Lindsay Anderson's If....: Anarchy & Poetry

By Gavin Lambert | March 9, 2009
Lindsay Anderson's If....: Anarchy & Poetry - LEADPHOTO

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the New York release of Lindsay Anderson’s seminal If…., we delve into the Faber archives for an extract from Gavin Lambert’s Mainly About Lindsay Anderson on the film’s genesis.

Lindsay Anderson with Malcolm McDowell on the set of If....

Lindsay Anderson with Malcolm McDowell
on the set of If....

The British cinema has produced few more awkwardly brilliant (or brilliantly awkward) characters than Lindsay Anderson (1923-1994), an inspired director of confrontational works both for theatre and film. By late 1966 Anderson still had only one feature to his name, the greatly acclaimed This Sporting Life (1963). But his interest was then snared by a first-draft screenplay from a pair of unknown writers, concerning the oppressive environment of a posh English “public” (i.e. fee-paying) school. As it happened, the tumultuous year of 1968 was lying in wait just around the corner, and the film Anderson would make of that script, If…, would capture some of the rebellious spirit of the age.

The late film scholar, novelist and screenwriter Gavin Lambert (1924-2005) was one of Anderson’s best friends, and provides a marvellously detailed portrait of the director in his book Mainly About Lindsay Anderson (published in 2000 by Faber and Faber in the UK and Knopf in the US.) In the following edited extract from the book, Lambert describes the genesis of If…, Anderson’s debt of inspiration to Jean Vigo, his own role in securing Hollywood financing for the picture, the real story of why parts of it were shot in black-and-white – and how the screenplay formerly known as Crusaders found a far more enigmatic title...

David Sherwin and John Howlett had co-written Crusaders in 1960, when they were both undergraduates at Oxford. Over the next few years they submitted it to various British producers, one of whom told them it was “evil and perverted,” another that they should be horse-whipped. They also sent it to Nick Ray in California, sensing a kindred spirit in the director of Rebel Without a Cause. But although Nick liked it, he thought the film should be directed by an Englishman. Finally Sherwin and Howlett submitted Crusaders to Seth Holt at Ealing Studios, a friend of both Lindsay and me, and a talented second-generation Ealing director. Seth also liked Crusaders, but thought the film needed a director with a public school background, and offered to produce it with Lindsay directing.

At first Lindsay was doubtful. He told Seth that he responded to “something authentically adolescent and rebellious” in the screenplay, but found it disorganized, too sentimental, and short on humour. “Outline, characters, relationships remain appallingly fluid,” he added in his diary. All the same, he met with Sherwin and Howlett a week before leaving for Warsaw, liked them, agreed to work with them on a second draft, then confided the usual self-doubt to his diary: “I’m afraid I’m too subjective to be a writer; and I don’t trust myself. Their problem is opposing me with enough confidence.”

Malcolm McDowell in If....

Malcolm McDowell in If....

Lindsay, of course, was not easy to oppose. Concealing self-doubt by laying down the law, he told Sherwin and Howlett that Crusaders “had to be taken to pieces,” and needed “new characters, incidents, relationships.” After Sherwin sent him some notes for these, Lindsay replied from Warsaw: “You have (excuse me for writing like a school report) a fecundity of imagination, but it seems to operate rather without organic sense. Sometimes a whole idea is valuable, sometimes a couple of lines, sometimes nothing.”

And then, in a moment of breakthrough, the letter summed up what Lindsay believed Crusaders should be about. The British public school, he wrote, is “a strange sub-world, with its own peculiar laws, distortions, brutalities, loves, [and] its special relationship to a perhaps outdated conception of British society.”

Soon there was no “perhaps” about it. “I feel the story, even the style is shaping,” he noted on 5 January 1967, after another meeting with Sherwin and Howlett on his return to London. “But I find myself very confused between epic, fantasist, liberal protest (an initial danger).” A few weeks later, both Seth and Howlett bowed out. “They didn’t really like the direction the script was taking,” according to Lindsay, who had begun to feel personally involved with Crusaders, and proposed to Sherwin that they continue on their own, “with no thought of pleasing anyone but ourselves.”

Then, having discovered a mutual admiration for Jean Vigo, they saw Zéro de Conduite again, “not for its anarchistic spirit – we had plenty of our own – [but for] Vigo’s poetic method, episodic, fragmentary, charged.” The film also gave Lindsay an idea for the finale of Crusaders, but a finale very different in tone. Vigo’s schoolboys are mischievous children who pelt teachers and governors celebrating Alumni Day with tin cans and old shoes. Lindsay’s are lethally angry adolescents who open fire with stolen machine-guns on teachers and dignitaries celebrating Founder’s Day.

It didn’t take long for the screenplay to move beyond “liberal protest,” and as director and writer exchanged memories of public school life, appalled by its cruelties and delighted by its absurdities, Lindsay no longer felt confused between “epic” and “fantasist.” The new draft fused them, and fused the ideas that emerged from an almost daily collaboration that began in the second week of March. Their working routine, which Lindsay established, was to agree on a general outline of each scene, and discuss it in detail before Sherwin wrote it. After Lindsay read the scene, he made further suggestions, and Sherwin rewrote it. Although prolific with ideas for scenes, Sherwin needed Lindsay’s help to develop them (when he didn’t reject them); and although he sketched out many of the characters, Lindsay needed Sherwin to invent dialogue for them.

Their co-dependency became more than professional when Sherwin’s unresolved wife-versus-girlfriend problems sometimes reduced him to tears or sent him off on an alcoholic binge. Then Lindsay played personal adviser and scold, as well as sternly monitoring Sherwin’s consumption of barley wine, and they finished the draft during the second week of May.

Zéro de Conduite was an inspiration for If....

Zéro de Conduite was an inspiration for If....

At the end of August, after every major production and distribution company in Britain had turned it down, a chance meeting with Albert Finney rescued the project. A share of the enormously profitable Tom Jones had enabled Finney to set up his own company, Memorial Enterprises, and he’d just finished directing his first film, Charlie Bubbles, from a script by Shelagh Delaney. Finney offered to show Crusaders to his partner, Michael Medwin, who liked it, offered to co-produce it, and set about raising American finance:

I knew that Charles Bludhorn, who was running Paramount at the time, was star-struck and a great Albert Finney fan. I had to go to New York, and I used Albert’s name to get to Bludhorn. He didn’t know that Paramount’s London office had turned the project down, and asked me about budget. I told him, $600,000. Bludhorn didn’t read the script (people like that never do), but sent it to Paramount’s New York script department and got an enthusiastic reaction. Then he sent it on to Paramount in London, who realized it was now Bludhorn’s baby, pretended they’d never read it and reacted enthusiastically. So Bludhorn gave us the green light.

Lindsay had always wanted to shoot as much of the film as possible on location at his alma mater; and to gain permission from the current headmaster of Cheltenham College, he thought it prudent to submit a laundered script. Sherwin prepared one, but as it needed a less subversive title than Crusaders, Lindsay pinned an appeal for suggestions on the notice board outside Michael Medwin’s office. Daphne Hunter, formerly my secretary at the British Film Institute, and a longtime friend of both Lindsay and myself, was then working as Medwin’s secretary. And after Sherwin completed the “official” version, he asked if she could think of “something very old-fashioned, corny, and patriotic: ‘Like Kipling,’ he said. This set me off. And I began reciting, ‘If you can keep your head while all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you/You’ll be a man, my son.’ And then I said, ‘What about If as a title?’ David liked it, so I wrote it on the notice board. Lindsay came in later, saw it, added three dots, and decided it would make a better title for the real script than Crusaders.

The film’s modest budget allowed for a fairly limited range of lighting equipment, and after making a few tests, cameraman Miroslav Ondricek told Lindsay that he couldn’t guarantee colour consistency in the chapel scenes. “Then let’s shoot them in black-and-white,” Lindsay said. “I really love black-and-white.” At first the idea made Mirek uneasy, and he wondered how Lindsay could explain it away. (Stephen Frears, assistant director on the film, remembered Mirek as “a bit literal-minded. He came out of the Milos Forman-Ivan Passer Czech school, with its more candid-camera style.”) But Lindsay insisted that he didn’t have to “explain it away. I’ll just shoot a few other scenes in black-and-white when I feel like it.”

Although playing for time when he said this, Lindsay proceeded to “explain it away” after he saw dailies of the first chapel scene. Its atmosphere of bleak uniformity, he decided, would have been less effective in colour. Lindsay always had what he called a “pedagogic side,” not always beneficial to him as an artist, although in this case it helped him to see that black-and-white could intensify the bleakness of other scenes: the ugly roadside café and the grim attic where the assistant housemaster was lodged.


In the black-and-white The White Bus [1967] he had used colour for a reverse effect, and now he rationalized that “If you shoot a film entirely in monochrome or entirely in colour, you don’t disrupt the audience in any way.” There are many other ways of disrupting an audience, of course, and what matters here is the creative instinct that turned a limitation to advantage.

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