Released at the end of 1968, ‘If…’ won the Palme d’Or at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival and has been heralded (by no less an authority than Rotten Tomatoes) as “Incendiary, subversive, and darkly humorous… a landmark of British counter-cultural cinema”.
This all seems appropriate. The film is weird and wonderful. Set in a fictionalised English public school, the movie follows a group of rebellious students as they endure the sundry rituals, punishments and humiliations that are part of normal, everyday life in an educational institution of this kind. The film oscillates between colour and black and white scenes; the various incidents and episodes have a surreal quality, to the point where the boundary between ‘real’ and ‘dream sequence’ becomes blurred; and the highly-stylised characters are engaging and funny and persuasive. I particularly liked the headmaster, who comports himself as some sort of enlightened philosopher-king despite the brutality and oppression permeating his kingdom.
Wikipedia thinks the film is a satire on English public school life. I think this is to underplay it. Satirising English public school life is easy-peasy – it is blindingly obvious that, if you trap a group of adolescent boys far away from home for years and subject them to a regime based on nineteenth century malice, and you throw in the kinds of teachers and adults who would be attracted to work in such an environment, then things are bound to be a bit strange.
What is interesting, I think, is to see the film as a satire on the entirety of English (and I do mean specifically English) culture. The reality was, and remains, that a simply staggering proportion of the English elite – the judges and lawyers, the journalists and media-wonks, the politicos and financiers – have been educated in fee-paying schools, many of them in schools remarkably like that portrayed in ‘If…’. It is simply inconceivable that an educational experience like that does not profoundly shape your world view. I met quite a few of these people at university; I know whereof I speak. Their notion of ‘normal’ is pretty strange.
So the really interesting question – as far as I’m concerned – is why the rest of us have put up with this for so long. Pretty much the same set of schools have produced pretty much the same set of young adults groomed to take up pretty much the same jobs in the Establishment for - pretty much - centuries. Every year they allow a few oiks (mea culpa) close enough to the inner circle to sustain the illusion of social mobility (and, indeed, to remove potential troublemakers from the massed ranks) and, somehow, a truly English revolution has never taken place.
A revolution doesn’t really take place in ‘If…’ either - the rebels are, after all, public-school educated members of the very elite they come to despise – but I found the final surreal scenes of slaughter (including the execution of aforementioned headteacher) enormously entertaining. I’d probably have enjoyed it even more if the proletariat from the neighbouring village had run in with pitchforks to extend the massacre, but I’m just being greedy. It’s a funny, political, weird and thought-provoking film, and I’m grateful enough for that.