Sunday 21 January 2018

Movie Review: Blackboard Jungle (1955)

A classroom social drama, Blackboard Jungle takes a grim view of adolescence in sounding a loud warning about the latest inter-generational gap.

War veteran Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford) is offered his first job as an English language teacher at an inner city trade school in a tough multi-ethnic school. The students have a reputation for not caring about education, and the other teachers are generally just concerned about survival and cashing the next cheque. Richard is married to Anne (Anne Francis), who is pregnant and worried after having lost a previous child.

On the first day of classes Richard rescues fellow rookie teacher Lois Hammond (Margaret Hayes) from a rape by a student. He finds it difficult to connect with his students, but spots talent and leadership potential in Miller (Sidney Poitier) while gang leader Artie West (Vic Morrow) proves to be a handful in and out of the classroom. Richard stubbornly digs in to try and educate, but the strain of teaching starts to spill over into his personal life.

An adaptation of the Evan Hunter book directed by Richard Brooks, Blackboard Jungle is notorious for several reasons not quite related to its narrative content. The film opens with Bill Haley and His Comets' Rock Around The Clock, the first use of a rock song on a film soundtrack, at a time when rock music was still regarded with deep suspicion. The film's music and subject matter were considered near-scandalous and indeed despite plenty of censorship attempts teenage audience enthusiasm overflowed into violence and riots throughout the United Kingdom.

And in one of his earlier roles Sidney Poitier is arguably the second most important and prominent character in the film after Glenn Ford's Dadier. Yet Poitier's name is about tenth on both the opening and closing credit lists, a sad of example of Hollywood's opinion of black performers at the time, even in a film all about social upheaval.

As to the actual content of what is on the screen, Blackboard Jungle is an unrelenting and exaggerated portrayal of every parent's nightmare from the era. The schism between the Greatest Generation and their oldest children who missed out on war service but grew up with parents pre-occupied by the war is portrayed as a hostile battlefield. The bad behaviour starts as openly belligerent and quickly descends into regular and harrowing bouts of violence against teachers, including rape, back alley beatings, destruction of property, broad daylight heists and open threats of physical harm with weapons.

The episodes are multiplicative and Brooks' script becomes difficult to stomach as it paints itself into a corner. After spending the best part of 90 minutes exhibiting contemptible behaviour, the sharp turn towards partial redemption in the final 10 minutes rings hollow.

Poitier's performance is the only one that carries depth and subtlety, as he allows Miller to reveal hints of the person he could become given half a chance. Ford bulldozes his way through the role, his hard head a good match for the film's pounding message.

An undoubtedly forceful drama, Blackboard Jungle is also excessively stark and alarmist.

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