Whatever happened to Brendan Fraser, the star of today’s film, School Ties (1992)? It is a fair question to ask given the other actors that appear in it. There are older names, like Ed Lauter for example, who plays Alan Greene, the father to Fraser’s David. Lauter has been in, what, every movie since the 1970s? But such a personage pales in comparison to some of Fraser’s co-stars. There is Matt Damon as Charlie Dillon, one of the main villains in the film; Damon’s buddy Ben Affleck plays Chesty Smith, one of Charlie’s friends; also filling a significant role is NCIS: Los Angeles’ Chris O’Donnell as David’s sympathetic roommate, Chris Reece. Most of the names in that last protracted sentence went on to do bigger things, and in recent memory. Fraser did, too, although I wonder if you can name something of the top of your head he has done since the oh so memorable The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)? While you are wracking your brain, or scrolling through the International Movie Database (IMDb), enjoy this review of School Ties.
School Ties starts in the early 1950s, in the hard scrabble, working class, coal mining town of Scranton, Pennsylvania. The town has its stereotypes, but the one person who seems to be able to transcend them is the high school’s Jewish star quarterback, David. When a group of leather jacket wearing motorcycle enthusiasts give the local diner patrons a hard time for congregating with a Jew, they all stick up for him. Not that David is incapable of defending himself, as he gets into a fight with the gang’s leader. This leaves him with a black eye as he goes off to a fancy, all boy’s preparatory school in Massachusetts called St. Matthew’s for his senior year. He has been recruited by them to play football, and for him it offers the best chance he has for getting into his dream school, Harvard. Once he arrives at the school, however, he finds the student body to be as bigoted as the motorcycle punks we see at the beginning. A couple of issues make this situation different for him. First, and most obvious, he is the new kid. Before he left, his father told him to try to fit in with the others. He is the only Jewish student, and he feels like making that fact known will make him stand out to an unwanted degree. This is symbolized when he hides his Star of David necklace in a band-aid container in his sock drawer. Such a decision is made all the more important when he begins socializing with his peers and he hears them telling racial jokes, particularly about Jews. David is not comfortable with them, but he remains calm. Instead, he lets his play do the talking, and he leads the school’s football team to a series of victories. This is how he gains acceptance for the time being, even becoming close with the most privileged and popular guy on campus, Charlie. Still, their relationship is bound to unravel for a few reasons. Early on we learn that Charlie originally tried out to be the quarterback, but had been rejected when they brought in David. Another is when Sally Wheeler (Amy Locane), Charlie’s “girl” in name only, develops a crush on David. However, the final straw comes when Charlie learns of David’s religious affiliation. I will not repeat some of the off-color names he calls David, but know they are some of the worst ones you can imagine. He also turns most of David’s peers against him, including Sally. At one point they put a swastika above his bed. They also prove to be cowards, and David shouts that word at them, when none of them come forward to fight him later that night. Still, he does not stoop to their level. For a history exam, Charlie creates a cheat sheet and David sees him with it. The matter would have stayed quiet if it were not for the fact that Charlie drops his illicit material on the way out of class, and it is found by the teacher, Mr. Gierasch (Michael Higgins). The next day, Mr. Gierasch confronts his students, telling them that unless somebody confesses, all of them would fail. Privately, David confronts Charlie, telling his former friend that he will keep his mouth shout if Charlie confesses. Instead, Charlie formally accuses David, saying that he saw the quarterback using the sheet. When the rest of the guys vote to go along with this accusation, the matter is sent to the headmaster, Dr. Bartram (Peter Donat). When David is summoned to see the headmaster, along with Mr. Gierasch and the school’s chaplain (Peter McRobbie), he believes he is about to be expelled. As it turns out, the football team captain, Rip Van Kelt (Randall Batinkoff), has turned in Charlie, having also seen the infraction during the test. Vindicated, David steps outside to see Charlie leaving school. Charlie cannot resist taunting David one last time, saying that none of this will ultimately stop him from getting into Harvard. David agrees, but tells him he will still be a prick before walking away.
One of the things that is emphasized in School Ties is that the boys of St. Matthew’s are bound by a strict honor code. Because the majority of them come from elite families, they are expected to behave in a manner befitting their social status. Apparently, this only seems to apply to their behavior towards each other, but even that is suspect. Charlie is, of course, the prime example. While he initially says all the right things about not getting to be the quarterback, during games he is always looking for his own moments to shine. On the other hand, it is clearly David who upholds the school’s honor better than any of his peers. He looks out for the troubled McGivern (Andrew Lowery), who is essentially bullied by the French teacher, Mr. Cleary (Zeljko Ivanek). Importantly, David maintains a respect for his peers even when they do not have any for him. I cannot say that he applies what Jesus tells us about turning the other cheek to our enemies. I do not blame him, either. Had I been in his shoes, if somebody taunted me with swastika, I, too, would be ready to fight all my classmates. I would be itching for a brawl if something like that happened to me in real life. I have a difficult time with bullies. As the victim of such behavior myself, few things still get my blood boiling more than seeing people taunted and made fun of for arbitrary reasons. It is a big reason why I pray daily for peace in the world, in our country, and in our homes. David is a better man than I, which is one of the reasons I appreciate the movie. I love being Catholic, but such comportment is something to which I aspire.
One of my favorite moments in School Ties comes when the chaplain tells David that the young man exemplifies all that they want in a St. Matthew’s student. It is nice to see at least one Christian in this film who is not denigrated. The rest is as a good of a movie as you will see. Fraser gives a solid performance, and it is odd that it did not sustain his career as it did for the others in the film. See it for that alone.