Monday, June 25, 2012

The Nature of the Bully: Tom Brown's School Days

It occurs to me that Tom Brown's School Days (1940, d. Robert Stevenson) is as fine a meditation on bullying as anything in the modern era (post-code, ratings system, 1968 to present).  Taking the source novel and depleting all but the bare essentials, Robert Stevenson creates a lean look at the British boarding school mentality, exemplified by the Rugby School at its center, the very real inspiration for the novel and countless boarding school tales that followed.

The separate houses of the school compete against each other in sports and academics but within each house is a main bully and a few hanger-on thugs who help out with the dirty work.  New headmaster Dr. Thomas Arnold (Cedric Hardwicke), a real life headmaster upon whom the character is drawn, wants to rid the school of bullying and makes it known.   But only the boys can get it done.

New student Tom Brown (Jimmy Lydon) stands up to the bullying and for his trouble is tormented and tortured then, when it appears he has ratted out a bully, is ostracized by his classmates.  And when Tom Brown is bullied, he isn't hit or intimidated into giving up his lunch money.  No, he's held up to a fireplace for a "roasting" in which his clothes start to smoke and he passes out from the pain, but only after sending out blood-curdling screams of anguish beforehand.

Tom Brown's School Days finds its best performances in Freddie Bartholomew as Tom's friend East who later turns his back on him and Billy Halop as Flashman, the bully who tortures Tom until finally, his punishment comes down from the headmaster with a severity and finality that not only leaves one wondering what the rest of Flashman's life might bring but whether he will indeed hold true to his threat and commit suicide.  This is left up to the viewer to decide.

Jimmy Lydon works well in the title role but doesn't have the presence to pull off the final stretch in which we are to believe the wee third former we saw at the start is now a strapping sixth former, despite the fact that there's been no change at all in appearance, voice or fortitude.   Still, the film is assured enough to withstand the sight of the boy playing the young man for a short stretch before the exit card makes its appearance.  On the whole, it's one of the best looks at dealing with bullies and growing up out there, at the very least the best from the Golden Age and certainly worth a look.