Starring Malcolm McDowell in his first appearance as Mick Travis, the character Anderson recycles in O Lucky Man and Britannia Hospital, the film opens with the predictable turmoil as pupils return to begin a new term. Travis is one of three non-conformist allies and arrives with a scarf across his face to hide the moustache that isn't going to be allowed to remain, carrying a suitcase on his shoulder.
It rapidly becomes apparent that the major threat to the three comes from their peers, the Whips, prefects authorised to act as enforcers of the status quo. In a highly stratified microcosm of society the bottom rung is occupied by the Scum, first-year boys assigned as servants. Those familiar with the boarding school genre would recognize them as a continuation of the tradition of fagging which persisted in public schools until the late 1960s.
After the scene has been set the scene the film progresses through the rebels' increasingly confrontational clashes with authority, culminating in corporal punishment administered by the Whips, after which tradition demands that those administering the punishment be thanked by their victims.
At the end, given the task of cleaning a store room, the rebels uncover a cache of automatic weapons, and as parents and visiting dignitaries arrive for Founders' Day a fire under the hall smokes out the parents, staff and boys, and as they start to stream into the quadrangle Travis, his mates and The Girl open fire on them from the rooftops. The staff and boys break open the school cadet armoury and fire back.
When the Headmaster tries to stop the developing firefight The Girl produces a revolver from her belt and a round red dot appears in the middle of the Headmaster's forehead. As the firefight resumes,the camera closes in on Travis's face before the film ends with a black screen and if.... superimposed in red.
Looking back, the late sixties would-be revolutionaries in Britain and Australia were the product of a romanticised image of the predictable revolutionary icons, Chairman Mao and Che Guevara would naturally be at the top of that list, in a society where they didn't really have all that much to complain about. It wasn't as if those people were coming out of the same sort of tradition of clashes between the extreme left and the far right that produced Italy's Red Brigades or those at the forefront of the insurrections in France and West Germany.
Looking back at If.... I was forcefully reminded of the quiet, behind the scenes authoritarianism that lay underneath the veneer of democratic ideals in the age of Menzies and MacMillan.Any kid who was tempted to grow his hair down over his collar more than likely felt some of the impact of that subtle thuggery, and should you have been tempted to go a bit further than the hair over the collar you could expect the full force of the public outrage to come into play.
So while we're seeing a film about disgruntled students at an English public school in the late 60s If... captures the spirit of the times without being locked into a specific time frame. A contemporary viewer won't find too much that jumps out and says This is the sixties, man! Like Blow-Up there's no contemporary music in the soundtrack, and there isn't much to anchor it at a particular bit of the past.
Unless, of course, you were there at the right age in 1968