In 1938 Virginia Woolf published Three Guineas, a feminist broadside which makes this memorably patient and thoughtful response to a request for donations to a Cambridge women’s college: “No guinea of earned money should go to rebuilding the college on the old plan. . . . [T]he guinea should be earmarked ‘Rags. Petrol. Matches.’ And this note should be attached to it. ‘Take this guinea and with it burn the college to the ground. Set fire to the old hypocrisies. Let the light of the burning building scare the nightingales and incarnadine the willows.’”
Theodore Dalrymple has called Ms. Woolf’s two cents a “locus classicus of self-pity and victimhood,” but who hasn’t felt that way about school at one time or another—what with the math tests, the mystery meat, the maddening tintinnabulation of the bells? Lindsay Anderson’s classic 1969 film If . . . ., re-released several months ago by the Criterion Collection, distills this sour mash-note of adolescence to its potent, albeit absurd and sometimes unpalatable, essence.
Mr. Anderson’s three guineas are subversive British schoolmates Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell), Johnny (David Wood), and Wallace (Richard Warwick), who should be earmarked resistance, rebellion, and death. Though they’re upperclassmen, their lives are governed by a tyrannical tribunal of their peers, glorified hall monitors known as Whips. Rowntree (Robert Swann), the gaunt, lubricious king of Whips, is first heard ordering junior students to “take these to my study,” these being eggs, golf clubs, and wine. Then his unforgettable mach schnell: “Run! Run in the corridors!”
Mick Travis is introduced in a strikingly different fashion, swaddled in a scarf and broad-brimmed black hat like the Shadow. Like the Shadow, he knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men: The whole system is a winding-sheet, tailored to burke all liveliness and imagination. “When do we live?” he groans. “That’s what I want to know.” Lest we miss the point, the lads have pin-ups not only of girls but also of Che, Geronimo, and Munch’s “Scream.” (As the term goes on, the pin-ups multiply, with Mick favoring lions and candid shots of war.) His grandiose rhetoric is an even more important clue to his temperament. “My face,” he declares, “is a never-fading source of wonder to me.” This might be the text not only for If . . . . but also for its era, deeply narcissistic and occasionally just interesting enough to justify it.
Still, the great unintentional triumph of If . . . . is to make the new order look every bit as fanatical and unreflective as the old. Look first to the “old hypocrisies” depicted by Mr. Anderson’s vision of school and society. The Whips, those who play the game, have free rein. They punish their charges with cold showers and officially sanctioned beatings. The youngest boys are forced to “scum” for them, that is, to run their errands and worse. When Rowntree hints at the latter taboo, another Whip is outraged. “It’s just a matter of setting an example,” he says. “If we can’t set an example, who can? That’s why we’re given our privileges.”
“Admirable sentiments,” Rowntree laughs. Here’s the standard critique of imperialism, in microcosm: The high-flown rationales are merely a disguise for gleeful exploitation and cruelty. Savagery is ubiquitous. The school’s most pitiable ectomorph is given a swirlie, then left hanging by the ankles over the toilet, surely one of cinema’s most unorthodox uses of the crucifixion motif. For the crime of being a “nuisance”—giving lip, drinking vodka, wearing a necklace of his baby teeth—Mick is caned viciously by Rowntree, then caned some more for putting his jacket back on without permission. In tears, he must then endure the humiliation of shaking hands with his torturer.
But what about the assault Mick and his cohort mount on the establishment and its ugly traditions? Here things get thornier. Mick’s a veritable Bakunin when it comes to revolutionary platitudes. “Violence and revolution are the only pure acts,” he intones. “War is the last possible creative act.” In an essay for this Criterion Collection edition, the film historian David Ehrenstein calls Rudyard Kipling’s “If” a poem “redolent of privilege, ‘Empire,’ and all the ‘values’ Lindsay Anderson’s identically titled 1969 film abhors.” Thus does Mr. Ehrenstein deep-six the best that can be said of Mick Travis, which is that he is like all creative and remarkable boys in deploring any values but his own.
In short, Mick is interesting in an environment that rewards the opposite, and his vibrant fantasy life is what sets him far apart from other morose, grudge-holding Caulfields. He steals a motorcycle and takes it on a joyride; he steals a nameless, feline beauty (Christine Noonan) from the diner where she works; he steals cases of ammunition from the school armory. The film’s final gun battle pits the headmaster, a bishop, a visiting general, the student body, even the lunch ladies against Mick’s heavily-armed and bomber-jacketed imagination.
Living in an age of actual school shootings, like the one that tore through an Ohio school several days ago, one sees this daydream for what it is. All the same, it vividly dramatizes what goes through the head of the angry youth who finds the world won’t bend to his whims. That discovery is an unavoidable step on a path leading either to tragedy or to a hard-won maturity. What lends If . . . . its lasting charge is that it’s preposterous enough to show that in the real world, tradition and youth must learn to play nice, eventually, or both will be left with less than they started with. A fitting way to have rounded out the decade that, like it or not, has been teaching us that simple lesson ever since.