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Back to School Double Features


There's a joke about America and England being two countries separated by a common language. And nowhere is that more apparent that in films set on school grounds on either side of the Pond. Here are some back to school double features that show up the differences between Brits and Yanks.

1. 'Educating Rita' (1983)/'Back to School' (1987)

Back to School
© 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
So what happens when adults go back to school? Well in the British Educating Rita, Julie Walters gets to escape her working class roots by taking a literature class at a university. Education leads her on a path of self-discovery and opens up possibilities in her life. Along the way she even helps sober up her alcoholic professor (Michael Caine). In the American Back to School, however, Rodney Dangerfield returns to college out of fatherly love for his discouraged son. It's more about partying and having fun than education. There's also that good ole American sense of defying authority and money being able to get you out of any fix.

Report card: School is a place of learning in England and a place to party in the U.S.

Also of Interest: Back to School is #7 on our Top 10 College Movies list.

2. 'Butley' (1974)/'Conrack' (1974)

© Playhouse Video (on VHS)
Here are a pair of films that serve up starkly different views of the teaching profession. In the British Butley, Alan Bates plays the titular professor -- a man who hates his students, is jealous of successful colleagues, and always wants to get the last acerbic word in. Bates' Butley is brilliantly and savagely verbal, utterly fascinating, and someone you'd never want to meet or have as a teacher. In the Hollywood film Conrack, Jon Voight is the kind of idealistic teacher you just want to hug. He takes on the challenge of teaching a group of neglected black children on an island off the coast of South Carolina. Voight's battle to educate these youngsters is inspiring, and filled with all sorts of warm and fuzzy emotions.

Report card: The Brits get high marks for intellect while the Yanks score on sentiment.

Also of Interest: Conrack sits at #5 on our Inspirational Teachers Best of list.

3. 'Goodbye Mr. Chips' (1939)/ '21' (2008)

© Columbia Pictures
Just to show that not all British teachers are bad and all Americans good, here's a double bill featuring what has to be England's most endearing teacher, Mr. Chippings - or Mr. Chips as the students come to lovingly refer to him. As personified by Robert Donat, Mr. Chips is the teacher you wish you had. All the students are polite and respectful, and school is a sacred place for learning. The film proves to be a loving valentine to the teaching profession as it celebrates how a good teacher can influence lives. But 21 shows us the worst of the American academic world with Kevin Spacey as an arrogant, controlling, dangerous, and criminally-inclined Harvard professor who teaches his best and brightest how to take casinos for all their worth. The scam succeeds for a while but when it goes sour, Spacey's prof turns ruthless.

Report card: Brits score an A for charm while the Americans get disqualified for cheating.

4. 'If...' (1968) /'Fast Times At Ridgemont High' (1982)

Fast Times at Ridgemont High
© Universal Pictures
Ah, teenagers. It seems that no matter what side of the Atlantic they are on they tend to get into trouble and want to rebel. In the British film If... teenager Mick Travis states: “One man can change the world with a bullet in the right place.” Mick (played by Malcolm McDowell just years before he would star in A Clockwork Orange) instigates a rebellion at a boys' boarding school in this anarchic, surreal, social satire. Mick and his friends suffer indignities and even abuse, and finally rebel violently against all forms of authority and established order. In the American Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the teens share a similar lack of respect for school and authority but prove to be more preoccupied with sex, drugs, and rock and roll than with staging a rebellion.

Report card: The English lads are rebels with a cause and their American counterparts are more like rebels without a clue, plus If... has savage bite while Fast Times is mostly pot humor.

5. 'Notes on A Scandal' (2006)/'Bad Teacher' (2011)

Bad Teacher
© Columbia Pictures
The teaching profession does not come out well at all in this double feature. Both the Brit and the Yank teachers seem more preoccupied with their own private melodramas than in anything to do with their students. In Notes on a Scandal, Cate Blanchett's Sheba has an affair with a young student while Barbara, an older teacher played by Judi Dench, forms an unhealthy fixation on her. These two actresses bring the whole tawdry school scandal to the level of searing black comic tragedy. Bad Teacher involves Cameron Diaz' slacker teacher who drinks, does drugs, and tries to do her sexy teaching colleague. Although she initially can't be bothered with actual teaching, she eventually moves past her self-absorbed superficiality to find a little compassion for the students.

Report card: The Brits display far better academic skills and score high marks for sophisticated and original writing; the Americans don't seem to want to push themselves too hard and settle for formulaic laughs.

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