“A Bullet in the Right Place”: On the 50th Anniversary of Lindsay Anderson’s “if....”

By Alex HarveyJuly 2, 2019

“A Bullet in the Right Place”: On the 50th Anniversary of Lindsay Anderson’s “if....”

FIFTY YEARS AGO, in May 1969, Lindsay Anderson’s if.... was chosen to compete at the Cannes Film Festival. In his candid, witty memoir, Going Mad in Hollywood, screenwriter David Sherwin recalls the initial reception for the film:

The British Ambassador arrives foaming with fury. if.... is an insult to the British nation. It must be withdrawn from the Festival. Lindsay replies that it is an insult to a nation that deserves to be insulted and tells the Ambassador to bugger off. Anyway, the film can’t be withdrawn; it is the official British entry.

At the official Palais screening, no one from the Festival turned up to greet the filmmakers. “Normally there’s a spotlight that comes on and lights up the director,” Anderson complained. “We were left alone. Nothing. No one to introduce us to the audience.” Sherwin occupied himself by exploring La Croisette and the beach scene, observing “naked old men […] holding little dogs as they watch girls being photographed.” Malcolm McDowell, who plays Mick Travis, the film’s iconic leading role, admitted he couldn’t afford his hotel phone bill. Sherwin had only enough money to pay for a taxi back to the airport. Their fling in Cannes already over, they scuttled back to London. One week later, on May 27, Sherwin’s phone rang at two in the morning. A drunken voice told him, “‘We’re going to be rich...’ if.... has won the Grand Prix. Joy and disbelief. We’ve won!”

Sherwin had written the first draft of his screenplay about an English public school almost a decade earlier, in 1960. He collaborated on it with his friend John Howlett when they were both undergraduates at Oxford. They called the script Crusaders and based it on their school days at Tonbridge. Over the next few years, they approached various British producers. Sherwin recounts in Going Mad in Hollywood how it was received: “The noble [Lord Brabourne] is straightforward. Crusaders is the most evil and perverted script he’s ever read. It must never see the light of day […] [A]nother well-heeled producer, Ian Dalrymple, who had been head of the Crown Film Unit […] says we should be horsewhipped.” A copy of Crusaders was mailed, care of Warner Brothers, to Nicholas Ray (Sherwin’s favorite film was Rebel Without A Cause) and actually reached him. The star-struck Sherwin was summoned to a bizarre meeting in Grosvenor Hotel, where Ray explained he couldn’t make the film because he was too American. He predicted Sherwin would “have a great future in Hollywood.”

The first British film industry figure to respond positively to Crusaders was Seth Holt, a talented Ealing Studios director. He realized the film needed a director with a public school background, so he suggested his friend Anderson. It was the perfect choice. Anderson was a classic child of the British imperial class. His father, a Scot and a soldier, was born in Northern India, his mother, a formidable memsahib, in Queenstown, South Africa, and Anderson himself in Bangalore. He was raised to replicate his father’s social class and profession. The writer Gavin Lambert, Anderson’s lifelong friend, was schooled with him at Cheltenham College. In his affectionate biography Mainly about Lindsay Anderson, Lambert remembers how their school “specialized in preparing sons of officers for Sandhurst […] The most typical and respected Old Cheltonians served the empire and got together for nostalgic far-flung dinners (black tie and medals) from Nairobi to Bangalore.”

Although Anderson rejected this deeply conventional colonial background, its very English brand of emotional repression left him troubled. He once wrote how his father “was not very keen on his sons”; his parents divorced when he was a teenager, and Anderson never saw his father again. Anderson poured both halves of his contradictory character — liberal and authoritarian, generous and controlling — into his obsessive love of film. The leading advocate for the British New Wave or Free Cinema movement, Anderson had been a ferocious critic for Screen magazine and had received great acclaim for This Sporting Life, his debut feature, which was based on the novel by Northern English working-class author David Storey.

Not surprisingly, given Anderson’s formidable reputation, Sherwin was nervous and late at their first, fateful meeting at the Pillars of Hercules, Soho. To Sherwin’s surprise, Anderson resembled “a young gnome […] with an odd but humorous smile.” He describes the encounter: 

His first words are: “The Script is very bad.” He adds that the boys and masters are only thinly sketched. They need to be truly imagined and with more humour. […]

“Have you read Georg Büchner?” I ask the gnome.


“It should be like Woyzeck.”

“Yes. Poetry is the key.”

“And the epic.”


With this mutual flash of understanding my and Lindsay’s destinies change …

Anderson suggested that Sherwin and Howlett work with him on shaping a new draft, under contract to Holt. Anderson realized the writers, 20 years his junior, might have a problem opposing him with enough confidence” but concealed any creative doubts by laying down the law. In a letter to Sherwin, he writes with typical abruptness that the script needed new characters, incidents, relationships: “You have (excuse me for writing like a school report) a fecundity of imagination, but it seems to operate rather without an organic sense. […] Sometimes a whole idea is valuable, sometimes a couple of lines, sometimes nothing.” But the same letter also reveals how clearly Anderson saw the radical political possibilities of the script’s subject: the chance to depict the British public school as “a strange sub-world, with its own peculiar laws, distortions, brutalities, loves [and] its special relationship to an […] outdated conception of British society.”

Howlett and Holt soon withdrew from the project (they disliked the script’s more radical direction), but Anderson and Sherwin continued working together “with no thought of pleasing anyone but ourselves.” The new draft interwove epic and fantasist elements, with both men agreeing on an outline of each scene before Sherwin wrote it. Working together so closely, the two developed an intimate, co-dependent relationship. It lasted 25 years, right up until Anderson’s death. Whenever Sherwin’s strife with his girlfriend sent him spiraling off on an alcoholic binge (which was frequently), Anderson would act as mentor and disciplinarian, comforting him while at the same time strictly limiting Sherwin’s intake of barley wine.

In addition to their shared love of Büchner’s drama, Sherwin and Anderson were influenced by French director Jean Vigo’s early silent film Zéro de conduite, set in a boy’s boarding school. Sherwin records how they watched the film together “not for its anarchistic spirit (we had plenty of our own) but for Vigo’s poetic method, episodic, fragmentary, charged.” Vigo’s classic work also gave Anderson a sense of a possible ending although somewhat different in tone. Whereas in Zéro de conduite the naughty schoolchildren throw tin cans and old shoes at the teachers, the enraged and alienated rebels of if...., as the film came to be called, open fire with stolen machine guns and hand grenades on teachers and governors celebrating Founders’ Day.

Despite the audacity of the new script — or rather, because of it — every UK film company turned the project down. One agent winked at Sherwin behind Anderson’s back and said, “God. It’s shit.” One day, as Anderson was trudging downcast round Soho, there was a shout of “Lindsay” from an upstairs window. It was Albert Finney. Thanks to the huge success of Tom Jones, Finney had been able to set up his own production company and was editing Charlie Bubbles, his first film as a director. Finney was happy to show the script to his partner, public school–educated Michael Medwin, who agreed to co-produce it with American finance. At this point, the United States oil conglomerate Gulf and Western enters the story in the shape of its owner, Charles Bluhdorn. The billionaire tycoon not only decided to buy Paramount, but his wife also happened to be a great fan of Finney: “A word from Mrs Bluhdorn to Mr Bluhdorn. A phone call from Mr Bluhdorn to Paramount in London. if.... is financed by Paramount and neither of the Bluhdorns ever read the script.”

Anderson was determined to shoot as much of the film as possible at his alma mater, Cheltenham College, and so he made Sherwin launder the script to gain permission. The title Crusaders was deemed too subversive. Sherwin asked Medwin’s secretary, Daphne Hunter, if she could think of something “very old-fashioned, corny and patriotic.” She suggested “If—,” Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, which celebrates the “stiff upper lip” rectitude beloved of late Victorian empire builders. Anderson took one look, smiled in agreement, and added the crucial four dots.

Right from if....’s first shot, the influence of Bertolt Brecht on Anderson is apparent. A still of Cheltenham College Chapel is the background over which the sound of boys singing is heard. It mixes into laughter and then deep chanting accompanied by African drums. We move from a traditional hymn to the pagan mass of the Missa Luba, which is repeatedly played by the protagonist in the film. There’s also the use of Brechtian “intertitles,” which break up the narrative flow and mark numbered chapters throughout. The first part, “College House — Return,” introduces leading man Mick in a deliberately theatrical way. He enters the film dressed like a highwayman, with a black cloak and a wide-brimmed black hat and scarf hiding his lower face. Anderson portrays Mick as a classic late adolescent dreamer, like his friends Wallace and Johnny, but he is also self-aware and ironic, deliberately spouting slogans that romanticize rebellion: “Violence and revolution are the only pure acts”; “One man can change the world with a bullet in the right place.” Mick’s self-absorption and adolescent sexual fantasies are equally rhetorical. “My face is a source of never-ending wonder to me,” he declares, addressing his own reflection in a mirror. Examining a pin-up picture of a model, he announces: “There’s only one thing you can do with a girl like that — walk naked into the sea together as the sun sets, make love once and then die.”

Like Jimmy Porter in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, Mick isn’t an overtly political protagonist with a thought-out program of change. He is more the embodiment of the frustrated outcry of youth held back by a repressive adult world, with the school a microcosm of Britain as a society deaf to the voices of a new generation. “When do we live?” he asks Johnny and Wallace. “That’s what I want to know.” Fifty years ago, the entire British establishment was dominated by the products of the “strange sub-world” of the public school. Anderson uses the film’s third chapter, “Discipline,” to flesh out this world, introducing the headmaster, teachers, chaplain, and senior boys who are the prefects, aptly named “Whips.” These figures all stress, as though Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” was still current, the over-riding importance of duty, tradition, and servility. When Lambert first viewed the film, he immediately recognized his Cheltenham College headmaster in the smug authority figure who tells Mick, “You’re too intelligent to be rebels.” The teacher shown interfering with a pupil and the chaplain’s medieval belief in original sin (“We are all corrupt and we all deserve to be punished”) were also drawn from Anderson and Lambert’s shared school days.

The film’s most inspired creation is the arrogant, reactionary Whips — the senior boys who punish their own generation. Anderson chose to dress them in archaic costumes: black tailcoats, embroidered waistcoats, and starched collars. They force “Scum,” the younger boys, to toast muffins or serve them tea in the bath. Supercilious and self-important, preserving their privileges and “the stability of the school” at all costs, the Whips seem contemporary. Forerunners of today’s “young fogies,” they’ve mutated over 50 years into the Jacob Rees-Moggs and Boris Johnsons of the current Tory party. In Brexit Britain, the prominence of such figures reveals just how deep this warped sense of English identity and history runs. Despite decades of economic neoliberalism, which has dissolved much of the stratified class system of traditional British society, there’s still a powerful strain of imperial nostalgia in the culture.

The starkness of Anderson’s depiction of these persistent subcurrents is enhanced by the use of black and white. Miroslav Ondříček, the Czech cinematographer whom Anderson had previously worked with on his short film The White Bus, told him he couldn’t guarantee the consistency of the color in the chapel scenes, due to limited lighting equipment. Anderson, with characteristic chutzpah, decided to shoot the scenes in black and white instead. Liking the look, he then chose to shoot more scenes in black and white, helping to increase the bleakness of the modern roadside café or the attic room where the new teacher is housed. Sometimes Anderson shifts to and from black and white to disorient the audience, as in the fencing scene between Johnny and Mick, which moves into color at the point when Mick’s hand is cut and he becomes entranced by the drip of blood. But Anderson also uses black and white to give the film a lyrical interlude, as when Phillips, the beautiful younger boy, stops to gaze down at Wallace exercising in the gymnasium. Anderson, who spent a lifetime repressing his own homosexuality, gives full rein to the homoeroticism in this scene, using slow motion to underscore the character’s growing sexual attraction. He also echoes this in the black-and-white cinematography of the surreal café scene, when Mick and Christine start to mate like wild cats. “Look at my eyes, I have eyes like a tiger. I like Tigers,” Christine says. Mick snarls; she snarls back. They pretend to claw each other. A jump cut later they are writhing fully naked on the floor in mock sexual congress. We switch back to color in a pastoral landscape, with Christine standing on the stolen motorbike, first resting her hands on Mick’s shoulders, then flinging them outward in a gesture of abandon.

Anderson had used the demanding café scene to audition actors for the roles of Mick and Christine. Sherwin remembers how an unknown McDowell turned up without a script, claiming someone had nicked it before he had time to learn his scene. But, on stage, his eyes become suddenly intense, his movements precise yet natural:

[McDowell] without warning, not looking at the script, he grabs [actress Christine Noonan] round the neck, pulling across the wide table and kisses her hard and long. […] [T]he girl rears up and smashes him in the face with her fist […] Bites, blows, bodies thumping on the boards. Struggling on the floor, [McDowell] tries to turn to the next page [of the script] to see what’s coming next. The girl tears into him, tugging out his hair, ripping the script in two. Maddened he retaliates, wrestling, breaking the girl’s bra under her sweater.

Their audition was so strong that Sherwin told Anderson there was no point carrying on: “You’ve got your Mick and the girl.” McDowell admitted that the reason he had acted the fight so well was that he didn’t know he was “going to get knocked out just for kissing her. I was absolutely stunned, and then I thought, right — I’ll give it her back.” His performance in the film was just as natural. Stanley Kubrick, who went to see if.... five times and thought it a perfect film, subsequently cast McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, where the actor essentially reprises his iconic role as permanent alienated rebel.

In the sixth chapter of the film, titled “Resistance,” the three would-be rebels — Mick, Wallace, and Johnny — swear blood brotherhood and cry, “Death to tyrants!” and, “England, awake!” They are then punished for attacking the chaplain during a military exercise and made to clear out the basement, which is full of rotting Union Jacks, old maps of the British Empire, and a stunted fetus in a jar. It’s here, amid the detritus of Britain’s past, that they discover a stockpile of machine guns and ammunition left over from World War II. Anderson elegantly turns the symbols of repression back upon themselves. The English tradition is about to destroy itself with its own tools.

The final part of the film retains the original title, “Crusaders.” At the school’s Founders’ Day, “national hero” General Denson addresses the packed chapel, flanked by the self-satisfied headmaster, a visiting bishop in full ceremonial costume, and a baronet in medieval armor. Anderson arranges a tableau of church, army, and aristocracy, a feudal display of the ancient regime. As the general defends tradition and privilege, smoke drifts up through the floorboards. The entire school, with its honored guests, panics and spills outside, half-suffocated from the smoke. From his position on the chapel roof — wearing a combat jacket and accompanied by Wallace, Philips, and Johnny — Mick opens fire with a machine gun.

The general issues orders to fight back. A comically ferocious mother yells, “Bastards! Bastards!” as she grabs a gun and returns fire. The headmaster presents himself as a peacemaker and walks toward the rebels. Anderson makes sure he receives a bullet right between the eyes. The last shot closes on Mick as he looks ever more determined. The main title is repeated, this time drenched in blood red letters.

Anderson later said he felt if.... was only emotionally revolutionary: “Intellectually I don’t know.” The four dots he added to the title underscore its ambiguity — “if” as something conditional, a film about what could happen or what we might like to happen. By remaining open, it surpasses Jean-Luc Godard’s more closed, polemical 1970s cinema. The film manages to hover between satire and belief, naturalism and expressionistic dreamscapes, a permanent document of revolt.

It is interesting to note the immediate historical context of if....: the mass demonstration at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, “les événements” in Paris, and other student protests erupting in New York, London, and Rome. The film intuitively reflected a sense of the zeitgeist. But there are no images of Black Panthers, Che Guevara, or other icons of late ’60s student protest on Mick’s walls. Instead, his study room collage (selected by Sherwin) includes Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream and a photo of a beardless Lenin from 1917. The soundtrack also isn’t of its time. Anderson deliberately excluded the contemporary in order to let the film inhabit and represent its own skewed picture of English social reality. It obeys only the rules of its own radical internal poetic logic.

In Going Mad in Hollywood, Sherwin observes how close if.... came to being shelved and never shown. When the Paramount executives saw the finished product they were appalled and planned to delay distribution. But by December 1968, Paramount had failed to show their annual quota of British films. Their Barbarella was proving a disaster at the UK box office, so they had to replace it with something, preferably British. Two nights after if.... was released in central London, the queues stretched for half a mile. It had become a cultural phenomenon. Youth, said Anderson, is “a matter of spirit, attitude and feeling.” This was precisely what he had captured on film, and the public responded. Anderson, Sherwin, and McDowell spent Christmas just watching the crowds. It was, according to McDowell, the happiest time of Anderson’s life.

Twenty-five years later, at Anderson’s memorial service, McDowell recounted how Anderson approached the key scene of Mick’s beating. Confronting the Whip, who is eager to begin the thrashing, Mick looks at him with calm contempt. When the cane is first brought down, Mick manages not to wince. The beating grows ever more vicious. But Anderson chose to film the scene behind Mick, cutting to images of the sadistic, salivating Whip. Mick’s face is only shown once the beating is finished. When he turns to face the camera, Mick is shown wearing the same cool, insolent expression. It is a timeless homage to youth, to its cocky, rebellious attitude, its refusal to bend or submit.

As then, so now: the film is “a bullet in the right place.”


British director and writer Alex Harvey has made over 20 documentaries and dramas, working in both film and television. His most recent film is the feature documentary, Enter the Jungle (2014).

LARB Contributor

Alex Harvey is a writer and director based in Los Angeles. His book Song Noir: Tom Waits and the Spirit of Los Angeles was recently published by Reaktion Books in the United Kingdom and University of Chicago Press in the United States. He is currently making a film about Satyajit Ray and Kolkata.


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