The movies are full of inspirational teachers, principals and good guys. But what about the educators you’d forge notes from your parents to avoid? Here are our suggestions…
You’ve got Morgan Freeman in Lean On Me. Edward James Olmos in Stand And Deliver. Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds. The marvellous Richard Dreyfus in Mr Holland’s Opus. Yup, the movies would have you believe that teachers exist to conquer the odds, and fight all the way for their kids.
But not every educator fits that template…
MISS TRUNCHBULL(MATILDA) Pam Ferris
“Use the rod, beat the child. That’s my motto.”
Surely the evilest head teacher ever to appear on film, and unsurprisingly she’s a character from the oft-dark mind of Roald Dahl. When Danny DeVito brought Matilda to the big screen in 1996, one of his many masterstrokes with the picture was the casting of Pam Ferris (until then best known for her work in the TV series The Darling Buds Of May) as the superbly vile Miss Trunchbull.
Trunchbull is a fearsome creation who utterly despises children and whose very appearance could happily inject shudders into the most fearless of opponents. She’s so deliciously, pantomime evil that you can’t help but root for her, but the mere thought of stepping into her school and having to face such a ferociously realised educator would be enough to get us do our homework. Even if we didn’t have any to do. She’s a marvellous piece of work, and it’s a pity that Ferris hasn’t been given more big screen opportunities to demonstrate her superb acting range.
MR STRICKLAND(BACK TO THE FUTURE TRILOGY) James Tolkan
“You’ve got a real attitude problem, McFly. You’re a slacker! You remind me of your father when he went here. He was a slacker, too.”
For generations, Mr Strickland proved to be the nemesis in the side of the McFlys. If we had to pick a favourite iteration, it’d be the gun-toting Strickland from the alternative 1985 in Back To The Future Part II, although his impact in the original film, when he didn’t have firearms to hand, can’t be underestimated either.
Strickland, played by James Tolkan (and the role would prove to be arguably the most memorable of his career), was the old-fashioned disciplinarian down to a T, and a man with no time for “slackers” (that proved true even in the old West when, in Back To The Future Part III, he turned out to be Hill Valley’s Chief Marshall). He’s arguably the most memorable of the constant side characters who appear in each film in the trilogy, and embodies the kind of teacher whom you wonder if they ever managed to like anyone under the age of 30.
Most of us, we’d wager, have met someone just like that…
MR SUGDEN(KES) Brian Glover
“’What you playin’ at, lad? It was at your feet!‘”
It’s long been the way that if you’re not a jock, sports-fiend or remotely talented at any sport, then any kind of physical education at school brought you by law into contact with a sadistic teacher along the way. The finest one to grace the big screen was, of course, Brian Glover’s distillation of every sports-teaching bastard (and no, we’re not saying they’re all like that) to walk into a school.
The film was Ken Loach’s 1970 adaptation of Kes, and Glover was Mr Sugden. And what makes Sugden the absolute epitome of the sports teacher many of us encountered was his absolute desire to win games himself, no matter how many of his pupils managed to get in the way. Sugden was ultra-competitive, happily fouled 15-year-olds and gave Brian Glover his finest moments on the big screen. Few teachers in cinema could ever hold a torch to him.
KITTY FARMER(DONNIE DARKO) Beth Grant
“OK. Now, girls. I want you to concentrate. Failure is not an option. And Bethany? If you feel the need to vomit up there, just swallow it.”
Kitty Farmer, teacher and parent, as she likes to point out, is perhaps the scariest ‘educator’ from a parent’s perspective. To students she’s a clueless nuisance, but in reality she’s an ignorant, judgemental woman with the potential power to ply kids’ minds.
Kitty lets rhetoric rule her world, lobbies to ban books she can’t comprehend and fully supports what turns out to be a paedophile (a surprising and uncharacteristic role for Patrick Swayze), championing him as a counsellor to her classes.
For Kitty Farmer, appearances are everything, but she fails to see her own superficiality and fatal flaws.
PROFESSOR SNAPE(HARRY POTTER SERIES) Alan Rickman
“Do I detect a flicker of fear? Ah, yes. The Dementor’s Kiss. One can only imagine what that must be like to endure. It’s said to be nearly unbearable to witness, but I’ll do my best.”
As the Harry Potter movie series has progressed so, slowly but surely, more screen time has been devoted to Alan Rickman’s outstanding, sneering turn as Professor Snape. He’s the embodiment of Hans Gruber and The Sheriff Of Nottingham, albeit with the volume turned down and the looking-down-the-nose quotient ramped right up.
Spitting out lines in the way that only Rickman seems to be capable of, the man seems to walk around in a constant stupor of disgust, although the depths to his character do, of course, begin to play out. However, Snape is a proper boo-hiss character, even in his more helpful moments, and the promise of far more screen time for Rickman is justification enough for buying tickets to the final two Potter movies. He’s, simply, the kind of teacher you can’t help but fear, and Rickman remains as good a villain as we’ve seen on the big screen in decades.
TREVOR GARFIELD(187) Samuel L Jackson
“Your whole way of life is bullshit!”
Simple reason for this inclusion: the mere idea of Samuel L Jackson walking to the front of a class and teaching them would, in our view, demand exacting behaviour from every single motherfucker in the room. Can you imagine? Not one word of homework would be handed in late, you mark our words. And heck, he’s on the side of the kids in 187.
The film, incidentally, is worth digging out if you’ve not seen it already. It marked a very different shooting style for Robin Hood and Waterworld director Kevin Reynolds, and while it plays hard on The Deer Hunter of all things by the end, it’s a raw, engaging drama. And Jackson’s Trevor Garfield, even though he’s the good guy, is about the most potentially terrifying good guy to ever step into a classroom.
WOLTERS (MR HOLLAND’S OPUS) William H Macy
“You know, I’m not as popular as you. I’m not anybody’s favourite anything.”
It’s only when you get to the end of Mr Holland’s Opus you realise that William H Macy’s Wolters gives as much a shit about the children he teaches as Mr Holland himself. Up until that point, though, he’s been the man to play firmly by the bureaucratic rules, who sacrifices any kind of popularity with his children in favour of protecting what he thinks are the core values for his charges. Thus, he comes across as cold and adversarial for much of the film. And while there’s not a traditional fear to sitting through his lessons, his ability to convey abject boredom is fearsome in itself.
Naturally, all of this is potentially two-dimensional rubbish, but certainly not in the hands of the wonderful William H Macy. He makes much with little here (and it’s Dreyfuss’ film, there’s no doubt about that), and you find yourself hating what Wolters is and stands for for much of the film, before at the very least seeing his point of view by the end.
The thought of being taught by him at any point is still not a pleasant one, however.
MR NOLAN(DEAD POETS SOCIETY) Norman Lloyd
“Free thinkers at 17?”
There’s, somewhere deep inside, a similarity between the aforementioned Wolters from Mr Holland’s Opus and Mr Nolan in Dead Poets Society. Nolan is the polar opposite of Robin Williams’ Mr Keating, and very firmly the representative of the establishment and old way of doing things in Peter Weir’s superior sentimental teacher movie. Nolan can’t abide anything going off the tried and tested beaten track, and he’s on a collision course with Williams’ Mr Keating for the duration of the movie. The contrast in their methods is best demonstrated when Nolan takes control of Keating’s class at the end of the film, and tries to get them to read the chapter of a textbook that the latter had had the boys rip out.
Nolan is a cold, hard fish, with little to like about him. He comes across as a man firmly out of his time, intent of making his school as joyless as possible. Norman Lloyd’s performance captures that perfectly.
We’d bet that none of those kids would have ever stood on their desks were Mr Nolan leaving. Not for the same reasons anyway…
MRS. APPLEYARD(PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK) Rachel Roberts
“There are places for girls in your predicament. Institutions. As your fees have not been forthcoming ….You will be returned to the orphanage.”
Mrs Appleyard is one of those hardcore headmistresses who leaves students shivering in her wake. As long as your tuition’s paid up, the worst you’ll face is a frosty shoulder and icy glare. If you’re a charity case and your guardian fails to keep up the payments, however, it’s time to tremble.
Director Peter Weir visited the subject of suicidal students some 14 years before Dead Poets Society when Mrs Appleyard threatened and intimidated a young girl in her charge into ending her life. The death isn’t shown and the exact cause is left to the viewer. But having shown no sign of grief when three young female students and a teacher disappeared – except in the loss of income and cost to her reputation – Mrs Appleyard seems capable of the most evil machinations imaginable, brewing under that beehive hairdo.
ED ROONEY(FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF) Jeffrey Jones
“I did not achieve this position in life by having some snot-nosed punk leave my cheese out in the wind.”
A man who’s willing to go to great lengths to bring his students to what he sees as justice, Ed Rooney is the Terminator of teachers (or Dean of Students in this case, to be precise). His day-long pursuit of Matthew Broderick’s Ferris Bueller demonstrates admirable commitment to the cause, and he’s effectively taking on the Wile E Coyote role in Road Runner here. His job is to be beaten by Ferris for much of the day, and to look really pissed off about it.
And to be fair, Ed Rooney ticks those boxes. He’s not got the sinister edge of some of the entries on this list, but there’s little doubt he’d go to great lengths to stop his students having fun. Much of the film, of course, is made all the more enjoyable by watching Ferris and friends outwit him, but that ‘s all made all the more satisfying by the fact that Rooney is very definitely one of those you want to see on the losing side of anything.
BARBARA COVETT(NOTES ON A SCANDAL) Judi Dench
“Here come the local pubescent proles. The future plumbers, shop assistants, and doubtless the odd terrorist too. In the old days, we confiscated cigarettes and wank mags. Now it’s knives and crack cocaine. And they call it progress.”
Never mind sinister teachers, Barbara Covett is one of the most sinister characters to appear in a thriller in the last decade, full stop. Superbly realised by the peerless Dame Judi Dench, Covett is the teacher who makes friends with a younger colleague. Both colleagues and students are no fans of Covett, but new teacher Sheba Hart (played by Cate Blanchett) for a while at least seems to be.
However, slowly bubbling unease soon fleshes out into something far more unpleasant when Covett discovers Hart is having an affair with one of her students. Cue a ramping up of manipulation and the eventual turning into a full-on nutter, all played with maximum, yet controlled, menace by Dench.
It’s a memorable role, and Dench turns her character into the kind of teacher you’d give yourself a cold to avoid.
JOHN KIMBLE(KINDERGARTEN COP) Arnold Schwarzenegger
“No more complaining. No more ‘Mr. Kimble, I have to go the bathroom.’ Nothing!”
Never mind that in Kindergarten Cop Arnold Schwarzenegger was supposed to be a force for good. It’s still, as the premise of this one-joke comedy heavily relied on (and provided a template for The Rock and Vin Diesel to follow in years to follow), the Terminator at the front of a bunch of kids.
He makes the list solely for the early part of the film, before he has to turn good and happy and lovely. In those early stages, he’s a man who simply doesn’t want to be there, and shows little sign of disguising it. It’s small wonder that half the kids don’t just start crying on the spot. What next? Stallone and his team of Expendables taking drama? You’d remember the lesson, that much is for sure…
Kindergarten Cop does peter out, of course, to meet the ultimate needs of the formula. But it gives us a glimpse – just for a little bit – of what it would be like for an angry Hollywood action hero to be at the front of a class. We suspect the novelty would wear off very quickly indeed.
HAL PETERSHAM(D.O.A.) Daniel Stern
“Yeah that’s right, kill for… isn’t that what it’s all about? Publish or Perish?”
Before bumbling around as burglar Marv in two Home Alone films and buddying up as businessman Phil in City Slickers, Daniel Stern had a crack at a bad guy role as professor and killer in 1988’s D.O.A., a tangled and barely recognisable retelling of the 1950 film of the same name.
Stern’s character, Petersham, is clinging to his professorship, having failed to publish anything, unlike his prolific friend and colleague, Dex Cornell (Dennis Quaid). When he steals a student’s manuscript to pass off as his own, he has to kill the undergrad, covering up a crime of plagiarism and theft with outright murder. Dex has also read the purloined pages and Hal has to bump him off as well.
Quite a number of deaths rack up as direct and indirect consequences of a teacher’s severe case of writer’s block. Don’t let the mild-mannered facade fool you. He’s a homicidal academiac.
One More Thing…
Were we factoring in television programmes on this list, then Grange Hill’s Mr Bronson would be front and centre of it. Granted, some of our American readers are unlikely to be aware of Bronson, the sinister French teacher who patrolled the corridors of Grange Hill and ruled his classes through fear and lots of discipline. But you’re likely to have heard of actor Michael Sheard. The late Sheard may, in some quarters, be more famed for his appearance in Star Wars, and as Hitler in Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade. But for British residents of a certain age, the mere mention of Mr Bronson was enough to make the idea of secondary school an unpalatable one.
Add your suggestions for further inclusions in the comments!