School Ties (1992): Robert Mandel’s Social Problem Picture, with Ensemble of Talented Actors

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 new and 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 l940s and l950s can be tackled much more directly at present. The new, probing drama School Ties takes place at an elite preparatory school in 1955.

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.

School Ties’ major achievement is that it is at once a drama about anti-semitism in the past, but also one that has a lot to say for the present. “The New England prep school setting,” says Mandel, “is the backdrop for an exploration of anti-semitism. “A lot of people would like to believe that anti-semitism no longer exists in the world,” says producer Jaffe, “Unfortunately, this kind of prejudice is something that is very much with us every day.”

In one of the film’s major scenes, David breaks the Jewish tradition for the school’s team to win. A confrontation with the headmasters makes him understand that his superior is prejudiced. It’s a dramatic and emotional turning point in the film. “The audience has to feel that David couldn’t really belong,” Mandel explains, “it helped that Brendan Fraser, who plays David, experienced it himself; he was able to call a certain pain.”

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.”

The ending of the movie–which also features a romantic story–was problematic. Mandel decided that the narrative shouldn’t end with a traditional Hollywood happy ending. Three different endings were shot, but the one chosen (which cannot be revealed here) was the most coherent and also the most emotionally satisfying. Mandel holds that “the current ending is true to its times.”

Beyond the issue of anti-semitism, School Ties deals with the ostracism imposed on outsiders–and to what lengths an individual will go to be accepted. Says producer Stanley Jaffe: “At what price to yourself are you willing to compromise who you are, what you are, and what you stand for in order to be acceptable to a group that might otherwise not want you”

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.