I first saw ‘O Lucky Man!’ in the mid-80’s in the days when television channels would show strange and interesting films on Friday and Saturday nights after the pubs closed in order to confuse and disturb returning drunks. I was confused and disturbed by it.
Now I am sober, I have come to the conclusion that ‘O Lucky Man!’ is probably the best British film of the 1970’s (if that isn’t damning it with faint praise) and is also one of the richest, most enigmatic films that I have ever seen - or an empty, meaningless confidence trick that has taken me in completely.
Building on the success of surreal Palm d’Or winning public school / student revolution film ‘If….’ (1968), director Lindsay Anderson, writer David Sherwin and star Malcolm McDowell reunited to make a film that is not so much a sequel as a story from a parallel universe where characters from the first film interact with barely an acknowledgement of their shared past. Heavily allegorical (I usually reach for the Anadin on hearing this term), the film started as a screenplay about McDowell’s early career as a coffee salesman in the North of England, but Sherwin and Anderson fleshed out the basic material to epic proportions, making it a warts and all snapshot of Britain in the early 70’s as well as a commentary on how Capitalism and the big business machine are fuelled by the innocence and optimism of the young and ambitious.
Not in the least realistic, the film has a great cast of British character actors (Arthur Lowe; Mona Washbourne; Warren Clarke; Graham Crowden; Peter Jeffries) all of whom play several roles (Captain Mainwaring blacks up to play the dictator of the African state of Zingara) and the story unfolds over nearly three hours, following McDowell’s Mick Travis character from his first day on the job (literally, he is seduced by the personnel officer) through a strange but logical chain of events that propel him to the top then plunge him to the very bottom, only to bounce back when he auditions for a role in the film ‘If….’
A quick and not exhaustive list of scenes that stick in the mind and stay stuck: Travis in a gold suit walking away from a fatal car accident with a big cheese; chocolate sandwich; suicide presented as a silent melodrama; the pig man (the reason my wife won’t watch the film again) and the escape from the research lab; the film audition where the battered, homeless Mick is asked to smile and asks ‘whats there to smile about?’ only relenting when he is hit around the head, hard, by director Lindsay Anderson.
McDowell is excellent in the central role: confident, greedy (he wants to be ‘where the money is’), but actually desperately naive and an easy target for exploitation for malign and corrupting influences. In many ways, ‘O Lucky Man!’ has parallels to McDowell’s other great film of the period, ‘A Clockwork Orange’, but whereas ultra-violent droog Alex is a knowing sociopath who bends the world around him to his will, Mick Travis is an innocent at the mercy of an evil world, although, like Alex, all his trials and tribulations ultimately leave him more or less unchanged.
The music is by Alan Price and is more than integral to the film, it’s actually integrated into the film in both a diegetic and non-diegetic way (Price and his band appear in the film as a Greek Chorus, but also as characters in the narrative). The songs, which were written before the actual film was made, provide a perfect commentary on the dramatic action, and are easily the best thing that Alan Price has ever done.
As I love this film so much I’m going to pull out all the stops, so please find three tracks from the film soundtrack: the gentle instrumental ‘Pastoral’, the poignant ‘My Hometown’ and the reprised version of ‘O Lucky Man’ that soundtracks the climactic party scene, then, if you haven't seen the film, go and get the DVD immediately.