Gavin Millar

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 632

Lindsay Anderson thinks "If … is really a vision, something like the Writing on the Wall." We should therefore look for something prophetic, cryptic, poetic, transforming. Anderson and his skilful screenwriter David Sherwin have certainly written something on the wall, but a good deal of rubbing out's been going on and, in some really crucial places, parts of the wall seem to be missing.

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No one in the cinema has ever done such an effective hatchet-job on the English Public School. In If…. Anderson and Sherwin expose its horrors wittily and savagely: the brutality, the exploitation of slave labour, the tyranny of petty restrictions, the sexual confusion and hypocrisy, the interdependence of hierarchy and conformity….

All this is well and carefully done. But there is more. The legacy of Kipling first of all. Anderson was born in India, of Scottish extraction. The legend of service with honour is for him a giant lie, since it is a life inevitably corrupted by the system of government it upholds. However benevolent it is, Anderson will have no time for paternalism. And Kipling would not recognise Mick, the hero of this new If …, as an Englishman at all…. So bitter is Anderson's vision that there is not one single member of the staff, no single senior prefect, who even remotely enjoys the comfort of a clear conscience….

The sides, in other words, are pretty neatly drawn up. All the more reason then why we must look very hard at the credentials of our new leader. He 'knows what it's all about'. What what's all about? It's not the Jews this time, or the RC's, or the vegetarians, but it is a sort of conspiracy theory nonetheless. The 'it' is 'them' and they're against 'us'. But of course they are, and the justice of what Anderson's saying and the sincerity and passion with which he says it are truly painful. What's more, the tenacity of his stand against them over the years is truly admirable.

But it's a local justice, not an absolute one, and its applications must be constantly defined and made precise, otherwise all the passion and sincerity and tenacity in the world will only confuse his sympathisers and—more importantly—his work. 'It all', 'them' and 'us' are inadequate descriptions of the elements involved in the coming revolutionary struggle, and the film doesn't do enough to clarify them.

If there is going to be one then, by God, we need to know what it's going to be about. But that's just the trouble. (p. 42)

Why can one not hail this brave and unusual essay in personal cinema as a masterpiece? Why can't we read the writing on the wall? We said we might look, in a vision, for something poetic. Isn't this it?

Anderson has shown himself in all his work eager to break the narrow bounds of documentary realism…. At moments in If … this delicate skirmishing on the borders of realism is apt and tender, as when Bobby Phillips watches his hero Wallace exercising in the gym; or striking and uncanny, as when the housemaster's wife drifts naked through the deserted dorm, caressing towels and clothing…. But whether out of a need to suppress the tenderness, or an impatience to express the fury, these moments and this balance are lost in the headlong drive to the end.

If the account of the school's horrors scores by its patient accuracy, it does it no service now to explode these strict terms of reference…. If … is a film concerned with revolution, but about anger. And if we can't read the writing on the wall, perhaps it was because the hand shook a little. (p. 43)

Gavin Millar, "Film Reviews: 'If …'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1969 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 38, No. 1, Winter, 1968–69, pp. 42-3.

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