Starring: Glenn Ford, Sidney Poitier, Vic Morrow
Director: Richard Brooks
Running Time: 101 mins
Blackboard Jungle is an American film about an English teacher who takes up a job at a violent inner-city school, and soon discovers that getting through to the students will cause a lot of grief for both himself and those around him.
I’m sure that upon its release, this film’s scathing attack on violent youths packed a real punch. Today, it’s still an impressive watch, although that same punch is dulled slightly from hindsight. Blackboard Jungle is a very gritty film, with a lot of strong tension throughout, and Glenn Ford does an excellent job in the central role to bring us into this almost hellish school and fear for him as much as he does himself.
The most impressive part of Blackboard Jungle, however, is its grit. It’s one of the most realistically dark and violent films from the 1950s I’ve seen, and that’s testament to its contemporary power. Nowadays, the effect is less due to the liberation of violence in cinema, however for its time, this is a very impressive film.
However, that’s not to say it doesn’t work at all nowadays. Whilst the students’ behaviour in the first act comes off as more of a nuisance than a genuine social problem, the film builds tension very effectively, and by the final act, the way that the worst students are not only disrupting teachers’ classes, but threatening their lives and the lives of those around them, is very scary to see, all coming to a head in an extremely dark and tense final sequence.
Director Richard Brooks builds that tension and drama very well over the course of the film, but one other fascinating thing that helps that is the film’s soundtrack. Opening and closing with the song ‘Rock Around The Clock’, as well as an instrumental in the middle, the film perfectly sums up the rock and roll rebellion of the students, however the fact that it starkly juxtaposes that with near silence in the background for the rest of the film makes the students threat even more intimidating, only adding to the fear we feel for the teachers somehow risking their lives just by going into school.
The other real stand-out feature of this film is Glenn Ford’s performance. As I said, the degree of grit and darkness in this film is uncharacteristic of 1950s Hollywood, but Ford handles it excellently, and brings to light the social problem the film is commenting on brilliantly. On the one hand, he pulls off his character’s determination to do some good and teach these kids a thing or two, but what’s most striking about his performance is how clear his character’s fear is.
The intimidating students are enough to make you as the viewer fear, but with Ford’s impressive performance, you’re fully backing him throughout, even if he makes his own mistakes, and that makes the darkest scenes even more tense and dramatic, which was brilliant to see.
Overall, I was impressed by Blackboard Jungle. Nowadays, it may not pack the punch that it did upon original release, but it’s still a fascinating look into the rock and roll revolution, and also an impressively tense and dramatic story, and that’s why it gets a 7.6 from me.