In the 1950s and 1960s Lindsay Anderson was hailed as a visionary, with If... receiving the Palme d'Or and widespread critical acclaim. In the 1970s, he was regarded as intelligent but indulgent, with O Lucky Man! dividing critical opinion upon its release. By the 1980s, he was branded obsolete, with Britannia Hospital receiving the worst notices and lowest box office of his career. In hindsight that is a crying shame, since the film is both a return to form from O Lucky Man! and one of the most underrated films of the early-1980s.
Britannia Hospital is the third and final instalment of the Mick Travis trilogy, coming nearly nine years after O Lucky Man!. Having been the centrepiece of the last two films, Travis (played by Malcolm McDowell) takes only a peripheral role here - he has risen from schoolboy revolutionary to coffee salesman and filmstar, only to wind up as a muckraking reporter with two stoned technicians. We can see through the trilogy a shift in semi-autobiographical emphasis from Anderson (If....) to McDowell (O Lucky Man!) and finally the nation as a whole.
The film's biggest improvement on O Lucky Man! is the quality and integrity of its narrative. O Lucky Man! had so much to do, and so many stories to tell, that it ended up spreading itself too thin to achieve a knockout blow: it resembled pouring a pint of stout onto a very wide saucer. By confining itself to the events of a single day, in a single location, Britannia Hospital is more readily focussed. Even though it looks at many different groups of people, it succeeds as a microcosm of Britain in the same way that If.... did, and manages to be more universal even when it drifts into outright horror or fantasy.
Britannia Hospital is also a very unusual and interesting mix of genres. It is on one level a farce, albeit one with a great deal more sophistication and ambition than the Carry On series or the work of Blake Edwards. On another level, it is a political drama, in which the organised and politicised working classes take on both the middle-class managers and the upper class establishment embodied by the private patients and 'HRH'. On a further level, it is a full-blooded horror movie which draws on the traditions of Hammer and grand guignol. Leonard Rossiter's snarling and repressed manager is in stark contrast to Graham Crowden's Rotwang-like mad scientist, in a performance reminiscent of Vincent Price in Theatre of Blood.
Britannia Hospital is primarily a lament or requiem of modern Britain. By comparing the state of the nation to that of a hospital constantly facing a crisis, Anderson is lambasting both the old guard and the post-war governments which attempted to brush them aside. Where O Lucky Man! skirted around the notion of champagne socialists and the corruption of politicians and lawmakers, Britannia Hospital launches a vitriolic attack on all sides from all fronts, showing how much the post-war dream has been eroded by self-interest and misjudgement on the part of everyone.
In light of Anderson's life-long association with the British Left, you would expect such a thesis to treat the treat union movement with a certain amount of sympathy. But Anderson is merciless, almost to the point of bitterness, in pointing out the duplicity of the union movement with regard to the aims of the people it claims to defend. The film begins with an absurdist vignette of an old man with hypothermia. The ambulance drivers barter their way past the picket line, only for the manto be left on a stretcher in the corridor because both the nurses and porters have clocked off for the night. As Rossiter's name appears he breaths his last; through little more than pedantry and selfishness, the health service is prevented from doing the one thing it was set up to do.
Britannia Hospital finds the public and the private co-existing uneasily in the new welfare state. The plight of ordinary patients, for whom the NHS is a matter of life or death, is contrasted with the attitudes of the VIP patients in the private ward, who demand to be treated like royalty. Their number includes a child-eating dictator (a further nod to O Lucky Man!) who has taken up residence in his own private ward. When the catering staff go on strike, matron is forced to offer the private patients oranges for breakfast; her efforts are met with anger, disgust and racial epithets, with one general remarking: "I didn't spend forty years in India to end up with a lot of wogs!".
The Britain depicted in Britannia Hospital is a country which is deeply fractured, being torn apart by violence, injustice, inequality and the threat of revolution. But again, Anderson doesn't just fall into the trap of making propaganda, turning out his own private Battleship Potemkin. He characterises Britain as a nation about to turn its back not merely on socialism and the achievements of the welfare state, but on idealism and intelligence as a whole in favour of the simplicity of brute force and tribal warfare. The riot scenes are kinetic and frightening, but they also have a heart-breaking quality, summed up by an image of a protester offering a riot policeman a flower, only to get her head smashed in with his baton.
The film also has very little time for the media, with both sets of film crews coming in for a lot of stick. Mick's technicians (one of whom is played by Mark Hamill) are portrayed as sensationalist and lazy: while Mick is crawling around the hospital sticking his neck out to get the footage, they get stoned and laugh themselves stupid watching documentaries about battery hens. The BBC fare no better, coming over as sycophants who fabricate events around Dr. Millar to inflate his ego and make him feel more like a God.
Despite Anderson's depression about this state of affairs, the film manages to tackle these pertinent and vital political issues without ever slipping into self-pity. Anderson's sense of righteous anger at what is unfolding is matched by fear on his part for the future of the country his loves, and by a feeling of pathos on the part of the characters. The humour is satirically vainglorious - for instance on the soundtrack, where Alan Price plays 'Rule Britannia' very slowly for maximum irony.
There is a comparison between Britannia Hospital and the work of Pink Floyd around the same period, namely The Wall, the subsequent film helmed by Alan Parker, and The Final Cut which was accompanied by a 20-minute short. Britannia Hospital itself shares certain features with The Fletcher Memorial Home: it is a bastion for a bygone age based upon privilege and order, which has since been eroded and rendered all-but-obsolete. Running through all these projects is a theme of missed chances and regret, which will echo through the plight of future generations.
Britannia Hospital is also an attack on positivism, showing the march of scientific progress continuing at the expense of mankind. One of the core themes of modernist art is Man feeling lost in a world which is constantly evolving, and which He at best struggles and at worst fails to control. In this case we have Dr. Millar, up to his old tricks again, as the maverick private pioneer being sponsored by (but not controlled by) the state.
Where O Lucky Man! felt in places like The Island of Dr. Moreau, the horror elements of Britannia Hospital are a retuning of Frankenstein. It takes a story about humans trying to live forever, leaves in Mary Shelley's warnings about the dangers of progress, and adds disturbing allegories for social engineering. What begins with Travis finding foetuses in jars or freezers full of limbs culminates in a terrifying sequence where his head is grafted onto Millar's monster - it comes to life, only to attack its creator and disintegrate. The gore in these scenes is worthy of anything in Sweeney Todd or Lucio Fulci, coming virtually out of nowhere and being terrifying gruesome.
But by far the highlight of Britannia Hospital is its final scene. With a cross-section of society gathered, from royalty to revolutionaries, Millar gives a passionate speech about humanity's need to reinvent itself and the inherent injustices of the status quo. He concludes by revealing 'Genesis', a giant brain which begins to recite from Hamlet before repeating the line 'How like a God'. It's a wonderfully judged paean complimented by creepy special effects and Crowden as his absolute best.
There are flaws with Britannia Hospital. Some of the broader, more farcical comedy doesn't work, such as the clichéd sequence of Travis crawling out of the mass of people. And its sexual politics have not dated all that well: the random sex scene with the nurse feels jarring and unnecessary. But as both a plea for intelligence in a time of crisis and a savage social satire, it still holds up both on its own and as a fine conclusion to the trilogy. It's a twisted tale of compassion and caustic humour, and remains a hidden gem of British cinema.