim individuality… It’s a quite blameless form of existentialism”. So says Peter Jeffrey’s liberal-progressive headmaster to Malcolm McDowell’s rebellious schoolboy, Mick Travis, in Lindsay Anderson’s searing satire. Anderson uses the English public school as a representation of the repressive nature of English society and its attendant values, whilst simultaneously espousing the boys’ (led by McDowell’s Travis, in a first major screen appearance) climactic symphony of savagery as a logical act of revolutionary insurrection.

Travis and his friends, fresh-faced and fearfully disillusioned young men, are dogged and hounded by an unremittingly conformist system until they are prompted to act in the film’s cataclysmic finale. Anderson, making best use of the nouvelle vague’s jump-cuts and jolts between colour and black-and-white cinematography, captures both the bland humourlessness of the school and the boys’ exuberant descent into chaos with equal beauty.

X-rated upon its initial release, the film’s scenes of sex and violence will strike the modern viewer, in terms of their relative gratuity, as perversely gentrified. It is the incidental message, forged in the marriage of form, image and content, which remains so fascinating. It caught the zeitgeist in 1968, against a backdrop of student-lead riots, anti-war sentiment and civil rights protests, and could do so again whenever society loses step with its intelligent, disenfranchised youth. If… is a timeless and high-water mark of dangerous, vital British cinema.

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