By Jess Lomas
April 29, 2014
Play It Again is a weekly feature in which our classic-film connoisseurs revisit a revered motion picture from the annals of movie history, to see if it holds up… or if it has aged terribly. And yes, it takes its name from a famously misquoted Casablanca line. Hey, whatever. It fits!
Sentimental reflections on an inspirational teacher are often the makings of weak dishwater films, but in James Clavell’s To Sir, with Love, a strong cast and an unforgettable title song make this an undeniable classic.
Mark Thackeray (Sidney Poitier) begins his first teaching job in London’s East End with minimal enthusiasm for a rowdy class of rejects and misfits. Trained as an engineer and unable to land a job in his own field, Mark is surprised to be given a class of his own with no prior teaching experience. It soon becomes clear that the school will take whatever they can get, the pack of unruly teenagers having driven their last teacher to an early retirement. Mark struggles to control his class until he realises he’s treating them like children, and with their graduation around the corner it’s time someone approached them as the adults they were becoming.
The class, led by Denham (Christian Roberts) and Pamela (Judy Geeson), take a liking to Thackeray when he throws the textbooks in the bin and favours real-life education instead. Excursions to museums, discussions about marriage, sex and race, cooking classes and life lessons are all on the menu. In a short period of time the teens are thriving, and it’s understandable why Barbara (Lulu) stands up and sings the title track To Sir, with Love to their saviour at the end of the movie.
The inspirational teacher moulding a wild class of teenagers is a well-trod narrative; Poitier himself had already starred as an out-of-control teen in 1955’s Blackboard Jungle prior to 1967’s To Sir, with Love. More recently, Dangerous Minds has come the closest to matching how To Sir, with Love encapsulated not only a historically significant time period but also cultural attitudes and expectations.
To Sir, with Love is at times delightfully outdated in its 1960s outlook on racial interaction and gender roles, however its themes are timeless and universal: respect yourself so that others can respect you. Poitier’s charismatic performance cements this message; his Thackeray a perfect illustration of why Poitier is considered a legend of the screen.
To Sir, with Love is available on Quickflix.