If … (1968)

If … (1968)

“One man can change the world with a bullet in the right place.”

At a British public school, a senior classman (Malcolm McDowell) and his friends (Richard Warwick and David Wood) rebel against a pair of snobbish bullies (Robert Swann and Hugh Thomas) who hold sadistic sway over the students.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Boarding School
  • Bullies
  • Lindsay Anderson Films
  • Malcolm McDowell Films
  • Rebellion

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary opens his review of this countercultural classic by positing that “even considering a Goodbye, Mr. Chips, most of us Americans have long regarded the British public school as a clear-cut example of deeply entrenched institutional tyranny toward youth and repression of free thought” — and thus, “in the late sixties many American student protesters saw the boys’ school in Lindsay Anderson’s popular, controversial film as a symbol of any establishment and of all oppression,” and “identified with the three rebellious students… who fight for the survival of individualism against authority, tradition, and the old guard.”

Peary notes that because “in the final scenes Anderson injects heavy doses of surrealism,” we “cannot tell if what we’re seeing is truly happening exactly as presented or if our crusaders… are fantasizing or Anderson is showing images that represent their wish fulfillment.” He asserts that while “the surrealism is excitingly audacious” at times:

… the effect is weakened during the final sequence given that it “looks like it’s just the visualization of someone’s imagination” and “we don’t feel that the bad guys are getting their due.”

Peary compares this sequence with the “surrealistic final scene in Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite (1933), Anderson’s inspiration,” which he argues “works as both dream and reality.”

With that caveat in mind, this film holds such significance in cinematic history that it’s a bit challenging to determine how compelling the storyline itself really is. While it’s morbidly gratifying to see the horrors of boarding school bullying called out rather than glossed over or romanticized:

… I agree with Peary that the final scenes are opaque and less-than-satisfying (and viewers should be forewarned they are especially disturbing given the ongoing mass shootings in schools since this film’s release). Perhaps the most intriguing — if underexplored — thematic thread in the film is that of homoerotic desire (Anderson was a closeted gay man), as epitomized in the scene showing a young boy (Rupert Webster) pulling a sweater over his head while watching in awe as an older student (Warwick) shows off on the parallel bars.

It’s a well-edited sequence that hints at the film’s potential to explore even more challenging themes than simply brutal (albeit necessary) rebellion against oppression.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Malcolm McDowell as Mick
  • Fine cinematography and sets

Must See?
Yes, once, simply for its historical significance.


  • Historically Relevant

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)


One thought on “If … (1968)

  1. (Rewatch). A once-must, for its cultural significance and its place in ’60s cinema.

    In my hometown in NJ, we didn’t have a movie theatre (imagine that!). But my town bordered on a university town in Pa., where they had 2 theatres and all you had to do was get across the river bridge to get to them.

    Since it was a college town, I’m sure the theatre owners thought to bring in more people by offering not only crassly commercial stuff but also the more sophisticated movies. (All movies played a week, no matter what – opening on Wednesdays to get word-of-mouth going for the weekend crowd. It was rare when something was held over a second week.)

    This was why it was possible for offbeat titles like ‘if….’ to make it to my area. But if I recall correctly, sophisticated titles rarely brought in much of a crowd (except maybe on date nights; I wouldn’t know about those and tended to go to matinees).

    ~ which is to say… like a whole bunch of other movies seen in my teen years, I first saw ‘if…’ in a theatre that pretty much just had me (or with a friend) in it. And I was still too young to see ‘if…’ (acc. to the MPAA) – but I guess it was easier to get admitted to films that didn’t sell well.

    At age 14, I probably didn’t think much about the class-consciousness content (which keeps the film very relevant today; that stuff just doesn’t seem to go away easily and, most likely, will always be with us).

    I did pick up on the gay content, even though it wasn’t all that overt – completing a circle in 3 short scenes: attraction / conversation / ‘sex’. ~ and the film was personally helpful in allowing me to accept myself as normal.

    I don’t know that I took the end of the film literally (though maybe I did the first time, being that young) but (unlike Peary) I did find the ending satisfying. On subsequent viewings over the years, I think I came around to the idea that the main characters ultimately become stand-ins for the audience – who, at that point, should (ideally) want the authoritarians done away with – since they probably can’t be reformed. (I certainly wasn’t too young to recognize assholes on-screen.)

    But, at the same time, the film’s ending is not actually supplying an answer; it’s stating discontent and the need for some sort of revolution. The final shots can be seen as shorthand for that. (And the various fantasy sequences that have been used all along the way support the ending as one more fantasy.)

    I don’t think ‘if….’ is just about oppression; it’s also (esp. if we look at it in current terms) about resistance to change and the hierarchy (and fragility) of power.

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