A Very Public Rebellion

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Review of 'If...', director Lindsay Anderson

1968 was the big year of revolt, its epicentre the student-led insurrection in Paris. But the spirit of resistance in the field of culture and the arts had begun earlier. In the late 1950s French New Wave cinema had rejected the well made studio film and taken to the streets to celebrate freedom. The spin-off here was the emergence of a number of film directors such as Lindsay Anderson. He made 'If...' in 1968, the very year in which the spirit of revolt became a material force.

The film is set in a public school whose archaic rules and customs are designed to foster team spirit and the ethos of obedience. There is lots of chapel attendance, hymn singing and games. But even in this backward world resistance stirs. Three of the older boys exist in a state of permanent rebellion against the petty rules. They stick photos on the study walls of Che Guevara, Mao Zedong and of nameless black rebels. Mick (played by Malcolm McDowell) is their leader. Matters come to a head when he is beaten by the head boy for his 'attitude'. Using a forgotten stack of arms they find under the school stage, Mick and the other rebels lead a guerrilla attack on the bigwigs assembled for founders' day.

The film mixes realism and fantasy. So, after Mick and the rebels have shot and bayoneted the school chaplain during a cadet corps exercise, the headmaster produces the chaplain from a gigantic drawer in his study and demands an apology from the boys. Fantasy is also present in the scene where Mick and a friend steal a motorbike and drive to a cafe where Mick engages in a ritual dance with the counter girl, who joins the guerrilla group.

The climax to the film is a kind of wish fulfilment--the 'if' of the title reflecting a sense of 'if only' one could take revenge. The rebels talk the language of national liberation guerrilla movements. 'Violence and revolution are the only pure acts,' muses Mick in response to the obscenity of child mortality in Africa.

'If...' is a product of its period. But it is being re-released now because sections of the film industry have woken up to the fact that global struggle is back on the agenda. The mood of hatred towards authority remains as fresh as ever. Catch it if you can on its limited release up and down the country.