As a tale of youthful rebellion, Lindsay Anderson's 1969 If.... has been lumped in with such generation-defining classics as The Wild One, Rebel Without A Cause, and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, but those films are ultimately fantasies of social upheaval, not provocations to it. If...., on the other hand, is a genuine appeal to anarchy, fanning the flames at the end of a turbulent decade in which revolution was spreading across the Western world. The film still seems shocking nearly 40 years later, not least because its closing rooftop melee recalls Columbine and other school massacres—and here, the heroes are the ones doing the shooting. Given how readily the film slips from realism to surrealism and back, it's unwise to take the ending at face value, but the dream of laying waste to the social order remains potent.
Before things deteriorate at the film's oppressive British boarding school, the mildest show of rebellion is swiftly muzzled. Though genial headmaster Peter Jeffrey ostensibly runs the show, all real authority in the school belongs to the Whips, a group of privileged seniors who wield their power with sadistic glee. The system was designed to maintain order, but it feeds into a brutal hierarchy with the Whips at the top, the freshman "scum" on the bottom, and everyone entitled to abuse those below their station. With a flash in his eyes, Malcolm McDowell arrives to school with a scarf over his unshaven face, a tentative first sign that he doesn't intend to play by the rules this year. As the tension increases between McDowell and the Whips, he and his two buddies get ever bolder in acting out.
The standard point of comparison for If.... is Jean Vigo's playful 1933 short "Zero For Conduct," another tale of schoolboy anarchy that closes with a celebrated pillow fight. Here, Anderson substitutes bullets for feathers, but the spirit is the same, as is the casual way he leaves realism behind for unexpected flights of fancy. That sense of instability gives the film power: If his heroes are brave enough to start a revolution, it's only natural that Anderson should break all the rules, too.
Key features: A commentary track with excerpts from a 2002 interview with McDowell. The second disc includes an episode of a Scottish panel show that unites some of the filmmakers, plus Thursday's Children, Anderson's 1954 documentary about a school for deaf children.