Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1951)

“Well, my son, off you start… You may see a great many black, hard things done, and hear a deal of foul, bad talk — but never fear. Tell the truth, keep a brave, kind heart, and you’ll survive.”

Synopsis:
When Tom Brown (John Howard Davies) arrives at Rugby boarding school, he’s mercilessly tormented by the school’s evil bully, Flashman (John Forrest). With the help of his friend East (John Charlesworth), plucky Brown devises a plan to get back at Flashman; in the meantime, he’s asked to look out for a timid new student (Glyn Dearman), whose life is accidentally put in peril during a school race.

Genres:

Review:
Thomas Hughes’ semi-autobiographical novel, published in 1857, has been adapted for the screen no less than five times: in 1916, 1940, 1951, 1971, and 2005; this version is the only one listed in Peary’s book. From its opening scenes, Tom Brown’s Schooldays (the title is falsely innocuous) remains a difficult film to watch, given the relentless display of abuse young Tom suffers, first from the entire school (following tradition, he’s forced to stand up and sing during dinner, while being pelted with food from all sides), then — most brutally — at the hands of a sociopathic bully, whose power at Rugby remains absolute due to a code of “honor” preventing students from “peaching” (i.e., tattling). While a distinction is clearly drawn between these two levels of behavior, both are appalling; fortunately, there are enough scenes of genuine camaraderie sprinkled throughout the film (group sing-alongs at dinner; rousing football games) to convince us that these boys will have at least a few happy memories of their school days. By the end of the film, it’s clear that honor and integrity will ultimately triumph over sadism, thanks in part to a progressive headmaster (Robert Newton) who’s determined to make changes at the school — but be forewarned that the journey until then is a tough one to swallow.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • John Howard Davies as Tom Brown
    Tom Brown Davies
  • Fine location shooting at Rugby School in England
    Tom Brown Location

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look simply as a brutally honest depiction of “public school” bullying in early 1800s England.

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One Response to “Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1951)”

  1. First viewing. Not a must – even if it is a compelling coming-of-age film. Episodic in nature, its main asset is as a cultural document of a specific time. Agreed, it contains surprising violence for a film of its day. As for that, there appear to be two types: the accepted, group ridicule that one supposes is intended to toughen more impressionable spirits; and the sociopathic lashing out of a lone wolf.

    It’s perhaps interesting to compare a film like this – in which the staff consists of ‘Old School’ and ‘New School’ – with Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 film ‘If….’, in which (in typical ’60s counter-culture mode), the entire staff, as I recall, is seen as both elitist and incompetent.

    Most impressive sequence arrives when Davies (the bullied boy, who oddly reminded me of Leslie Howard) and his pals attempt to save Forrest from drowning. The scene has a startling realism.

    Gay audiences will perhaps (as I did) discover new slang usage for the term ‘fag’: known elsewhere as a substitute for ‘cigarette’ and ‘to be exhausted’ (fagged out), the term is used here to denote ‘a younger student performing menial tasks for an older one’. Hmm…to ‘fag’ for someone; odd, that.

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