THE UNMUTUAL PRISONER ARTICLE ARCHIVE
THE PROJECTION ROOM (The Prisoner Compared...)
"A SCHOOLBOY'S FANTASY FILM" By Erica Kendrick
saw "The Prisoner"
dur ing the 1992 screening for the 25th an niversary. It wasn't until five years
later, at the time of the 30th anniversary, that I saw the film "If..."
from director Lindsay Anderson, and yet these two works of art were made/shown
in the same year. A year of rebellion and revolution, which comes out strongly
"The Prisoner" may be a television programme rather than a film, but it only comprises 17 short episodes and it was made on film. People have compared "The Prisoner" to many different and varying films and books. And rightly so. In this comparison I will be highlighting the many visual and audio links between these two pieces which I have personally spotted. Some are obvious, but others are more subtle.
I came by them both, by accident, quite separately. I happened to be staying up quite late one night in October 1992 with the half term at school (I was only 13 then) when I saw "Checkmate". I happened to see "If..." thanks to my A-Level Media Studies lessons at college when we were doing British Cinema in the 1960s. The only reason I had to pay attention to this film was that I had seen the spoof on "Monty Python s Flying Circus" and so the name rang a bell. The previous line-up hadn't been all that impressive with films like "Saturday Night And Sunday Morning" and "Billy Liar", although it was good to study "A Hard Day's Night". So I looked and paid attention to this film, having all but fallen asleep during the first two, and what I saw was a triumph of the big screen. Never before had I seen a movie like it, and I doubt I ever will again. A bit like "The Prisoner" and television, I suppose.
So what sets these two apart from the rest? Well to start with there is the surrealism. Just as in "The Prisoner" you can have clones of people walking around the Village, in "If..." you can have a naked woman wondering the corridors of College House. And it switches from colour to sepia to black and white constantly. So now I've hopefully got you in the mood for proper comparison. The public school, College House is a place of imprisonment like the Village; you can't leave the area while you are serving your purpose (learning) and you are sent there by a higher authority (your parents), probably against your will. It is an education establishment, which reflects "The General". All they seem to learn though, rather than academic subjects, is life skills; how to think, how to fight, how to serve.
Each section of the film, which lasts about 100 minutes, has a title. There are eight sections altogether, but they could be little episodes in themselves. Incidentally, the only other film I've seen to use this unique device is "Pulp Fiction". The first section, or `episode' is called "College House...Return". This premier part not only reunites the well settled in pupils with the school, but also introduces new boys, who become Scum, in particular one called Jute, played by Sean Bury. He is firstly our main concentration, but not for long. This is "Arrival". Of course we have the blazers and strict uniform. We also have a teacher crying out "Run in the corridor!" It reflects the signs in the Village? in particular `Walk on the grass'. Both are telling us the opposite of what is normally expected.
Poor little Jute, after being shoved about and rushed past, comes up to this same teacher and says "I'm new." Like "Dance Of The Dead" - "I'm new here." They are both cries; one for help and one for assertion. Jute is shown around his new quarters, like Number 6. There are foods which are chosen by the people in charge ("The rules" - "Dance Of The Dead"), like the Village foods in tins. Then we meet the main antagonist, Mike Travis, brilliantly played by a young Malcolm McDowell. He, like Number 6, is in conflict and will not subscribe to any view. He is arrogant and takes charge of things in his group (like "Checkmate"). He has grown a moustache and cuts it away ("The Schizoid Man"). He is trying to hide himself; we first see him as he enters the dorm with a scarf over the lower part of his face. As he is cutting his moustache away, he looks into a mirror. Mirrors are hugely significant in "The Prisoner". You can see your true self, how others see you, how a disguise can change you, how others have changed you. Your face should be your identity and when it is unrecognisable your identity is lost - but maybe you want it that way? In "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling" the mirror is smashed by Number 6, but the identity is already gone.
Like Number 6, Travis has had to leave his girl behind. They have both been forced into this to go to the place of their imprisonment. The next comparison is spoken. The Headmaster (Number 2), played by Peter Jeffrey, speaks to the boys of the "rapid succession of events which has overtaken your arrival" and finally says "This is your new family". The new viewers to "The Prisoner" were `overtaken by a rapid succession of events' since Number 6's arrival. It is our arrival to both. With the `new family', they try to make the new man welcome and comfortable; this is his `new community'. There is a curfew of 5.00pm and "Town is out of bounds". Lights have to be turned off on order after an inspection like one in the Army. After the inspection, the one in charge of the dorm is congratulated and the rest of the `inmates' mockingly clap and applaud him - echoes of the trial scene in "Dance Of The Dead".
`Episode 2' - "College". "Once Again Assembled..." It is time for the learning to start. Or is it? Well, they are in classrooms for their lessons, but they aren't really taught anything. The history master, ably played by a batty Graham Crowden, rides into the building on a bicycle (another parallel with "The Prisoner" - the penny farthing) and throws the marked work at the students. He talks about something in history and asks what they think. "Do you have a view?" he asks of his oh-so-attentive class. A bunch of "tailor's dummies"? They are told to write a 20 minute essay on a subject he hasn't taught them anything about. They are not being taught properly, and yet are expected to learn, and quick. Shades of "The General" and the subject is history. We see a boy being tormented in the toilets for no apparent reason, a bit like the opening of "A Change Of Mind". Well, can you explain why the bullies pick on Number 6?
`Episode 3' - "Term Time". Here we see the `Scum' (juniors) being treated as the `Whip's' (seniors) butlers. They are small and silent. One is sent away when finished, as in "Once Upon A Time". Then we come to Travis listening to a record in his room, as is done in "Hammer Into Anvil". The music he listens to is recurring in the film (Missa Luba); as is the case when Number 6 listens to a recurring theme it is vital to the plot. In the `camp' of rebels they are talking about mutiny. "Violence and revolution are the only pure acts," says one boy. "War is the last possible creative act," says Travis. Is this what Sir is thinking at the end of "Fall Out"? The Whips come in and confiscate Travis' good luck and call him "degenerate" - "A Change Of Mind"? "Rebel!" "Reactionary!" "Disharmonious!" are flung at Number 6. In this case there is a punishment for having long hair- trivial, like the radio set in "Dance Of The Dead". The punishment is a cold shower and Travis gets the longest, but then didn't Number 6 always get the worst treatments?
`Episode 4' - "Ritual And Romance". Here we have fencing ("Once Upon A Time") with quotes (personally unidentifiable) a la "The Schizoid Man". Later on the pupils are told that morale has been at an all-time low and are forced to turn up at a school football match and cheer on the players - "and happiness, by order" from "Dance Of The Dead". The rebels, Travis and Johnny Nightly (played by David Wood) escape to the town - "Many Happy Returns". They take a motorbike "without permission", like the buggy/taxi in "Checkmate". They go to a cafe and Travis listens to "Missa Luba". There they meet a new rebel (played by Christine Noonan) in a very surreal scene about them fighting in the nude to animal noises.
`Episode 5' - "Discipline". The rebels are talking about death, like Number 6 and Number 2 in the morgue in "Dance Of The Dead". According to the Whips, Travis has become a "general nuisance in the house," and his attitude is a "danger to the morale of the whole House" A bit like the opening to "A Change Of Mind" again. There is another punishment for Travis, Wallace (played by Richard Warwick) and Nightly. The previous one was like being sent to the committee, this is like social conversion. In a scene reminiscent of Number 6 going to resign, Travis pulls both doors open in towards him confidently Again he receives most punishment.
`Episode 6' - "Resistance". This is a comparatively short section. There is a target practice ("The Schizoid Man"). The three rebels sit together and speak of the three things most important to them; "Destiny," "Resistance," "Liberty." These are the things important to Sir, ex-Number 2, and Number 48, in "Fall Out". At the end, a boy is studying the stars - Number 6 in "The Chimes Of Big Ben" (the alternative version).
`Episode 7'- "Forth To War". This is hardly a school anymore. The boys are dressed in army gear. The battle is fake, but the rebels have real bullets. Ironic. Travis shoots the Rev. Woods (played by Geoffrey Chater), but does not kill him, a mistake, like Number 6 and Number 2 in "Once Upon A Time". In another surreal moment, the chaplain appears in a long drawer so the rebels can apologise to him! They are given a lecture by the Headmaster about how they obviously like to "proclaim individuality". They are "too intelligent to be rebels. Too easy." Sounds like "How very primitive. I would have expected something more original from you," said by Number 2 in "Checkmate". They are told to clear up under the school, where they find ammunition. It is practically given to them, like Number 1 to Number 6 in "Fall Out", and the rocket.
`Episode 8' - "Crusaders". The name of the book the film is based upon. This is very "Fall Out". General Denson, wonderfully played by Anthony Nicholls, comes into the assembled hall and gives a very Judge-like speech about, among other things, the future of the school (there isn't any) and tradition, like the Judge's. Finally, the smoke comes through the stage and the hall is evacuated. The finale is an attack by the four rebels (four louts!) by machine gun fire. They are gunning down and fighting back now they know they can. The school music ("Missa Luba") plays over the gun battle, like "All You Need is Love". The Headmaster shouts "Trust me!" opens his arms and is shot down. The closing shot is a close-up of Travis' face, determined and set, like "The Prisoner"'s final shot.
From our class discussion after the film (spread over two days), we got the points that it is on two levels, the title is alternative reality, it is full of allegory and it is about establishment, tradition and conformity.
Click here to return to The Projection Room
Click here to return to the Unmutual Article Archive
Click here to return to the Unmutual Home Page