Teaching in a bad British neighborhood.
James Clavell's (The Fly, The Great Escape, Shogun) To Sir, With Love is a touching tale of a black teacher in the mid 1960s working with a rough group of British youth. What it will probably be best remembered for is creating a genre—the "teacher in a rough school" film. Though a bit dated, it is still a film that works within the subject matter without need of melodrama or extreme violence. This new addition to the Columbia Classics collection is a welcome film, though without as many extras as we've become accustomed to.
Sydney Poitier (Lilies of the Field, Shoot to Kill, Sneakers) delivers an outstanding performance as Mark Thackaray, an out of work engineer who takes up teaching to pay the bills. He is teaching the rough-hewn and poor kids of London's East End, in a school that is considered a dead end for both students and teachers. Most of the kids are considered incorrigible to the teachers. Certainly things do not begin well, as Thackaray has to control himself in the face of incessant baiting by the students. It is only when he decides to throw away the textbooks that he starts building trust and making inroads with his unruly students. He instead starts trying to teach them how to be adults, which they will be in a short time, by teaching first courtesy and manners, and onward to adult topics such as marriage and survival skills like making a salad. By treating the kids as adults and giving respect, he begins to get it back in turn, along with at least one schoolgirl crush. "Sir," as he comes to be known, becomes popular both in the school and in the community; where the parents appreciate that he alone has began reaching their kids.
The film touches on topics that are still meaningful today, such as racism, though the discrimination in England was a far cry from what the southern United States experienced at the time. Perhaps that keeps it more meaningful now as racism in the US is more covert and taken underground at this point in history. Primarily though the issues these students (predominantly white, unlike most American offerings in the genre) face are financial, on how to move up from poverty, and the coming of age problems all youth face. These are faced honestly and with a fair degree or realism.
The disc has a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer on one side and an open matte full frame on the other. The open matte means no information is lost on the sides so this is one time I don't mind the full frame, at least on a standard 4:3 television like mine. The transfer is exquisite for such an old film. Though it is 33 years old now, it looks as good as the original film, in my opinion. Colors are well saturated, shadow detail is clearly seen, and no digital artifacts or edge enhancement is visible. A bit of grain is present here and there, but I would wager that the 1967 theatergoers saw the same. The audio is a respectable Dolby Digital two-channel mono signal, by far the preferred way of doing a mono track. While music isn't exactly overpowering, at least it's clear, and the dialogue is always well understood. The extra content isn't quite as enthusiastically received; consisting of 4 theatrical trailers for Poitier films, Talent files for only the director and Sir Sydney Poitier (he was knighted you know), and a two-page leaflet of production notes inside the case.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My biggest complaint is certainly in the extras department. I would have loved a commentary track from Mr. Poitier. I have a small complaint about the film as well; though only if taken as a contemporary offering. As I wrote above, the film is definitely dated somewhat, and seems almost quaint in it's story now. Certainly today's youth have a plethora of problems the so-called rough crowd in the London school never faced. There wasn't a hint of drug problem or real crime as a problem for these youth, only the type of rebelliousness any good teacher should be able to overcome. However, if taken as a film in the mid-'60s and in Britain, and viewed within its own time frame, it's certainly well done.
If you are a fan of Sydney Poitier, then you already know if you want this film on disc. The disc is well done, though lacking in extra content. While the film is certainly welcome in anyone's collection, those more accustomed to more modern fare might wish to rent it first. As for myself, I'm glad I have it.
The only thing Sydney Poitier will ever get from me is my gratitude for years of fine films. Columbia is cautioned against such paltry Talent Files; I'd thought they had gotten past that; and asked to remember that we really would have liked a commentary track. The film itself is acquitted; it certainly is not its fault for being a bit dated today.
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