Monday, 5 October 2015

if... (1968)

"Paradise is for the blessed. Not the sex-obsessed."

I wasn't privileged/unfortunate enough to go to a public school myself, being far too common: not for me the delights of fagging, chapel, cadets and assorted bizarre traditions. Most of what I know of the big public schools comes from Stephen Fry's Moab Is My Washpot, a certain episode of Ripping Yarns and, yes, this film. No doubt this gives me an entirely realistic impression.

The film is a triumph of direction, of the riveting central performance of Malcolm McDowell, and of the dreamlike, searing anger of the film. And yes, that's an unusual combination. 

We begin with introductions to the school, its arcane traditions, its loathsome "whips", corporal punishment, hypocritical staff, and the fact that new boys are called "scummy". It's a harsh introduction to a harsh life for kids who are already having to cope with the brutal separation from their families. What sort of parent can do that to s child? Worse, what sort of parents can do that to a child on full knowledge of what it must feel like? One can understand why ex-public schoolboys are often so repressed, cold and weird. Privilege comes at the cost of devastating psychological trauma. That's how we do things on this country. Lovely.

Of course, this being a closed environment with little in the way of oestrogen, the inevitable homoeroticism is simply accepted. Boys are accused by other boys of "tarting". Teachers are either soulless authoritarians or deeply eccentric. It's all profoundly weird.

Into all this comes Mick Travis, a decidedly not-very-'60s rebel, obsessed with war. We see a number of his brushes with authority and two big dream sequences. The first of these sees him and his mate nick a motorbike (without consequences) after which he proceeds to get his end away. The second consists of his shooting  loads of people.

At least, I assume this last bit is a dream sequence. It's certainly shocking to see, especially given recent events in Oregon, Connecticut, and other places which fetishise the "right" to bear arms.

All the boys we see are damaged, profoundly weird and entirely unable to interact with other human beings in a natural way. Travis is no worse than many, especially not the tyrannical "whips".

This is a brilliant, brilliant film which skewers public school culture superbly while also benefiting from some delightfully arty direction. One of the best films of the '60s and a film that simply could not have been made in any other year.

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