Subjecting a teenager to an institutionalized system designed to enforce conformity and obidience can only ever result in one possible outcome: violent revolt. Schools are an incubator of rebellion. Taking its name from the Rudyard Kipling poem about privilege, empire and all the values that director Lindsay Andseron abhors, IF... stars Malcom McDowell as a radical youth attending an old established British boys school who bristles against all forces of authority and dreams of revolution. He ultimately emerges as a violent liberator from his oppressive confines in one of the most memorable and explosive climaxes of all time.
The rigidly hierarchical British class structure is played out in microcosm within the cloistered world of the public school. The older boys, prefects and whips, lord over the lower classmen who they constantly demean as scum, forcing them to do chores, run errands, and essentially act as their personal servents. Violence, cruelty, dehumanizing language and weaponized sexuality are all casually deployed as means of mainting a degrading status quo. The more independent boys are beaten for their "general attitude".
While IF... seems at first to be using a realistic, observational approach to filmmaking, it slowly, almost imperceptibly, goes off the rails. The film alternates between color and black & white without any sort of symbolic meaning. It is an almost purely aesthetic choice that Anderson says he utilized to establish "an atmosphere of poetic license". It contributes to a slightly dislocated, unreal atmosphere that builds as the film approaches its horrifying, surrealistic conclusion.
“If you can dream—and not make dreams your master" goes the Kipling poem. In his essay on IF..., David Ehrenstein observes that the film is "about both dreaming and mastering, revolting against the status quo and daring to imagine what it might be like to put something else in its place." What more could you possibly want to get out of school?