Revolution and reminiscence: Lindsay Anderson’s If….

Sometimes a filmmaker can find themselves in the fortunate position of making a film which perfectly echoes and reflects the mood of its time. Lindsay Anderson’s second feature film, If…., released in 1968 certainly achieved this feat.  Starring Malcolm McDowell in his first major film role it is a lyrical tale of teenage rebellion set in an English public school.  Filmed at Cheltenham College, where Anderson was a pupil in the 1930s, the harsh brutalities and rigid structure of public school mirror the wider inequalities of British society.  The iconic image of McDowell, machine-gun blazing, at the end of the film resonated with an audience bombarded with images of protest during the student riots of 1968. The film was swept along on a revolutionary tide to the Cannes Film Festival in 1969 where it won the Palm d’Or.

Anderson and Malcolm McDowell on the set of If....
Anderson and Malcolm McDowell on the set of If….

Anderson’s papers include an extensive production archive for the film including:

  • the original script for the film entitled Crusaders, written by David Sherwin and John Howlett, based on their own experiences of public school
  • letters of praise for the film from friends, colleagues and fans including Akira Kurosawa, Alan Bennett, Rex Harrison and Harold Pinter
  • an extensive photographic record of the making of the film
  • a large collection of press cuttings from the British and American press reporting on the film’s release and reception, and the European press reporting on the film’s success at Cannes

The Lindsay Anderson Archive also includes a large amount of personal memorabilia including a selection of material from his schooldays, a period of his life which he drew on when he came to make If…. in 1968. Cheltenham College was a school with a strong military tradition which specialised in preparing the sons of officers for the army training colleges at Sandhurst and Woolwich. Coming from a military family the choice of Cheltenham for Anderson was not surprising. The school prospectus noted that “all boys in the Senior School are instructed in military drill and the use of the rifle… with a view to the special preparation of Boys for the Army” – an aspect of his education that was reflected in the schoolboys military manoeuvres in the film. The discipline enforced in the school is reflected in Anderson’s copy of the College Rule book which consisted of 12 pages of rules and regulations governing behaviour and conduct with a fold out map showing the areas of Cheltenham that were out-of-bounds to students.

Memorabilia from Lindsay Anderson's schooldays
Memorabilia from Lindsay Anderson’s schooldays

Anderson kept a number of souvenirs of his schooldays including postcards of the College, school prospectuses, his school crest and cap, exam certificates, programmes for theatre productions in which he appeared, school notebooks and a run of The Cheltonian, the school journal, covering his time at Cheltenham.

When it came to making If…. these souvenirs of his schooldays could have provided some useful reminders for Anderson – the rules and regulations, the military tradition, the Speech Day reports in The Cheltonian (including the speeches of the Headmaster and distinguished guests). As well as drawing on his own personal collection of memorabilia Anderson also carried out some up-to-date research purchasing a copy of Eton: how it works by J. D. R. McConnell in 1967. In a commentary on the film written by Anderson in 1994 he noted how useful this book had been when it came to shooting the scene where Travis, Johnny and Wallace are called to the headmaster’s office after shooting the chaplain during a military exercise. He noted that “it is interesting that a lot of the headmaster’s dialogue in that scene was taken from a book written by an ex-housemaster at Eton, so some of the more idiotic things spoken by the headmaster are real.”

Anderson shooting a scene from If…. at Cheltenham College


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