Most people get it all wrong. if.... is not a story about a British boy’s school that begins with conformity and ends in anarchy, because the anarchy was always there in plain sight. It’s just slipped in so casually at first that we gloss over it, and its real nature is disguised from us as long as possible. We pass it all off as youthful excess or boyish dissipation or harmless eccentricity, in probably the same way as the masters of College House (the fictitious school in the film). Kids will play, and they need a firm hand to guide them — even if the guiding hands in question are every bit as bored and complacent as most of the boys themselves are bored and unruly. By the time if.... so infamously explodes, with a conclusion that’s been compared (if only superficially and misleadingly) to the Columbine massacre, we’ve somehow been able to see it coming. We just didn’t know how we’d get hit with it.
But the pieces are all there, right from the beginning. “Run! Run in the corridor!” one of the headmasters bellows at the new students or “scum” crowding in. Is he taunting them, or the movie just skewed like that? In the same veins, the boys pin pictures of Che Guevara and Mao over their desks; the teachers ride bicycles through the corridors to class and tantalize their students with lectures that go a great many places without actually imparting any wisdom. “Work, play, but don’t mix the two,” the headmaster admonishes them all, while homosexual flirtations and brutal hazings happens in the teacher’s lounge and in the dormitories.
if.... pits Travis and his cronies against the conformity of the English
school system — or at least that's what it looks like at first glance.
It’s the sort of not-quite-with-it oddness that stacks up in the corners of the frames, quietly, making just the sort of environment for Mick Travis (Malcom McDowell) to saunter in and seem positively at home in. Even without a hat mashed down over his face and a scarf covering his mouth, he radiates the sulking, detached Byronic arrogance that whole generations of young people emulate. “When do we live? That’s what I want to know,” he growls to his roommate as he scrapes off his freshly-grown mustache. The “whips” who administer discipline browbeat Travis and his equally dissolute buddies, Knightly and Wallace, about being degenerates — possibly in lieu of browbeating each other for trolling amongst the scum for cheap thrills.
Distinct faces slowly emerge from the crowd of first-year boys, each with their own dilemmas — Jute, the hapless one, or Biles, the hazing victim who ends up going headfirst into the toilet for his trouble. Most striking is Philips, whose androgynous good looks inspire a certain amount of Gohatto-esque intrigue. In a widely-acclaimed (and highly sexualized) moment, he watches raptly as a senior does gymnastics, and it’s left quite open-ended which of the three — Philips, the other kids, or the filmmakers — are most entranced by whom. Not long after that, Travis and his friends step onstage and fence, and the movie abruptly shifts from black-and-white to color (a beautiful and deliberately jarring visual element used throughout the movie) as their horseplay almost turns deadly. “Blood! Real blood!” Travis gasps, brandishing his slashed-open hand.
The movie's shifting color and black-and-white surface is as unpredictable as
the way it examines the fantasy landscape each student projects onto the school.
It’s real blood he wants, all right — his or someone else’s, it scarcely seems to matter. Anything to shake up the monotony of being young and in school and bored out of his mind. He blows off class with Knightly one afternoon and heads into town (off-limits), pinches a motorcycle from a dealership, and roars off into the countryside. There, in a café, he encounters a girl whose combative personality and aggressive sexuality seem to have been torn out of the same page in his mind where all his pinups reside — and for all we know, maybe they do. The insouciant way she serves them coffee, and the speech she gives him about staring in the mirror, is something he’d do and say himself. It’s the first broad hint we get about how much we see is possibly all fantasy — whether his alone, or a collective fantasy by all the characters as seen by us in various aspects.
The one moment that is clearly not fantasy on anyone’s part is when the school authorities decide to flog the three of them for their protracted insolence. It’s handled with static, unbroken takes, and it lingers as much on the wait for the beating (where the boys grin and sneer and act macho to stave off the pain) as it does the beating itself. Travis they save for last, and beat the longest, and while it brings tears to his face it only galvanizes his resistance all the more. Small wonder the next segments of the movie are, indeed, named “Resistance” and “Forth to War”, and watches dispassionately as the boys go from fomenting one bit of schoolboy rebellion to another. “One man can change the world with a bullet in the right place,” Travis declares, and it’s up to us to figure out how much of their crusade is adolescent role-playing and headgames, and how much of it is true “revolutionary” bloodshed. I suspect the point is that the ideology is no more mature in either case — certainly not as a reaction to the militantly repressive regime they’re allegedly rising up against.
In a way, we can see the concluding chaos coming a mile off — what we can't see
is how we took each one of the steps that got us there, almost without realizing it.
if.... has baffled most of the audiences I’ve seen it with. One friend of mine with remarkably good taste in movies and a very open mind hated every minute of it and only livened up at the concluding massacre. I wondered how much of that was due to a lack of working knowledge about British boy’s schools, or the English class system, or if it was something simpler — that under it all they simply had no idea how to interpret any of it, because it operated so far outside of their boundaries of how a movie was supposed to work.Or, for that matter, conclude.Almost thirty years later, if.... is every bit as maddening as it was when it first appeared, and it feels like we’re still playing catch-up.