There’s a scene in Lindsay Anderson’s If… that stuck out the first time I watched it: Malcolm McDowell — whose adolescent fresh face makes its big debut in the film industry as the iconic character Mick Travis, via this 1968 gold-star classic — lies in his private school uniform on a bed among pictures of military members, bloodied fields, and crying children from magazine and newspaper clippings, hiding away from the “spare the rod, spoil the child” mentality of his prefect peers. Amid the backdrop of the dark-oak walls and properly pressed suits, Travis plainly, and very earnestly, tells his friends, “One man can change the world with a bullet in the right place.”
While the quote certainly feels crass in the wake of what we’ve seen repeatedly on the news in recent decades, it also felt like something noticeably familiar — but perhaps that’s because I have re-read the 1990s counter-culture comic book series The Invisibles pretty recently. After all, there’s no denying that Invisibles creator and beloved British pop culture figure Grant Morrison knows a thing or two about the themes of If….
For those unfamiliar with the movie, If…. begins in the way that a lot of British films do from the late 1960s: lots of brown, lots of beige, and a seemingly meandering narrative with very little room for the audience to guess where the hell the story will go. With a Christian hymn being sung in the background, the film — named after the inspirational life poem of the same title by Rudyard Kipling — starts in with deep, violently colored placards displaying the credits, making it easy to tell that this is not going to be a simple feel-good film about an upper-crust British public schools. (Note: what would be considered “private school” to us Americans.)
The inciting incident of the movie comes early on as Travis, one of the movie’s three protagonists and the central figure of the entire story, returns to school — simply named “College,” obviously denoting the fact that it essentially represents every British public school of the era — as quiet, but rebellious as ever, hiding his well-grown mustache under layers of scarves in order to hide them from the “whips” who maintain a despotic order in the school’s social structure. Upon his return, Travis finds his old cohorts, Wallace and Knightly — fellow final year students — and the three begin to fall into their usual scheming and adolescent silliness under the noses of their superiors, unaware that things will end quite as explosively as they do.
The movie’s “College” is, for the most part, portrayed as a traditional example of British schools in all their dehumanizing glory: the stuffy old headmaster remote from the rest of the school, leading teachers who display a similarly dispassionate stiff upper lip at all times. Even the housemasters — older boys in their final year of school — treat underclassmen as slaves through a variety of tasks and abuses for their pleasure. If school is intended to prepare students for the real world, College tells them to know their place and obey their superiors, no matter the cost.
This embrace of, and abuse of, positions of authority doesn’t fly so right to the rebellious trio, ensuring that antics ensue, including Travis and Wallace stealing a motorbike, after which Travis fantasizes about wrestling the waitress in a cafe — known only as “The Girl,” to underscore that her individual identity is less important than that as a fantasy figure for Travis — as she pretends to be a tiger. (If you’re gonna go, go for broke, I suppose.) After their day of admittedly quaint rebelliousness, the boys retire to Mick’s dorm — a small room adorned with pictures of war, famine, sex, and anguish plastered all over the walls — to drink and discuss revolution. Pushing the boundaries of the system doesn’t come without a cost, however, resulting in a particularly brutal scene where all three boys are each violently caned across the backside by the Whips, who take their time in particular with Travis himself. (It should be noted that McDowell’s acting in this scene, with the camera focusing on his face as he’s punished, served as the inspiration for how he would later portray Alex DeLarge in Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange.)
The burst of sanctioned violence only rouses the boys more; they acquire live ammunition during a war game courtesy of British public school’s long-running history of Cadet Force training exercises and “jokingly” fire openly upon the upperclassmen and masters. Punished for their insubordination by being made to clear the untouched and cryptic storeroom beneath the school, they find a cache of automatic weapons. Teaming up with the girl from the earlier tiger-themed tryst, the movie climaxes as Travis and his cohorts open fire on Masters, students, vicars, and visitings families alike on the celebratory Founder’s Day — all of whom have no problem inexplicably coming prepared to fire back on them post-haste— marking a final rebellion against the system that made them into what they are.
It can be hard to place a definitive reading on If…. because, for all intents and purposes, the plot is purposefully meandering and distorted, thanks, in part, to Anderson’s love of weaving between fantasy and reality without clear delineation; in fact, it’s often seldom delineated at all. It is, however, easy for audiences to assume that the film is solely out for a commentary on the British schooling system and he clear, willingly unchecked abuse of power within them during the era— but, much like how school in and of itself works, the schooling is only the first half of an equation that grows into a larger problem.
Mick Travis is only a teen up to no good in the way that teens traditionally would be, but he and his friends are treated maliciously and with no compassion; an infraction as small as an adolescent drink elicit a beating so brutal from their peers that even Mick himself is temporarily cowed into submission. Under such brutal circumstances, each and every boy at College is expected to be quiet, composed, and peaceful throughout every interaction with the very authority that sets to beat them down further.
Furthermore — as evidenced by the film’s use of military “play” as a school activity — If… does a magnificent job of proving exactly where the learned concept of violence in revolution comes from, stemming directly from the tools of authority that would otherwise be used to cow-tow the boys into submission. The only reason Travis and his cohorts even know how to operate the weapons later used to shoot classmates, teachers, and family, is because the school has authorized the use of instruction to feed the military system — another method of keeping the veritable powder keg of anger that stems from beaten masses under their thumb. In this scenario, what else can you expect from a constantly-beaten dog but to eventually bite back?
The same line of thinking can be applied to Morrison’s The Invisibles, a series whose anti-establishment roots are something that Morrison is clearly not shy about.
Touted as being their magnum opus, The Invisibles — published between 1994 and 2000 by DC’s Vertigo imprint — is, essentially, Grant Morrison telling the story of a covert cell of revolutionaries who go by the name “The Invisibles” whose primary goal is to fight the system that is set to destroy them. The core team for the majority of the series is comprised of a delightful band of societal misfits including the mysterious Ragged Robin, transgender shaman Lord Fanny, former NYPD officer Boy; Jack Frost (AKA Dane McGowan), a teenage hooligan from Liverpool who might be the next Buddha, and of, course, Morrison’s own character stand-in and magical construct for fighting the good fight, King Mob.
Throughout the series, the team is faced with a number of magical and psychedelic threats drawn from numerous pop culture sources as they take on The Outer Church — a sinister entity hell-bent on making the world as normal and by-the-book as possible. (The resolution of the series purposefully suggests that the conflict is not quite what it has seemed, of course. Morrison is nothing if not self-aware enough to recognize the cliches they’re playing with.)
It should come as no surprise that, out of the many varied influences that Morrison has cited for this body of work, the films of Lindsay Anderson rank pretty high. (Morrison even goes so far as to quote another of Anderson’s movies, O Lucky Man, in a scene late in The Invisibles’ first volume.) One of the easiest parallels to draw, of course, is the need to fight back against those who would see you not exist. While The Invisibles obviously get their name from being the “unseen” portion of the population (due to gender, sexuality, class, age, race, etc), the purpose of their existence stands to fight hard enough to be seen; or at least long enough to throw the final blow to those who would rather they not exist at all.
There’s a great deal of real-life mysticism and magic used in The Invisibles — concepts and experiences that Morrison themself talks a great deal about dabbling in during this period of their career —which offers a similar feeling of flitting between reality and fantasy in the same way that If…. does. While the subjects may be different, Morrison opens the series with Dane (the protagonist for the series’ first volume) learning more about The Invisibles and moving between the spaces of mainstream culture from a homeless man named Tom; Tom offers him guidance in a way that authority figures — mainly those at home and in school — never have, telling him that his rebellion can stand for a purpose, as long as he is willing to open his mind and stand on the right side.
This, obviously, is the paradox present within both properties: the very idea of being on the “right” side. Lindsay Anderson even went so far as to have a similar quote used as the tagline for the original If….quad film poster released in Britain: “Which side will you be on?” This is a concept used with an irony that is only clear to those willing to take a step back.
In both stories, the “unseen” protagonists can be read as a stand-in for the audience: the everyday person learning to grow into themselves, or the person who has found themselves in a way that is pleasing to them but automatically sends them to the outskirts of polite society. Though Mick Travis doesn’t initially seem anything other than an ordinary mischievous teen boy, his gradual pushing of boundaries and unwillingness to conform make him a target, not just for whippings and reprimand, but to be pushed even further away from his natural self towards the goal of normalcy. This same thing can be said for Dane, whose role as Jack Frost doesn’t fully form within The Invisibles for several volumes of the series; instead remaining the oblivious, angry, bubbling pot of teenage angst who is continually pushed into roles he doesn’t want to fit until, finally, he chooses not to at all.
This isn’t to say that the brand of revolution found in both stories isn’t a righteous one. Both If…. and The Invisibles are prime examples of the good that can come from pushing back against those who would rather you die than not conform. However, there’s also a great deal to be said about how refusing to be a cog in the machine — or even creating a community of cogs who refuse to fit in the machine — in and of itself becomes its own machine that refuses to accept breaks from conformity.
In both instances, one thing is made entirely clear: the “right side” is one that cannot even be determined if it’s one that has already been predetermined by The System. Both for Dane as well as Mick Travis, they are immediately slotted into the spot of being no-goods and non-conformists while still using tricks and skills taught to them by their oppressors to fight back. For both characters, revolution is only a dream because of their predetermined and deeply ingrained teachings. Just as Mick learns to use the rifle that will eventually fire on his abusers from his abusers, so Dane uses the techniques of the Russian revolutionaries to cut his history teacher later revealed to be an undercover ally within The Invisibles, Mister Six.
The themes of both stories conclude — regardless of how much audiences may sympathize or even empathize with the revolutionaries — that as long as the system we are born into is broken, shaking its grasp from it will only result in a revolution steeped in conformity still. The question of “Which side will you be on” posed by If… not only becomes a joke, but becomes completely nullified by the lack of sides of which to choose from.
Instead, audiences are better left with a sentiment in the final issue of The Invisibles, wherein Dane (now known Jack Frost) addresses the reader directly with “Our sentence is up”, indicating that the reader — and all those bound by the constraints of expectation — are now freed. These stories, set almost a quarter of a century apart, were both never about the binary choice they appeared to be, but instead the futile idea that we as the empathizing audience — rooting vehemently for our fictionalized pseudo-revolutionary mirror selves of the stories— had any choice but to pick the same side either way.