Release Date(s)1992 (December 16, 2022)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Imprint/Via Vision)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A
[Editor’s Note: This is a Region Free Blu-ray import.]
School Ties takes place at a prestigious Eastern prep school where prejudice surfaces in sometimes subtle, often overt, ways when a new student is enrolled on a football scholarship. It’s the 1950s, when casual anti-Semitism was common in certain circles.
David Greene (Brendan Fraser, The Mummy), a working class Jewish kid from Scranton, Pennsylvania, is recruited by the football coach of St. Matthew’s boarding school to be its star quarterback. The coach (Kevin Tighe) and headmaster (Peter Donat) are aware that David is Jewish but their desire for building a winning team is a priority and David’s religion is kept under wraps. Before leaving home, David’s father advises him to blend in. On his arrival, the coach advises him to keep “certain things” to himself.
Initially, David fits in easily among his classmates, sons of families of wealth and privilege. Charlie Dillon (Matt Damon, Good Will Hunting) is expected to be the team’s quarterback and resents that David has been recruited for that position. For someone like Charlie, family expectations run high. If he doesn’t distinguish himself academically and athletically, he’ll let the family down, which causes him constant stress. Other new friends include David’s roommate, Chris Reece (Chris O’Donnell, Batman and Robin); Chesty Smith (Ben Affleck, Argo); Jack Connors (Cole Hauser, Dazed and Confused); and Richard “McGoo” Collins (Anthony Rapp, Rent).
At a dance sponsored by a nearby girls’ school, David meets Charlie’s friend Sally Wheeler (Amy Locane, Cry-Baby). They fall for each other immediately and Sally invites David to an after-game party to meet her parents. Things are going smoothly for David until a drunken alum reveals his secret and the boy’s life changes. Off-handed insulting remarks about Jews that he’d been ignoring since his first day at the school give way to vicious jokes in the locker room, a violent fight with Dillon, and a banner with a painted swastika hung in his room.
Back in 1947, the issue of anti-Semitism was the subject of Gentlemen’s Agreement, but that film centered on a reporter pretending to be Jewish in connection with research for an article. School Ties deals with the problem head-on by making its central character a Jew who is obliged to hide his heritage. As the school is exploiting him to win football games, he’s using the school as a doorway into Harvard, knowing that few boys from public schools, and even fewer Jews, would be admitted to the prestigious university.
The young cast is exceptional. Fraser conveys both masculinity and vulnerability as he struggles with having to look away when hurtful remarks are made. He conveys the likability and natural leadership qualities that allow David to fit in quickly, though his affluent classmates are surprised to see that he’s part of the waiter staff, a condition of his scholarship. Fraser has the ability to communicate David’s inner feelings without betraying them outwardly. A lot is at stake, and David remains cool under the pressure, until a line is crossed.
Damon turns in a standout performance as Dillon, who seems victimized by family tradition, personal and academic insecurity, and his own unapologetic arrogance. He effortlessly conveys Dillon’s charisma and pleasure at being a part of the in-crowd as well as the feelings of insecurity and inadequacy that amplify his casual antisemitism into viciousness against the Jew he perceives as a threat. Once David’s secret is out, Dillon never lets up in belittling and mocking him. Damon, in his first major screen role, shows the talent and screen presence that would propel him to stardom in the years ahead.
The screenplay by Dick Wolf and Darryl Ponicsan contains colloquial dialogue peppered with a few strong words teenage boys would use. Conversational and devoid of artifice, the dialogue nicely conveys the bond among the boys and later shows how labels can abruptly change attitudes. A climactic scene culminates in a test of the school’s honor system. A final speech by Dillon indicates that bigotry will be around for a long time. There are occasional Hollywoodisms, such as the requisite romantic subplot of David and Sally and the neatly tied up ending. It’s difficult not to compare School Ties with Dead Poets Society, made three years earlier and also featuring a group of boys at a prep school. Though the settings are similar, the two films explore different issues.
Director Robert Mandel elicits first-class performances from his young cast, nicely capturing the prep school milieu of decades past, including its traditions, academic rigor, and student camaraderie. Though most of the boys know how to have fun and assume that their path to success is assured by family connections, they take their studies seriously. By contrast, David is a good student but his success on the football field is his only path into Harvard. Thematically, the film examines the traditions that count, as David deals with prejudice in a school tied to tradition and honor.
School Ties was shot by director of photography Freddie Francis with Panavision cameras and lenses on 35 mm film, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The Imprint Films Blu-ray debut of the film features a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. In the opening scenes, set in Scranton, the cinematography is stark, almost grim. Color is desaturated to suggest a gritty steel town with its mostly blue-collar inhabitants. The scenes at David’s prep school, by comparison, are vivid, with hues bright and vibrant. Complexions are pleasant and natural. The football game takes place on a sunny day, the weather underscoring the mood of the crowd as David distinguishes himself on the field. Classrooms feature a lot of polished wood paneling and nicely suggest the time period. Plenty of vintage automobiles help set the story squarely in the 1950s.
There are two English soundtrack options, 2.0 LPCM Stereo and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. Optional English subtitles are available. Dialogue is clear and distinct. Many voices are heard at the same time in the dormitory scenes as the boys kid around. At a dance, voices are mixed with ambient background noise and period dance music, such as an instrumental version of Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. A fight breaks out in the shower room, mixing sounds of running water, bodies being pummeled, and voices of boys trying to break up the fight. Maurice Jarre’s music nicely reflects the subject matter and is far less grandiose than his scores for David Lean epics.
Bonus materials on the Region Free Blu-ray release from Imprint Films include the following:
- Audio Commentary with Jim Hemphill
- 1992 Interview with Matt Damon (5:59)
- 1992 Interview with Brendan Fraser (6:47)
- 1992 Interview with Sherry Lansing (6:38)
- 1992 Interview with Chris O’Donnell (7:10)
- 1992 Interview with Robert Mandel (5:48)
- Theatrical Trailer (2:17)
Filmmaker and film historian Jim Hemphill’s new audio commentary notes that School Ties was the last independent film made by Sherry Lansing and Stanley Jaffe before they went into executive positions in the film industry. Their previous films, The Accused and Fatal Attraction, did much better at the box office. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who play students in the film, would become stars by co-writing and starring in Good Will Hunting. Both wanted to be actors from an early age, and they would partner on projects after Good Will Hunting. There’s an interesting “cross pollination” of cast members, many of whom performed together in future projects. Damon and Chis O’Donnell also auditioned for the role of David. The feeling of needing to belong is crucial to David, and Fraser got the role because he conveyed this better than the others. About 250 vintage cars were obtained for the film, most in pristine condition. The challenge was making them look used. Location filming took place in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Composer Maurice Jarre was a three-time Oscar winner, for Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, and A Passage to India. The reviews for School Ties were decent to mixed and it wasn’t a big hit, opening at number five at the box office with $3 million and topping out at just under $15 million domestically. Everyone involved with the film is proud of it. The actors came off looking like real characters, not teens playing at acting. “School Ties reminds us that we’re all individuals.”
Interview with Matt Damon – Damon notes that School Ties is “my first big movie.” He had only a short time to prepare his audition for the role of Dillon. He discusses the facets of “bad guy” Dillon. Damon heard anti-Semitic remarks at Harvard spoken in the presence of Jews, and explains that the closer you are to a friend, the less you self-censor your language. Tradition and honor at Harvard are similar to what’s depicted in School Ties.
Interview with Brendan Fraser – Encino Man was shot after School Ties but was released first. School Ties brought back memories, since Fraser attended boarding school. He understood the milieu and the athletic and academic pressures on a student at a boarding school. The boys’ attitude toward David changes when they learn that he’s Jewish. The film should appeal to marginalized groups. Fraser concludes by speaking briefly about upcoming projects.
Interview with Producer Sherry Lansing – Lansing believed that five of the cast members would become stars. Casting was conducted in the United States, Canada, and England. Brendan Fraser was seen five weeks before shooting was scheduled to begin. He possessed masculinity with an edge and vulnerability plus a range of talent. It took over nine years to get School Ties made. At $10 million, half the cost of an average movie at the time, School Ties was in the low-budget range. Lansing speaks about the effort of producers to cut down actors’ salaries.
Interview with Chris O’Donnell – O’Donnell describes his character as a good kid who was probably brought up by parents who told him not to associate with Jews. He’s mature enough to change his feelings. O’Donnell doesn’t recall racial prejudice firsthand but notes that kids picked on others for whatever differences they had. He talks about the pressures of high school. He bonded quickly with other cast members. O’Donnell talks about his upcoming movie with Al Pacino, Scent of a Woman, and discusses the unpredictability of the box office.
Interview with Director Robert Mandel – The director speaks about similarities and differences between Dead Poet’s Society and School Ties. A great deal of time was spent on rehearsal and theater games. The cast was thoroughly professional, though there was occasional fooling around. It was important for the audience to believe David Greene could fit in yet feel different. Mandel went to a public high school in New York City with over 1,000 students. He desperately wanted to get into an elite fraternity but didn’t make it, so he personally identified with David’s story of wanting to be accepted.
- Dennis Seuling