BR: To Sir, with Love (1967)

April 23, 2015 | By


ToSirWithLove_BRFilm: Excellent

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label: Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  February 10, 2015

Genre:  Drama

Synopsis: A Guyanese teacher hoping to land an engineering job takes on a temporary teaching post and discovers his true calling in an inner-city high school filled with challenging kids.

Special Features:  Audio Commentary #1: actress Judy Geeson, film historian Julie Kirgo, and producer Nick Redman / Audio Commentary #2: edited interview extracts from 2011 with “To Sir, with Love” author E.R. Braithwate and author / teacher Salome Thomas Ei / Isolated Mono Music Track / 5 Interview Featurettes from 2011: “E.R. Braithwate: In His Own Words” (23:45) + “Lulu and the B-Side” (5:04) + “Miniskirts, Blue Jeans and Pop Music” (15:20) + “To Sidney with Love from Marty Baum” (5”43) + “Principal Ei: He Chose to Stay” (11:00) / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.





In 1967, Sidney Poitier appeared in three films of equal importance to his career, and roles which addressed issues of racial inequality in very different stories & expressions of outrage: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner made inter-racial marriage a topic for comedy and sober discussion for the white suburban set; In the Heat of the Night relied on the mutual disgust between white and black characters to build the film’s drama, and establish trust among characters who loathed each other from their first vicious encounters. The film also featured a no-more-bullshit stance from an emancipated black man, culminating with a marvelous slap to the cheek to a colonial pompous ass.

To Sir, with Love actually underplayed the issue of racism, opting to focus on how self & mutual respect can temper youthful rage in preparation for prickly adulthood, and aide in navigating through a world where one must often hold one’s tongue and avoid applying a clenched fist in order to gain a foothold in society.

In the second of two commentary tracks that accompany Twilight Time’s excellent (and massively loaded) Blu-ray edition of Love, author E.R. Braithwate recalls being contacted by James Clavell for the rights to transform his autobiographical story into a film starring Sydney Poitier.

Clavell, better-known for his epic novel Shogun than his film work, would ultimately write, produce, and direct a film no studio had much interest in handling (in one of the featurettes, Marty Baum, Poitier’s agent, describes how Columbia was ready to bail on the film due a budgetary overrun of $150,000, a paltry sum for the studio that released the box office hit Lawrence of Arabia), and the studio was ultimately shocked not only by the film’s international success, but the popularity of its theme song which turned Lulu into a star.

The reason for the film’s continuing popularity is tied to it being so caringly made, and while it is easy to peg Love as a work of its era – the music, the clothes, the colours, use of music montages – it’s nevertheless an affecting film that also codified specific tropes for the ever-popular benevolent teacher genre.

Poitier plays Mark Thackeray, a Guyanese engineer struggling to get “a real job” – a term still used today as a euphemism for well-paid drudgery – and takes a teaching gig to make ends meet. (There is a certain naivete to his methods, circa 1967, where Thackeray does eventually land a job offer purely from his efforts through the post, and author Braithwate acknowledges the event as penned by Clavell was pure balderdash.)

Thackeray eventually becomes “Sir” to his kids when a eureka moment makes him realize that addressing his rebellious students using formal Mr. and Miss nomenclature will instill a seed of mutual respect between himself and the boys & girls. Moreover, by tossing out the standard curriculum and opting for spontaneous life discussions, Thackeray’s able to take subjects of immediate interest or curiosity and spin them into historical, practical, and artistic discussions. A field trip to the local museum is the chief bonding event between teacher + students, but it doesn’t make everyone luvvy – the lone holdouts remain grumpy backbenchers until they have their own moments with Thackeray, such as a protracted boxing match.

Thackeray’s challenge – teaching the crème de la crème of undisciplined brats – is amplified by the school superintendent’s policy of never berating, swearing, abusing any of the kids, partly because it would endanger the school’s own existence, and break the super’s own philosophy in which  threats or abuse have no place in a modern classroom.

Love’s clichés stand out only because they’ve been adopted by many other works and generic variations – the museum visit alone was riffed in music and editorial finesse by John Hughes in his own generational classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), where the kids take ownership of their own behaviour without the aide of adults – and the rebels are quite tame when contrasted to more contemporary inner-city dramas, but Love is so well written, perfectly cast, beautifully directed and paced.

Even the finale is perfectly synced to the film’s wrap-up: the big graduation dance, a farewell gift that chokes up the kids’ former adversary and unwanted disciplinarian, and Thackeray taking a letter offering a guaranteed job and tearing it in half because he knows his future must include building the self-confidence and respect within kids for a tough life in a class-ridden Britain – something Braithwate and Salome Thomas Ei describe as ‘the right moral decision.’

Ron Grainer’s fairly understated score doesn’t recycle the theme song to the point of loathing; the variations are slim and sparse, making the song’s four appearance all the more powerful: the beautiful Main Titles sequence; the wonderful museum montage with clever lap dissolves; the offering of the gift; and the letter-tearing finale, where the song’s intro drumbeat is guaranteed to make audiences applaud.

The power of that one shot can’t be dismissed as facile: most contemporary approaches tend to fall into the “Yay!” moment where a victory is accompanied by loud cheers from an adoring crowd and loud music, but Clavell’s approach is simple and intimate; life decisions are more believable and powerful when they’re not swayed by a mass gathering and a hit song. A key reason Clavell’s finale works is because the song isn’t tracked through Thackeray’s deep-thinking scene.

Part of the film’s charm includes the cast who excel in small and modest roles, including several veteran British character actors (Patricia Routledge), and stunning Suzy Kendall as Thackeray’s likely love interest. Known more for sexy roles in Italian gialli like Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and Torso (1973), Kendall plays fellow teacher Gillian Blanchard as stylishly prim, with big glasses that both deglamorize the former model’s striking eyes and ever-perfect hair.

The ‘kids’ were played by a mix of young adults and twentysomethings, including then newcomer Judy Geeson, theme song crooner / singer Lulu as a savvy classmate, relative filmic newcomer Christian Roberts as the last anti-“Sir” holdout, and Michael Des Barres in a tiny role.

Geeson was brought in by TT moderator Nick Redman for the disc’s first commentary track, and alongside film historian Julie Kirgo, the trio cover all aspects of the film’s making, its style, cast, and importance to several of its cast members.

The second track alternates Criterion-style between comments by author Braithwate and American educator Salome Thomas Ei, with the former contrasting his biographical reality with the film, and the latter relating his own efforts to instill discipline and self-respect in students from his own trials in the U.S. school system. The track’s heavily focused on the minutia of each teacher’s methodologies, and provide a sharp contrast to the more genial primary commentary that’s obviously more star-centric.

In addition to the secondary commentary track, there’s a series of 2011 interview featurettes which seem to have been sourced from a planned but aborted Blu-ray 2012 45th anniversary edition by Sony. (TT was able to similarly source unused extras from aborted Blu-ray editions of Sony’s Oliver! and Lost Horizon.)

Both Ei and Braithwate interviews offer additional material not distilled and edited into the disc’s second commentary track. Both discuss their profession, but Braithwate provides lengthy biographical material and dissects the truth and fanciful invention within the film, including his real relationship with a colleague that due to the times, was never meant to be.

Lulu appears in the music-related featurette (“Lulu and the B-Side”) and the style featurette (“Miniskirts, Blue Jeans and Pop Music”) with Des Barres, and both elaborate on their first major film gigs and why Love remains such an important part of their lives.

TT’s disc features a crisp HD transfer with clean mono sound, and Paul Beeson’s cinematography is really lovely, evoking a bit of documentary from the location scenes with some slick studio lighting for the interior sets. Beeson’s C.V. includes a long term with Disney (shooting the famous Dr. Syn series) plus several cult films – Die, Monster Die! (1965), The Lost Continent (1968), Hammer’s hypnotically awful Moon Zero Two (1969), and the Luigi Cozzi’s ridiculous Starcrash (1978).

Little of Ron Grainer’s music exists in commercial form, so it’s a treat to have the score and songs isolated in mono on the disc.

James Clavell’s subsequent directorial efforts were less commercial – The Sweet and the Bitter (1967), Where’s Jack? (1968) – and he wrapped up his film work with the overlong and dour The Last Valley (1970), a nihilistic drama that co-starred Christian Roberts, whose own career never propelled him to starring roles in spite of appearing in the cult thriller Twisted Nerve (1968), the deliciously sleazy The Adventurers (1970), and a handful of TV series in the 1970s.

Geeson co-starred in Hammerhead (1968), Goodbye Gemini (1970), the underrated crime thriller 10 Rillington Place (1971), Doomwatch (1972), Fear in the Night (1972), and Brannigan (1975), before moving to TV in series like Poldark (1975-1977) and Breakaway (1980).

Poitier did reprise the role of Mark Thackeray in To Sir, With Love II in a 1996 TV movie (Geeson and Lulu had reportedly small cameos), and was directed by Peter Bogdanovich, who’d previously directed his own high school drama (of sorts), Mask (1985).

Twilight Time’s other benevolent teacher entry is Conrack (1974), an adaptation of Pat Conroy’s autobiographical novel which shares very similar humanist themes as Braithwate’s influential book.



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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