A sad ending to Anderson’s famed trilogy that began with If… (which I did not watch this week because Vdrome didn’t get it in) and O Lucky Man! (which I half-remember from watching on tape five years ago – a musical, right?).
If the first of the trilogy mixes “color and black and white as audaciously as it mixes fantasy and reality” and “remains one of cinema’s most unforgettable rebel yells”, according to Criterion, and the second was a fun, “surrealist musical [which] serves as an allegory for the pitfalls of capitalism”, according to the IMDB, then what’s left for this little apocalyptic satire? It feels flat, unfunny and bizarrely plotted, with Malcolm McDowell barely present and not much holding the whole thing together.
The final scene (after M. McD’s beheading death) features a long dull speech railing against all of human society by a mad scientist (Graham Crowden of O Lucky Man and The Ruling Class) who unveils a computer named Genesis that will somehow solve everything. Before that, McDowell is an ineffectual investigative reporter, with stoned colleagues Mark Hamill (post-Big Red One, pre-Jedi) and Frank Grimes.
Movie felt sucky at the time, but it had noble intentions, throwing all of British society into the title hospital, staging a joint protest against both the way the country (err, hospital) treats its less-wealthy citizens, and the way it coddles corrupt and brutal foreign dictators. It’s against both the boss who expects too much and the worker who provides too little, it makes a small mockery of the royal family (midget and tranny royal reps) but shows the Queen’s handlers to be resourceful, sneaking her past the mob incognito, it tosses hatred at the labor unions (portrays them as killing patients through negligence and unnecessary regulations) and it throws some police violence, mob rule and frankenstein medical experiments into the mix. The lead actor is actually hospital director Leonard Rossiter, who mostly keeps his composure, except when he murders a striking electrician to turn the hospital’s power back on.
Best online source I could find on the film, an unsigned article on britmovie.co.uk site, sums up:
The question posed at the end of the film is ‘Is man intelligent enough to survive?’ The speech concluding the film is not sentimental; it’s much more the speech of an angry rationalist who is appalled and irritated by the stupidity of mankind. He proposes that the only solution is intelligence. But, of course, having made this speech, which most people would agree with, he then proposes a solution that is even crazier and more horrifying than anything the establishment represents. He produces the idea of a disembodied intelligence, this brain we see, which he tells us will be combined into a silicon chip. So, the challenge at the end is a question, If only intelligence can save us how can that intelligence be controlled? The film does say, I hope, that we must mistrust institutions, power, the instincts for power within us, and in that way I think Britannia Hospital is an anarchist film. It puts the responsibility squarely on the individual to develop first the intelligence and the moral awareness by which alone man can control his destiny.
The film’s location manager is quoted as saying “Unlike a lot of directors, [Anderson] doesn’t make films just for money but because he has something to say.” This was clearly a low-budget effort, with big stars (McDowell, Hamill) working for free, and the film had too much of a social conscience to dismiss by saying “ehh, the plot didn’t grip me and McDowell wasn’t in it enough and it was too disjointed” and give it the C- rating it may deserve on the grounds of a pretty poor final product. I’m upgrading to a B- for honorable intentions.
Lead actor (hospital director) Leonard Rossiter would die of a heart attack in 1984, with director Anderson following a decade later.