[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]
One of the most interesting things about O Lucky Man! is that it is readily comprehensible at the same time that it consistently achieves a sense of mystery. Nearly three hours in length, it is another social-consciousness film from Britain’s Lindsay Anderson, and it’s also much more than that. A picaresque tale for the 1970s with strong political leanings, it’s also a satire, a set of Brechtian parables, a rock film, an ironic pilgrim’s progress, etc., etc. Like Anderson’s If…, it has Malcolm McDowell in the lead as a character named Mick Travis. But the character is different here, and while the politics of If… turn up now and then, O Lucky Man! goes well beyond both of Anderson’s previous feature films (the other being This Sporting Life). Along the way, Anderson through the persona of Mick takes on big business, imperialism, the police, the class structure in Britain, Cold War politics and paranoia, scientific irresponsibility, and bourgeois hypocrisy, while also building a sweeping vision of human limitation.
McDowell, who provided the original idea for the story, acts as Anderson’s Candide in a series of engagingly chaotic adventures which vividly index the complexity of a modern capitalist society. As McDowell/Travis’s great expectations are repeatedly thwarted by self-perpetuating abuses of power, we are made to recognize the all-too-familiar erosion of goodwill beneath the surface sheen of “progress” and “success.” Anderson effects a special pointedness in his sense of involuted power-combines by casting many of his performers in more than one role. The film’s political views are also complicated considerably when Travis’s liberal humanism (which blooms, ironically, in a prison system portrayed as inhumane) is violently rejected by the people who are, in theory, its beneficiaries. But while Travis’s peregrinations to the various corners of Britain reveal the country as something patently less than the best of all possible worlds, the film has a kind of countermovement which makes itself felt in ways which are less substantial but equally compelling. This is partly a question of Travis’s resiliency and indomitability in the face of such awesome forms of everyday tyranny, and it is partly the consequence of a wary sort of humor and delight which the film brings to most forms of experience. It is also one of the byproducts of the Alan Price rock group’s songs, which comment on the action and add both energy and irony to the film’s vision.
Anderson’s New-Wavish playfulness with film and narrative form rescues the movie’s desperation from shrillness; this aspect comes out most strongly in the last episode and next-to-last sequence when a movie director (Anderson himself) discovers the movie star in the character McDowell has played throughout the movie which he, McDowell, first conceived. This event’s position in the film and its connection to the title song (“If you have a friend on whom you think you can rely, you are a lucky man”) suggest an attitude which is, admittedly, no answer to the social dilemmas posed in the course of the film. It does, however, establish a valid point of new departure for a vision which has pushed itself very close to Zero in social terms. This, too, is part of the considerable power of O Lucky Man!, a film that successfully avoids too easy answers to the difficulties which it portrays so prolifically.
O LUCKY MAN!
Direction: Lindsay Anderson. Screenplay: David Mercer, after an idea by Malcolm McDowell. Cinematography: Miroslav Ondricek. Music: Alan Price.
The Players: Malcolm McDowell, Ralph Richardson, Arthur Lowe, Rachel Roberts, Helen Mirren, Graham Crowden, Michael Medwin.
Copyright © 1973 by Peter Hogue