Richard Brooks’ Blackboard Jungle has more in common with a “cops and criminals” movie than it does with a “teachers and students” movie. It stars Glenn Ford, who made a career out of playing mostly tough guys (my favorites being The Big Heat and Gilda) and directed by Richard Brooks who made a terrific film called In Cold Blood, which was based on Truman Capote’s book. The film attracted a considerable amount of controversy during it’s release and created a tremendous impact in not just in the United States but also in other parts of the world. The plot concerns a war veteran called Rick Dadier who has been newly appointed as the English teacher at a local school. The idealistic Dadier has no idea of the terror that lies in store for him, as the school resembles more of a penitentiary than an educational institution. Dadier is told by an older teacher that this particular school is “the garbage can of the education system”. This comment right away gives us the impression that this school houses all the undesirables (or rather future undesirables) of that city.
His first day, as expected, doesn’t go very well. The students are all male, coming from working class backgrounds and racially diverse. We notice only one female teacher among the other new teachers that are being introduced to the students on their first day and she is quite a looker. Her name is Lois Hammond and they treat her as if she is a showgirl, blowing whistles and making filthy remarks. Utterly loathsome behavior at it’s best. Dadier is married and his wife is expecting. The students exhibit the kind of disgusting behavior that can only be expected from a criminal. One of the male students attempt to rape Ms.Hammond and she is saved by Dadier. The perpetrator is badly injured in the fight that ensued. As payback, Dadier and a colleague are attacked in an alley. In addition to that, they send anonymous letters to his wife making her suspect him of indulging in an affair with Ms. Hammond. As the story progresses, things get so heavy for Dadier that he becomes more like a cop desperately trying to establish law and order in a city overrun with dangerous criminals.
The film has some similarities with another film made 12 years later – which was also based on a book – To Sir, With Love, starring Sidney Poitier as a teacher who more or less goes through the same troubles as Dadier. It’s one of my favorite films. Now, Poitier stars in Blackboard Jungle as well but here, he plays a student and I must say that his is the standout performance in the entire film, with Vic Morrow’s coming in a close second. Poitier plays a student who is initially rebellious and even manages to provoke Dadier’s ire on a particular occasion (this is I hear, one of critic Pauline Kael’s favorite scenes in the film) but eventually grows sympathetic. The one notable difference between To Sir, With Love and Blackboard Jungle is that the latter is more heated, brutal and shocking compared to the former. I noticed some interesting things they did with the film, for e.g, drowning out the words in some of the dialogues with the aid of ambient noise, like the sound of a train passing or the toot of a car horn. Too politically incorrect for that time, I guess. A thought just occurred to me while writing this piece: the film can also be classified as a horror film, because it’s every teacher’s worst nightmare.