At a time when street protests were all the rage in Europe, and British society was going through a period of great change, this unusual film was released in cinemas here. Directed by Lindsay Anderson, a one-time darling of the British New Wave Cinema, and starring many stalwart character actors, alongside some exciting new young discoveries, including Malcolm McDowell, in his first screen role. It lampooned the old Public School (read expensive private school) system in the UK, and injected the revolutionary spirit of the time too.
Set in a fictional boarding school, we follow the antics of a disillusioned trio of older boys who are all more than ready to rebel against the privileged system that they are a part of. The familiar hangovers of Victorian schooling are still there. Younger boys used as servants for the Prefects, and harsh corporal punishment dealt out too. Homosexuality is rife, and frustrated female staff feature, with one wandering naked around the school, when the boys are out.
Travis, Wallace, and Johnny are the truculent trio, opposing authority at every opportunity. They drink, they smoke, and even steal a motorcycle. On one of the jaunts, they meet a young girl working in a cafe. She joins their group, and it soon becomes apparent that there will be a clash between the stuffy staff with their allied compliant pupils, and the defiant group that refuses to conform. The catalyst for this is a brutal episode where the Prefects cane all three of the boys in the gymnasium. Following that incident, the girl arrives to help, and they find a store of military weapons, used by the school’s Officer Training Corps.
In the climactic finale, a gun battle ensues, with the rebellious group firing on the staff and pupils as they assemble for the annual Founders Day parade.
This film is deliberately surreal at times. Switching from colour to black and white for some sequences, and not shying away from sex and nudity either. (Which gained it an ‘X’ certificate) The soundtrack is superb too. I was 16 when I saw it at the cinema, and thought it was simply marvellous. It poked fun at everything I detested, and had a fantasy plot that I was attracted to, in every way. The supporting cast is top-notch, including such familiar British faces as Peter Jeffrey, Arthur Lowe, Graham Crowden, and Mona Washbourne. It won the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 1969, and has been hailed by the British Film Institute as one of the greatest British films of all time.
But I have to say that the last time I watched it on TV, around ten years ago, I wondered if it wasn’t past its prime…Here’s a trailer.