|The revolutionary spirit of the sixties....|
Lindsay Anderson’s most successful film was never made to cash in on the revolutionary fever of the late sixties although it was made around the same time as the Paris uprising in May 1968. In fact the idea for the film first surfaced in 1966 when Seth Holt, a British Film Director who directed feature films for Hammer Studios, brought the idea to Lindsay. The script he showed him was written by John Howlett and David Sherwin and was about their experiences of life in an English public school. The pair had been working on the script for a number of years but nobody seemed interested until they brought Crusaders, the name of the initial script, to Lindsay. Not too impressed with the original he decided to meet with the two authors and it was agreed that he along with Sherwin would collaborate and see if they could produce a less naive piece of work. The Indian born director and writer was able to include his own dire experiences of life at his old school, Cheltenham College and of society in the intervening years although he has said it was not autobiographical. With Lindsay’s input it became a must more intimately personnel experience more in the tradition of Free Cinema, with a story written free from outside interference. When the revised script was completed it was shown to Michael Medwin and Albert Finney who had started their own production company Memorial Pictures. It was following this tie up that the title was changed to if....
With the help of This Sporting Life (1963) casting director Miriam Brickman the actors was chosen. Auditions took place and it was Brickman who suggested auditioning Malcolm McDowell for the main lead Mick Travis, in what was to be his debut feature film and a role that led to Stanley Kubrick casting him as Alex in Clockwork Orange (1971). Arthur Lowe was cast because of his work in This Sporting Life, Mary McLoad and Graham Crowden were chosen because of their previous work with the director at The Royal Court Theatre. It was arranged for Polish DOP Miroslav Ondricek to return to this country from Prague to work on the film after previously working on The White Bus (1967). Union regulations stipulated that that you must have a ‘reserve’ British cameraman. This is how the award winning Chris Menges came to work on the film. As with most British movies finance was impossible to obtain from the UK but fortunately Medwin and Finney impressed Charles Bludhorn, the head of US Paramount Pictures, enough to provide the funding.
As far as the British censor was concerned the only problem seemed to be the short nude scene in the roadside cafe involving Christine Noonan and McDowell. He surprisingly allowed a glimpse of Mrs Kemp’s pubic hair as she wanders naked down the dormitory corridor but made the boys cover their private parts in the shower scene. In Greece, under the Colonels, the entire last sequence was cut which obviously destroyed the film, with Portugal refusing to show the film at all. Out of the Communist country's it was Poland that seemed to have the biggest problem with the film. Other countries made various cuts but the USA gave it an X certificate and passed it un-mutilated.
Popular with students and young people, even with it carrying an X certificate, it did reasonably well in this country, it was in the US, Europe and in some Communist countries that it did its best business. Lindsay maintains it is by the vitality of emotional impulse, the urgency of what needs to be said rather than star names and a big budget production, something that’s not always recognised by the British public.
Although identified with the sixties the film could have been made at any time. Intentionally there were no contemporary references in the film deliberately to make it difficult to date. Partly filmed at Lindsay’s old school Cheltenham College, the film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in the 1969 Film Festival, which at the time seemed to legitimize the spirit of revolt that has swept through Europe. The film was a wonderfully scurrilous attack on the absurdities of the public school system combining an observational style with modernist techniques for example chapter headings and abrupt jumps between colour and black and white (which some have said was for economic reasons and not for art sake) and the gradual shift into a sort of fantasy, or for some, wishful thinking! The whole film is a metaphor for British society and an attack on authority, with a form of education that lead to conformity and dullness but was expected to produce our bigoted ruling classes including membership of parliament and the House of Lords, the church which has always been deemed the Tory party at prayer and of course those that commanded the armed forces and sent young men and women to war. The London Film Festival showed the film and it was nominated for a prize that was given at that time by the BFI but as Lindsay opined in 1994 'just as the British were not interested in financing the film, they were not interested in acknowledging it'
'The basic tensions, between hierarchy and anarchy, independence and tradition, liberty and law, are always with us'. It’s a story about freedom and its romantic connotations. The world rallies as it always will, and brings its overwhelming firepower to bear on the men who say 'no'. Still true to this very day. Was Mick Travis right when he said Violence and revolution are the only pure acts?