If… (known as “Crusaders” in the early stages) is not a movie that everybody will have heard of, or even enjoy. Filmed and set in 1968 England at an all-boys boarding school, it is 2 sides supposedly battling a “monster”. It is between Freedom and Conformity (Each calling the other the monster), and a metaphorical challenge of Old Britain vs New Britain, or rich vs poor, which ever way you might interpret it yourself. It stars a 24 year old Malcolm MacDowell as 16/17 year old Mick Travis in his film debut, 3 years before the world knew him as 17 year old Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange (Also a testament of how too much drink and taking drugs can accelerate your age appearance). To say the least, he and his friends Wallace and Johnny are lower 6th form boys (11th grade in America) and the primary rebels of the school. They keep their hair scruffy, their vodka hidden, their records foreign, and their walls plastered with images of Women, War and African Wildlife.
On the surface, such a description could apply to another film that came out 10 years later, called Animal House. Which was about a war between a house of party animals and a house of pretentious kids who had higher-ups as family. While that was a timeless american comedy, If… is definitely a social commentary and drama with much of the humour hidden within sarcasm, friendly insults and moments of surrealism.
The School has 2 different worlds going on, depending on the characters’ point of view. There is the all-boys school that is advertised at the beginning of the year (Where the 1 rule is to separate work from play), and then there’s the all-boys school run by the upper 6th boys (12th grade in America), known as the Whips. They treat the school like a prison, where the younger students are prisoners and they are the prison guards, beating and punishing anybody who steps out of line, and making servants out of the much younger students (Known in this film as “Scum”).
What I like most about this movie is that fact that it chose to lay every perspective on the table. It didn’t just say “Freedom Good, Conformity Bad”, because the reality is there are good and bad aspects to both, depending on what is planned or believed by the individual. Whoever enforces 1 ideology or the other plays a key role in its authenticity and its destain. For instance, the conformists would be the headmaster, the housemaster (Played by Arthur Lowe, who was Captain George in Dad’s Army), the Chaplain, the teachers, and the Whips. The Headmaster, the housemaster, and some teachers try to exercise it properly, to the point that yes there is order, but there is also a freedom of enjoyment within the tidy appearance. However, the Chaplain (who is also a teacher) and the Whips are definitely corrupt. Whether it involves the school’s church preaching judgement and the keeping of the law in Deuteronomy (An impossible task for anybody to maintain perfectly, let alone boys going through puberty) followed by the Chaplain putting his hand under boys’ coats during class time. Or the Whips, who enforce strict rules, hard punishment, make younger students work as servants and occasionally indulging in homoerotic suggestions (keep in mind, it’s 1968, consider context). They claim a self-righteousness in their conformity…and that’s what Mick hates most about them. The hypocrisy of it all. It could also be said that this film is a challenge towards religion. Perhaps it reflects Gandhi’s quote “I like your Christ, but I don’t like your Christians. Your Christians are nothing like your Christ” Where the good conformists I mentioned could be a metaphor for God or an earthly king or good leader, while the Chaplain and Whips could be a metaphor for selfish Religious Leaders or servants of the king who paint something meant for good into something detestable based on their own actions and agendas. In the process, a good king could get the blame from the people for the works of the scumbags that lie or manipulate him in their reports. The Argument against the Chaplain and Whips could also be based on their self-righteousness. Acting as evil servants and then pretending that they’re good people in front of their superiors.
Mick’s plan for freedom (If there is 1) is rather questionable as well. Possibly closer to the verge of chaos rather than freedom. A breakdown of an old order and towards something that might be great on paper but impossible to execute in the long term without hurting more people to maintain it. A major problem is the fact that he seems to place every conformist into the 1 category, even the 1s that aren’t bad people. This is unfortunately a mentality that exists in real life. Assumptions will always be made and the lack of knowledge of a neighbour is dangerous for everyone. I’ve mentioned school shootings here before, and they came to mind whenever I saw this.
How good is If…? It’s a great film! A bit odd in some of their choices, such as how they switch back and forth between colour and black and white. The reason they did this was time and budget. It was cheaper and quicker to light a room for black and white photography, as well as develop black and white film. While films like Natural Born Killers did that to look edgy, artistic and hip, If… did it for “we need to finish this film” reasons. The cinematography in general is really good as well. Some great long shots and excellent enough visual story-telling that would make a brilliant translation into a comic book format. The music is very minimal, but when you do hear it, it’s memorable. Such as the use of a Congolese version of a Sanctus song in Mick’s room (as well as his “fun day out”), or the hymn sung in the opening credits. The acting is great, even from the child actors. The characters are pretty well developed for the amount of time they appear on screen. And the story is very well written, covering a lot of themes, not only about conformity, exploration, freedom, youth and change, but also about balance, lust, abuse, wisdom, righteousness, and how a few bad apples could ruin the barrel for everybody. The film also contains a fair bit of oppression, violence and some wedding presents. It was also X-Rated when it came out and might lead to some unpleasant flashbacks if your high school experience wasn’t like teen movies. What I’m saying is it’s not for kids.
10/10 for cinematography, 8/10 for music (minimal, but nicely chosen), 9.25/10 for acting, 8.75/10 for characters, 10/10 for story. Overall: 92/100