Peter Hoskin is a DVDBeaver contributor and a freelance journalist.


It is a prosperous time for fans of Lindsay Anderson: this year’s Cannes featured a new documentary on the great director; his long-awaited masterworks If.... (1968) and O Lucky Man! (1973) have finally appeared on DVD; and Criterion have just announced a potentially wonderful edition of This Sporting Life (1963), which is also set to include Anderson’s Is That All There Is? (1993). DVD Beaver is to join this tidal surge, in this case by presenting an extended review of Anderson’s O Lucky Man!. Given that it contains a number of “plot spoilers”, those who haven’t seen the film are warned away from the article below, and should instead direct their attention to Gary’s review of the NTSC Warner Bros. DVD HERE.

Pete Hoskin

O Lucky Man!: a hopeless kind of optimism

So long as the laws remain such as they are today, employ

some discretion: loud opinion forces us to do so; but in privacy

and silence let us compensate ourselves for that cruel chastity

we are obliged to display in public ” – the Marquis de Sade.

Made in 1973, as a follow-up to 1968’s If...., O Lucky Man! transposes Voltaire’s Candide[1] to modern Britain as it follows Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) through the vagaries, hypocrisies and amoralities of contemporary society.  The viewer is plunged, along with Mick, headfirst into all of this, and is left reeling by what is a bewildering medley of surrealism, realism, music, self-reference, satire, spy-film, polemic and poetry.  Of course, this doesn’t make the reviewer’s job[2] easy.  Threads must be grabbed, and synopses eschewed, in the hope that some method or truth will be discovered beneath the madness.  What follows is an exercise in thread-grabbing.


The most tangible strand – and thus the first observation – is that O Lucky Man! is Lindsay Anderson's epic.  However, “epic” is here not meant in the familiar swords-and-sandals sense, which evokes such films as The Ten Commandments (1956) or Ben-Hur (1959), but in what Anderson designated the “classical, poetic sense”.[3]  The latter relates to a tale in which the main character undertakes a journey; faces diverse situations and characters; and, learning from his experiences, comes to some moral revelation by the end of the work.  This schema certainly fits nicely onto O Lucky Man!, just as it fits onto its literary precursors such as Candide or Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels Here Mick Travis bursts beyond the school boundaries which defined If..... to frolic across the whole of Britain; he meets an assortment of characters who are at once as outlandish and as recognisable as any Lilliputian or Brobdingnagian; and he achieves a new worldview by the end of the film.    



However, if we are to consider films such as The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur as exercises in sheer size and extravagance, there is also something of the swords-and-sandals epic about O Lucky Man!.  Indeed, it is a swollen film in almost every respect, and hits several record highs for an Anderson picture.  One such record high is the film’s budget which, courtesy of Warner Bros, was the largest Anderson was ever afforded;[4] another is O Lucky Man!’s running time, which stands at just under three hours.  The cast-list too is the longest of Anderson’s career, and – from Ralph Richardson and Rachel Roberts to Helen Mirren and Arthur Lowe – is perhaps the British equivalent of those grand casts which Mann and DeMille put together.  It is to Anderson’s great credit that so large an “electric train set” is neither wasted nor used to create a bloated Mammon of a film.  Instead the results are invigorating: O Lucky Man’s scale serves to amplify its director’s polemic, making it the most compulsive and iconoclastic entry in his filmography.


For their part in filling out Anderson’s Britain, the cast of O Lucky Man! deserve further mention.  Many actors deliver career-best performances, often in multiple roles.  Take, for example, Arthur Lowe, who plays three characters – Mr. Duff, Charlie Johnson and (in “black-face” make-up) Dr Munda – and who won a BAFTA “Best Supporting Actor” award for his efforts.  The ability to get the best from his players reveals the benefit of Anderson’s meticulous work in theatre, and ranks him alongside Alexander Mackendrick, Ingmar Bergman and Paul Thomas Anderson as one of greatest “actors’ directors” in cinema.


As the keystone of Lindsay Anderson’s company, Malcolm McDowell again gives a superlative performance as Mick Travis.  His brand of oddly hard-edged innocence comes across perfectly in a role which sees him confronted by the worst that British society has to offer.  However, this is a Mick Travis which differs greatly from that in If.....  The Mick Travis of O Lucky Man! is one who progresses through a series of jobs in search of the twin Holy Grail that is promotion and recognition.  Gone, apparently, is the iconoclast to be replaced by a go-getter; someone who claims that he “only wanted to be successful”.  It must have shocked first-time, contemporary viewers of O Lucky Man! that a former symbol of Sixties rebellion now wanted to get to the top rather than shoot bullets into those who are already there.[5]


However, Mick Travis’ newfound sedate attitude is dubitable.  After all, there is much within O Lucky Man! that recommends it as a dream, or a fantasy, rather than a true continuation of Mick’s biography.


Firstly, there is the aforementioned use of actors in multiple roles.  Not only is this odd practice in itself, but similarities between characters testify to an underlying dream logic.  Again, Arthur Lowe deserves special attention here.  All of his characters are equated by the fact that they seemingly hold a great deal of power but are nonetheless subordinate to some higher will.  The character of Dr Mumba, for example, is the leader of an African country but has to submit to Western economic control.  Interestingly, this mirrors Lowe’s housemaster character in If...., who presides over the school boys but reports to the “higher will” of the headmaster.  It is as though the schoolboy Mick is dreaming and ascribing the traits of school acquaintances to figures in his dream.


Secondly, there is the fact that almost every single woman in the film, from the stern Gloria (Rachel Roberts) to the socialite Patricia (Helen Mirren), is very easily attainable (in a sexual sense) for Mick.  Indeed, the film often veers towards masturbatory fantasy – whether this fantasy is typical (as in the strip-show scene) or not (as in the scene which shows Mick being breastfed in front of a church altar).



Thirdly, the plot of O Lucky Man! comes across as somewhat arbitrary.  Mick’s adventures take him from coffee factory to strip-show to government facility to experimental hospital, and so on and so on, with little consistency or reason.  Along the way, many apparent plot threads are discarded and have no later consequences, such as the ‘Macguffin’ that is the absconding coffee-salesman Ozwald, or the hint that Mick might be a Russian spy.


But whilst such cataloging can go on-and-on, this approach largely misses the point.  What should concern us is not how much of the film is like a dream, but how much of the dream is like reality.  In O Lucky Man!, Anderson is – by his own admission[6] – deploying the Brechtian directive: “Realism is not a matter of showing real things, but of showing how things really are”.  The riotous fantasy of the film, then, is intended to show Britain as it really is – in all of its inglory – and in a manner which, according to Anderson, no strictly realist documentary could ever capture.


What, then, are the results of Anderson’s autopsy on Britannia?  Certain themes emerge from the entrails; many of which are similar to those in If…..  In particular, we see a trenchant portrayal of the brutality and corruption of those on the upper rungs of the social ladder.  Policemen are depicted as little more than uncaring criminals, and business-leaders abuse their power.  As Sir James (Ralph Richardson) points out: “The dividing live between the House of Lords and Pentonville jail is very, very thin.”  However, to this, O Lucky Man! adds further targets, many of which were not present in its predecessor.



Of these new attacks, perhaps the most striking is that which O Lucky Man! launches upon imperialism.  Indeed, the film sets itself up as anti-imperialist from the moment of its “Once Upon a Time” prelude.  This prelude, shot in the style of a silent film, depicts a group of natives working on a coffee plantation under the steely eyes of the foreign, colonialist overseers.  When one of the natives (played by Malcolm McDowell)[7] steals some of the coffee, he is caught by an overseer and subjected to a foreign form of “Justice” which involves him getting his hands cut off.  Without hands, the coffee-picker will be unable to continue his trade, and imperialism is thus depicted as cruel and debilitating.


However, for O Lucky Man!, the evils of imperialism have not abated with the decline of the British Empire.  In fact, imperialism is still rampant in the modern age, and now expresses itself through a subtler, economic control.  This is particularly apparent in the actions of Sir James, captain of industry, who – we are told – once drove 500,000  Bolivian peasants from their farmland.  As part of his effort to invest money in the fictional African country of Zingara, Sir James has no qualms about deploying military forces in the region, and furnishing them with the latest in chemical weapons technology – PL45 (aka “Honey”) – to help “subdue” the local population.  The most shocking moment of O Lucky Man comes when the effect of ‘Honey’ on native populations is depicted in a slide show. [8]  Bodies are shown contorted, charred and eviscerated; all to the general approval of the business-minds gathered in the room.


Throughout the film, the viewer is given constant reminders of the dangers and inconsistencies of the modern form of imperialism (perhaps we might call it “globalisation”).  A news story coming through Mick’s car radio tells of how the Egyptian War Minister has resigned over the “country’s relationship with the Soviet Union”, and Mick questions a fellow Imperial Coffee employee: “Do you realise that this Nigerian coffee is being packed straight back to Nigeria?”  In this manner, O Lucky Man! taps into some very recent debates, and should, at least for this reason, be of interest to today’s public.


However, in O Lucky Man!, the modern imperialism does not only take the form of this politico-economic expansionism.  It also takes what might be described as a “domestic” form.  This is implied by both the prelude and its reprise later in the film, in which the present-day Mick is subjected to the wrath of the “Justice” system for a crime he didn’t commit (and for which he was framed by Sir James).  The parallel between Mick and the persecuted native is not one of nationality but, instead, the fact that they have both been wronged by those who hold power.  It seems that the domination of the rich over the poor; of the powerful over the weak; of the state over the citizen, having exhausted its outward form during the days of the British Empire, has turned inwards to oppress those within its borders.



The manner in which the upper classes brutalise the lower is also apparent in those scenes which follow Mick’s release from prison.  Here he spends his time among the poorer elements of London, attempting to spread a message of goodwill and brotherhood.  The decrepit, grey scenery and the queues for food at the soup kitchens reveal an underworld that is far-removed from the oak-panelled existence of Sir James.  These scenes of poverty serve as an indictment of the inadequacies of the British welfare system; an attack that would be further developed by the next Mick Travis film, Britannia Hospital (1982).  However, all of this shouldn’t be taken as an indication that O Lucky Man! sides unswervingly with the lower classes and the downtrodden.  No, the film’s portrayal of class is – controversially – much more ambiguous and indeterminate than that.  After all, the poor are hardly lit in a flattering light.  They are portrayed as a gruesome bunch – all rotting teeth, belligerence and sneers – who think nothing of beating the well-meaning Mick to near-death.[9]  Here we might recall the aloof detachment of Lindsay Anderson’s earlier O Dreamland (1953) which portrays funfair revellers and, in particular, their methods of amusement in a similarly unfavourable fashion.


And so O Lucky Man! is neither a product of the Right nor the (New) Left[10]; instead it serves to demonstrate Anderson’s disillusionment with politics in general.  Furthermore, O Lucky Man! appears to be dubious about the potential for a change in this world-order – the rich are too rich and the poor too poor for anything to really change.  It makes perfect sense, then, that revolution has been reduced to a purely academic pursuit (a piece of graffiti in the film reads: “Revolution is the opium of the intellectuals!”).  It is no longer true that, as Mick Travis claimed in If....: “One man can change the world with a bullet in the right place.”  Given this, there is a dispiritng seam of hopelessness running through O Lucky Man!.


Apart from its (anti-)politics, another remarkable feature of O Lucky Man! is its use of musical inserts.  With a soundtrack of songs provided by the singer-songwriter Alan Price, the film frequently alternates between the adventures of Mick Travis and footage of Price and his band performing the songs, which comment-upon and amplify the action of the film.  This ploy not only serves a similar function to the black-and-white sequences in If....[11], but also confuses the diegetic and the non-diegetic; collapsing the traditional boundaries that exist between the story world and the real world.



This technique calls to mind Jean-Luc Godard’s similar experiments in One + One (1968).Yet – in its determination to split from all of the traditional methods and conventions of cinema – O Lucky Man! also calls to mind the rest of Godard’s work.  We see, in O Lucky Man!, not only the musical performance passages but also silent film passages; the use of actors in multiple roles; and events in the film relayed entirely through text rather than through imagery (to name but a few of O Lucky Man!’s quirks).  So, as with If...., it is not only the film’s message but also its method which calls for a break with tradition.


However, at the same time, O Lucky Man! clearly does owe some kind of debt to tradition; in particular, literary tradition.  Of course, there are the parallels to Candide and Gulliver’s Travels, but there are equally pertinent links to the work of George Orwell.  The most pointed of these is the inclusion of Orwell’s collected-works in a scene in which Mick Travis encounters Alan Price and his band.  Following this lead, one might regard the whole of O Lucky Man! as something analogous to a ‘collected-works’ of Orwell.  Mick Travis’ adventure through the entire class system recalls A Clergyman’s Daughter; the oppressive state machinery and the subversion of justice recalls 1984; the travelogue nature of O Lucky Man! recalls The Road to Wigan Pier; the scenes of poverty and distress recall Down and Out in Paris and London; O Lucky Man! shares the anti-imperialist tone of Burmese Days; and there is even a scene in which a government medical facility has grafted a man’s head onto a pig’s body – is this the regime’s own version of the ‘four-legs good, two-legs bad’ maxim of Animal Farm?  There is also a biographical similarity going on here – Orwell, like Anderson, was a child of the Indian subcontinent who also spoke out against the hypocrisy and tyranny of the British class system.


And all of this – the literary references, the musical sequences, the allegory, the beatings, the women, the dreams and the persecution – comes crashing to a startling, self-referential coda in which Mick Travis auditions for a part in O Lucky Man! itself.  In this coda, Mick finds himself in a hall filled with many of O Lucky Man!’s actual cast members, all of whom are also going through the same audition process.  At the front of this hall, supervising proceedings, stands Lindsay Anderson, who notices Travis in the crowd and beckons him forward for a screen-test.[12]  However, as Anderson asks Mick to “Smile”, Mick becomes infuriated, asking “What’s there to smile about?”.  Of course, from what we have seen throughout the course of the film, there seems to be very little, if anything, to smile about.  Despite this, Anderson manages, with much coaxing, to draw the slightest (yet sincerest) of smiles from Mick.



The film then cuts to Mick, and the rest of O Lucky Man!’s cast, enjoying a wrap-party.  All of them dance in joy until we are left with the film’s final image – that of Mick staring and smiling at a cascade of falling balloons.  This image is indelible, and forms an astonishing counterpoint to final shot of If...., which shows Mick, all-wrathful, gripping a gun and glaring through a cordite haze.  At the end of O Lucky Man!, then, Mick seems to have discovered peace rather than rage.  But what does it all mean?[13]


For me, the answer lies in the lyrics of the Alan Price song which accompanies the party: “If you’ve found a reason to live on and not to die, you are a lucky man”.  Mick, it would seem, has just found this reason to “live on and not to die”: for he has just found the world of films and filmmaking.  O lucky man, indeed!


And thus the end-note of O Lucky Man! is one of optimism.  Whilst the brave new world may preclude political revolution, the opportunity for personal revolution still remains.  Here, O Lucky Man! borrows Voltaire's concluding maxim from Candide: “Il faut cultiver notre jardin” (“We must cultivate our garden”).  However, this strident, optimistic note is mitigated by the same hopelessness mentioned above.  We may be lucky that we can withdraw from society, but we are also unlucky insofar as that same society cannot be changed into one from which we feel no need to withdraw.  The optimism of O Lucky Man! is thus a hopeless kind of optimism.


And so a good handful of threads has been gathered.  What does it all come to?  The response to this question is surprisingly short: O Lucky Man! – with its great depth of feeling; its inventiveness; its concern for social matters; and its call to withdraw from the evils of modern life – is Lindsay Anderson’s masterpiece.

[1]    In France, O Lucky Man! is titled Le Meilleur des Mondes Possibles (The Best of All Possible Worlds) – a direct quote from Candide.

[2]    Which is often one of simplification.

[3]    Anderson, L. (1973), Stripping the Veils Away, The Times, 21 April: “O Lucky Man! was conceived as an epic – not an epic in the sense of Ben Hur, but in the classical, poetic sense of the term.”

[4]    Although it is still relatively meagre in comparison to many other feature films, and certainly in comparison to Hollywood epics.

[5]    Given that Malcolm McDowell played the central character – Alex de Large – of the preceding year’s A Clockwork Orange, initial signs indicate that Lindsay Anderson has appended Stanley Kubrick’s film with the final chapter from Anthony Burgess’ source novel; a chapter which was left out of Kubrick’s retelling, and which sees Alex shed his rebelliousness.

[6]    Anderson, L. (1973), Stripping the Veils Away, The Times, 21 April.

[7]    Despite subsequent appearances, should we really have any doubt about where Mick’s sympathies lie?

[8]    This pre-dates another slide-show scene in Anderson’s The Old Crowd (1979).  I would like to think that in both The Old Crowd and O Lucky Man! Anderson is using the slide-show to discomfort the viewer.  After all, there is something sadistically reductive about one frame every five seconds (the slide-show) being shown at 24 frames a second; something that is antithetical to our expectations of cinema.

[9]    Anderson, L. (1973), Stripping the Veils Away, The Times, 21 April: “The poor people are just as beastly to their fellow men as the rich people.  And I don’t think the tone of the film is such to say that they’re beastly to them only because they’re poor.  They’re beastly to them because they’re human beings.  When Mick is thrown over the edge of the dump by the down-and-outs he’s tried to help, and looks up and sees them all there, it’s just man’s inhumanity to man, isn’t it?  I think that’s something that the socialist will regard as extremely reactionary.”

[10]  The so-called “New Left” tried to claim Anderson as one of their own.  However, he rebutted their advances.  See Anderson, L. (1994), Commentary on O Lucky Man!: “As one gets older one probably becomes less radical, I'm not sure, but I've never been a socialist.  I've never understood how people think that socialism could work because I have always believed in original sin.”

[11]  Which Anderson said “broke up the surface of the film”.

[12]  A clapper-board comes down which reads “O Lucky Man!. Dir: Lindsay Anderson. Cam: Miroslav Ondricek. Scene: 755. Take: 1”

[13]  On this matter, Anderson welcomed subjective interpretation whilst also setting out his own account.  See Anderson, L. (1973), Stripping the Veils Away, The Times, 21 April: “It's not at all about a young actor who's going to get a part.  It's about life.  Actually this is the paradox that people find difficult to accept: that he is hit over the head and experiences, in traditional Zen terms, his moment of illumination.  And he doesn't look at us – into the camera – and see clearly, in obedience to the fact that he has been hit on the head and told to, but because that moment suddenly brought to him the awareness of the correct way of relating to experience, to everything that has happened to him and will happen to him.  Well, that's if you want to give that type of interpretation.  I hesitate to, because I want people to make their own.”



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