SCHOOL TIES (1992) ***
You know it is 1955 or a bit later because of the cars and a theater marquee in a grungy part of Scranton, Pennsylvania, with "Rebel Without A Cause" on it. But David Greene (Brendan Fraser), a big, nice and nice-looking Jewish boy from a nice working-class family, is no rebel. Even so, when a biker provokes with a slur, he beats the daylights out of him. Nothing special here. Or so it seems. But the sub-text is. It's a counter-cliche: the Jew not as a victim of brute, physical force but as retaliator and winner. A good start.
David is an ace high school quarterback whom the nice coach of a posh New England prep school has recruited on a scholarship to bolster the chances of the St. Matthew's team. In turn this bolsters David's chances to attain the unattainable, a scholarship to Harvard, since, for the regular WASP preppies -- scions of the power elite and often scions of scions of scions -- the 200-year old school is the gateway to Harvard, Princeton or Yale.
Some students may be socially and psychologically immature and shielded from the common people, but in academic matters, St. Matthew's is a place of seriousness and quality.
The young men do share in their milieu's snobbishness and vast array of prejudices. Overall, however, likable, mature proletarian David is accepted as a person and soon is doubly appreciated as a winning player.
Even so, false pretenses are at work here. David, advised by his father to "fit in" and by the friendly coach not to give out more information than necessary, hides his Mogen David pendant and does not volunteer the fact he is a Jew. Eventually though, this will out and, for reasons of prejudice, jealousy and sexual rivalry (David wins over his pal's non-girlfriend) anti-Semitism explodes in sundry, sneaky and dishonorable ways. The outcome is more of a holding action than an epiphany.
David's concealment-by-omission of his Jewishness is more sad than reprehensible, with the kind of distress that you find in films like "Pinky" or "Imitation of Life" where black girls try to pass for white. Depressing too are the status-seeking pressures on the WASP students who, willy-nilly are obsessed with "living up to someone else's expectations."Yet they are not Strasbourg geese, force-fed for slaughter and "foie gras." Sooner or later, pass or fail, they will take their place among the privileged, the old boys elite, and send their own boys to St. Matthew's. Shed no tears for them.
"School Ties"is, in many ways, an old-fashioned movie on a major theme that Hollywood, with all its Jewish presence, has cautiously and self-consciously played down. Movies on anti-Semitism as persecution by the Nazis or as one element among others, have been fairly common. But ask anyone about films that treat anti-Semitism in America per se, as the kernel and not merely in passing, and you get only the 1947 "Gentleman's Agreement"in which Gregory Peck playing another Green (without an "e"), a goy (gentile) reporter who pretends he is a Jew to expose the ills of prejudice. Or else that other 1947 opus, "Crossfire."
"School Ties" works its way through with a solid accumulation of scenes, sequences and details. School life is realistically shown with, especially, the upperclassmen going through hi-jinx and revels, sexual stirrings or classroom problems. Some events are predictable (boy meets girl, she-WASP rejects him-Jew, a last-minute touchdown, etc. ) but these do not invalidate their truth or their filmic interest. Cleverly handled too are scenes of school assembly with religious overtones that puzzle David, or an encounter between David and the Principal (in the know) who seems entirely free of prejudice but still comes out with the notorious "You, people," something that, in the early 1990s lost to Ross Perot many a black supporter.
Effective too is the portrayal of Mr. Cleary (Zeljko Ivanek), the fussy, martinet teacher of French, who is something of a sadist (shades of Emil Jannings in "The Blue Angel"). He has the right non-native accent of many a school-teacher of foreign languages, becomes the butt of some dumb, unfunny (hence believable) practical jokes and drives a student to despair. Mr. Cleary is at the same time caricatural and realistic. But though an overbearing perfectionist, he makes an egregious error on his first day of class by declaring that the students will learn "francais" (French) instead of "*le* francais." Hollywood moviemakers are terribly sloppy about linguistic details, (among other cultural ones), and seldom check with native speakers.
Though certainly not destined for classic status, the movie has top-drawer production values and good acting. Fraser is something of a hunk, but with much over-hunkiness replaced by brains and sensitivity. Some of the seniors may look a tad too old, but that's a minor point when compared to the old college pictures where freshmen were in their later thirties!
More importantly, the film makes its points with coherence and skill. Still, its taking place some 37 years ago is like a safety net and perhaps implies that "That was then, this is now." But have things changed radically or, as Professor Cleary might put it, is it a case of "plus ca change..." "the more things change, the more they stay the same?" A frank update to the 1990s might make an interesting and more relevant movie.