This is a remarkable black and white film, based on Alan Sillitoe’s short story which was part of a collection published in 1959. The author himself wrote the screenplay, adding extra scenes to extend the story. Directed by Tony Richardson, with daring cinematography by Walter Lassall and funky music by John Addison, this film has an experimental and realistic feel which matches the original text. The star performer is Tom Courtenay, who plays the young offender Smith (given a first name, Colin, for the film). Apparently the film was shot entirely on location, which adds to the realism.
You can read about the story here in my recent review of the book. I think the film captured the story perfectly, although I wasn’t keen on the romance storyline which padded it out: Colin and and his friend Mike steal a car, pick up two respectable but trusting girls, start relationships with them and then go to Skegness for a holiday, without any consequences. This seemed like a departure from the social realism of the story but I suppose that it gives the characters (and the viewers) space to think and prolongs the tension of waiting for something to happen.
The big centrepiece of the film (apart from the cross-country race of course) is a riot in the canteen, in which the borstal boys start thumping the tables, with the sound echoing and the camera panning faster and faster until violence breaks out. In my copy of the book, there’s an article about adapting the book for the screen, which says that the film used actual inmates of a real borstal as extras – no wonder they act out the riot scene with such enthusiasm…
In case you didn’t get that the film is about the working class versus the elite, there are various bits of symbolism to give you a clue. Smith actually burns the money which his mum gave him, part of the insurance for his dad’s death – the money is of course from the employer. I would love to know if a real note was set on fire… any film buffs out there know?!
The last scene of the film is a workshop in which the boys are dismantling old WW2 gas masks. The governor pays a visit, is mean to Smith and also seems a little panicked after touching the gas masks (either it’s a comment on the expendability of the working classes – gas masks often contained asbestos, which in the 60s became known as a hazard to health – or it’s a representation of the ruling classes’ distaste for manual labour). The last shot is of Smith holding a stripped gas mask, which I would suggest is a metaphor for the breaking down of barriers between the classes.