In the climactic scene of “If…,” Malcolm McDowell and a band of classmates unearth a cache of weapons in a college lecture hall and open fire on the headmaster and parents gathered for Founder’s Day. It’s a triumphant blow against British conformity and the hidebound social conventions of one of the nation’s elite institutions.
It’s also emblematic of the battle Lindsay Anderson, the seminal director who helped usher British cinema into the spectral, socially conscious’60s, would fight his entire life — and one that his lifelong friend Gavin Lambert, an expat British screenwriter and novelist, is singularly equipped to tell.
Opening with their schooldays at Cheltenham College (savagely parodied in “If…”) and Oxford, where Anderson launched the film journal Sequence, Lambert chronicles the obstinately uncompromising career of this pioneer of the British stage and screen. In Lambert’s telling, Anderson never abandoned the tenets of “Stand Up! Stand Up!,” his famous Sequence screed against the “baffled idealism” of the 1950s and the “philistinism that shrinks from art because art presents a challenge.” So challenging and unconventional were Anderson’s feature films that he only managed to make six of them in his lifetime.
Lambert charts Anderson’s rise as a critic, a docu filmmaker and theater and film director chronicling what Lambert calls “the strange, dead, culturally isolated landscape of post-war Britain.” In films like “The Sporting Life,” “O Lucky Man!” and “Brittania Hospital,” Anderson captured the tumult of his era through a blend of Brechtian and surrealist devices, a sharp class-consciousness and a wry, deliberate, poetic style often reminiscent of the films of his unlikely hero, John Ford.
A tender and nuanced portrait of the filmmaker emerges here that doesn’t shrink from his often contentious, difficult and self-doubting behavior — qualities the openly gay Lambert at times attributes to Anderson’s straitjacketed homosexuality.
But Anderson is also shown to be generous and enormously loyal to a circle of devoted acquaintances — a dysfunctional family of actors and writers, including the suicidal thesps Jill Bennett and Rachel Roberts and various family members who stayed with him intermittently at his London home.
It’s a portrait that’s interwoven with Lambert’s own divergent path through the British theater and international film biz. In 1956, Lambert lit out for Hollywood, with an assignment from Nicholas Ray to rewrite “Bigger Than Life” at Fox. Thus began a career in exile as Lambert turned out several novels; such scripts as “Sons and Lovers” and “Inside Daisy Clover,” based on his novel; and books on George Cukor and Norma Shearer.
Lambert’s short but intense relationship with Ray, sometimes sexual, sometimes not, is the springboard for a series of Lambert’s reminiscences of other Hollywood legends with whom he rubbed shoulders in the waning days of the studio system — including Cukor, James Whale and Josef von Sternberg, as well as Christopher Isherwood and Tennessee Williams — before quitting L.A. for an extended sojourn in Tangiers.
Lambert’s recollection of these encounters, written in an often vague and gossipy tone, as if he’s filling out a photo album, is the weakest dimension of the book. But Lambert’s Hollywood vantage point is also his strongest asset, providing a filter on Anderson’s uniquely uneasy relationship with the drab British society that appears in his films.
Unlike his friend, Anderson never considered leaving England. “The bond of love-hate was too strong,” Lambert writes, “and stimulated his finest work.”