Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Columbia-TriStar, widescreen 1.85:1/16x9, standard 1.33:1, languages: English Digital Mono, subtitles: English, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, Thai, double side-single layer, 26 chapters, production notes, talent files, theatrical trailers, rated NR, 104 min., $24.95, street date 2/1/2000.
Directed by James Clavell. Starring Sidney Poitier, Judy Geeson, Suzy Kendall, Lulu, Christian Roberts, Chris Chittell.
A novice teacher faces a class of rowdy, undisciplined working-class punks in this classic film that reflected some of the problems and fears of teens in the '60s. Sidney Poitier gives one of his finest performances as Mark Thackeray, an out-of-work engineer who turns to teaching in London's tough East End. The graduating class, led by Denham (Christian Roberts), Pamela (Judy Geeson) and Barbara (Lulu, who also sings the hit title song), sets out to destroy Thackeray as they did his predecessor by breaking his spirit. But Thackeray, no stranger to hostility, meets the challenge by treating the students as young adults who will soon enter a work force where they must stand or fall on their own. When offered an engineering job, Thackeray must decide if he wants to stay.
When I got the new DVD release of To Sir, With Love, I knew very little about the film. Actually, I had virtually no idea what the movie was about; I knew Sidney Poitier starred in it and Lulu sang the famous title song, but that was about it.
About ten minutes into the film, it clicked: "Teacher's Pet"! Not ringing any bells? Well, "Teacher's Pet" was a sketch on one of my all-time favorite TV shows, SCTV. I knew the segment spoofed the "Swinging London" films of the Sixties but that's as far as my information went. (One of the beauties of SCTV was that while it helped that you had knowledge of the material being spoofed, it wasn't necessary.)
I should've stuck with the sketch. Now that I've actually seen TSWL, I may better appreciate some of the nuances of that segment, but that didn't help me here. TSWL is a competently made and intermittently interesting film, but that's about the most I can say for it; it's so dated and silly that I found it to be a not-terribly-enjoyable experience.
Easily the best thing about TSWL is Poitier's presence. Not so much his acting as just his actual presence; he's a commanding entity who grabs your attention without much effort. He does a fine job as inexperienced teacher Mark Thackeray, who takes a classroom of London "toughs" and makes them into responsible adults.
Part of the film's problem isn't its fault. We've seen an awful lot of programs similar to TSWL over the years, from TV's Welcome Back Kotter to movies as disparate as Dangerous Minds and Summer School. TSWL itself wasn't the freshest story in the world when it appeared in 1967 - it resembles similar "makeover" stories like Pygmalion and The Miracle Worker plus other classroom flicks like The Blackboard Jungle - but the story hadn't been done to death at that point. By 2000, it has, so that fact makes TSWL less than compelling at this time.
Even if I ignore that fact, though, I still didn't find much of interest in TSWL. Many Sixties movies haven't aged very well, and this one is a fine example of that trend, with its hipster soundtrack and silly film techniques in scenes like the museum visit. The movie's attempt to be "relevant" by randomly inserting racial overtones didn't work well either; I thought most of those stab appeared completely gratuitous and out of place.
It doesn't help that these bad-ass kids seem a little less than threatening. Were they scary back then? Maybe, but they look quite prim and proper today. This problem hits lots of films, from West Side Story to more recent efforts like Adventures In Babysitting but the issue seems worse than usual here; these kids display almost no menace or threat.
Ultimately, To Sir, With Love maintains interest mainly as a museum piece. Sidney Poitier does his best, but the movie itself seems to dated and goofy at this point that I found it very uninteresting.
To Sir, With Love appears in both its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and in a fullscreen version on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the widescreen rendition has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though the image has its strengths, I found it to look just a bit above average in general.
Sharpness seems crisp and defined in fairly close shots but tends to be slightly soft in wider scenes; this isn't terrible, but it's noticeable. Moire effects and jagged edges are virtually absent, though, and I also saw few problems related to the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV. The print itself appeared wonderfully clean for such an old film; I detected no speckling, spots, marks, scratches or grain. The movie looks somewhat worn and flat, but that seems mainly due to the kind of film stock used at the time.
Colors appear decent but unspectacular; they looked adequate and appropriately saturated but no better than that. Black levels seemed equally average, and shadow detail looked fine but suffered a little from the flatness of the dark tones. To Sir, With Love definitely looks good, but doesn't present anything special.
Much less satisfactory is the weak monaural soundtrack of the film. I don't expect much of 33-year-old mono audio, but even with that considered, TSWL sounds bad. The track suffers from an excessively dull and muffled tone much of the time. With all those British accents flying about, it was going to be tough enough to comprehend dialogue anyway; the thin quality of the sound makes it even more difficult, so be prepared to switch on those subtitles. Music appears flat at best but often comes across as slightly distorted and edgy. Effects are not a major factor but also seem weak and dull in general. Even though I factored in the age of the material, the soundtrack for To Sir, With Love still was a disappointment.
Even worse is the scant complement of supplements on this DVD. We get trailers for TSWL plus three other Poitier movies: Buck and the Preacher, A Raisin in the Sun, and Brother John. We also receive weak biographies for Poitier and director/screenwriter/producer James Clavell. The DVD's booklet also contains some brief but decent production notes. Not too much to fill out the package.
And this is a package that could have used a lot of extras. Other Columbia-Tristar DVDs like Against All Odds provided similarly bland films but seemed compelling because of their fine extras, but there's nothing much here to provoke interest. The movie itself was dull and predictable, the picture is good but the sound and supplements are weak. Poitier boosters and "Teacher's Pet" aficionados may want to give it a rental, but that's about the most I can recommend.