Directed by Alan Clarke.
Starring Ray Winstone, Mick Ford, Julian Firth and Phil Daniels.
When Carlin (Ray Winstone) is sent to a Borstal young offenders institute carrying a hard man reputation he is pushed to the limit by wild inmates and cruel officers to uphold it. In this brutal concrete jungle it’s every man for himself and Borstal against them all.
“The film they tried to ban”, and for a couple of years the government successfully did so. Scum was originally made for the BBC’s ‘Play for Today’ in 1977 but was deemed too horrific to broadcast. Two years later director Alan Clarke and writer Roy Minton remade Scum as a movie. Although one could frown at the prudishness of the BBC in their attempt to discard a truly groundbreaking film, one can also understand the cautious approach they applied to dealing with such a controversial and damaging representation of the Borstal system.
The opening scenes show Carlin arriving at the institute with two other inmates; Davis (Julian Firth), a fragile looking character and Angel (Alrick Riley), a young black man. When Carlin meets with the officers (or “screws” to the inmates), they speak of Carlin’s tough reputation as the ‘daddy’ at his previous institute, including assault on an officer. The officer then beats Carlin and forces him to submit and repeat his name and number. The dehumanization of the inmates by referring to them merely as numbers and the sadistic methods of discipline are just some of the daily customs carried out by the ‘screws’.
By no coincidence Carlin is put in a dormitory with the current daddy Pongo Banks (John Bundell), and the officers encourage Pongo to let Carlin know that he’s the daddy. When Carlin meets the extravagant Archer (Mick Ford) for the first time he is unsure of his sanity. Archer is a witty and learned young man, and a constant nuisance to the establishment. Archer refuses to wear leather boots due to being a strict vegetarian and walks around with bare feet. Archer reveals that there is a method to his madness “I want to cause as much trouble as I can, in my own little way”.
Although Carlin’s reputation is mentioned continuously, for the first half of the film he does not rise to it. Carlin fails to defend himself when Pongo and his two side kicks Richards (Phil Daniels) and Eckersley (Ray Burdis) viciously assault him in the middle of the night. Carlin takes his beating, keeps his mouth shut and waits for the right moment to strike. When Carlin finally makes his move he does so with devastating effect; assaulting Richards with a sock filled with pool balls and then jumping Pongo when he has back turned in the bathroom, making him the daddy. After defeating Pongo Carlin begins to reveal the nastier side of his personality. He savagely beats an unarmed rival daddy with a metal pole after meeting for an arranged fight then barrages him with racist profanities. Carlin makes these racial slurs more frequently after he has become the daddy.
In my review of Get Carter I mentioned that Jack Carter and Carlin where similar characters in the sense that they are both corrupt heroes. In Scum you tend to feel more sympathy for Carlin then you do for Jack in Get Carter because of the vindictive nature of the officers and the unforgiving Borstal system itself, coupled with the fact that Carlin has barely reached manhood. That said, Carlin still reveals himself to be a cold hearted and malicious character.
Scum is a powerful piece of social realism which graphically reveals the corruption of the Borstal system and identifies it’s failings as a place of rehabilitation for troubled young men. Archer emphasises this notion when speaking with an officer - “How can anyone build a character in a regime based on deprivation? Good, fine minds thrown in with crazy people”. The lack of inspiration in the institute is subconsciously expressed through the soundtrack to the film, in the sense that there is no soundtrack at all. Music is a luxury of life, a thing of beauty, the fact that there is no music being played for the majority of the film symbolises the inmate’s isolation from the outside world and their loss of human privileges.
Although the brutality and almost Neanderthal behaviour of the inmates is intensely examined, it is the unmerciful cruelty of the ‘screws’ that is the most disturbing aspect of Scum. In a scene that that will make your stomach turn, as poor Davis is raped by three inmates, officer Sands watches the incident taking place and smiles sadistically. Additionally, the racist nature of the ‘screws’ is just as alarming and is used to reveal the racism that runs through the veins of the establishment. Scum remains one of the most shockingly brutal films ever made and effectively bought an end to the Borstal system in England.