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Festival de Cannes 72 Countdown: If…, 1969

We excitedly countdown to the 72nd Festival de Cannes with a different prize winning film each day.

If…, 1969

Grand Prix du Festival International du Film

It’s hard to imagine what the reaction was to audiences viewing Lindsay Anderson’s If…. for the first time at Cannes. One can only picture an audience left in stunned shock, reeling from the controversial film they had just watched unfold on the big screen. With the 1968 protests in France that had occurred, the film must have seemed too close to home for some viewers.

In fact the festival in 1968 had to be cut short due to the protests. Immediately after the screening of Peter Lennon’s documentary Rocky Road to Dublin, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Lelouch and François Truffaut got on stage and announced that, in solidarity with the workers and the students who were protesting across France, the festival was to end.

This was a volatile period of civil unrest in France during May 1968, which was punctuated by demonstrations and major general strikes as well as the occupation of universities and factories across France. At its height, it brought the economy of France almost to a halt. The protests reached such a point that political leaders feared civil war or revolution, and May 68 (as it is referred to) led to a social revolution, but not necessarily a political one.

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Following months of conflicts between students and authorities at the Nanterre campus of the University of Paris, the administration shut down the university on 2 May 1968. Students at the Sorbonne campus of the University of Paris (today Sorbonne University) in Paris met on 3 May to protest against the closure and the threatened expulsion of several students at Nanterre. On Monday, 6 May, the national student union, the Union Nationale des Étudiants de France (UNEF)—still the largest student union in France today—and the union of university teachers called a march to protest against the police invasion of Sorbonne.

More than 20,000 students, teachers and supporters marched towards the Sorbonne, still sealed off by the police, who charged, wielding their batons, as soon as the marchers approached. While the crowd dispersed, there were some who began to create barricades out of whatever was at hand, while others threw paving stones, forcing the police to retreat for a time. The police then responded with tear gas and charged the crowd again. Hundreds more students were arrested.

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The government’s attempts to quell those strikes by police action only inflamed the situation further, leading to street battles with the police in the Latin Quarter, Paris, followed by the spread of general strikes and occupations throughout France. The revolt was so serious, that it led to the French president, Charles de Gaulle temporarily fleeing the country. De Gaulle secretly meet with General Jacques Massu, (commander of the French occupation forces), to ensure Massu’s support in the event that his troops were needed to retake Paris from the revolutionaries.

With the events of the May 1968 riots still fresh in everyone’s minds; it isn’t hard to understand why this British film won. The film may have been set in a fictional school regarding fictional characters but it managed to capture the feelings of so many at that time. If… is the tale of a rebellion taking place in a strict private school in England, a place divided by class and authority, very similar to the situation in 1968 France. The school in the film is run by a group of individuals who are extreme conservatives, with backwards outdated views.

If film.jpg

Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell), Wallace (Richard Warwick), and Johnny (David Wood) are three non-conformist boys in the lower sixth form, their penultimate year. They are persecuted by the “Whips”, upper sixth-formers given authority as prefects over the other boys. We know trouble lies in store for Mick, when he returns from holiday with mustache, something that is strictly frowned upon. In the school, you either conform willingly or you are forced to do so.

The three boys rebel in any way they can; for example Mick and Johnny sneak off campus and steal a motorbike from a showroom and the boys drink vodka in their study. Their rebellious actions cause them to clash with the Whips, which results in Mick violently gunning down people on Founders Day.

Despite the film being very much of its era, there is a strong sense that it exists in a world outside the constraints of time. Anderson wanted to avoid specific contemporary references, as discussed by Gavin Lambert’s piece for The Guardian, “the schoolboys in If… wear stylised, semi-Edwardian costumes, no one plays or listens to pop music, and the opening shots of the revolution are fired from antique-looking second world war machine guns that the trio discover in a storeroom.” After committing the mass shooting, the film fades to black, followed by the words If…on the screen.

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We could read this ‘If’ as Anderson asking us, whether this situation could happen? What if the students fought back? However, the world witnessed the reality of what happens when students rebel. The end result of the 1968 riots saw De Gaulle respond by dissolving the National Assembly and calling a new election for 23 June. He ordered the workers to return to work immediately, threatening to institute a state of emergency if they did not.

It is worth adding that De Gaulle and his party won the greatest victory in French parliamentary history. The question we should be asking is; what if the students of 1968 had managed to bring down Gaulle’s government?


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