Supposedly (and hilariously) a favourite of David Cameron’s, If…. is a seminal British satire set in a private school.
The school itself is suitably grim; all wooden panels and cruelty. From the corridors to the showers, it’s policed by predatory prefects; slimy George Osborne clones who relish their pathetic amount of power over defenceless children and will inevitably end up running the country. Disciplinarian nonsense is spouted by disinterested teachers/priests/tormentors. But in a dingy dorm room (not unlike The Swamp from M*A*S*H) plastered with pin-ups and revolutionaries, Malcolm McDowell and his friends drink, smoke and rebel.
Made in 1968, this was McDowell’s first movie. He stands out from the cast with captivating unpredictability; you can see why his performance caught the attention of Stanley Kubrick, who then cast him in A Clockwork Orange. This has a similar sense of volatility and subversion; Lindsay Anderson directs with great restlessness, switching between monochrome and colour to surreally powerful effect. It’s a rebellious and artistic movie, with an intense use of sound adding to the film’s off-kilter perspective, as it builds to its inevitable conclusion.
Named after a Rudyard Kipling poem, inspired by Zéro de conduite and crediting a young Stephen Frears as assistant to the director, If…. is an extraordinary piece of art. It opens fire on traditionalism, conservatism and authoritarianism, in an unruly hail of civil disobedience. Hierarchies, institutions and bullies are savagely taken out, all from the confines of a boarding school. Anarchic and anachronistic, it’s like a violent clash of Charles Dickens and ’60s counterculture; a Pythonesque assault on the British establishment. David Cameron must have been thinking of a different film; probably The Iron Lady. It’s an easy mistake to make.