I am immediately furious at this film for using four ellipses in its title instead of the traditional three. This isn't a rave, you know.
But then again, I am this person:
When I was a kid, I dreamed of going away to boarding school -- I even remember doing research on several when I was in eighth grade. Of course, reading Harry Potter when I was in middle school probably didn't help matters.
My parents gently sat me down and told me that what I was asking for had a $100,000 price tag, and basically that I should pull my head out of my ass (in the kindest way possible, of course). Looking back, they probably could have saved everyone a lot of time by just making me watch If.
Ten minutes into this movie and I find myself developing a healthy dread and suspicion of English boarding schools because damn, it does not seem like you can get out of those places without serious psychological issues. No thanks, I'll stick with my boring state-funded education.
Boarding schools, I have learned, is where the upper class send their offspring to teach them how to be sociopaths.
Malcolm "I'm here to fuck shit up" McDowell is a rebellious 17-year-old at a repressive English boarding school, constantly at odds with the senior boys who are in charge of his house. Shout out to the geniuses who thought it was a good idea to give 18-year-old boys almost unlimited power over students just a year younger than them. That definitely doesn't seem like it's just asking for sadistic power plays to emerge.
I'm sorry, I'm not over this. These little assholes have the authority to plan and execute beatings on the younger students as punishment for perceived rule-breaking, but there doesn't seem to be any adult oversight. Students should really just be able to, like, take points away from their house, not bend them over and beat them with a stick. Seriously, these boys are bloody savages.
So it's not surprising that McDowell and his friends are about ready to snap. Still, these days I'm immediately wary of white men who show more than a passing fascination with paramilitary junta. Even more so when these kids find a room full of military grade weapons in an abandoned shed. What do you think they'll do with those, I wonder?
Now, what keeps this whole thing not completely cringey, given the proliferation of mass shooting incidents since this film was made in 1968, are the fantasy elements present throughout the movie. There are a number of sequences that are played straight but probably are not really happening in the film. Like the random sexy nude tiger fight between McDowell and the manic pixie dream girl (a phrase that seems only capable of existing in 1968).
Likewise, the grand finale of the film, where McDowell and his cronies launch a full scale attack on their school seems more metaphorical than anything else. It's an attempt to fight against the stifling restrictions of traditionalism, a rebellion against the power structures in place that seem to act cruelly and irrationally.
It's no coincidence that at the Founder's Day celebration, there is a representative from the crown, the military, and the church present at the massacre. The boys are symbolically destroying these traditional centers of power, as well as the general upper-class establishment as represented by the parent and alumni present at the event.
The film is not afraid to luxuriate in the cruelty and barbarity of the seniors in power at this boarding school. In fact, a majority of its screen time is spent watching them hand out extreme punishments, order people around, yell at juniors to get haircuts, and (it's strongly insinuated) sexually abuse the younger students. We spend so much time seeing all of this that we don't really get an opportunity to explore the "heroes" of the piece, Malcolm McDowell's character and his friends.
We know that they're angry misfits with an obsession with death and violence that doesn't particularly lend itself to them fitting in at their stuffy boarding school. They're counterculture stuck right in the middle of the establishment, and they don't particularly enjoy it.
But they're left enigmatically blank as people, which prevents us from feeling a proper emotional connection to their characters and the requisite sympathy to their plight. McDowell's thousand yard stare, the one that he had even this early in his career, is almost enough to compensate for the thin, static character writing, but not quite.
That said, it's a pretty solid representation of young people rebelling against traditional society in 1968, and for that reason it's worth recognizing. It also serves as a reflection of a British society coming to terms with no longer being a imperial power and needing to discard its old military and social traditions as relics of a bygone age. It's telling that the structure of the boarding school, particularly in regards to their military drills, would not have been out of place at the turn of the century. It's only McDowell and his friends who reflect the changing times and attitudes of the 1960s.
It's easy to underestimate the shock value of this film's ending, given how depressingly frequent things like this happen now, but in 1968, this was a revolutionary act, and its place in history as a representation of Britain's post-imperial hangover is all but assured.