10 Movies That Made Me Me - Movies 1 and 2

Essays by Gerald DiPego

These are films I saw between the ages of ten and twenty, films that, in some way, hit hard and went in deep and mattered, enhancing or awakening some strong feeling in the boy I was then and helping to shape the man I am now.  They are in no particular order.

Movie 1 - TUNES OF GLORY, ’60
(Deep inner conflict)

There is a power struggle in a Scottish regiment whose base is near a town.  This is during peacetime, not long after WWII.  No battles, except a battle of wills, between the popular, up-from-the-ranks acting colonel who leads with a swagger and is one-of-the-men, and a full colonel who comes to take over, a more upper class man, not a martinet, but much more strict. 

Does this seem predictable?  It’s not.  First, there’s the brilliant casting.  The tough and swaggering acting-colonel is played by Alec Guiness in a real change-over, even for this great chameleon actor.  The new full colonel is played masterfully by John Mills: Two of Britain’s finest actors squaring off, and, even for a young man of nineteen, I was made aware of what the quality of performance was all about (as well as crisp writing and direction).

These two men came vividly alive to me as I dropped down into the center of their struggle.  My allegiances to the characters shifted, my emotions were mixed and battling each other.  The Guiness character had spent the war in combat in the desert, rising from a ranker.  The Mills character had been captured and interred in Japanese prison camp.  There are no flashbacks to this.  We learn it.  We glean it.  And we watch the two men as they struggle, and there, in the theater, at nineteen, I’m jerked away from the usual hero-villain story, and find myself face to face with complex and confounding human drama and human truth, shocked in the third act and wrenched by the long, slow, ending scene.

I was wrung out by this film experience, and I treasured it, and I still do.  I’ve watched the movie half a dozen times over the years and will see it again – a drama without a hero, a story as unpredictable as life.  Directed by Ronald Neame, staring Guiness, Mills and Susannah York.  Written by James Kennaway from his novel.  An early lesson for me in the richness of quality drama.

Movie 2 - BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, ‘55
(Facing the fears)

The film startles immediately because of the music: “Rock Around the Clock,” arguably the birth of Rock and Roll to my generation and so powerful in its newness, and its rebellious abandon.  An urban high school – the students arriving, the teachers, the new kids, the ‘good’ kids, the ‘mean’ kids and me, one of them, because at 14 I was just entering high school, and I was shy, nervous, afraid of not fitting in, afraid of the shaming of bullies, so that here, on the theater screen, I was pulled into a gripping drama that was one hell of a training film. 

The film looked raw and real with the usual muscular direction from Richard Brooks, and it came at us during the wave of the JD craze.  Juvenile Delinquency was made more frightening to America than the atom bomb, and out of the deluge of that genre arose classics like The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause and Blackboard Jungle, whose trailer used the phrases ‘Teenage Terror in the Schools!’ and ‘Teenage Savages!’

But the ‘bad kids’ weren’t monsters – that would have weakened its punch.   And Glen Ford, the new teacher, a married war vet, wasn’t pure and untested – he was just a good man, hoping to do his best.  The head bully among the students, Vic Morrow, had a relaxed danger about him, embodying the kind of pleasure-in-your-pain that was a 14 year-old’s nightmare.  His stooge was played by a boy who went on to be a fine director, Paul Mazursky, and there was one, strong, independent student played by Sidney Poitier, who knew the streets but also seemed to have a brain and a heart.

I felt the tension as if I myself was walking into Glen Ford’s first  class.  I was studying for my future, nervous as hell, and looking for tips.  I watched as one teacher, Richard Kiley, paid dearly for trying to become the students’ friend and share his record collection with his class – by the end of this scene the precious records are broken and so is Kiley.  A pretty, but not overtly sexy woman teacher was also punished – just for her natural attractiveness, which got her pounced upon and terribly shaken.  Other teachers were either very tough or very cynical, but Glen Ford kept trying.

I walked the halls with those kids and fell in with some of the humor and took on the pain and panic of the tougher moments, and I began to see…a shifting among the members of Ford’s class.  I felt it too.  He was gaining trust and respect from them and from me, and Potier was becoming an ally without losing his independence or his cool.

As the power shifts away from Vic Morrow, he strikes out with more evil and mayhem, and all this comes to a head in a scene of violence in the classroom.   All the students are involved, me too, watching and not breathing – and learning.

Yes, those bullies populating my mind could be defeated – and not by some chance heroism but rather by a shift in attitude by the other students, a standing up, a standing together.  I went ahead into high school with some gained confidence and a road map and the knowledge that there would be people to support me and teachers who cared, and maybe a Poitier to calm me and help me find my way.

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Copyright Gerald DiPego 2015-2017