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The Continuing Adventures Of Michael Arnold Travis..
on 30 December 2016
With this remarkable, truly kaleidoscopic piece of film-making, Lindsay Anderson picks up where If… left off and takes us on another rollercoaster ride, another surreal anti-establishment satire (if you like), on the life and times of his protagonist Mick Travis. Certainly, with a running time of around 3 hours (for the ‘uncut’ version) and a seemingly endless list of 'targets’ and (indeed) cast of the 'great and the good’ of British screen acting of the period, 1973’s O Lucky Man! constitutes cinema of very high ambition. And even if that ambition is not flawlessly executed, Malcolm McDowell’s original ‘idea’ (based on his own earlier 'career’ as a coffee salesman) is transformed by Anderson and screenwriter David Sherwin into an engrossing, thought-provoking and highly entertaining film.
McDowell, of course, turns in another brilliant performance as Travis, bringing us another, almost unique, mix of clean-cut, impressionable idealism and precociousness as Mick finds himself on a sales tour of Great Britain, touting the wares of the Imperial Coffee Company, before being plunged into the murky world of business and political corruption, before emerging on the other side as a seemingly reformed, moral evangelist. The ruthless face of capitalism is the obvious (and frequently not so subtle) principal target here, but virtually no wing of the British establishment escapes censure, including politicians, the police, the judiciary, the press, the military, etc. There are serious (and often still current) issues 'up for grabs’ here, perhaps most notably complicity in barbaric foreign arms dealing during the latter part of the film, but Anderson and Sherwin always deliver their themes via threads of dark, surreal comedy, as well as including a latent undercurrent of eroticism via the performances of Rachel Roberts as Gloria Rowe (her coffee tasting exchange with Mick is a highlight), Mary MacLeod as the landlady Mrs Ball and Helen Mirren as the 'rich young hippy’ Patricia.
Viewed simply as cinema on a grand scale, Anderson’s film can’t fail to impress. The film’s complex narrative marshals as impressive a cast of British acting talent as you’re likely to encounter – many of whom are drawn from the cast of If.. and most of whom re-appear in multiple roles here – including (the inestimable) Arthur Lowe (hilarious as ruthless African dictator, among other roles), Peter Jeffrey, Ralph Richardson, Brian Glover, Mona Washbourne, Bill Owen, Dandy Nichols, James Bolam, Graham Crowden, Geoffrey Palmer plus many other familiar faces. Innovative features include the insertion of Alan Price and band performing what is a superb soundtrack of Price’s songs, plus a denouement in which Mick applies for the role of the lead in a film called O Lucky Man!, being cast by director Lindsay Anderson and which reveals that maybe Mick has learnt from his life experience to date. Throughout, the period detail – early 1970s Britain – is impressively evoked via the settings and cinematography of Miroslav Ondricek – there is a particularly stunning, seemingly idyllic, rural interlude in Mick’s mostly traumatic experiences.
Comparator films I found hard to identify. Perhaps prompted by McDowell’s presence, the film’s at times dystopian outlook and its premise of individual transformation, I thought of A Clockwork Orange. Suffice to say, O Lucky Man! is one of the most original and memorable British films of the era.