In an English boys' boarding school, social hierarchy reigns supreme and power remains in the hands of distanced and ineffectual teachers and callously vicious prefects in the Upper Sixth. But three Lower Sixth students, leader Mick Travis, Wallace and Johnny decide on a shocking course of action to redress the balance of privilege once and for all.
Released in 1968, directed by Lindsay Anderson with a screenplay by David Sherwin, If.... is a story of three non-conformist schoolboys played by Malcolm McDowell, Richard Warwick and David Wood, who plot revenge. Organized as a series of tableaux separated by title cards, IF... spends its first half depicting the harsh rules that these boys live under at their elite public school, and the arbitrary punishments given out by senior boys, headed by the sinister Rowntree (Robert Swann) and the distant school officials. This is all in an environment of bizarre old rituals, Latin refrains, and hardly more intelligible English public school slang (and of course, it wouldn't be a classic story of British public school life without some innuendo about buggery.) In the second half of If...., as the storytelling takes on an increasingly surreal tone where we question what is real and what is fantasy, the boys and a girl from town get their hands on weapons and ultimately commit a massacre. The 1960s was a time of war in Vietnam (and other violent conflicts brought to viewers globally by the media) and youth uprisings in the United States and France. Plus, these elite British school also featured compulsory military drill. In If...., the walls of these boys' dormitory is covered with magazine cutouts of war photographs, as if to say that in a violent world, it is no surprise if the young too made recourse to violence. In this respect it feels very much like a precursor to Aki Kaurismäki's The Match Factory Girl. If.... also reflects the new sexual freedom of 1960s Britain, and the frustration kindled in these young men who see such open sexual expression in magazines and town streets but cannot have any of it. There are a number of films from this era that document the rise of a counterculture and more open attitudes, but few are as sympathetic to these young people as this film of Anderson and Sherwin. The only serious flaw of If.... is that the main actors are too old to convincingly play teenagers, being in their mid 20s at the time of shooting. Imagine how much more shocking the film would be if it were real sixth-formers acting, though I suppose the (few) sex scenes made this impossible. Still, If.... is deservedly a classic.