Watching If… again after nearly 50 years

I watched Lindsay Anderson’s If… when it came out in 1968, in one of the cinemas in Oxford, with my undergraduate friends. I loved it. When you’re young, and your world is heady with Flower Power and the Summer of Love and the protest songs of Dylan and the student unrest of ‘68, which all promised such great new things – what’s not to love about a film like If…?

Our teenage heroes, raging with existential questions and hormones, are sixth-formers suffering under the tyranny of tradition and authority at their hidebound school. Its culture is represented by the spineless housemaster who gives permission to the senior prefects or ‘whips’, to carry out sadistic beatings, because, well, anything for a quiet life, while his sexually unsatisfied wife roams naked through the boys’ dormitories; the chaplain preaching violent militarism and leading the military parades; the wannabe trendy headmaster, mouthing platitudes about progress and privilege in the cause of service. Our heroes steal a motorbike and ride to a transport cafe where they meet The Girl. This leads to a scene of naked romping and love-making on the floor, (probably a fantasy?) to the accompaniment of the Sanctus from the Missa Luba. They finally strike a blow during an exercise of the Officer Training Corps, when they’ve found some live ammunition, and shoot the Chaplain. Because, as they agreed in one of their vodka-fuelled discussions, “one man can change the world with a bullet in the right place”.

Here the film becomes (probably?) a surreal fantasy, as the headmaster makes them apologise to the Chaplain, who appears lying in a drawer in his study. Our heroes are punished by being made to clear out a forgotten old storage space. Here they find a supply of weapons and ammunition that’s just been abandoned there, obviously. They climb to the school rooftops on Founder’s Day, set fire to the Chapel, and let loose a hail of bullets upon the fleeing school and guests. The Girl turns out to be a dead shot, killing the headmaster with a pistol bullet between the eyes.

If… has been described variously as the 12th, 16th, or 9th best British film of all time. Cinematically, that may be true; I couldn’t say. And it’s fun to watch, not least for old time’s sake. It feels like we’ve shared so much of our lives together.

But I’ve also got to say that watching If… again after nearly 50 years left me kind of lukewarm and disappointed. All of that rebellion and revolution and change that it dreams of, and seems to promise: what does it actually amount to? These lads are not oppressed and under-privileged. They are the privileged elite, enjoying education at one of the country’s leading private schools (fees £634 per annum, the headmaster proudly tells them). They’re not going to stand in line in the dole queue. They are the ones who, when traditional morality is thrown out of the window, will go on to be the Bullingdon Club, the bankers and financiers and CEOs and landlords and politicians, still at the top 50 years later, with an even bigger gap between them and us oiks below them.

So, pardon me if I’m not really cheering them on as they massacre their hated enemies down in the school quadrangle. Instead, I’m secretly hoping they’ll be shot down and the whole place be blown up. And that the nation will decide, in light of the massacre, that elite private schools, and films about them, are a blight on a free society that we have suffered way too long.

Perhaps that’s the message of the film after all? But if it is, it’s a message we surely haven’t understood, and 50 years on our society is even more divided and more unequal than it was back in 1968.

(If… is currently available on Netflix UK)

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