In 1968, screenwriter David Sherwin and director Lindsay Anderson made If…., a savage and surreal film about a small band of rebels at a British public school. Malcolm McDowell plays Mick Travis, a brash teenager who won’t accept the status quo. The whole film is a brazen assault on Kipling’s England, the bastion of tradition, held together by sadistic violence, the church, and a rigid class structure.
But that was the sixties. In 1973 Sherwin and Anderson brought Mick back in O Lucky Man, but he’d changed quite a bit in the course of five years. No longer the brash rebel, now Mick wants nothing more than to fit into the system, and to be as successful as possible. Starting off as a coffee salesman, he ends up roaming over the whole of England looking for the things he thinks will make him happy. Not surprisingly, those things are harder to find than he thought.
Both films are subversive, but in completely different ways. In O Lucky Man, the self-righteous anger that energizes If…. is gone. Now the attitude is a kind of amused detachment. British society is so strangely unreal that all Sherwin can do is laugh at it. And Anderson, the cynical idealist, joins in the laughter. He simply stands back and observes as policemen and politicians, scientists and financiers, complacently go about their business, lying, cheating, and stealing. And Mick is always at the ready, eagerly waiting for his chance to jump into the thick of things.
As terrifying as some of Mick’s adventures are, we can laugh along with Sherwin and Anderson, in part because they keep reminding us that we’re watching a movie. In fact, O Lucky Man begins with a film within a film. We see a brief silent prologue in grainy black and white. McDowell plays a peasant working on a coffee plantation. When he’s caught stealing a handful of coffee beans, the word “unlucky” flashes on the screen. Just as the authorities hand down a horrifying punishment, the screen goes black and the word “NOW” announces that we’re jumping into the present.
Playwright Bertolt Brecht wanted the audience to be aware that they were watching a story unfold, and in the sixties a number of British filmmakers embraced this approach. Writing about film in the fifties, Anderson insisted that the polished productions coming out of British studios encouraged the audience to become numb and complacent. He wanted to shake things up, and to create a cinema that put people in touch with the real world. He wanted to make movies that would push the audience to question the status quo.
O Lucky Man is all about questioning the status quo. We see Mick stumble into one situation after another, and he’s willing to go along with anything if he thinks it will get him what he wants. He’s so blinded by the shiny objects he’s chasing that he doesn’t bother to question anything. As a result, he’s tricked, beaten, tortured, and finally jailed.
Prison changes him. Sort of. Determined to live a better life, he’s spent his time behind bars reading and thinking. Having studied the great philosophers, he’s realized that happiness doesn’t come from chasing wealth. Mick has decided to renounce worldly possessions and devote his life to helping people. He thinks he’s found the answer. He doesn’t realize he’s just chasing a different shiny object.
The backdrop to Mick’s dizzying journey is a sweeping panorama of England, and I’m not just talking about the landscape. He gets to dine with the fabulously wealthy and serve soup to the desperately poor. He watches porn with local politicians and staggers into the sanctuary of a country church. One of his sales calls takes him to a large factory where he finds that no one there will need his coffee, since the entire workforce has been laid off. As he waits in the reception room of a corporate high-rise, he’s horrified to see one of the employees jump out the window and plunge to his death. At first he tries to master the world, meeting it with cocky self-assurance. Next he tries to serve the world, wearing a mantle of abject humility. But somehow the world doesn’t seem to appreciate his efforts.
McDowell radiates a beatific optimism as he wanders through the battlefield of life. Over and over again he gets hammered, and each time he bounces back, ready to take on the world. Not quite thirty when he played the part, McDowell has a freshness and openness that make him seem truly innocent. He makes one horrific blunder after another, but we can’t condemn him because he really doesn’t seem to know any better. In his wanderings he runs into a wonderful cast of supporting actors, who magically turn up over and over again in different roles. It’s a tribute to the talents of Rachel Roberts, Mary MacLeod, and Arthur Lowe, that even though we recognize their faces, they’re still completely believable in each new incarnation. Young as she is in this film, Helen Mirren already appears to be completely at ease as an actress. She seems to fill the screen without even trying. And of course, there’s the incomparable Ralph Richardson, always oddly askew and strangely compelling.
The score is by Alan Price, who wrote a beautiful set of songs for the film. Once again reminding you that you’re watching a movie, Anderson uses Price and his band like a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on the action as Mick goes through each new adventure. At first the director cuts away from the action to show the band performing in a studio. But halfway through the film, as Mick is making a desperate escape from another harrowing situation, Price and the band show up in a white van and offer him a ride to London. The story and the mechanisms being used to tell it flow together. Unlike most filmmakers who hide the mechanics, Sherwin and Anderson put them right up front for all to see.
This approach reaches its logical conclusion where Mick, dazed and disoriented, wanders into the casting call for a film entitled O Lucky Man. Director Lindsay Anderson spots him, decides he’s worth a test, and has him stand in front of a white backdrop as a photographer snaps pictures. The jaded director gives monosyllabic orders to his crew, while the photographer shoots Mick in different poses. And then Anderson says to Mick,
“Just do it.”
“What’s there to smile about?”
Finally the director loses patience, and whacks Mick with his script.
The next shot is a close-up of Mick, set against the white background. For a long moment, his expression is blank. And then, slowly, almost imperceptibly, we see his mouth curl into a smile.
Is this the beginning of wisdom?