IF… (1968)

“This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”

– William Shakespeare, Richard II


It’s the ellipses that matter.

Those three little dots open up a universe of possibilities that do not exist without them. The original title was Crusaders, which packs none of the punch. The director was forty, but could have been fourteen. It was the first of a trilogy of films that deconstructed modern Britain in all its ridiculousness. Jean Vigo was the inspiration, as he is for so many others. Zero For Conduct (1933), that brief but blinding account of childhood anarchism, set the precedent, although the pillows were replaced, almost unavoidably, by machine guns. This is inevitable. This is progress. Anderson has stated that Vigo’s film stirred him not for its ‘anarchist spirit‘, but its ‘poetic method‘, the way it dances between cruel realities and even crueller fantasies. But this is grand fantasy, a revolution in microcosm, positioned just inches above reality. The two don’t necessarily need to mix. Anderson just wants us to watch. He wants us to watch and imagine.

We start with Jute, who cannot find his way. He is ‘scum’ and, like all younger boys, is doomed to a sort of institutionalized homoerotic servitude to the rulers of this very British establishment. But he doesn’t know it yet, poor old Jute. He is made to sing hymns and listen to speeches. He is forced to learn Latin, clean his bunk and serve tea to anemic prefects lounging in baths. He is made, in short, to do all the things that Mick Travis will not do. Travis drinks alcohol at night. He escapes into town and steals a motorbike. He wonders what would be the most terrible way to die (‘a nail being slowly driven into the back of the neck‘). And, finally, he oversees violent revolution at his boarding school. Anderson lines up the usual suspects of authoritarian British society against Travis and his little band of agitators: nuns, chain-mailed crusaders, WW2 veterans, the clergy. You imagine him laughing uproariously at the whole thing, though it is deadly fucking serious.

We return to those ellipses, which denote a realm of pure speculation. A corpse rises to shake hands with the men that shot it. Lovers snarl and spit at each other, in the manner of beasts, and are suddenly, inexplicably, naked. Anything is possible in the realms of illusion. Travis controls his flights of fancy, just as Anderson plays puppet master over this universe, cutting from colour film to black-and-white, seemingly at will. But the revolution, even a fantasized one, is doomed to failure. ‘Paradise is for the blessed, not the sex obsessed,‘ states one of the students, prophetically. The mores and pettiness and absurdities of British society will always stand tall, because they are, essentially, sexless. The only eroticism in this cold world is the base lust of repressed civil servants for young, nubile boys. Travis is free to dream, simply because he has the capacity to imagine pure sex, animal encounters. The Girl who stirs these hallucinations finally joins him in bloody rebellion. She guns down the headmaster of the school, who represents everything from overbearing mothers to The President Of The United States. And she does it with a smile on her face, as the screen cuts to black.

David Cameron, British Prime Minister, recently professed his admiration for If…You begin wonder to yourself if the speed of the nail being driven into the back of your neck does matter, after all.


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