CASUAL MOVIE FANS will be forgiven for not remembering the name Lindsay Anderson. His body of work has largely been forgotten in the four and a half decades since he first burst onto the scene, and he was never terribly prolific anyway, leaving only six features to his name. Overshadowed by his contemporaries leading the French New Wave, Anderson was the head of his own little group in Great Britain, an oft-ignored and hard to classify cadre of filmmakers dedicated to the same ideas Godard, Truffaut, and the rest in France expounded: an emulation of the Hollywood style; a rejection of the boring domestic product; and a reinvention of the language of cinema. Though Anderson is not as well known as British giants like Hitchcock and Ridley Scott, he probably warrants inclusion in that pantheon.
Now's the perfect time to get reacquainted with Anderson, as half of his library has hit DVD shelves in recent months. As usual, the Criterion Collection leads the way, giving Anderson's first two films (This Sporting Life hit shelves this week, hot on the tail of If....) the royal treatment. Warner Bros. has also gotten into the act, releasing a two disc set of O Lucky Man!, Anderson's third flick. All three have been out of print for some time, and all three are worth adding to any cinephile's collection.
A child of the British empire--born in India, son of a prominent general, a product of boarding schools and Oxford University--Anderson both loved and hated his home country. Described in a BBC documentary (available on the supplemental disc of This Sporting Life) by a friend as "a rebel with great respect for convention," Anderson turned the camera on Britain; no societal stratum was safe from its unblinking eye. The antihero of This Sporting Life is star rugby player Frank Machin (Richard Harris), an emotionally tormented member of the underclass thrown into uncomfortably close contact with the upper crust when success brings him fame and fortune. Unsure of how to behave and unsure of his own worth, Machin does know one thing: He needs to be with his landlady, Margaret (Rachel Roberts), a woman who despises him. Machin's rise is shown in a series of flashbacks after a particularly brutal hit on the rugby pitch that costs him six front teeth, and his downfall is painful to observe--the character calls to mind Raging Bull's Jake LaMotta, a bundle of passion and nerves that feels more animal than man. Indeed, Scorsese's classic owes a great deal to Anderson's work: From the magnificent black and white cinematography to the intense and bloody on-field action, it's hard to imagine Raging Bull ever being made absent This Sporting Life.
Anderson next turned his attention to Britain's boarding schools in If...., considered by most to be his masterpiece. Both hailed and vilified at the time--it picked up top honors at Cannes, but the British establishment loathed Anderson's attack on the time honored tradition of shipping children as far away from their parents as possible--If.... remains one of the most vibrant examinations of life in England during the late sixties. Though Anderson has said that the film merely represents his own anarchic tendencies and not the chaos spreading around the globe in 1968-69--including student riots in France, political unrest in the United States, and the brutal suppression of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union--it's hard to ignore just how well the film captures the scent of revolution wafting through the air.
Set in a prestigious private school, the viewer experiences life through the eyes of Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell, in his first role). Subject to various depredations by vicious upperclassmen intent on breaking his (and every other student's) will, Travis bends all the rules; in one memorable scene, he and a classmate skip a rugby match, steal a motorcycle, and make love to a mysterious waitress on the outskirts of town. And, of course, there is the finale--a fantasy sequence that calls to mind the Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres, in which Travis and his cohorts gun down their oppressors from the roof of a school building. Shot in an arresting mix of color and black and white, and alternating between fantasy and real life, If.... is both accessible and fascinating, a window into a turbulent time.
Finally, O Lucky Man!. A sprawling three hour epic that takes its lead character, a reimagined Mick Travis (McDowell again) up and down England, O Lucky Man! is a darkly humorous vision of authority (and capitalism) run amok. A little looser than his previous works, O Lucky Man! unloads with both barrels on every part of British society; from the underlings that inhabited This Sporting Life to the preening prepsters of If...., no one is safe. As far as extra features go, the Criterion discs are packed to the gills (and they should be, as they retail for $40 apiece). This Sporting Life is especially impressive; in addition to the requisite commentary track, the supplementary disc includes Anderson's first documentary, Meet the Pioneers, and his last film, Is This All There Is?, an autobiographical picture he made shortly before his death in 1994. If.... is a little sparser, but the documentaries and interviews provide important insight into just how crazy the world had gotten by the end of the sixties. Both films have startlingly clear transfers, another hallmark of Criterion quality. And while I haven't put my hands on a copy of O Lucky Man! yet, I'm really looking forward to watching the documentary O Lucky Malcolm!, a retrospective of Malcolm McDowell's career.
Sonny Bunch is assistant editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.