Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 781
[If …'s] first problem for an American audience is its provincial English public-school setting. Director Lindsay Anderson wants us to see the school as a microcosm of English society—an institution dominated by the same hypocritical religion, military brutality and upper class privilege that flourish even more viciously on the outside. But he lingers so long and so intensely on scenes that cannot be considered representative, that take place only in a boys' school … that the connections between school and society become more and more tenuous. The virtue of the film is its specificity. It would be easy to say that the school equals the System, but that is such a bland equation that it is quite unfair to the film's witty detail and rich texture. If … is good enough to resist generalization. Yet perhaps this strength does imply a certain limitation of the film. David Sherwin's dialogue is brilliant, particularly in its observant mimicry of various kinds of official rhetoric, but the film keeps threatening to fall into parody. Its satire is almost always exactly on target, and the targets are really too easy to hit. The film does an expert job of dissecting the particular institution that it examines, but it needs another dimension—either more compassion or more rage—if it is to strike us as a truly visionary portrait of the cracks in Western civilization.
What gives If … a contemporary twist and an immediate relevance—and what is probably most baffling to the expectant young audience—is its skeptical consideration of the student rebel…. The film's disparagement of student rebellion is not to be confused with backlash hysteria, for Anderson clearly puts the blame for the rebels' pettiness and destructiveness on the institution itself…. And the rebellion of the three crusaders reflects the ignorance and insularity of their school. Because they are so isolated from the breadth of life in the world outside, these kids have lost all sense of perspective, all sense of what matters. The film shrewdly recognizes that the viciousness of the crusaders is the most insidious legacy of a sterile liberal education at the service of a demoralized, reactionary society.
The trouble with student rebels is that they are not true revolutionaries; the boys in If … have no real link with more profoundly disenchanted groups in their world…. The boys are completely indiscriminate in the images of violence that they admire—the motorcyclist and the Establishment soldier excite them as much as the Negro rioter. Revolutionary figures quickly become pop heroes. (pp. 469-70)
What makes If … tricky to evaluate is its mixing of fantasy and reality, and its refusal to provide conventional movie hints that will enable us to tell the two apart. Anderson presents the boys' fantasies with a strange literalness. But I think he always keeps his distance. (p. 471)
There are a few moments in the film when Anderson needlessly changes point of view, suddenly presenting a fantasy of a minor character (the housemaster's wife, the much-desired "scum" Bobby Phillips). Those moments are clearly flaws, but I am more sympathetic to the confusing ease with which the film slips in and out of the crusaders' fantasies. Many films—from Busby Berkeley to Fellini—have included outright fantasy sequences, but If … deals with subtler distortions of reality, the way in which we make slight adjustments in our perceptions to satisfy our fantasy images of ourselves more resoundingly. (p. 472)
The degree of fantasy in the final scene may be unclear, but its skeptical attitude is perfectly clear and devastating.
But there is something unsatisfying about the conclusion. The assembly itself, like most of the film, is played for satiric laughs, and is undeniably hilarious; but it is hard to change mood once the scene shifts to the slaughter on the quad…. [The final shot of Mick is] an upsetting image, but really too strong for the film. Suddenly Anderson tries to frighten us; this image seems meant as an angry, prophetic, almost apocalyptic warning of the violence that awaits us on our once-placid playing fields. But the rest of the film is too cool and witty to suddenly scream of apocalypse. We may wish that the film had fury in addition to irony, but it never really is able to shock us, unsettle us, move us If … is a fine, provoking intellectual critique of contemporary kinds of repression and rebellion, but it rarely provides an emotional experience. And one feverish concluding shot cannot supply a film with the passion that it has not previously been able to muster. (p. 473)
Stephen Farber, "Before the Revolution," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1969 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXII, No. 3, Autumn, 1969, pp. 469-76.