Appearing when it did, at the end of a year of youthful dissidence and revolt, If.... has often seemed to be a film conceived and made purposely to reflect (even to cash in on) the revolutionary fever of the late Sixties.
The truth is quite different. Some time in 1966, I had a telephone call from a friend of mine, Seth Holt, whom I had known first as an editor and an associate producer at Ealing Studios, and later as a director in his own right. Seth surprised me by asking if I would be interested in the idea of directing a film with him as producer. He explained that John Howlett, a young writer with whom he had been working, had shown him a script which he had thought was very promising but didn't feel he had the experience to tackle himself.
The script was a story of life in an English public school, and Howlett had written it in collaboration with a friend, David Sherwin, with whom he had shared horrific experiences at Tonbridge School. They had been working on the script for some years, and in various drafts had submitted it to such people as Nicholas Ray (whose romantic Rebel Without a Cause they had much admired) and the British producer Ian Dalrymple (who had told them they both deserved to be beaten). Seth had not felt he was competent to undertake such a subject as he had not been to public school himself. Of course, I said I would be delighted at the idea of him producing a film for me, and asked him to send me the script.
I remember clearly the excited premonition with which I opened the envelope and extracted a script with the romantically promising title of Crusaders. After reading it, though, I found myself disappointed. It was certainly appealing in an anarchic, even poetic way, but I felt there was a naivety about it which, though authentically adolescent, made me feel that it could only be directed by the authors themselves. I said as much to Seth, but he asked me at least to take it a step further and meet the writers.
So we all met one evening at a pub called The Pillars of Hercules in Greek Street, in Soho. I liked John and David, and as soon as they realised that I had no wish to "tone down" their story, they were responsive to my ideas. I agreed to go on discussing the direction a revised script might take. John Howlett was busy working on a script for Seth, so it fell to David Sherwin to undertake the collaboration with me.
I responded to Crusaders not just because I approved of its romantic and rebellious spirit, but because there was so much of my own experience that could relate directly to the subject - and not just my experience of school, but my experience of society also in the years that had followed. So from the beginning the making of If.... was a warmly and intimately personal experience.
David Sherwin and I took Crusaders to pieces, invented new characters, new incidents and a new structure. We decided early on that we wanted to make a film in "epic" style - that is to say, a film which would do more than simply tell the story of this or that individual, and which would aim consciously at the dignity and importance of a general theme. At that very first meeting at The Pillars of Hercules, I remember, I had started elaborating the idea of an apocalyptic finale to the film, but as the script developed we were consciously determined not to appear to be reflecting, in journalistic style, revolutionary student action in France or in America. That was one reason why we were careful to use no contemporary pop music in the picture, and why we eliminated all the fashionable iconography of revolt from the walls of the boys' studies. (The one poster of Che Guevara that can be seen pinned up on the wall of the sweatroom had been pinned up by a boy at the school where we were shooting; I didn't have the heart to take it down.)
It was hard to get the money to make If...., just as it has always been hard to get the money for any British film of originality and risk. The project was turned down, in traditional style, by all the British distributors (even by Granada, then searching for a suitable subject to begin a programme of film production). Eventually, [we] managed to impress Charles Bludhorn, the idiosyncratic head of Paramount Pictures, and we secured the backing of Paramount.
It was generally imagined by everyone that our subject was "too English" to appeal outside the British (possibly even the English) market. In the event, although the picture was enthusiastically received by the British critics, it did only average business in this country. It was abroad that it made its chief impact; in the United States, in Europe, and even behind the Communist frontiers. If only British distributors could learn the lesson that it is not necessarily by "international elements" in casting or in script that a film can transcend the limitations of provincialism or parochialism. It is by the vitality of emotional impulse, the urgency of what needs to be said. This is a truth Americans seem to recognise, alas, much more readily than the English.
For me, as I suppose for most of the public-school educated, the world of school remains one of extraordinary, significant vividness; a world of reality and symbol, of mingled affection and reserve. Any school - particularly any boarding school - is a microcosm; another inducement for anyone who hankers, as I always do, for that kind of poetry that can claim "the grandeur of generality". And, from the start, the epic style was what David Sherwin and I aimed at (John Howlett was now working with Seth Holt on another project) - the school as paradigm of an obstinately hierarchic Britain, of the Western world, of authority and anarchism.
Cataclysm seemed always to be the inevitable climax. Crusaders had also ended in violence, but on a personal level. We were after something bigger, something that went beyond naturalism, yet with realism, an inner logic that would enable us to progress from an apparently naturalistic start to a violently epic conclusion. (We were not, that is, after an effect-journalism à la Godard.) When we wrote it, our conclusion seemed like extremest fantasy. When we shot it, in April and May 1968, it seemed like prophecy.
The style had to be simple, direct and concrete. "Trendy" was our dirty * * word; the more so because our subject was youth. So - no pop, no pot, no soft-focus foliage in the foreground, and very little use of the zoom lens. We shot some sequences in monochrome because they would have been too expensive, in equipment or in time, to shoot in colour. And anyway, colour in films is enhanced, and becomes a more positive element, when it is intermittently used. As for nervous quibbles about "transitions into fantasy", these are unlikely to trouble either the genuinely simple or the properly sophisticated.
The film was also the start of another important collaboration for me, with the actor Malcolm McDowell. When I first met Malcolm, he was a young actor who had done a few things in the theatre and on television. He was a middle-class boy whose father had a pub, I think. He wasn't state-educated but went to a minor public school, so the background of the film was not foreign to him. With other characters, that was a problem when it came to casting, and it highlights a difficulty that inevitably exists in a class society. The atmosphere of the film had to be, as it is, middle-class or upper-middle-class; it was that kind of school.
But when we advertised for people to be in the film, most of the actors who came along for interview turned out to be working class, and they wouldn't have looked right alongside the real public schoolboys we used for the crowd scenes. Of course, the other problem in casting was that we realised that we ought to have 16- or 17-year-olds. Malcolm must have been about 24 at the time, but I see no disparity when Malcolm is sitting in the chapel at Cheltenham alongside real boys from the college. In a film of this kind, age is largely a matter of spirit, attitude and feeling, and I don't think that the mature actors who played Mick and his friends - that is to say Malcolm, David Wood and Richard Warwick - seemed particularly old. I am glad to say that If.... marked the beginning of a real career for Malcolm, and his performance led to his being chosen by Stanley Kubrick for the lead in A Clockwork Orange.
The use of monochrome in If.... has puzzled a number of people, and there have been all sorts of theories about it marking the shift from reality to fantasy. This was not at all the case, or the intention. Quite simply, it arose from a technical problem which made it difficult, in terms of lighting, to achieve the correct colour quality in the chapel sequence. I suggested we shoot the scene in monochrome, which we did.
Later, we shot some other scenes in monochrome, not for technical reasons but merely to give a poetic balance to the film. The results helped us make the film work on a level of imagination beyond naturalism. If you shoot a film entirely in monochrome or colour, you don't disrupt the audience in any way. In If.... we found we were able to use monochrome to give the film's texture something beyond the surface naturalism you might find in, say, Dead Poets Society (which, of course, everyone enjoyed and which probably made a lot more money than If....).
It is interesting that there are some scenes which seem entirely right, but which were not in the original script when we began shooting. For example, the scene immediately after Mick is beaten by Rowntree was one I didn't like. We shot it, but I wasn't happy with it. Then, just before we were due to go into the studio for a week's shooting, I realised what the scene should be. David Sherwin came to my place and we made a series of collages that Mick could have on his study wall and fire darts into. That scene - Malcolm did the firing of the darts himself - solved the transition after the beating.
Some people disliked the fact that Mick shakes hands with Rowntree after being beaten, but that is what was done in those situations. The criticism was that he should be seen as a more overt rebel, but it comes about differently, more interestingly. His firing darts into the collages broadened the impact and stopped the film being just a school story.
There were other scenes that were called surreal, such as that with the chaplain in the drawer. I remember Harold Pinter telling me that he liked If.... very much but thought I'd made one big mistake by putting the chaplain in the drawer. I said, "Oh, I'm sorry," but I thought he was wrong; he's not renowned for his sense of humour, really. It is interesting that a lot of the headmaster's dialogue in that scene was taken from a book written by an ex-housemaster at Eton, so some of the more idiotic things spoken by the headmaster are real.
Emotionally, the film is revolutionary, but intellectually, I don't know. I think that it's a film of some subtlety and ambiguity. I wouldn't have thought that, rationally, it seems as though Mick is going to win, since the forces of society are ranged against him at the end. At the time of the film's release, the impact of the student unrest in 1968 was such that the picture was greeted with enthusiasm by the young. In Britain, interestingly enough, it was forbidden to everyone under the age of 18, because it carried an X certificate. But younger people somehow managed to get in to see it.
There were some problems with the censor over nudity in the film, and cuts were made in parts of the world, but none of them were really serious, except in Greece, under the colonels, where the entire last sequence was cut. Obviously, that destroyed the film completely. It was shown in 1970 at a British Film Festival in Warsaw, but Poland had a reactionary government - a reactionary Communist government, of course - so they didn't buy it, and it was a long time before it was shown there. I met some Poles who had seen it in illegal copies, and they were surprised to discover that the film was shot in colour as these copies had been made in black and white.
We were really enormously lucky in that the film was conceived and worked out before the student revolutions took place, so it came out providentially at just the right time. I think, above all, it is true to the educational experience and the youth experience of David Sherwin and myself; it never pretends to be a documentary about 1968.
I remember my friend Louis Marcorelles, a very nice man and a highly respected French critic, coming to see a preview of the film with the documentary director Emile de Antonio. Afterwards, I could tell that it hadn't gone down very well with De Antonio, and Louis - who was very easily influenced, God bless him - said, "What a pity you couldn't have real schoolboys and make it more like a documentary," which was a total misunderstanding of the film.
If.... won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in the 1969 festival, which was very pleasant, but a bit of a fluke, I think. The jury that year was headed by Luchino Visconti and he wanted the prize to go to Z, the film about the assassination of a Greek MP made by Costa-Gavras. Then there was Adalen '31, a sort of socialist film about a strike made by Bo Wideberg. I don't think the jury members could make up their minds between those two films, and somebody probably said, "Why not give it to If.... ?" and that's how we got it.
The London Film Festival also showed the film, and it was nominated for a prize that was awarded at that time by the British Film Institute. But, just as the British were not interested in financing the film, they were not interested in acknowledging it. The festival prize went to a film by Jean-Marie Straub, The Little Notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach. Typical, really.
This article is extracted from 'Never Apologise: The Collected Writings of Lindsay Anderson', edited by Paul Ryan, published by Plexus Publishing on 15 November (£19.99)
Malcolm McDowell will be in conversation with Paul Ryan at the National Film Theatre, London SE1 on Sunday at 6.30pm, followed by a screening of 'If....', opening the Lindsay Anderson: A Critical Conscience season, to 30 November (020-7928 3232; www.bfi.org.uk)Reuse content