Thursday, August 12, 2010

To Sir, With Love (1967)

To this day, among Sidney Poitier's most beloved roles is teacher Mark Thackeray, the "Sir" of To Sir, With Love (1967). It was based on the novel of the same name by E. R. Braithwaite, which in turn was based on his own experiences teaching at a school in the East End of London. While the movie departs from the book in some ways, the central plot of an idealistic teacher's efforts to educate his cynical and sometimes rowdy students. Seen today many might find To Sir, With Love somewhat cliché,  but it is important to realise that the movie virtually invented the entire "inspirational teacher" genre. More so than the earlier The Blackboard Jungle (in which Mr. Poitier played a student), To Sir, With Love set the pace of all such films to come.

To Sir, With Love with take a rather long path to the big screen. The novel had actually been considered as material for a movie years before it was actually made. Indeed, at one point Harry Belafonte had even considered playing the lead role. Eventually it would fall to novelist and screenwriter James Clavell and actor Sidney Poitier to bring the novel to the big screen. James Clavell had not only authored the novel King Rat, which was adapted into a successful motion picture, but had also written the screenplays for such hit films as The Fly (1958) and The Great Escape. Sidney Poitier was then at the peak of his career. He had already starred in such films as The Defiant Ones (1958), Raisin in the Sun (1961), Lilies of the Field (1963), and A Patch of Blue (1965). Despite the fact that Mr. Clavell was on board to write the screenplay and direct and Mr. Poitier to play the lead role, Columbia Pictures apparently had little faith in To Sir, With Love. They only budgeted it at $640,000. As a result of this, Messrs. Poitier and Clavell agreed to work for a portion of the film's profits.

To Sir, With Love was filmed on location in London. Much of the film was shot in Shadwell, including the school (then on Johnson Street) and the Watney Street Market. The film started shooting May 30, 1966 and finished later that summer. The movie's theme song of the same name was was written by Don Black and Mark London, and performed by Lulu, who also appeared in the movie as "Babs" Pegg. Even after To Sir, With Love was finished, Columbia seemed to have little faith in the movie. Although finished in the late summer of 1966, the studio sat on the film until June 1967, when it was finally released in the United States. The film was released in the United Kingdom in October 1967. In both countries To Sir, With Love did spectacularly well. In the States it grossed $15 million and was the eight ranked movie for 1967. Curiously, Columbia Pictures was not only surprised by its success, but a bit puzzled as well. The studio actually did market research to see why Americans flocked to see the film. The answer was simply, "Sidney Poitier."

Although To Sir, With Love received largely positive views (Pauline Kael was a notable exception) and did enormously well at the box office, it must be remembered that it does not accurately reflect life in much of the East End in the Sixties. Much of this is due to the simple fact of when To Sir, With Love was made. Although by 1966 many of the taboos in film had been shattered in both the United States and the United Kingdom, many of them were still very much in place. An entirely accurate portrait of life in one of the more run down parts of the East End was then probably not feasible in 1966.

Among the ways in which the movie To Sir, With Love portrays a somewhat sanitised view of life in East End is the language. The book features much more explicit language than the film (although some of the harsher words are simply represented by the first letter and several dashes). In the movie the harshest words which appear are "damn," "bastard," "bloody, " "bleeding," and "son of a bitch (although the last word is partially obscured by the sound of a passing train)." While many might find this as grounds to criticise the film, it must be pointed out that in 1966 any movie aiming for a wide audience was advised to avoid harsh language of any sort. The very year that To Sir, With Love was filmed, 1966, saw an enormous controversy over the language in the film adaptation of the play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. In being adapted for film, the movie had to undergo a few minor deletions of the harsher language, language which by today's standards would still be considered somewhat mild. Indeed, the F-word would not make its first appearance in film on either side of the Pond in the year that To Sir, With Love was released. It was in 1967 that the F-word was first used in the movies Ulysses (an adaptation of the James Joyce novel) and I'll Never Forget What's'isname. Though it might seem odd to think so today, the language of To Sir, With Love was actually pretty explicit for 1966. Had it been any more so, it may not have been released or, at least, received an "X" Certificate in Britain.

 A more glaring departure from the reality of life in the East End in the Sixties is that To Sir, With Love largely  ignores the violence that sometimes took place then. There are multiple references to domestic violence, of  the students and even their mothers being abused, but there is no real reference to the violence of the streets on the East End at the time. Brawls between youths were not entirely unknown in the East End in the Sixties. Although sometimes bloody, youth brawls were not the worst violence to be seen in London's East End in the Sixties. After all, this was the era of such gangsters as the Krays and the Richardsons. In fact, for years the Krays and the Richardsons engaged in a turf war that took place over much of the East End. It is a bit puzzling as to why To Sir, With Love did not do more to address the violence of East End life in the Sixties. It is perhaps understandable why the movie would not have featured the sort of extreme violence that occurred during youth brawls or fights between gangsters, but then it does not even refer to them.

While the language of To Sir, With Love does not entirely reflect the time and place and while the movie only partially addresses the issue of violence, it does address the issue of racism to some degree. Thackeray becomes a teacher only because he has spent the past eighteen months applying for engineering positions. with no success. Although at no point does Thackeray blame his race for not having been hired as an engineer, it is strongly hinted that he has been a victim of discrimination. In the film a few of the characters also make demeaning remarks with regards to Thackeray's race. The issue of race is made clear in the character of biracial student Seales. Seales implies that his black father did the worst possible thing to his English mother--he married her. When Seales' mother dies, the students have to explain to Thackeray that they could not deliver a wreath themselves as it would be thought unseemly for them to enter a black man's home. Having bonded with Thackeray by this point, they do stress they do not mean to offend him. While To Sir, With Love does a fairly good job of addressing the issue of race in mid-Sixties England, it could have gone further. In the book Braithwaite has a romance with Gillian Blanchard, a teacher of English descent. Ironically, that issue was still very much an issue in both the United Kingdom and the United States in the Sixties probably prevented this subplot from being a part of the film.

While To Sir,With Love offers a largely sanitised view of the East End in the 1960's, the accusation that it is overly sentimental, let alone sweet or cloying is wholly unwarranted. While the film's end is indeed sentimental, it never stoops to the level of the many "inspirational teacher" movies that have followed it. Indeed, while its version of the East End in the 1960's is considerably cleaned up and while the movie's end is sentimental, those viewing To Sir, With Love today might be surprised at how intense the movie can be at times. By today's standards To Sir, With Love is rated PG by the British Board of Film Classification, indicating some scenes may be objectionable for children under 8. One can imagine what its BBFC rating must have been in 1967.

To Sir, With Love is aided considerably by James Clavell's intelligently handled script and a very capable cast beyond the usually excellent Sidney Poitier. Judy Geeson (who would go onto appear on Poldark and Mad About You) does very well as student Virginia Dare, as does Lulu as "Babs" Pegg. Where the movie's cast is concerned, viewers may wish to stay alert lest they miss some faces that would later be famous. Patricia Routledge, who would later play Hyacinth on Keeping Up Appearances, appears as teacher Clinty Clintridge. Future rock star Michael Des Barres appears as Williams, the student who never takes off his sunglasses. To Sir, With Love also features an appearance by British rock group The Mindbenders, who peform two songs in the movie.

Over the years To Sir, With Love has taken more than its fair share of hard knocks from those few who view it as overly sentimental or overly simplistic. In many ways I think this may largely be due to some individuals holding To Sir, With Love responsible for the sins of the "inspirational teacher" movies which have followed it. It is true that the movie does not present a particularly realistic view of life in London's East End in 1966, but then it seems likely that any film which did present a realistic view of such in 1966 would have never been made. To Sir, With Love is actually a well done movie which, despite its sentimental ending, can be tough minded at times. It set the pace for every "inspirational teacher" movie to come without sharing in many of those films' flaws.

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