The 1967 film To Sir, with Love was a popular British film of the 1960s, and it’s not hard to see why. It hit the screen at a moment of social upheaval, featured rebellious Baby Boomer teens, and had a strong British rock soundtrack (and top-40 theme song).
It was also the one of three strong films starring Sidney Poitier released that year: In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
An updated adaptation of E.R. Braithwaite’s autobiography (the book took place during the late 1940s) it concerns a Black British man named Mark Thackeray (Poitier) with an engineering degree who has difficulty finding work in his field. Desperate for employment, he takes a teaching position at the rough East End London school to pay the bills.
He finds himself facing a class of unmannered teens who care nothing about learning and everything about testing what boundaries they can cross with authority figures. After several incidents of pranks and other outrageous behavior, Thackeray finally loses his temper with the class. When he returns to them, he dramatically announces they no longer need their text books. They are on the verge of adulthood, and they would treat and speak to each other as adults. He insists they call him “Sir” or Mr. Thackeray, and most of them choose “Sir.” Over time, he wins over his unruly class, resulting in one girl, Pamela (Judy Geeson) developing a crush on him. By the end of term, he has even won over the hardest case, Denham (Christian Roberts) and is given a tribute by his students at the end of term party.
By this time holding an offer for an engineering job in his hand, he rips it up when he realizes he is meant to be a teacher.
It’s a very simple plot, with various ups and downs for Thackeray as he tries to teach his students how to behave and think like adults. He finds that telling about his own humble upbringing and struggle to become educated resonates with his students, who think he’s “posh.” He tries to expand their experiences by taking them to outings at museums, which are very successful.
He also comes up against several incidents of casual racism, and one blatant incident where the students refuse to attend the funeral of their biracial classmate’s mother because of “what people would say.” In the end, though, they all show up.
The film has been accused of being overly-sentimental, but I think Poitier’s restrained performance actually counteracts the inherent sentimentality of the story. Do I believe all the children in his class would have seen the light and gotten over their racism that easily? No. But it’s Poitier’s reactions, to both their excuses and their presence at the funeral, that seem realistic.
This film is one of my favorite examples of a mentor character who experiences his own character arc. Mark teaches the children—but they teach him, as well, something he says to Pamela the final day of the term. They help him discover his true gifts and place in life.
The cast is filled with some very talented young actors, including Geeson and pop singer Lulu, who sings the title song. The actors playing teachers include Patricia Routledge, who is best known today for the Britcom “Keeping up Appearances,” and Suzy Kendall.
A romance between Thackeray and Kendall’s character is very important in the book but almost non-existent in the movie. Possibly because the filmmakers felt the audience wasn’t ready for a mixed-race romantic couple (unless that was the focus of the entire story, as in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner).
I don’t think it’s unfair to accuse the film of being unrealistic, as the students are won over awfully easily and, as I said, it’s hard to believe he wins them ALL over. On the other hand, I’m sure most of us either had a teacher like Mark Thackeray, or wished we had had one.
The final scene remains one of my favorites of all time: sitting alone in his empty classroom, overcome with emotion over the gift and card the class has given him, a couple of younger rowdy students noisily burst in. They harass and make fun of him, declaring they’ll be in his class next year.
Probably most people would have sighed with relief that they would never have to put up with that again.
Instead, he commits to a life teaching these children.
It’s a great moment and a great tribute to teachers everywhere, as relevant now as it was then.