Movie Reviews

Movie Review: To Sir, With Love – No Weapons in His Classroom, Just Respect

Written by E.R. Braithwaite and James Clavell
Directed by James Clavell

In working-class London in the 1960s, Mark Thackeray (portrayed by Sidney Poitier) turns to teaching after he finds himself unable to get a job in his trained profession as an engineer. In his mind, this is a temporary way to earn a living until something better comes along. He finds himself at this new job in a school that is in chaos.

By today’s standards, the school doesn’t look too bad. The students are acting out and generally seem undisciplined, but they don’t seem dangerous. They come from backgrounds where they aren’t given hope of ever achieving a better station for themselves in life. Their fate seems as if it will be that of their parents in an endless cycle of the lower class. Although not prone to violence, it seems that in the past they have been able to intimidate the teachers, and have made that their way of coping and getting through the school year. Sooner or later, every teacher they have gives up on them.

Not so with Mark Thackeray. He immediately tries to institute some order and respect in his classroom, and that respect goes both ways. While he makes the students call him Sir he returns the respect by calling them Mr. or Miss and their last name. This decorum might seem alien to students today, but I can remember the teacher here and there who talked like that when I was in school 35+ years ago.

Mr. Thackeray also recognizes that with these “kids” being seniors, the time to teach them from a textbook passed. If they haven’t hit on why they need a formal education by this point, they likely won’t. He tries to teach them about life and how they can learn things that will better prepare them for life beyond the school environment. He takes them on a field trip to a museum – something that other teachers wouldn’t dare do – to try to give them a sense of ambition to better themselves eventually.

Poitier is excellent in the role. Mark Thackeray doesn’t walk around school with a baseball bat intimidating the students. He brings a presence to the role that is strong and gives his words great conviction. His subtlety brings the students around to respecting him and listening to him, rather than forcing them to. Poitier brings dignity to the role, and at the same time is convincing when he does finally show anger.

The supporting cast is good, even if it is made up of young Brits we on the other side of the pond probably never heard of. The first student Thackery catches sight of gave me some hope. This one actually looked high school age, rather than like the usual 20-somethings trying to look and act much younger. It’s not as horrible as some – they seem to be in their early 20s with the oldest that I could find weighing in at 23 years old when this movie was released. They all turn in good performances for young actors, especially opposite the presence of Poitier.

The writing I found to be dated, especially in the dialogue. The way Thackeray talks, especially to the girls, is quite dated. He frequently calls them “sluts” and their behavior “slutty”. He talks about them landing a husband and how their “slutty behavior” won’t keep one of quality. He seems to give them no hope for a life of their own outside of who they marry. I realize this was 1967, but I think women were starting to break out a bit by that point, so it would have been nice to see that in the story as well, giving them some hope of a life and career of their own.

The only other problem I had was that it seemed that everything went a bit too easily for Mr. Thackeray. Sure, he faces dealing with one of the female students having a crush on him, but he never really deals with the adversity of having the students disappoint him once he believes he has made inroads with them. They all seem eager to please him once the respect is in place, and in many ways that is too simple a solution to a complex problem.

The music is great for the era, with the highlight being British pop star Lulu singing the title song at the end of the film. She has a significant role in the film as well.

To Sir With Love is a heartwarming movie and the inspiration for many of the films which showed a teacher landing in a difficult classroom with students who have been labeled “unteachable” only to find an unconventional way of reaching them. I don’t think anyone other than Poitier – who was at the height of his career when this was released – would have made the film successful. He is definitely the central point and highlight of the film. The supporting cast does what it should and puts in excellent performances as well.

The story might be naive and dated, the way someone untrained in the education field can just be plopped into a difficult classroom and meet with success, but perhaps that is also the message that it is sending. Sometimes, you have to throw out all that the textbooks say and teach what the students need to learn rather than the curriculum.


SPECIAL FEATURES:

• Talent Files
• Theatrical Trailer

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