Over the course of its truly epic length of 177 minutes, Lindsay Anderson‘s O Lucky Man! (1973) picks up the continuing saga of Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) from If…. While If…. used a British public school as a metaphorical microcosm with which to satirize British class culture, O Lucky Man! widens its lens to take in all of England for its bleak portrait of capitalism triumphant.
Travis appears to have matured out of his schoolboy fantasy of perpetrating a school massacre and has since joined the corporate world. Because of McDowell’s inherently impish persona, one might not expect his character here to be sincere, but Travis is now ruthless and genuinely willing to endure anything to climb the ladder of profit and social advancement. Early on, he is urged by a senior colleague to “try not to die like a dog,” but it’s a warning he is never equipped to quite comprehend.
His journey is so long and involved that it would hardly count as a spoiler to recount it here: Travis is promoted from the lowest rung on the corporate ladder all the way up to a high-level mission, yet he has been set up to fail. As he is ordered around the English countryside by his officebound superiors, he becomes lost on the way to Scotland, is arrested and tortured by the army, survives a military strike by an unseen enemy, stumbles into an idyll, is nursed back to health (er, literally), donates his body to medical research, falls in with Alan Price‘s touring band (including groupie Patricia (Helen Mirren), talks his way into the employ of the most venal businessman in England after his previous assistant’s timely suicide (a prime example of Travis’ alleged “luck”), becomes party to illegal chemical weapons sales in a corporate-funded civil war in a third-world nation, takes the fall for his boss, is imprisoned to five years of hard labor, is evidently reformed, tries and fails to talk a poor woman out of suicide with a hilarious litany of trite platitudes, is robbed and becomes homeless, tries to proselytize like Jesus and is, finally and fittingly, stoned by his peers. But in the the end, he is discovered as a future movie star.
An early form of David Sherwin’s script was written by McDowell himself, based on his own experiences as a coffee salesman. I think it’s fair to presume that the beginning and ending are drawn directly from McDowell’s life story. At opposite ends of the film, the fortunate Travis is chosen from the masses for higher callings. The young man at the beginning is all too eager to commence his journey, but the beaten-down and disillusioned man at the end is no longer able to take any pleasure out of his unlucky luck.
Must read: everything you could possibly want to know about O Lucky Man, from MalcolmMcDowell.net