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“Revolution is the opium of the intellectuals” – O Lucky Man!
There are few directors left who can stir anarchic ideas as well as the late Lindsay Anderson could. Born in 1929, he began directing in 1948, making documentaries, and in 1955 he won an Academy Award for his short documentary Thursday’s Children. However, his revolutionary views began to take fruition as he became involved with and co-founded the Free Cinema movement of the mid-50s. Similar to independent movies, these productions were free from large studio interference and made on a small budget.
The first full-length feature of Anderson’s arrived in 1963 with This Sporting Life. Still retaining the characteristics of Free Cinema, the movie stars Richard Harris as a lovelorn rugby player. In some respects, Anderson directed as if he was making a documentary, retaining a realism to the point where the emotions become bleak and even hopeless. He followed this with the 1967 short film The White Bus, memorable for having the first onscreen appearance of Anthony Hopkins.
In 1968 though, Anderson fired his creative bullets into the heart of all things British when he began his Mick Travis series. A trilogy of films, the movies both defined the filmmaker he was and very nearly destroyed all he had accomplished.
“One man can change the world with a bullet in the right place” – Mick Travis
Simply put, If… is the pin pulled from a cinematic grenade. A vision of revolution immersed in darkness and set in the most British of institutions – the public boarding school. It is amongst this concrete setting that the world is introduced to Mick Travis and the blue-eyed venomous charm of actor Malcolm McDowell.
This actor is the common denominator linking the trilogy and the muse Anderson uses to project his ideals. It is within the confines of If… where McDowell as the protagonist Travis lets loose his onscreen presence that would become Alex DeLarge two years later in Stanley Kubrick’s ultra-violent epic A Clockwork Orange.
If… mirrors the protest counterculture movement of the late 60s. But the protest is sown within violence and not simply ‘flower power’ notions. The story is that of three students returning for a new term – Travis, Wallace (Richard Warwick) and Johnny Knightly (David Wood). This trinity of rebellious attitudes are shown belittled, tortured by older students and masters within the institution. Until one day they decide to rise up and from the roof of the boarding school they open fire on the establishment below.
The movie centres around the need for humans to question the belief systems of society. Meanwhile, the film blends colour and black-and-white scenes to help disorient viewers as If… moves from reality to the boys’ fantastical savage insurrection.
O Lucky Man! (1973)
In a switch of themes, O Lucky Man! is less anarchic of a piece than If..., boasting a thread of hopelessness and an undeniable realism. Again, the audience is presented with the character of Mick Travis.
In O Lucky Man!, however, he is not the figurehead of rebellion. Instead he is one of acceptance, even pity, as the character is re-introduced as a down-and-out thief – who, after trying to steal coffee beans on a Latin plantation, faces having his hands cut off for the menial crime. This monochrome opening scene fades to reveal the word ‘Now’, showing the former to be a fantasy, as the actual narrative focuses on Travis as a coffee salesman.
Over the extensive three-hour running time, the audience follows Travis on his journey and his desperation to survive, something which leads him into a world of corruption involving foreign dictators and chemical warfare. This is until he is found guilty of fraud and sentenced to prison. In some ways O Lucky Man!’s theme is reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange as McDowell’s Travis emerges from prison greater in tune with his humanity. Like the Kubrick film, this leaves him more defenceless to the evils of the world around him.
In the final scenes, the art itself plays out in reality, after Mick auditions for an acting role and Anderson himself plays the part of the director. Again, the mix of monochrome and colour scenes create tension, although the audience is unaware of why there is such a taut atmosphere at times.
In a way this is representative of post-war Britain, a frustration within the working classes in the surrounds of a decaying empire. Not as incendiary as the previous installment If…?, O Lucky Man! is still a mesmerising piece of work.
Britannia Hospital (1982)
The last installment of the Mick Travis Trilogy, Britannia Hospital is a more satirical affair. Misunderstood upon release, it is the watermark of the trio. The movie takes an artistic swipe at the establishment as a whole – the media, health service, trade unions, television, science, and even the monarchy.
All this is twisted inside a world somewhere between the slapstick of the Carry On series of movies and a low budget Hammer Horror scarefest. Again, Mick Travis enters the cinematic frame, this time as a reporter. We find him busy shooting a documentary about the dubious Britannia Hospital, and the work of Professor Millar (Graham Crowden, reprising a role from O Lucky Man!).
As protesters picket outside the hospital, the Queen arrives by ambulance to open a new wing. In the confusion, Travis breaks into the building’s latest addition and finds human experimentation and murder. Though Travis himself meets an end, his head is used as part of a grim Frankenstein-like experiment.
Upon awakening, this monster attacks the professor, biting the hand that feeds it, only to have its head torn off, ending the journey of Mick Travis. This scene alone is an act of revulsion which depicts the state of a nation, unable to face the truth of itself. This is perhaps the main reason why the film – which pulls comedy from chaos with skill – was critically hammered in Britain upon release and viewed as insulting. Outside the country it was met with applause and Anderson spent the remainder of his career in the US.
Shortly before his death in 1994, Paramount Pictures apparently commissioned a script for a proper follow up to If…. This went as far as seeking and securing permission to film at Cheltenham College, the location of the original.
Hinting of a final reprisal by Anderson of his most enduring character, all fans of the filmmaker are now left asking is what if…?