Review by Chet Mellema
Posted on 28 April 2008
Source Warner Home Video DVD
Early in Lindsay Anderson’s if…, his 1968 ode to British boarding school anarchy, Mick Travis famously asks his friend, “When do we live? That’s what I want to know!” Toward the end of the film, Travis and a small band of like-minded misfits take baby steps toward achieving their version of “living” by mounting a symbolic rooftop assault against the school’s oppressive establishment. But not until Anderson’s free-wheeling follow-up to if…, O Lucky Man!, does Travis truly understand how much living he has yet to do.
In if…, Mick Travis – embodied by the peerless Malcolm McDowell – is an idealistic but frustrated teen ready to run the gauntlet against privilege, power and all their manifestations. Anderson portrays the ins and outs of daily life at the school with meticulous detail and genuine sentiment that provides an unsettling familiarity with the institution and the cumulative effect of its inequities. The director contributes to this sense of unease by confining the film (except for a memorable flight on a stolen motorcycle) to the school, its abutting chapel and a tight running time of less than two hours. The deliberate restrictions imposed on Travis and his mates elicit a steady increase in tension between those with power and those without, which leads to the climactic armed rebellion.
We catch up with Travis five years later in O Lucky Man!; he has traded in his machine gun for the white coat of a corporate coffee salesman in training, frothing with ambition and naiveté. This time around, however, the structural confinement and tension found in if… has been discarded in favor of a free-associational investigation of British society, warts and all. Anderson throws the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Travis head-first into the real world, affording him more than enough opportunities to “live.” But this may not have been the living he originally envisioned. The confident anarchist from if… has inexplicably become the tragic innocent—his unwavering optimism tends to deflect the social horrors he encounters. Along with his positive outlook, Travis maintains an obsessive desire to succeed, and his adventures in O Lucky Man! reveal he will go to just about any lengths to do it. His abilities, however, pale in comparison to his determination. Believing he can succeed and that he will triumph in the face of overwhelming adversity becomes the calling card of his innocence.
O Lucky Man! begins with a melodramatic silent-picture sequence in which a third-world laborer from yesteryear – also played by McDowell – is caught stealing from his employer, found guilty and has his hands promptly removed to prevent future pillaging. It is abundantly clear the laborer is destitute and finds no compassion from his arbiters. Anderson drives home the point by flashing title cards throughout the scene proclaiming the laborer “Guilty!,” questioning the form of “Justice!” being applied, and recognizing the laborer is certainly “Unlucky!” to have lived in such an uncivilized era. The final title card announces a transition from the barbarism of the past to “NOW,” presumably some sort of modern utopia. Unfortunately, Travis and the viewer come to realize that contemporary, civilized society has similar notions of guilt and justice.
The audacious and effective opening scene exclaims Anderson’s intention to address some hefty issues in O Lucky Man!. By utilizing silent-film methods at the outset, the director efficiently suggests parallels between current and historic concepts of justice, guilt and happenstance, and a medium that has technically progressed from title cards to soundtracks yet may be no further along artistically than it was in its infancy. O Lucky Man! obviously has a lot on its mind. Whether all of Anderson’s initiatives ultimately cohere, however, is debatable.
Immediately after its wordless opening, O Lucky Man! cuts to singer Alan Price performing the film’s anthem, “If you have a friend on whom you think you can rely… you are a lucky man!” Anderson photographs Price and his band with a startling disregard for the wall of artifice that separates the audience from the creation of the on-screen action. We catch glimpses of the musicians looking directly at the camera, other film crews presumably shooting what ends up as footage in the movie, and even clear images of Lindsay Anderson himself, sitting in on the jam session and directing its exploits.
In calling attention to the filmmaking process without a hint of subtlety, the director essentially holds up a cinematic “Caution” sign for the viewer, warning that what you are about to see is a creative representation. This is familiar territory for Anderson, whose goal in if… was not the achievement of cinematic realism or a literal call to arms, but the use of metaphor applied to situations outside the restricted circumstances of the film. Anderson understands the most effective means of commenting on the real may well be the employment of a noticeably unreal but highly artistic medium. When properly executed, this hyper-realism can produce staggering drama and absurdist comedy that act as biting social commentary above and beyond anything achievable through mere documentation.
And biting social commentary is certainly what Anderson offers. O Lucky Man! is a black comedy of epic proportions – unlike its taut predecessor, O Lucky Man! stretches to three hours and traverses a multitude of locations – featuring the various misadventures of Mick Travis, who begins the film as a coffee sales trainee and ends up a penniless ex-con.
When a senior salesman for the Imperial Coffee company suddenly quits, Travis is given the Northeast region and instructed to “smile with sincerity” and “sell, sell, sell.” Sincerity is not a problem for Travis. His bane is an eagerness to dive into any situation without the necessary forethought or acknowledgment of his ignorance. On his initial assignment, Travis finds a landscape of closed factories and civil debauchery, the opposite of the economically fertile environment described by his employer. He is then issued further tasks, all above his level of experience. As he navigates his way around the North, his innocence eventually gets the best of his ambition.
Things quickly go awry and Travis winds up as a detainee in a military compound receiving electric shock treatment while accused of spying on behalf of the Communist Party, a human test subject at a perverse research facility, an assistant to a ruthless industrial magnate, a prisoner studying the philosophy of Bertrand Russell, and a duped and insolvent outcast desperate for some luck. Each new encounter and circumstance thrust upon Travis affords Anderson an opportunity to expose Britain’s underbelly, and, for better or worse, he doesn’t let any such occasion pass him by.
Travis’ escapades unfold in a series of loosely connected, regularly hilarious, almost random vignettes, featuring actors that appear in multiple sections of the film, often in different roles each time they turn up. The indiscriminate nature of the various scenes and locales Travis stumbles upon may perplex the viewer during a first screening, but this is likely Anderson’s objective. After all, life itself doesn’t proceed in an orderly and perfectly rational manner. Travis’ experience – and that of the audience – should be no different. A technique that initially confounds becomes truly quite profound upon reflection.
Anderson’s inspired collection of haphazard adventures once again emphasizes the film’s artistry. But his most extraordinary and successful practice is the repeated use of musical interludes featuring Alan Price and his band. Like their appearance at the beginning of O Lucky Man!, Price and Co. chip away at that cinematic wall of artifice by directly commenting on the story unfolding in the film proper, often foreshadowing the action and always contextualizing the issues addressed by the film while compounding its themes. For instance, as Travis cozies up to a powerful businessman skilled in the exploitation of the uninformed, Price sings, “When everything in life seems just as it should be, at last success seems just around the door, don’t forget boy… look over your shoulder ‘cause things don’t stay the same forever more.” Price’s lyrics are straightforward but powerful, and they offer an omniscient perspective on the main character and his journey.
Despite its audacity and artistic flourishes, however, O Lucky Man! remains far from perfect. In its all-or-nothing approach to thematic content, the film tends to meander with little regard to pace or repetition—staying with it through its prodigious length is quite a slog at times. Furthermore, as Travis proceeds from one location to another, the atmospherics of the picture steadily recede from aptly farcical to unnecessarily morose. By the end of its three-hour running time, O Lucky Man!’s promise of a socially conscious comedic masterpiece is shackled by the chains of its focus on the miserable.
Attempting to raise O Lucky Man! from the mire of its sullen subject matter are its comical yet surreal tone and a pervading presence of the absurd. O Lucky Man! is loaded with ridiculous and droll happenings, from the gold suit Travis wears to cloak his ignorance to the masochistic barrister taking a break from his judicial duties, and from breast feeding at the foot of an altar to dickering over a few pounds when donating his body to science. One is reminded of the absurdist moment in if… when the headmaster matter-of-factly reveals the school chaplain resting comfortably in an office drawer. O Lucky Man!, however, employs such flourishes regularly and as a well-intentioned way to lighten the mood. This is also where Alan Price’s talents are so well served. His musical asides naturally break up the action and let the audience catch its breath, effectively increasing the palatability of the film.
Yet O Lucky Man! never quite mines the laughs it seems so close to unearthing, nor ties up the loose ends created by its oversized determination to expose every last one of Britain’s ills. There is always a feeling that scenes were intended to be a lot funnier and even more outlandish than the finished product, or that thoughts reach for profundity but fail from inadequate attention because of a need to move on to the next topic. The end result just doesn’t quite measure up to Anderson’s grandiose plans for the film. Regardless, Anderson’s epic vision, albeit less than perfect, makes O Lucky Man! necessary viewing, not only for the experience of viewing a film so obviously striving for greatness but also its intermittent moments of exhilarating artistry. Unfortunately for Anderson, as long as films like Modern Times, Playtime or The Apartment exist, it will be difficult for any movie highlighting the excesses of capitalism, the dangers of unbridled scientific or technological advances, or even the way down-and-outers can be just as uncompromising as the wealthy, to qualify as essential.