CINEMA – Looking back at TO SIR, WITH LOVE

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There have only been a handful of good films made about the special, untouchable – nay, rare and sacred union that sometimes forms between a teacher and his/her students. There was Robin Williams as Mr. Keating in Peter Weir’s 1989 DEAD POETS SOCIETY and Maggie Smith in THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE in 1969, but before both of those there was Sidney Poitier as Mr. Thackeray in TO SIR, WITH LOVE. This film actually came to mind when I was thinking about love-related films, what with Valentine’s Day around the corner. But while everyone else is losing their heads over Romantic love, let’s take a look at another kind of love – the platonic, born-of-respect, sometimes tough and often powerful love between students and their teacher.

The 1967 heart-warmer stars Sidney Poitier at his most dashing. He plays a new teacher in a tough school in London, struggling to wrangle a classroom of unruly seniors on the brink of graduation. He earns their respect by abandoning their usual course of study – history, science, math – and decides instead to teach them about life. Some of his lessons are practical – how to dress, how to deal with family, how to make a salad – but most of their talks involve love, sex, race and rebellion, just to name a few. He takes them on field trips, an unprecedented event for a school full of ‘rowdy hoodlums,’ and does what any really good teacher wants to do: teach them something new about life and about themselves.

If this sounds like a tearjerker, you’re right. I never fail to cry when Thackeray’s students sing him the title song, “To Sir, With Love,” (performed by Lulu, who also co-stars) at their graduation party. But it does sentiment in all the right ways – never over the top and always true. It’s also a lot of fun. Evidence of the swinging 60s is everywhere, in the clothing, hair, makeup, music and teenage slang. Plus, the sweet and sensitive Mr. Thackeray is guaranteed to warm your heart better than a box of chocolates or a dozen red roses.