The Mick Travis Trilogy

Andrew presents a focus on Lindsay Anderson's loosely defined Mick Travis trilogy.

When Stanley Kubrick first approached young British actor Malcolm McDowell for the casting of A Clockwork Orange, like anyone else tasked with playing a role as controversial as Alexander DeLarge, McDowell asked 'why me?'  According to McDowell, Kubrick's answer went something like 'after seeing if.... I couldn't get you image out of my mind when I read the book'.  Most people don't recall that in fact writer-director and co-founder of the short lived Free Cinema movement, Lindsay Anderson, was a lifelong friend and mentor to Malcolm McDowell.  Primarily a theater director of actors when he wasn't filming documentaries, Anderson had a short but largely impeccable filmography with the best ones prominently featuring McDowell in the main role.  Beginning with the Palme d'Or winning if.... (also McDowell's acting debut), the two formed a unique actor-director working relationship which continued through the 1970s with the recurring Mick Travis character in O Lucky Man! and lastly Britannia Hospital.  

Although never officially declared to be a trilogy with very loose crossovers of characters from film to film, all three are undeniably the works of an idiosyncratic director with an equally astute and arguably acerbic screenwriter at his side, David Sherwin.  All three films are a social critique of contemporary British society, assailing the British education system with if...., the imperialistic evils of capitalism in O Lucky Man! and finally the National Health Service program in Britannia Hospital.  What separates the three lies with the aims, approach, tonality and ultimately the significance of the central character guiding us through all three pictures, Mick Travis.  Each picture transforms the character based on the needs of the story and our own complicity with his uphill battle for success.  With this, the Movie Sleuth takes a close look at each of these three unique highlights in the respective careers of writer-director Lindsay Anderson and actor Malcolm McDowell and how they forever shaped the legacy of both of Britain's greatest cinema giants!

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if.... (1968)
The second feature film of writer-director Lindsay Anderson, if...., took home the coveted Palme d'Or, informed Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and above all was as anarchic a piece of filmmaking as it was a critique of class warfare in contemporary British life.  Set in an all boys traditional British boarding school, Anderson's color to black-and-white shape shifting satire is a savage takedown of the British education system before using the boarding school setup as a commentary on old Victorian values upheld by British society versus counter-cultural revolutionaries.  This is what Roger Waters meant to say with Another Brick in the Wall Part 2 in cinematic form with greater clarity and a unique desire to offer critical discussion on how both contemporary Britain as well as the cinematic medium itself is ripe for change.  Starring Malcolm McDowell in his acting debut as the titular Mick Travis, the film tells the story of three students who mount a violent insurrection against the schoolmasters and the domineering upper echelon of the student body.  An air of youthful rebelliousness permeates the entire picture despite Anderson being 45 at the time of making the film and despite this writer's own affections for Kubrick's collaboration with McDowell, if.... may in fact be the first true punk rock film for it's anarchic depiction of teenage rejection of authority.  Anderson's narrative also introduces a unique blend of surrealism with reality so we're often never sure how much of what we're seeing is real or imagined by Mick Travis.      

Loosely inspired by Jean Vigo's Zero for Conduct while drawing from Anderson's own experiences with the British educational system with autobiographical anecdotes concerning his Officers Training Corps experiences, the film depicts the rise of counterculture from within the ancient walls of its central public school system and as such vies for idiosyncratic individuality over systemic conformism.  For authenticity, the picture was shot on Cheltenham College and upholds arguably Dickensian iconography with the depiction of aggressively old fashioned schoolmaster regalia.  Much like Kubrick's Clockwork Orange, it's central protagonist (or antagonist depending on your point of view) is a byproduct of the very system he's fighting against.  Unlike the future shock science fiction horror story that made McDowell an international superstar, if.... fuels it's anarchic vision of present day Britannia by looking to the past to show how little has changed in the oligarchic system.  Moreover, through Mick Travis' defiant call to arms, we the audience share with Mick his fervor for uprising and overthrowing  an oppressive society while at the same time recognizing the futility of his actions.  For the audience, no we aren't going to have anymore of this hypocrisy and the only method of change in Mick's eyes is traveled down the barrel of a gun.  At the same time, it stands to reason Mick's insurrection won't last long with debatable changes made (if at all) to the very system he's fighting against.  But for Anderson and Mick, it's fun to dream about at least.


O Lucky Man! (1973)
After the success of both if.... and A Clockwork Orange, McDowell approached Lindsay Anderson about doing another movie together, to which Anderson promptly balked at.  Not one to take no for an answer, McDowell formulated the idea and wrote the script himself as a sort of autobiographical treatment of his life experiences as a traveling coffee salesman in England.  Anderson further balked at what McDowell presented him as a potential script but liked the idea enough that he brought frequent collaborator David Sherwin on board in addition to writing a few scenes himself.  The end result contained elements of McDowell's early idea but was ultimately retrofitted into Lindsay Anderson's contemptuous view of Britannia and thus a project McDowell initially described as 'about being lucky' evolved into what became known as O Lucky Man!.  Fusing even more disconnected ideas together, Anderson previously expressed interest in filming a rock documentary about musician Alan Price and his band touring England but when rights issues proved to be too expensive, Anderson instead worked Price into O Lucky Man!'s narrative by filming a number of concert sequences which Price would use to comment on the action of Mick Travis' journey.  Giving the loose ideas a bit of structure, Anderson also loosely transposed Voltaire's Candide into the narrative framework, making O Lucky Man! a compendium of various ideas for separate projects gelled into one three hour epic surreal comedy.  The resulting film is one of the most wholly original, scathingly satirical and surreal dark comedies I've ever seen with a musical edge and, as such, one of my personal favorite films of all time!

The story seems simply at first: Mick Travis is like the actor playing him a traveling coffee salesman trying to find success in England.  Not long into his sojourn, he is derailed by a series of increasingly bizarre misadventures which seamlessly branch dream logic and realism with more than a hint of meta permeating everything.  For instance, many of the cast members outside of McDowell have multiple roles including but not limited to a snarky use of blackface, Anderson himself shows up directing the film we're watching and at one point Mick bumps into Alan Price's traveling band commenting on the film itself.  There's even a curtain call in the picture, making O Lucky Man! as much of a narrative in it's own right as a commentary on the making of the film itself.  Largely O Lucky Man! is like if....:a savage takedown of Britannia with more than a few genuinely shocking and strange moments peppered throughout including a hospital involved with experimental genetic research.  Further still, Anderson makes more than a few nods to McDowell's previous film, A Clockwork Orange replete with casting crossover by Philip Stone (Alex's father) and Warren Clarke (Dim) and a scene of an apparatus attached to McDowell's head with wires running from it.  

What stands out about O Lucky Man! is the take on Mick Travis this time around.  Instead of the rebellious schoolmate in if...., here he is the embodiment of the Horatio Alger myth: the ambitious 'pull yourself up by your boot-straps' young adult male who has completely bought into the dream.  Irrespective of how many times life beats Mick down (and there are many, some examples more extreme than others), he still maintains a positive outlook with a lofty falsehood that he is in complete control of his destiny.  In arguably the film's greatest scene, director Lindsay Anderson instructs Mick to smile for the camera which Mick openly protests before Lindsay whacks him upside the head with a Bible-sized screenplay for O Lucky Man!  In this moment, only then do Mick (and we) learn one of life's most important lessons: to achieve happiness, we must accept that most of what happens in our lives is beyond our control and through all the good and bad, we must learn to love it anyway.  Only then, as perfectly stated by Alan Price's running commentary of songs, 'if you found the reason to live on and not to die, you are a lucky man!'.  


Britannia Hospital (1982)
Having achieved enormous critical success with if.... and arguably greater artistic success with O Lucky Man!, the time had come for one last visit upon the world of Mick Travis to be brought to you by writer director Lindsay Anderson.  Functioning as a loose continuation of both if.... and O Lucky Man! with a crossover of actors, characters and plot threads, Lindsay Anderson and screenwriter David Sherwin spent almost a decade developing Memorial Hospital with 20th Century Fox tapped to finance the picture.  After financing fell through however, the project was picked up by The Deer Hunter producer Barry Spikings and the project was ultimately made through EMI Films.  Renamed Britannia Hospital, the focus this time around was on Professor Millar (Graham Crowden reprising his character from O Lucky Man!) and a satirical takedown of the dire state of affairs concerning the National Health Service.  In Britannia Hospital, the focus however is shifted away from Mick Travis who is a minor character as a guerilla reporter looking to expose the unsavory practices of Britannia Hospital and instead functions as an ensemble dark comedy about a fateful day in the hospital's running.  Depicting an army of protestors gathering outside the hospital, an effort to smuggle in the Queen Mother, the final act of Mick Travis and a snarkily surreal look at Thatcherism, Britannia Hospital is Anderson's attempt to make his most ferocious critique of Great Britain yet.  It would also bring the journey of Mick Travis full circle although for a long time a roughly planned direct sequel to if.... was in the works.  

As most of you know by know, things didn't go as planned.  Despite strong performances by Leonard Rossiter, Graham Crowden, Alan Bates and a surprise performance by Mark Hamill, Britannia Hospital comes across as unfocused, farcical and far more angry than funny.  The film tanked at the box office and unlike if.... and O Lucky Man!, Britannia Hospital was all but completely savaged by the critics who formerly championed his work.  British director Derek Jarman remarked the film would finish Anderson's career in the film industry and after only a month in exhibition, EMI Films withdrew Britannia Hospital from circulation and Anderson relocated to America for future projects.  Having seen it after the heights reached by the first two entries in Mick Travis' journey, it was disappointing not so much to see the character done away with once and for all in such a grotesque fashion but to see Mick in the background, grossly underutilized.  Where if.... and O Lucky Man! had McDowell's character guiding viewers through the respectively surreal and anecdotal odysseys, Britannia Hospital leaves viewers cold and on the outside looking in on the madness by not giving us a figure to latch onto.  What's more, if.... and O Lucky Man! provided a mixture of light and dark, giving people hope that in spite of all the things shown that were worth getting angry about there was a sense of hope for change.  Britannia Hospital on the other hand is nihilistic and generally unpleasant when it isn't remaining on this side of the tracks.  Over the years advocates of Anderson have looked back a bit more fondly on Britannia Hospital but as for myself, I completely understand the disappointment as the film didn't really work for me either.  An interesting failure with a lot of virtues but ultimately a failure nonetheless and unfortunate closing chapter to the celebrated and singular Mick Travis Trilogy.


- Andrew Kotwicki
- Adam Josef