If….(1968): Lindsay Anderson’s Satire, Starring Malcolm MacDowell in Feature Debut

If…., directed by Lindsay Anderson, is a satire of English public school life, centering on a group of rebellious pupils who stage a savage insurrection at a boys’ boarding school.

Incendiary, subversive, and darkly humorous, If…. is now considered to be a landmark of British countercultural cinema.

If…. won the Palme d’Or at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival.

The serio-comedy stars Malcolm McDowell as Mick Travis, Richard Warwick, Christine Noonan, David Wood, and Robert Swann.

The film was controversial at its initial release, slapped with X certificate for its depictions of violence.

Narrative Structure

The film opens at a traditional British public school for boys in the late 1960s, as the pupils return after the summer for a new Michaelmas term. Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) arrives hiding his face, as he has grown a moustache, and quickly shaves it off. He, Wallace (Richard Warwick), and Knightly (David Wood) are three non-conformist boys in the lower sixth form, their penultimate year. They are watched and persecuted by the “Whips”, upper sixth-formers given authority as prefects over the other boys. The junior boys are made to act as personal servants for the Whips, who discuss them as sex objects.

Early scenes show the school’s norms and traditions. The headmaster (Peter Jeffrey) is remote from the boys and the housemasters. The housemaster, Mr Kemp (Arthur Lowe), is manipulated by the Whips into gaining free rein in enforcing discipline. Some schoolmasters are shown behaving bizarrely.

Mick and Johnny sneak off the school grounds and steal a motorbike from a showroom. They ride to a café staffed by an unnamed girl (Christine Noonan), about whom Mick fantasizes wrestling naked. Meanwhile, Wallace spends time with a younger boy, Bobby Philips, and later shares his bed.

Later, the three boys drink vodka in their study and consider how one man holds the potential to “change the world with bullet in the right place.”

Their clashes with school authorities become increasingly contentious. Eventually, a brutal caning by the Whips spurs them to action.

During a school Combined Cadet Force military drill, Mick acquires live ammunition, which he, Wallace, and Knightly use to open fire on a group of boys and masters, including Kemp and the school chaplain (Geoffrey Chater). When the latter orders the boys to drop their weapons, Mick assaults him and cows him into submission.

Punished for their actions, the trio are ordered by headmaster to clean out a large storeroom beneath the main school hall.

In a surreal sequence, they discover cache of firearms, automatic weapons and mortars. Joined by Philips and the girl from the café, they commit to revolt against the establishment.

On Founders’ Day, when parents are visiting the school, the group starts a fire under the hall, smoking everyone out of the building. They then open fire on them from the rooftop. Led by a visiting General (Anthony Nicholls) who was giving a speech, the staff, students, and parents break open the Combined Cadet Force armoury and begin firing back. The headmaster tries to stop the fight, imploring the group to listen to reasoning. In response, the girl shoots him between the eyes. The battle continues, and the camera closes in on Mick’s determined face as he keeps firing.

David Sherwin’s original title was “Crusaders,” drawing on his experiences at Tonbridge School in Kent. In 1960, he and co-writer John Howlett took it to director Seth Holt, who offered to produce. They also took it to Sherwin’s hero, Nicholas Ray, who liked the idea od directing it, but suffered a nervous breakdown. Holt then introduced Sherwin to the director Lindsay Anderson in a Soho pub.

The school used was Anderson’s alma mater, Cheltenham College, Gloucestershire, but this was not made public under the agreement needed to shoot there. Headmaster David Ashcroft persuaded the school governors to let the film be made.

Aldenham School in Elstree, Hertfordshire, was used for later scenes, shot after previous summer commitments prevented further shooting at Cheltenham.

The sweat room scenes were filmed in the School Room in School House at Aldenham School (redesigned for the film). The dormitory scenes were also at Aldenham—specifically The Long Room for the junior boys, and the room with the wooden partitions called Lower Cubs (short for cubicles). The shower scene and toilets were in School House changing rooms.

The transport cafe was the (now demolished) Packhorse Cafe on the A5/Watling Street in Kensworth, Dunstable, Bedfordshire, close to the Packhorse Pub.

The painting in dining hall is of Aldenham School’s founder, Richard Platt. The Hall scene was an amalgamation of the school halls at Cheltenham and Aldenham.

Carew Manor, in Beddington, Surrey, was used for the opening staircase scene and for several other scenes. It was filmed during the summer when the school had closed for holidays.

Some scenes were shot at the former Trinity School of John Whitgift in central Croydon, before it was demolished to make way for the Whitgift Centre; pupil extras from Whitgift School were engaged at £5 per day.

Anderson approached Charterhouse School and later Cranleigh School for permission to shoot the film: negotiations were going well until the schools discovered the content of the film and pulled out.

The outside shots of the school including the final showdown on the roof were filmed at Cheltenham College after term ended.

The Speech Day interior was filmed inside St John’s Church on Albion Street, Cheltenham. The church was later demolished.

The motorbike shop was filmed at the Broadway Motor Company on Gladstone Road, Wimbledon.

The film makes use of black and white sequences. In the 2007 DVD release, Malcolm McDowell confirmed that lighting the chapel scenes for color filming would have taken much longer than for black and white. The time they could use the school chapel was limited, so Anderson opted to not shoot those scenes in color. Liking the effect this gave, he then decided to shoot other sequences in black and white to improve the ‘texture’ of the film. As a child, he was impressed watching a gangster film which started in black and white and then turned to color.

The black and white sequence featuring Mrs Kemp (Mary MacLeod) walking naked through the school was allowed by the then Secretary of the Board of the British Board of Film Censors, John Trevelyan, on the condition that shots of male genitalia from the shower scene were removed.

Stephen Frears is credited as assistant director, and Chris Menges as cameraman.

Music includes the ‘Sanctus’ from the Missa Luba, rendering of Roman Latin mass sung to African beat by a Congolese choir.

The film’s surrealist sequences have been compared to Jean Vigo’s French classic Zéro de conduite (1933). Anderson acknowledged an influence, and described how he arranged a viewing of that film with his screenwriters, Sherwin and Howlett, at an early stage in production planning, though in his view the Vigo film’s influence on if…. was structural rather than merely cosmetic. “Seeing Vigo’s film gave us the idea and also the confidence to proceed with the kind of scene-structure that we devised for the first part of the film particularly.”

McDowell’s performance in if…. caught the attention of Stanley Kubrick, who subsequently cast him in his 1971 film adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange.[12] Additionally, McDowell used his performance in if…. in his inspiration for the Clockwork Orange protagonist, Alexander DeLarge.

Having been given the script by Kubrick, McDowell was unsure how he should play the part of Alex, and so he contacted Lindsay Anderson, asking for advice. McDowell recalls: He said ‘Malcolm, this is how you play the part: there is a scene of you, a close-up in if…., where you open the doors to the gym to be beaten. You get a close-up.’ I said ‘that’s right.’ He said ‘do you remember…’ I said ‘yes. I smiled.’ He said ‘that’s right. You gave them that smile. That sort of ironic smile,’ he said ‘and that’s how you play Alex.’ And I went ‘my god, that’s brilliant. That’s brilliant.’ That’s all I needed and that was enough, and that is a brilliant piece of direction for an actor.

The movie had influence in popular Japanese Megami Tensei series, specifically with the game Shin Megami Tensei If… which references the movie not only in the title but the basic plot of a bullied kid revolting against his high-school bullies.

if…. is the first film in the “Mick Travis trilogy”, all starring Malcolm McDowell as Mick Travis.

The others are: O Lucky Man! (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982). However, those two movies do not follow the same continuity of the first film, and have little in common other than the main character of Mick Travis and several identically-named characters in similar roles (on the commentary track for O Lucky Man!, Malcolm McDowell refers to it as a “so-called trilogy”). At the time of Anderson’s death he had completed a final draft of a proper sequel to if…., but it was never made. The sequel takes place during a Founders’ Day celebration at which many of the characters reunite. Mick Travis is now an Oscar-nominated movie star, eschewing England for Hollywood. Wallace is a military major who has lost his arm, Johnny is a clergyman, and Rowntree is the Minister of War. In the script, Rowntree is kidnapped by a group of anti-war students and saved by Mick and his gang, though not before Mick crucifies Rowntree with a large nail through his palm.

Malcolm McDowell as Michael Arnold “Mick” Travis
Richard Warwick as Wallace
Christine Noonan as The Girl
David Wood as Johnny Knightly
Rupert Webster as Bobby Philips
Robert Swann as Rowntree
Peter Jeffrey as Headmaster
Arthur Lowe as Mr. Kemp, Housemaster
Mona Washbourne as Matron
Ben Aris as John Thomas, Undermaster
Robin Askwith as Keating
Robin Davies as Machin
Hugh Thomas as Denson
Michael Cadman as Fortinbras
Guy Ross as Stephans
Martin Beaumont as Hunter
John Garrie as Music master (uncredited)
Philip Bagenal as Peanuts
Charles Sturridge as Markland
Graham Crowden as History master
Tommy Godfrey as Finchley the school porter (uncredited)
David Griffin as Willens
Charles Lloyd-Pack as Classics master
Simon Ward as schoolboy (uncredited)
Richard Everett as Pussy Graves
Ellis Dale as Motorcycle salesman (uncredited)
Peter Sproule as Barnes
Sean Bury as Jute
Brian Pettifer as Biles
Mary MacLeod as Mrs. Kemp, housemaster’s wife
Geoffrey Chater as Chaplain
Anthony Nicholls as General Denson
Michael Newport as Brunning


Directed by Lindsay Anderson
Screenplay by David Sherwin, Story by Sherwin, John Howlett
Produced by Anderson, Michael Medwin
Cinematography Miroslav Ondrícek
Edited by David Gladwell
Music by Marc Wilkinson
Production company: Memorial Enterprises
Distributed by Paramount
Release date: December 19, 1968 (UK)
Running time 111 minutes
Budget $500,000
Box office $2.3 million (rentals)