IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk to wise;
If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
' Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!
- Rudyard Kipling
At first reading, the poem if... is a pretty tall order. It asks a lot of a boy to be considered a man. But in truth, it's not that far off. A lot is asked of children. And expected of them. But the important part of Kipling's poem is the word IF. It says that you don't need to be ready now, but when you are indeed ready, then manhood or adulthood awaits. This is not the case at an all-boys school in England in which Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) attends. You have to grow up. You must grow up. Because growing up means conforming. There is no if, only when.
The film begins as we see the children returning to school. Boxes are unpacked and stories are told in an effort to settle in and catch-up. It's here that director Lindsay Anderson begins to reveal the established hierarchy within the school. A younger student asks an older one a question and he's quickly reminded that he is not to speak to the older students. Amongst all this, we are first introduced to Mick Travis as he enters the school with a scarf around his face. He's keeping a well-groomed mustache under wraps. The scarf isn't on his face long, neither is his mustache, but it's an interesting look into Mick's character. He wants to hide his manhood because ultimately it means more would be expected of him. As a grown up, he would be expected to conform. He also wants to hide his rebellion. A mustache would certainly be frowned upon (Mick and his friends are often being for their long hair) and would start his year off on the wrong side of the Whips, a group of self-appointed seniors who enforce order. Although he's not parading it around, he knows its there and his quiet dissent is enough for him. At least for now.
On the surface, the story of if... is simple enough. It follows life within the walls of a an all-boys school in England. Of course, life within the walls is not simple. Even without weapons, an all-boys school is a powder keg just waiting to go off. As my son enters his teen years, I can't imagine a worse thing than to send him away to school. These are such important years. To realize emotions. To test boundaries. To explore independence. Only all of those things run counter to the mission of a private school. As a result, you create two types of students. Those who aspire to be Whips and those who don't. Being a Whip not only represents complete conformity to the establishment, it represents a crusaders mentality. What's funny is that Mick and his friends Wallace (Richard Warwick) and Johnny (David Wood) never really act-out in the true sense of the word. They are not disrespectful in class. They are not bullies in the hallways (they're rebellion is really nothing more than sitting in a room drinking and smoking). It's their disinterest that gets them into trouble. Because they are not openly falling-in-line, they are seen as out-of-line.
What I liked most about if... is the way that Anderson tells the story. His camera is so loose that the film comes off almost as if it is a documentary. Nothing seems staged. Or acted out. It appears as if Anderson just happens to be in the right place to catch life happening among these students. Because of this, there's a subtlety to the message that I appreciated. It's hard to watch this and not rifle through all the other movies you've seen about private schools or teen rebellion. Movies like Taps, Battle Royale, Brick, The Outsiders, The Blackboard Jungle and A Clockwork Orange to name a very few. Of course, when watching the ending of the film, one can't help but think of the Columbine massacre and Van Sant's Elephant. But what I appreciated about this film is that I didn't feel bludgeoned about the head at the end of it. In the end, Mick's rebellion against the school is no more harmful a gesture than growing his mustache. Anderson didn't feel the need to have a bloodbath to hit home his point. And what's further, he didn't feel the need to show moments of Mick and his friends boiling over to build for the climax. There were no scenes where Mick declares his inability to take it any more. Or his declaration of vengeance for one of the Whips. The pre-meditation is barely there. It's almost as if the guys said "hey, let's give this a try and see how it goes." Modern day cinema could take a page from this.
There are elements of this film that are either so noticeable, or so pivotal to the movie that they must be mentioned. The first one is the use of color and black and white in the film. It's not as alarming to someone who has sat through an Oliver Stone movie, but I can only imagine how interesting it would have been at the time. I tried to put rhyme and reason to it, but then discovered I was missing the point. To me, the use of black and white is Anderson further blurring the lines between fact and fantasy within the story. And speaking of fantasy, there's The Girl (Christine Noonan) who makes periodic appearances throughout the film. In my mind, she could be a lot of things. A muse. An animal instinct. Or she could simply be Mick's manhood. By being the curvy, voluptuous thing she is, she literally represents Mick's desire. And finally, there are the homosexual undertones that run throughout the film. Anderson treats this with the subtlety of the rest of the film. With the Whips, it's seen as another act of conformity. While in their room, they speak of their young assistants almost as lovers and Rowntree (Robert Swan) even goes as far as prodding another Whip to get a cuter assistant. And maybe one of the most interesting scenes in the movie watches a young student Bobby Phillips (Rupert Webster) gaze upon Wallace as he performs a gymnastics routine. While this is one of the scenes that feels more staged in its framing, it's still handled beautifully by Anderson because he lets the camera tell the story. When the two appear in bed later, it's not shocking because they have already shared that previous moment.
All of this builds to the climactic finale of the film. What I think is interesting is that the discipline of the school is driven by the students (the Whips), not the faculty. But the attack by Wallace and company is clearly aimed at the entire school. It's the individual that's the oppressor, and yet everyone is lumped together as one large foe. As a judgment call made by a confused and angry teenager, I understand it. But as a larger statement about tearing down walls, I find it a bit confusing. I suppose one could say that the Whips are a product of the establishment, but I'm not sure I'm sold on that. It's clear that Rowntree is behind the school's strict standards. That they are driving it, not being driven to it. There's a scene with Rowntree and the Headmaster, where it's clear that Rowntree is leading the charge. The Headmaster agrees to this, but does so reluctantly. And if the Whips are the establishment, then why not go after them individually? This story almost begs for peaceful resistance. For Mick and his friends to break down the hierarchy that exists with the students. But how do you do that by killing all of them? Of course, no one really dies, but it's almost as if Lindsay Anderson is so fed up with the whole thing, he's preaching a complete cleansing to start all over again. Mick says "war is the last possible creative act." It's a strange statement to make, but he's not talking about one Super Power taking on another. He's talking about taking on the establishment. And when you do that, in an act of creativity, all the rules must be broken.
I am not old enough to be a child of the 60s. I missed it by a couple of years, so I was not alive to experience the true significance of this film. But over 40 years later, it's message still rings true. We say our kids grow up so fast as if it's a bad thing, but the truth is we want them to. We want them to act like men, or women, so they behave. And there's no if about it. It would be nice to say that 40 years later, a lot has changed from this message, but in truth it hasn't. Out in the open, we champion individuality and creativity, but behind doors, we try to suppress it. Because creativity, by nature, challenges the rules. And conformity is so much easier a subject to teach.
So those are my thoughts. And I reserve the right to be completely wrong about all of it. What are yours?
And bonus points to the person who can tell me how many times I used the word "if."