This surrealistic and vicious story of schoolboy revolt was something of a departure for director Lindsay Anderson, but he succeeded in capturing the absurdities of British public school life and invested the satire with an abundance of venom.
When it was released in 1968, Anderson’s bellow of righteous outrage was described as “a hand grenade of a film”.
Some critics and many politicians were made thoroughly queasy at its apparent message of total uncompromising revolution.
The fact that, across the Channel, the student population was busy building barricades can’t have helped . . .
Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) is a rebellious sixth former at a stuffy and authoritarian English boarding school where he and his friends are seen as a subversive element by the teachers and “whips”.
A particularly brutal caning triggers a violent showdown and McDowell gives a blistering performance.
The movie slips between colour and black and white – which wasn’t (as some mistakenly thought) a deep and meaningful artistic statement on the meaning of celluloid as an art form, but simply that the producers ran out of cash and couldn’t afford to continue using colour film.
The fascinating structure of the film leaves you unsure whether the fantastically violent final reel is for real or an extension of the schoolboy anarchist’s fervid imagination. Whichever, it is a deliciously subversive piece of filmmaking which drips with wit and venom.
On Founders’ Day, a crowd in the main school hall hears a speech from General Denson (Hugh Thomas). Smoke rises from under the stage causing a round of confused coughing as parents get up to leave. “My God, we’re on fire!” splutters the general as a mass exodus begins.
Mortars fired by Wallace (Richard Warwick) and Bobby (Rupert Webster) rain down into the courtyard from the rooftops. Mick and Johnny (David Wood) shoot machine guns. Bodies fall.
The crowds take cover, the Chaplain (Geoffrey Chater) shields a pupil from harm, a bishop flees, and General Denson and his guards begin firing back.
An old lady shouts “Bastards!” while firing a Sten gun. The Headmaster (Peter Jeffrey) calls for a ceasefire, but The Girl (Christine Noonan) takes out a handgun and shoots him between the eyes.
The school hymn starts, and a full-scale battle begins. Amid the fury, we close in on Mick as he sprays bullets indiscriminately, the ghost of a grin creeping across his face.
If stands as Britain’s most significant contribution to the counter-cultural cycle of late sixties cinema. Anderson claimed it was never intended as a reflection of student unrest, but the story chimed perfectly with the spirit of ’68.
Finding a willing school for location shooting proved tricky until Anderson approached his own Cheltenham College, where most of the scenes were shot, including the final confrontation (filmed out of term time). To convince the governors, Anderson had a fake 40-page script written which omitted any reference to homosexuality or violence.
On set, McDowell couldn’t believe the school had consented. Anderson told him; “For God’s sake, Malcolm, shut up! They think it’s very nice, like a Tom Brown’s Schooldays kind of film.”
Director Lindsay Anderson, writer David Sherwin and star Malcolm McDowell made two more films about Mick Travis – O! Lucky Man (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982) and were planning a sequel when Anderson passed away in 1994.