As a way of avoiding the truth of what English public schools used to be like, Lindsay Anderson’s opening salvo (1968) in his state of the nation trilogy (If…, O Lucky Man!, Britannia Hospital) falls loosely under the heading of satire. It is easier to accept brutality if you know its exaggeration is intended to shock for theatrical purposes. Except it is not exaggerated. And the ethos of College House mirrors the real thing to a disturbing degree.

There are occasional false notes, such as the pompous headmaster’s (Peter Jeffrey) willingness to forgive boys for behaviour that should have received instant expulsion and the appearance of The Girl (Sandy Shaw lookalike Christine Noonan), an absurdly sexy café waitress, on the battlements for the final, not entirely convincing, shootout.

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The trio of troublemakers has recognisable character flaws. They hate the system; they hate being at school; they drink, smoke and talk about death. However, they are not united against every aspect of the established order. Wallace (Richard Warwick) may be tasting forbidden fruit, the whip’s tart (Rupert Webster) – a whip is a school monitor – but is also an exceptionally skilled gymnast. Johnny (David Wood) may like to give the impression of being a radical cynic, clever enough to avoid suspicion, but on his own is unlikely to make waves. Mick (Malcolm McDowell) is the catalyst of destruction, who teases the whips with his flagrant mockery of authority.

David Sherwin’s script captures the mood of institutionalised sadism and hierarchal bullying, from the whips’ arrogant misuse of power to the masters’ idiosyncratic eccentricities to the new kids’ (called scum) initiations into what appears to be an establishment of centuries old tradition. The drudgery of daily chapel, the incomprehension of certain lessons, the absurdity of war games on cadet field days and the underlying sexual frisson, unique to male boarding schools, are exposed and, to some extent, mocked, beautifully. All that’s missing are white flannels and the nostalgic sound of leather on willow.

The film stands up well with the exception of the odd surreal moment, such as the vicar in the drawer, which belongs to Monty Python a year before the circus took flight. McDowell’s performance is truly anarchic, displaying a dangerous element that feels as unpredictable as it is magnetic.

Anderson’s direction cannot be faulted, not least in his ability to encourage his young actors to attain a standard of excellence beyond their ambition and in the caning sequence in the gym which is unforgettable.

“One man can change the world with a bullet in the right place,” Mick says.

One film can change the world. This almost does. Almost, but not quite.

Reviewed on: 20 Jul 2007
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Anarchy in the sixth form.

Director: Lindsay Anderson

Writer: David Sherwin, based on the screenplay of Crusaders by David Shewin and John Howlett

Starring: Malcolm McDowell, David Wood, Richard Warwick, Christine Noonan, Rupert Webster, Robert Swann, Hugh Thomas, Peter Jeffrey, Arthur Lowe, Geoffrey Chater, Graham Crowden, Mona Washbourne, Mary Macleod, Brian Pettifer, Anthony Nicholls, Sean Bury, Philip Bagenal, Robin Askwith, Charles Lloyd Pack

Year: 1968

Runtime: 107 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


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