School Ties: Robert Mandel’s Probe into Anti-Semitism

While the social problem movie and political crusading drama have always been staples of the American film industry, not many films have dealt as specifically and explicitly with the issue of anti-semitism as School Ties, Paramount’s  timely picture, directed by Robert Mandel.

In the late 1940s, Hollywood made a cycle of films that explored racial discrimination, first against Jews, then against blacks and Native-Americans.

In 1947, the Oscar-winning film was Gentleman’s Agreement, in which Gregory Peck plays a crusading journalist who decides to pose as a Jew in order to experience, first hand, racial prejudice. In the same year, the major competitor to Kazan’s preachy movie was Crossfire, based on Richard Brooks’ novel The Brick Foxhole, though in a typically Hollywood manner the film changed the book’s homosexual hero into a Jew. A tense noir thriller, the film features an obsessive sergeant (Robert Ryan) who beats a Jewish ex-sergeant to death.

Times have obviously changed and what was controversial and risky in the 1940s and 1950s can be tackled much more directly at present. The new, probing drama School Ties takes place at an elite preparatory school in l955. Its hero, David Green, is a gifted quarterback who wins a scholarship to St. Matthew’s during his senior year of high school. An outsider par excellence, his different faith and class cause some tension in the school’s social balance. David’s classmates know about his inferior social class, but not about his Jewishness.

In a recent interview with the amiable filmmaker Robert Mandel, best known for directing the entertaining thriller F/X, we talked about the meaning of the movie for him–as a Jewish director in Hollywood–and for the viewers. “The movie is set just after the McCarthy era,” says Mandel, “when prep schools were becoming more open, though they still excluded blacks.” The years of l955-6 signified a new period in American culture, with the beginning of rock ‘n roll and youth culture. “Setting the movie back, allows audiences to disengage enough to see the bigotry and racism in a more objective way.”

For Mandel, the movie’s major issue is: “what you’ll give up to belong to the most popular group.” “Ethnic identity is a major part of our soul,” he says, “The hero gives up the very essence of his identity. The movie shows that we can’t give up our honor.”

Born in Oakland, California, Mandel’s family later moved to Queens, New York, where he went to Hebrew school. Mandel defines himself as a Jew in a cultural, rather than religious, manner. “I feel I’m Jewish and I don’t hide it. I’m not a practicing Jew, but I go to the synagogue on holidays.”

Married to an Episcopalian, Mandel is the father of two daughters: Molly and Rosie. “I believe in God and I want my daughters to believe in God,” he says. Mandel recalls how his mother-in-law told his elder daughter that if she listened carefully, she could actually hear God. “My children were interested in God,” he notes, “so we began reading the Bible as a nightly practice, as a bedtime story.” This practice continues at present, though not every night.

The resonant movie has special meaning for Mandel, who himself experienced anti-semitism, when he was a student at Pennsylvania’s Bucknell University, in the l960s. “They had a rumored quota,” he recalls, “there was only one Jewish fraternity. I was once invited to visit fraternities that never accepted Jewish students. When I went to visit, I saw two flags, one of the Confederate, the other Swastika. One of the boys explained to me that they just liked the color red, but they didn’t mean…

Mandel believes that at the end David emerges triumphantly, as a true hero, “because he is culpable; he knows he is guilty. The movie raises interesting issues pertaining to ethnic identity: How do you know who is Jewish What is Jewishness Mandel faults David for denying to himself–and to others–his Jewishness. “It was not obvious that he was Jewish, but there are quieter, subtle ways to reveal your Jewishness–the burden is on David to do it.”

It’s often instructive to speculate about the future of screen characters. I asked Mandel to project what happened to a man like David in the future. “David would probably go to Harvard,” he says, “and he would probably become a politician or an activist.”

Following three weeks of rehearsals, there were eleven weeks of shooting. Mandel conducted extensive research on the McCarthy era and anti-Semitism. In his field work, he visited alumni associations and prep schools and spent some time at the Andover and Exter academies.

Mandel’s work also involved a meticulous selection of young actors. The gifted ensemble includes Brendan Fraser, Matt Damon, Randall Batinkoff, Chris O’Donnell and others. The director opted for new and fresh faces rather than familiar stars. “Each one of our actors is extraordinary,” says producer Sherry Lansing quite confidently, “there will be many stars to emerge from this film.”

While conclusive data is unavailable, there is good reason to believe that anti-semitism may actually be on the rise. “Every time you pick up a paper you see more and more articles on the resurgence of anti-semitism,” says Lansing, “It’s reflected in the rioting in Brooklyn, in the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, in the burning of synagogues by white supremacists.”

School Ties also toys with the intriguing idea that “what you see is not necessarily what you get.” “But it shows you must never deny who you are,” says Mandel, “It’s not worth losing your identity in order to be accepted into the group.” The extraordinary accomplishment of Mandel’s movie is that its universal message holds true for all forms of prejudice, not just anti-Semitism.