“Try Not To Die Like a Dog”: A Celebration of the Lindsay Anderson/Malcolm McDowell/David Sherwin Trilogy, by Jenny Orosel
WARNING: THIS CONTAINS SPOILERS. I WILL TRY TO KEEP THEM TO A MINIMUM, BUT SOME ARE NECESSARY.
At first I wasn’t sure I was going to do The Trilogy for “The Black Glove”. Despite these three movies having torture, decapitations and dismemberments, human experimentation, school massacres, impalements and random acts of violence, you will not find these movies in the horror section. You might find them under comedy, drama, or in the case of the video stores that don’t understand what they speak in England, Foreign Language. That’s because it is truly impossible to drop The Trilogy into one genre, and that is one of many reasons I love it so.
The Trilogy (as the fans call it) was never meant to be a trilogy. Each movie was meant to stand alone, but they are all connected by the key filmmakers: A David Sherwin script, directed by Lindsay Anderson and actor Malcolm McDowell as the character Mick Travis. Even though the trilogy was never planned, there are pieces of the plot that tie into each other, and as a whole, you can watch a strange evolution, intentional or not.
It starts off with If.... (1968), a look at a boys’ boarding school in England. Even so, anyone who survived high school can easily find a character they can relate to. The seniors are in charge, with the freshmen being “Scum” who have to serve the seniors’ every whim, and the juniors being bullied to no end. Three of those juniors, led by a pre-Clockwork Orange McDowell as Mick Travis, struggle with their normal need for independence in a system that thrives on conformity. As the school year continues, the seniors’ doled out punishments become more and more severe (from extended cold showers to severe beatings), the boys become more and more restless until things reach a final and violent conclusion.
If you’re looking for a movie that has a straightforward, linear development, If....is not for you. Anderson does a gorgeous job of telling his story as much with emotion as he does with traditional plot. The already surreal world of high school is further heightened by his alternating between black and white and color photography. Even though that choice was originally done for budgetary reasons (black and white film stock was much cheaper than color), because each scene was so well chosen and though out, we the audience feel the changes before we notice. Even when the same scene alternates between film stocks, we notice the change with our gut before our eyes.
During military exercises (commonplace in British boarding schools of the time), it would seem strange that the three juniors would casually decide to use live ammo, and it would be shocking in the real world if they were to shoot a teacher, then impale him with a bayonet. Not in the world of If..... Here, they get a stern talking to by the headmaster, made to apologize to the impaled teacher (who is healthy and lying in the desk drawer) before Travis and his cohorts are assigned to clean the storeroom.
With even that extreme act not getting heard, the movie reaches the climax with the boys climbing to a rooftop and opening fire on students, faculty and parents. It is interesting to see how modern, post-Columbine audiences react to this final act of extreme violence. While many can accept the surrealism and symbolism of the other two hours of movie, this act seems to be too much to handle, as if school violence is an untouchable subject whose mere inclusion can taint the entire flick. However, it is not meant as an endorsement for school violence. Rather, it was a statement that eventually the corporal punishment completely accepted by the school society can come back to bite that very system in the ass. Put into the context of England in the late 60s, the ending isn’t as much a celebration of violence but an innocent celebration of rebellion at its extreme. If we, as an audience, can separate ourselves from our current world, we can see this movie as a gorgeously filmed, if not naive, celebration of the spirit of the individual.
Five years later, the trio teamed up again for O Lucky Man, my personal favorite of the three. The film is loosely based on McDowell’s pre-acting career as a travelling salesman, and some of the strangeness he encountered. McDowell’s Mick Travis is now a young man trying to make a living as a coffee salesman in the United Kingdom. This three hour epic follows Travis through a bizarre series of events, first his successes through charm and luck, and his descent into some of the U.K.’s darkest corners as his luck seeps slowly away. But instead of being that simple little story, this flick is actually made up of many smaller stories. Will Travis survive the interrogation when he is captured outside a secret military base, and who do they think he is? Is that new job as the real estate magnate’s assistant too good to be true? When he signs up for a medical trial, what kind of horrors await him and will he escape?
Along with the character, the surreal world created for If....is carried over to O Lucky Man. You don’t question when the peasant woman literally nurses Travis back to health after the military base explodes, and you don’t wonder just how they were able to get that man’s decapitated skull onto the body of the sheep and still have him survive. You just accept it. And this is the magic of O Lucky Man: Anderson is able to make such unbelievable events not just acceptable but it doesn’t throw you out of the story for a moment.
O Lucky Man doesn’t have the wide-eyed naiveté of If.... just as the young adult is slightly more jaded than his schoolboy self. Still, there is a sense of hope, even if it is a hesitant optimism. The last third of the movie sees Travis lose everything, with no place to go and the last of his money and possessions stolen, beaten by drunk hobos. Not only has Travis hit rock bottom, he trilled through and went as low as he could go. And yet, the ending has him not only being discovered by a movie director (in one of the most infamous ‘slap’ scenes in modern movie history), but in another surreal moment, having a grand party with every character he met throughout the movie, living or not. They seem to be saying “Yes, things will get bad. And then they will get worse. But at some point, things will get better.” In the hands of a lesser director, that ending could feel contrived or tacked-on. But in the world created by Anderson, it is not just believable, but makes perfect sense and is the perfect cap to this extraordinary epic.
That little glimmer of hope is essentially gone from 1982’s Britannia Hospital. As with the innocence of the school years and the measured hope of young adulthood, Britannia Hospital seems to be the adult that finally realizes he will never get to be an astronaut. The same doctor that was performing experiments in O Lucky Man (and played by the same actor, Graham Crowden) is a leading reasearcher at Britannia Hospital, and Mick Travis is now an investigative reporter, looking into the doctor’s experiments at the hospital. As with O Lucky Man, the movie is made of a handful of small stories, but this time they all occur simultaneously. Protesters outside are furious that the state-run hospital is housing an African dictator infamous for eating babies and small children. The hospital’s unions are striking. The wealthy patients are furious they are being treated the same as the commoners. To top it all off, the Queen is coming for a visit. While there are some great moments in those bits, it’s the story of Professor Millar and his quest to perfect mankind that is the most fascinating. He believes that humans have wasted their potential and it is up to him to perfect it. One of his experiments involves harvesting various body parts from patients (living or otherwise) to build his own Frankenstein’s Monster, a living quilt of the most perfect pieces he can find. When that fails (in a scene so gruesome and bloody it makes Re-Animator look like an episode of Hannah Montana), he faults the failings of the human body, and creates a frighteningly icy creature that is pure brain. Unlike the gleeful violence of If.... or the joyous celebration of O Lucky Man, Britannia Hospital ends with the disturbing brain-creature reciting the “What a piece of work is man” soliloquy in the most disturbingly robotic voice since Demon Seed. Those two moments of absolute bliss stand in stark contrast with the quiet melancholy of the last ending.
There are rumors that there was supposed to be an If....2 made, filmed for a 20th reunion of the students. I’m not sure how I feel about it. Not just because Travis was brutally decapitated in Britannia Hospital, because if anyone could have made it work, Anderson could. But personally, I prefer the strange optimism of the first two films, and judging from the evolution, I could picture If...2 being more pessimistic than Britannia Hospital. Sadly, we will never know, because director Lindsay Anderson passed away in 1994. And with his passing we lost an incredible director who was an absolute master at creating multi-layered movies totally unique from the work of any other filmmaker out there. Still, at least we have this trilogy (along with a handful of other fantastic films) to celebrate him by.