The film stars Malcolm McDowell in his first screen role and his first appearance as Anderson's "everyman" character Mick Travis. Richard Warwick, Christine Noonan, David Wood, and Robert Swann also star.
Set in a traditional British public school in the late 1960s, the film opens as the pupils return for a new term. Mick Travis, Wallace, and Johnny are three non-conformist boys in the lower sixth form, their penultimate year. They are watched and persecuted by the "Whips", upper sixth formers given authority as prefects over the other boys. The junior boys are made to act as personal servants for the Whips, who discuss them as sex objects.
Early scenes show the school's customs and traditions. The headmaster is somewhat remote from the boys and the housemasters. Mick's housemaster, Mr Kemp, is easily manipulated by the Whips into giving them a free hand in enforcing discipline. Some members of the staff are shown behaving cruelly or bizarrely.
One day, Mick and Johnny sneak off campus and steal a motorbike, a 1967 BSA A65 from a showroom, in fact the Broadway Motor Company, on Gladstone Rd., Wimbledon, now a Wetherspoons public house. They ride to a cafe staffed by The Girl, and Mick has a fantasy nude wrestling encounter with her. Meanwhile, Wallace flirts with a younger boy, Bobby Philips.
The three boys drink vodka in their study and consider how "one man can change the world with a bullet in the right place". Their clashes with school authorities become increasingly contentious. Eventually, a brutal caning by the Whips spurs them to action.
In a surreal sequence, they discover a cache of automatic weapons while cleaning out a storeroom. The Girl appears and together they commit to revolt against the establishment. On Founders' Day, when parents are visiting the school, they start a fire under the hall, smoke everyone out of the building, and open fire on them from the rooftop. Led by the visiting General who was giving a speech, the staff, boys, and parents break open the Combined Cadet Force armoury and fire back.
The headmaster tries to stop the firefight and calls for peace. The Girl produces a gun from her belt and shoots the headmaster through the forehead. The battle continues, and the camera closes in on Mick's face as he keeps firing. The screen fades to black, gunfire is heard, and "if...." is seen in red letters.
David Sherwin's original title for the screenplay was Crusaders, during the writing of which he drew heavily from his experiences at Tonbridge School in Kent. In 1960, he and his friend and co-writer John Howlett took it to director Seth Holt. Holt felt unqualified to direct but offered to produce the film. They also took it to Sherwin's hero, Rebel Without a Cause director Nicholas Ray, who liked it but had a nervous breakdown before anything came of it. Holt introduced Sherwin to Anderson in a Soho pub.
The school was Anderson's alma mater, Cheltenham College, Gloucestershire, but this was not made public at the time under the agreement needed to shoot there. The then headmaster, David Ashcroft, persuaded the school governors to agree that the film could be made.
Aldenham School in Elstree, Hertfordshire, was used for later scenes filmed after previous summer commitments prevented further shooting at Cheltenham.
The sweat room scenes were filmed in the School Room in School House at Aldenham School (though they were redesigned for the film). The dormitory scenes were also at Aldenham – specifically The Long Room for the junior boys and the room with the wooden partitions called Lower Cubs (short for cubicles). The shower scene and toilets were in School House changing rooms.
The transport cafe was the (now demolished) Packhorse cafe on the A5 at Watling Street Kensworth, Dunstable Beds., close to the Packhorse Pub
The painting in the dining hall is of Aldenham School's founder, Richard Platt. The Hall scene was an amalgamation of the school halls at Cheltenham and Aldenham.
Carew Manor, in Beddington, Surrey, was used for the opening staircase scene and for several other scenes. It was filmed during the summer when the school had closed for holidays.
Some scenes were shot at the former Trinity School of John Whitgift in central Croydon before it was demolished to make way for the Whitgift Centre; pupil extras from Whitgift School were engaged at £5 per day.
Anderson originally approached Charterhouse School and later Cranleigh School for permission to shoot the film: negotiations were going well until the schools discovered the content of the film and pulled out.
The outside shots of the school including the final showdown on the roof were filmed at Cheltenham College after term ended.
The Speech Day interior was filmed inside St John's Church on Albion Street, Cheltenham. The church was later demolished.
The motorbike shop was filmed at the Broadway Motor Company on Gladstone Road, Wimbledon.
Much is said of the film's use of black and white sequences. In the audio commentary to the 2007 DVD release, Malcolm McDowell confirmed that lighting the chapel scenes for colour filming would have taken much longer than for black and white. The time they could use the school chapel was limited, so Anderson opted to shoot those scenes not in colour. Liking the effect this gave, he then decided to shoot other sequences in black and white to improve the 'texture' of the film. As a child, he was impressed watching a gangster film which started in black and white and then turned to colour.
The black and white sequence featuring Mrs Kemp (Mary MacLeod) walking naked through the school was allowed by the then Secretary of the Board of the British Board of Film Censors, John Trevelyan, on the condition that shots of male genitalia from the shower scene were removed.
Stephen Frears is credited as an assistant to the director while Chris Menges is credited as a cameraman.
if.... is the first film in the "Mick Travis trilogy", all starring Malcolm McDowell as everyman character Mick Travis:O Lucky Man! (1973)
Britannia Hospital (1982)
These two movies, however, do not follow the same continuity of the first film and have little in common other than the main character of Mick Travis and several identically named characters in similar roles. At the time of Anderson's death he had completed a final draft of a proper sequel to if...., but it was never made. The sequel takes place during a Founders' Day celebration where many of the characters reunite. Mick Travis is now an Oscar-nominated movie star, eschewing England for Hollywood. Wallace is a military major who has lost his arm. Johnny is a clergyman. Rowntree is the Minister of War. In the script Rowntree is kidnapped by a group of anti-war students and saved by Mick and his gang, though not before Mick crucifies Rowntree with a large nail through his palm.