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 — notable examples being The Big Heat and Gilda — and directed by Richard Brooks, who would make the brilliant In Cold Blood 12 years later, 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.
Blackboard Jungle 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 awaits 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 its 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 is saved by Dadier. The perpetrator is badly injured in the fight that ensues. As payback, Dadier and a colleague are attacked in an alley. To make matters worse, they send anonymous letters to his wife making her suspect him of having 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.
Blackboard Jungle has some similarities with another film made 12 years later, 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. Poitier appears in this film too, but this time he plays a student . Poitier is the film’s standout performer, along with Vic Morrow’s coming in a close second. Poitier plays a rebellious student in the beginning who manages to provoke Dadier’s ire on a particular occasion, but eventually grows more sympathetic. I hear this is one of critic Pauline Kael’s favorite scenes in the film.
The one notable difference between To Sir, With Love and Blackboard Jungle is that the latter is a more heated, brutal and shocking film compared to the former. I noticed some interesting things which they did with the film, like for example, 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. Those words were too politically incorrect for that time. Given that this is the sort of story that would be every teacher’s worst nightmare, I guess it can also be called a horror film.