Starring: Malcolm McDowell, David Wood, Robert Swann
Director: Lindsay Anderson
Sanctus. Dum, dum. Sanctu-u-u-u-us. Lindsay Anderson’s dryly surreal exposé of the English public school system – and, by extension, the English class system in general – was one of the British films of the 1960s, arriving on the scene with perfect timing in a year when there was political unrest across Europe. It concerns a trio of sixth formers, led by Malcolm McDowell’s surly would-be guerilla Travis, who rebel against the forces of oppression, first in small ways (growing a moustache, hiding a bottle of vodka in their study), and then through bloody insurrection. Hasta la vista, Mr Chips… But then again maybe it’s all a fantasy, as the rather wistful title would seem to imply.
Looking at its now on Blu-ray, it’s interesting to see in what ways the film has aged. The pervy vicar pinching the new boy’s nipple now seems expected rather than shocking, but probably only because we know more about vicars now then they did back then. As for Travis, if his revolutionary zeal now comes across as rather silly, his morbid obsession with death certainly doesn’t, not in these days when we’ve learnt to fear teenage boys harbouring violent fantasies. If anything, a modern viewer might feel a sneaking sympathy with the school authorities who agonize over Travis and wonder how to eradicate his unhealthy influence.
The sheer squalor and humiliation that results when you pen boys together in confined quarters continues to have an enduring ring of truth about it, however (the chilly gym and sludgy-walled dorms were shot at Aldenham, which, ironically, was where Arthur Lowe – who plays the ineffectual Housemaster Mr Kemp – was sending his own son at the time). The prefects who make everyone’s life a misery may be dandies with silk waistcoats and silver-topped canes (waited on by younger boys known as “scum”), but their air of aggressive entitlement still chills to the bone. And the film shows amazing foresight in its portrayal of certain individuals who give an affable, progressive face to age-old privilege, such as the trendy head who namechecks pop music and the miniskirt as among Britain’s achievements, and the smoothly patrician sixth former Rowntree (the name, presumably borrowed from the sweet manufacturers, seemed to wrap him in a sugar coating). Travis nails the phenomenon when he remarks, “The thing I hate about you, Rowntree, is the way you give Coca-Cola to your scum and your best teddy to Oxfam, and expect the rest of us to lick your frigid fingers for the rest of your frigid life.” Words that might make many on the current Tory front bench squirm uncomfortably.
Even bumped up to HD, the film stock seems a little dull and soft (probably to do with the fact that these were the early days of location shooting in colour in Britain), but it’s free of artefacts. Extras include an audio commentary with film historian David Robinson and Malcolm McDowell, and three short documentaries by Anderson which testify to his roots in this area. There’s also a whole raft of interviews with those involved in the making of the film. Among these is a very interesting 16-minute chat with screenwriter John Howlett. He describes the origins of the script in his and co-author David Sherwin’s own experiences at public school, how the first draft was written in 1960, while they were Oxford undergraduates, its long gestation and how it eventually got to Lindsay Anderson six years later. There’s also a brilliant 45-minute interview with the actor David Wood, who played Travis’ friend Johnny. This is packed full of choice info about the auditioning process and the shoot. For instance, he talks about (and shows the camera his own original copy of) the watered down “dummy script” which the cast would take into the schools where they were filming – a precautionary measure to ensure that none of the staff or pupils found out what they were actually up to. All told, there’s about an 1½ hour’s worth of trips down memory lane. Taken as a whole, they provide a wonderfully vivid and detailed insight into what it was like to make a film at that time.