A Discussion Of The Film If.... by Lindsay Anderson in my novel
DO NOT LAUGH AT THE NATIVES
“The first is exemplified by Travis,” he went on, “the second, above all, by Denson, who takes the values of the public school most to heart amongst the “whips” and the seniors. The confrontation over Travis’s necklace of teeth, in which Denson says “What in hell are those?” and Travis replies, “They’re my teeth, they’re my good luck.” and Denson goes on “They’ve got blood on them; they’re a breeding ground for bacteria. I’m confiscating them. You’re a degenerate, Travis.” is a case in point. In that confrontation, Denson personifies the whole sanitising neurosis of Western Civilisation? Denson, of course, is a repressed fag, always eying up the gay Bobby Philips, then upbraiding the other whips for their adolescent homosexual flirtatiousness with him. And I’m pretty sure repressed homosexuality lies at the heart of his constant petty victimisation of Travis. However, interesting as that may be in itself, it’s just incidental to the main theme of the movie.”
“Which is what,” said Jack. “apart from a few public school-boys and a girl going on the rampage with guns and bombs at the end?”
“Well, there’s a tragic conflict being worked out in the film, I believe.” Hubert continued. “Travis’s obvious identification with the ‘primitive’, exemplified by his necklace of teeth, his repeated playing of the Sanctus from Misa Luba, his identification with a tiger while making love in the Packhorse cafe, is tragic on account of his tendency to equate the ‘primitive’ with violence and his adolescent fascination with war and ‘revolution’, which, had they not inadvertantly found that cache of arms, he would probably have grown out of.”
“So, you don’t think he was just a psycho, then?” Jack asked,.
“Well, if he was,” said Hubert “he was an extremely sympathetic one, taken all in all. He never seems to participate in any of the ritualistic bullying that takes place in the school and he tells a senior in charge of him to watch it for making an anti-Semitic remark about another boy. He does, however, have a hatred of authority - and I don’t see anything particularly psycho about that. Travis is a natural - as opposed to intellectual - anarchist, a sort of instinctive rebel, but one who is as yet too immature to know what that means, and that is his tragedy. When you compare him with the “whips”, he is morally far superior to any of them. Not only that, but he has a lot more style than they do, and it’s one of the things they hate about him. His whole philosophy can be summed up by the question he asks Knightley, “When do we live?” That of the “whips”, on the other hand, can be summed up by their unthinking adherence to a system which suppresses all forms of individuality, including their own. Travis’s tragedy is that he discovers that cache of arms at the precise moment that he comes into maximum conflict with the system and his ideas are not fully formed. He is, “a young dog, a whelp, puppy”, who has been beaten and humiliated and whose desire for revenge has driven him temporarily mad. Nor should it be forgotten that the Sixties themselves had a very dark side to them, a love of gesture and rhetoric which is reflected in his obsession with violence. All this made the final explosion inevitable, with tragic consequences for everyone caught up in it, including Travis himself. The last scene, which shows Travis grimly firing away at his adversaries from the rooftop of the school, presents him as a hunted animal at bay. And how true the image is; because, in a way, Travis had been hunted all the way through the film, the way non-conformists are usually hunted down by conformists.”
“So why do you think the others participated?” asked Jack. “Don’t you think that they were rather too easily led by the more charismatic Travis?”
“Not at all.” said Hubert. “They all had their own reasons for going along with Travis. Take Wallace, for example. Wallace is the good-looking athlete who is obsessed with the thought of his own physical decline. He doesn’t want to grow old; in fact, he doesn’t even want to get older. His affair with the younger Bobby Philips, I think, expresses his obsession with youth. It’s easy to see why he went along with the orgy of violence at the end of the film. He wanted to die young. Knightley, for his part, went along with it because Travis was his best friend and he wouldn’t even think of not going along with him. That’s what friends do, after all. And the girl joined in partly because she was Travis’s girlfriend and partly because she was in a dead-end job and yearned for excitement. She was a “zek”, in other words, for whom life offered absolutely no prospects; so why not just pick up a gun and shoot your way out of it? Like Travis, she’d also asked “When do we live?” That leaves only Bobby Philips to account for, and I must confess his involvement is something of an enigma to me, which I’m not sure I’ve properly fathomed. Earlier, for example, he’d spoken of wanting to be a criminal lawyer in California, but maybe he was daunted by the fact that it would take 20 years to achieve his ambition. After all, life can only be really lived in the present. Why put it off till the future? Or perhaps he just wanted to be with his lover and his lover’s friends, who at least seem to have accepted him just as he was. When you think of the way he had been sexually harassed by the whips and taunted for being gay by some of the older boys in the school, his joining the futile and suicidal rebellion at the end of the film is more understandable.
Of course, Bobby Philips’s involvement with the rebellion has another more symbolic significance, considering the fact that he is so obviously gay. It anticipates the time when gays and lesbians were to take to the streets themselves, which they hadn’t yet begun to do in 1968, the year the film was made, and also the year of the events on the streets of Paris and France. The symbolic dimension of the film is one we are often apt to forget when we present the rebellion simply as one that took place purely within the confines of an upper-class public school.”
“But, getting back to Travis,” said Jack, “Don’t you think he is as much a product of his class as Rowntree or Denson? His very style exudes class. And he takes his punishment like a Trojan, as if he didn’t want to let the side down. Had he been working-class, he would have just told Rowntree to stuff it up his toffee-nosed arsehole and punched him in the mouth if he’d tried to beat him.”
“Yes, it’s true.” said Hubert. “A working-class boy would have opposed his class-identity to theirs and already had a way out, but part of Travis’s tragedy is that he was not working-class and didn’t have that identity to fall back on. I suppose you could say he was classless, as he didn’t really belong to his own class either. That, in effect, makes him much more interesting and individuated than either Rowntree or a boy with a working-class identity would be. The ways people are individuated is always a more interesting theme in art than identity, be it class, ethnic, national, sexual or religious identity - though, in Travis’s case, individuation had a tragic twist in its tail.
Of course, the trouble with the rebellion as it stood was that “the Crusaders” chose to fight the system with its own weapons. Travis has a wonderful negativity about him - what nowadays we would call “attitude” - a deep loathing and contempt for all the values which people like Rowntree and Denson personify. You can see that in the way he constantly looks at them. That negativity was absolutely essential to the process of finding himself as an individual in the teeth of what people like Rowntree and Denson represented. Ideally, however, it should have meant choosing his own ground to fight on, not theirs, his own weapons, not mortars and sten-guns; but he wasn’t given time for that; he was more or less hitting out with what came to hand in accordance with the tenets of his own immature belief in the cathartic virtues of violence and ‘revolution’. His being forced to act before he’d had time to grow out of that belief is what, in the end, makes him so tragic.”