Home Video Hovel: Scum, by Dayne Linford
It might be a little wrongheaded to begin a review of Scum with a quote from Churchill, given the fact that the film actively mocks British society’s worship of him, but it captures what might be the central tenet of Alan Clarke’s filmmaking in this 1979 classic: “If you have an important point to make, don’t be subtle or clever.” Scum is a scathing critique of the borstal system, a collection of delinquent youth reform schools which, according to the film, basically functioned as prison for minors, aggravating the violence and racism of their occupants and breeding criminals and psychopaths for their re-entry into society. The film details at length the brutality and horror in these schools, where inmates were sandwiched between sadistic guards, an uncaring visiting magistrate, and the constant, violent power struggle between inmates.
The film opens on Carlin, a young Ray Winstone in his first role, traveling to the borstal in a bus with two other new inmates. At first, the camera lingers on their boyish faces, barely teenagers as they look out the windows, contemplative, scared. Carlin, however, looks straight ahead while the camera tilts down, revealing his manacled wrists as “Scum” materializes on screen. This is one of the best shots in the movie, the opening salvo of Clarke’s criticism, which, though perhaps not subtle, is very nuanced and penetrating. By comparing the innocent, almost choir-boy looks of the new arrivals, even Winstone looking unbelievably young, to the slow reveal of the handcuffs and the title card, Clarke undercuts the word itself, used often against these boys, and throws it back in the face of the society that created them, suggesting that the act of cuffing these boys is the first and most pivotal step towards becoming the criminal “scum” the larger English society has already deemed them.
Carlin serves as our entry point into the system, a tough kid with a reputation as a hard case, and the guards here make it violently plain that they will not tolerate any insubordination from him. To enforce their dictum, they give the current “Daddy”, Pongo, who is pretty much their boy, free rein to do what he likes with Carlin. A war of sorts kicks off between Carlin, whose attempts to avoid trouble are quickly dashed, and Pongo, as well as the powers behind Pongo, eventually revealing Carlin is his astounding violence, inhumanity and pure cunning.
However, Carlin is only one of three main characters, each with their own unique perspective on the borstal system. Archer, played by Mick Ford, an occasional ally, serves as a kind of picaresque, commenting on the action and often appearing to deliver the screenwriter’s thoughts on the system itself, serving as a counter point to the violence, conformity, and/or vulnerability that characterizes the rest of the inmates. Though generally a character like Archer is death to a good film, Clarke, Ford, and screenwriter Roy Minton actually succeed admirably, creating a complete character who is nevertheless smart enough to perceive and identify the systemic flaws of the “school” in which he’s landed. In fact, many of the best scenes are Archer’s, especially a scene where he and one of the guards talk honestly about their situation, delivering much of Minton and Clarke’s most perceptive and troubling criticisms. Archer’s lines are delivered with a wry twist, delivering a little ironic commentary, especially in his attempts to fight the authorities every step of the way, such as his insistence that he’s a vegetarian and therefore cannot wear the uniform leather boots given to the inmates, forcing them to look for replacement footwear while he goes shoeless, or his suggestion to the head magistrate, a very religious Christian, that his thoughts are going towards Mecca. But despite, or perhaps because of, all his efforts, Archer is just as trapped as Carlin and the other inmates, just as broken and warped by the violence of his daily existence.
The third lead is Davis, played by Julian Firth, a small boy who comes in with Carlin and generally serves as a whipping post for the other boys, either as an example to Carlin from Pongo, or just the recipient of the other boys’ violence. Davis is the victim, completely unequipped to deal with life in the borstal, possessing neither Carlin’s brutality or animal cunning nor Archer’s intellectual distance and disdain. He feels the circumstances of his imprisonment completely and is powerless to change or even ease them slightly. The film continually cycles amongst these three boys, serving as counterpoints to each other, differing methods of survival, or the complete lack thereof, and achieves its strongest effect in the slow dissolution of their characters, even when minor successes are achieved, throughout their “reform.”
However, all of these characters are white, a serious misstep for a film so concerned with racism in the borstals and British society in general, and so willing to portray it. The black inmates are not ignored, several key scenes revolve around black characters in moments of power or reprieve or not, but a stronger voice could have been given to them to help counter the horrific racism portrayed in the film and to humanize those most often victimized by it. This is enough of a problem that many British audiences cheered during a particularly violent scene between Carlin and a black inmate, where the latter is beaten almost to a bloody pulp, though I think that mostly serves to condemn those audiences and the society they were a part of, as opposed to the film itself. Scum is not a racist film, in fact it is a film deeply disturbed and distressed by the racism portrayed, but making any one of the three leads black, or elevating a black character to a more substantial role, could have done much to alleviate this. Normally, “token black” is a problem, but in a film that barely escapes being an ensemble piece, a well-developed black lead would have been useful, and several characters in the film could have easily filled that role.
Alan Clarke cleaves strongly to a social realist filmmaking style, with an articulate and exacting eye for social positioning, victimization, and power struggle, played out largely in silence, through an exchange of glances reminiscent of a completely subdued Leone, then suddenly exploding in cries of anguish and savage violence. Throughout, as he portrays racism, rape, violence, callousness, painful vulnerability, and despair, Clarke refuses to spare either his characters or the audience of the reality of their situation, keeping his camera in the scene until it is completely played out, neutering the thrill normally derived from such portrayals by his refusal to let the audience distance themselves and by focusing on the impact, the horrific results of these actions. Scum is a film about social positioning and the actions of those who have no hope in the larger society that condemns them, effectively making them into the object of condemnation and ultimately perpetuating the travesty of their brutalization through the inmates themselves onto others. It pulls no punches, neither for the inmates nor those over them, revealing them in their entire, banal cruelty towards their fellow man, no matter how young.
The recent Blu-ray release of Scum is fairly strong. As usual for Kino, the image looks good, though with the softness typical of its time period. The extras include a commentary by Ray Winstone, several interviews with actors, producers, and screenwriter Roy Minton, as well as trailers. Unfortunately, the original film, a television production made through the BBC that was remade as this 1979 film after the BBC refused to air it, is not included on this release. All in all, Scum is an excellent film from an almost entirely forgotten but very important and skilled British director, and comes highly recommended.