SCUM (1979), A CONTROVERSIAL, bare-knuckled UK prison drama directed by Alan Clarke, is set in a “borstal”—somewhere between a reform school and a juvenile detention center—populated by the type of irredeemable, heavily accented delinquents Morrissey romanticized in songs like “Suedehead” and “Last of the Famous International Playboys,” rakish street hoods with hidden (or merely imagined) sensitive streaks. But there is no glamour here, even of a roughneck or rough-trade variety (it is far from Genet), and boys who evince any kind of vulnerability tend to commit suicide, in one case, after being gang-raped.
In the Smiths/Morrissey corpus, Scum would be a cross between “The Headmaster Ritual” (“Belligerent ghouls run Manchester schools”) and “Barbarism Begins at Home,” with its refrain “Unruly boys / Who will not grow up / Must be taken in hand.” The borstal’s adult wardens, known as “screws,” are almost unbelievably brutal; the welcome that the main character Carlin (a young Ray Winstone) receives as he’s admitted are blows to the balls and stomach, as well as a bed in a four-boy dorm where they know he’ll get worked over by the reigning “daddy,” the top bully/gang boss of the wing whom Carlin forcibly unseats later in the film.
Clarke originally made a version of Scum in 1977, based on a script by Roy Minton, for the BBC’s Play for Today teleplay series, but it was banned for excessive violence and not aired, leading the writer-director team to remake the project as a theatrical film two years later. In the film, the uncensored intensity of the racism, homophobia, and general sociopathy displayed by the boys and screws alike is truly shocking; there is little mystery as to why the original teleplay was rejected, even though it was in many respects milder than the remake.
An exhaustive list of trigger warnings would fill several pages; borstals are the very antithesis of “safe spaces.” The sustained racism, in particular, is remarkable and virulent in ways often associated with the rural American South, and I imagined the film set as an extraordinarily hostile work environment for the young black actors (all of the screws are white). The self-selected teams for a rugby match (inside a basketball court!) initially break down along race lines, and the mutually applied violence during the game seethes with racial animus. If none of the boys were injured during the rugby scene, an unhinged, bone-twisting melee even by rugby standards (and on a wood floor, for fuck’s sake), I’d be very surprised; it is one of the moments that gives the film its air of documentary realism. Any Brits given to lecturing Americans on their country’s relatively enlightened approach to race relations need to see Scum.
Winstone—in an ideal match of actor and role—is impressive, his expression of wounded defiance far subtler and more affecting than the bare-toothed grimace he pulls on the film’s poster. He is capable of explosive violence, but there’s a quiet decency about him, particularly compared with the wing’s previous “daddy” and his leering goons, one of whom is the wiry Phil Daniels, who starred as troubled mod Jimmy Cooper in Quadrophenia the same year. One can picture the screenwriters of Sexy Beast (2000) thinking of Winstone’s character Gal—a retired heist man reluctantly drawn back into the trade by a psycho-Cockney Ben Kingsley—as an adult version of Carlin.
Scum also recalls Lindsay Anderson’s If . . . (1968), an upper-class version of a similar narrative set at an elite English “public school,” and the more recent French prison film A Prophet (2009), especially in its detailed observations of the ever-shifting microhierarchies of prison populations and the symbiotic relationships the dominant inmates forge with the wardens. There are echoes too of Brute Force (1947), a grim, grinding prison noir starring Burt Lancaster and featuring Hume Cronyn playing, against type, an ultrasadistic warden, an atavistic archetype for the borstal’s screws.
Contemporary viewers may be surprised by the relatively bucolic surroundings of the borstal, which is a fairly grand, rambling, multibuilding institution flanked by fields and woods, reminiscent of a nineteenth-century sanitarium (Rikers Island, it’s not), but the creeping rot of the place is signaled by the sickly pistachio-green paint adorning the interior walls and the cheap earth-toned blazers of the screws.
The borstal has its own Morrissey of sorts in Archer, an effete, intellectual older boy who pines for his confiscated Dostoevsky novels and is the type of vegetarian who would rather go barefoot in the snow than wear leather boots. In a soliloquy he delivers to one of his minders, he reflects, “The punitive system does not work . . . More criminal acts are imposed on prisoners by screws than by criminals on society . . . The only thing I’ll take from borstal is evil.” Ultimately, beyond the filth and fury, Scum is a starkly powerful critique and condemnation of the very idea of imprisonment, rehabilitative or otherwise. In an age of mass incarceration, it is as relevant today as it was in late ’70s Britain. Bring thick skin.
Alan Clarke’s Scum plays June 16 through 21 at the Metrograph in New York.