School rebellion movies was a fixture of the seventies and eighties. I recall watching a ton of them. Usually something about students getting back at their teachers or, more typically, a repressive system. I suppose it worked. When I went to school in the eighties our school system was anything but repressive.
One of the earliest would have been “If…” but that is not actually true. “If…” was a remake of “Zero de Conduite” from the thirties. However, “If…” was triggered by the counter culture movement in the second half of the sixties and initiated a new generation of these movies rooted in this rebellion against the established system.
The concept is simple enough. A group of students do not fit into the rigid school system and instead of making room for them, the system is bent on beating them square to fit in. But youth is irrepressible so instead of bending, the students are pushed into some sort of rebellion.
In the case of “If…” the system is the very traditional British boarding school system and the students are a small group lead by Travis (Malcolm McDowell). The rebellion is a fantasy of what the students would want to do: Stealing a motorcycle, making out with a pretty girl and going on a killing spree against teachers and parents.
I expected this movie to be dull and preachy or alternatively as chaotic as “Zero de Conduite” was, but it was neither. In fact, I had difficulty letting it go. This was in large part because of how real the characters feel. It would be so easy to draw them one-dimensionally but Lindsay Anderson, the director created multidimensional characters that look and feel like real people. It is also a point in favor that this boarding school is so heaped in traditions and patina that it is simply interesting to look at. Everything about it is completely anachronistic and hopelessly unfit to deal with the future, yet, I have this nagging feeling that it is by no means atypical, at least back in ’68.
It is an interesting angle that the rebellion is solely in the boys’ heads, that there is no way they could perform an actual rebellion, except in the small details. Yet, the fantasy blends seamlessly with reality and it often takes a moment or two before I realize that we have just gone into fantasyland.
However, I also feel uncomfortable watching “If…”. The reality today is different from ’68. Today I watch this movie on a backdrop of school shootings, so what may have felt like a fun fantasy of rebellion in ’68 is today a horrific reality. Terrifyingly many young people have taken that step from fantasy to reality and actually gone out to execute their rebellion in the form of mass slaughter. I am quite certain that this would have been too sensitive a scenario to be used today.
Being what it is, though, “If…” is the archetypical school rebellion movie and worth watching for that reason if for nothing else. The other assets are just bonuses to that. It is a shame they had to mix color film with black and white film, apparently for budget reasons, because it gives the movie an unfinished appearance, but I would still recommend watching it.