Release Date(s)1971 (August 22, 2023)
Studio(s)Hemmings/Mediarts/Paramount Pictures (Arrow Video)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A
Despairing but very well-made, Unman, Wittering and Zigo (1971) is a British thriller co-produced by its star, David Hemmings, and directed by John Mackenzie, the filmmaker behind The Long Good Friday (1980), one the best British films ever.
The story presents an overly-familiar situation told in clever, original ways. John Ebony (Hemmings) has abandoned an unrewarding career in advertising to teach at Chantry, a second-rate but public (private, in American terms) school for boys. Clearly, Ebony has romanticized expectations of the profession, perhaps imagining an environment like that found in Goodbye, Mr. Chips.
Instead he finds the boys in his form (grade), the equivalent of high school seniors, unruly and insolent. The first of several big surprises comes early: completely united, the boys openly confess to having murdered Professor Pelham, Ebony’s predecessor. At first Ebony laughs this off as a sick joke, but the boys then explain in detail how they did the deed, and casually produce physical evidence, such as Pelham’s wallet, to back up their claims. Ebony’s wife, Silvia (Carolyn Seymour), headmaster (Douglas Wilmer) and colleagues, notably art teacher Farthingale (Tony Haygarth), don’t believe Ebony and/or assume it’s all an elaborate prank.
Their sadistic taunting and demands only gets worse. Ebony’s cocky students threaten him into placing bets with the local bookie, letting them spend class time goofing off yet demaning excellent marks at the end of the term. When he resists, the boys plan to teach Ebony a lesson—by gang raping Sylvia.
Hard-hitting dramas about public schools (in the American sense) like Blackboard Jungle and To Sir, with Love present similarly bleak portraits of broken educational systems, yet the focus in those films is always the indefatigable teacher determined to “reach” his students, to break through their hardened outer shells so that true learning can finally begin. In Unman, Wittering and Zigo there’s no such pretense. This is a uniquely British class system story that could only have been made there.
Americans who’ve seen the late Michael Apted’s Up series of documentaries will pick up on this immediately. The children of wealthy families work their way through expensive, elite public schools with a sense of entitlement from an early age; by 14 (in the second Up film), the wealthy kids have already become insufferable snobs fully expecting to coast through life. Pressured by familial expectations and often virtually dumped and abandoned in such schools, these unformed children—in movies, at least—often project their anger and frustrations onto teachers or fellow classmates, taking dangerous forms such as bullying, rape, and other violence.
We can see this manifest in everything from the 1963 film of Lord of the Flies to more obscure titles like Absolution (1978), an exploration of many of the same basic components as Unman, Wittering and Zigo. The boldness (chutzpah?) and uniform voice of Ebony’s students, cocksure that they will never, ever have to pay for their crime, is unnerving, and still resonates in a society where the wealthy seem to get away with almost anything and rarely are punished for their crimes.
The unrelenting bleakness of its story partly is due to Hemmings’s weak-willed character. Hired as a temporary replacement, Ebony is desperate to make a good impression so that he’ll be kept on permanently, and therefore making waves about his charges without hard evidence of a crime is the last thing he wants to do. Lacking an elite education himself, it’s implied Ebony also suffers from feelings of inferiority next to the articulate, confident boys. When Ebony is asked to teach a chemistry lesson at the last minute, he’s reluctant, as if his students will figure out he doesn’t know much more about the subject than they do.
The weakness of Hemmings’s character is offset a little by Carolyn Seymour’s wife; resentful of his selfishness and weaknesses, she feels no obligation to kowtow to school politics like he does, and fights back when the boys attack her. The film’s ambiguous ending outwardly seems to wrap things up neatly yet begs more questions than it answers. It makes one of the students the fall guy for the murder yet is unclear how the other boys’ complicity will be treated. Indeed, the film at least hints at the idea that other teachers in other classes and perhaps even the headmaster are under the dark influences of their pupils.
Hemmings, Seymour, and Haygarth are all excellent. The “boys,” all with unusual names and mostly played by young actors in their early 20s, are fine also. The only two I recognized from other films were former child actor Michael Cashman, now an LGBT+-rights activist for the Labour Party and onetime member of the House of Lords; and Michael Kitchen, who as an adult starred in the superb television mystery-drama Foyle’s War. Very strange to see him as a pimply-faced teenager here.
Arrow Video’s 1.85:1 widescreen transfer of Unman, Wittering and Zigo looks great, the often dark and shadowy film always spot-on image-wise. The LPCM mono audio, supported by optional English subtitles, is good for what it is. Their U.S. release is Region “A” encoded.
As usual for the label, Arrow practically chokes U, W & Z with interesting supplements. They include a 30-minute featurette interviewing actress Carolyn Seymour and three of the “students”—Michael Cashman, Michael Howe, and James Wardroper—about the making of the film; all show enormous respect for Hemmings as both a producer and actor. Also included is an audio commentary track by Sean Hogan and Kim Newman; a 25-minute analysis by Matthew Sweet; a 73-minute 1958 radio adaptation of the story, which plays against images from the film; an image gallery and trailer.
Arrow Video provided only a check disc for this review, but included in the final release is a reversible insert and double-sided poster featuring the original theatrical poster on one side and new artwork by Eric Adrian Lee on the other, as well as a booklet containing essays by Kevin Lyons and Oliver Wake.
Small-scale but eerily effective, Unman, Wittering and Zigo is Recommended.
- Stuart Galbraith IV