Clarke’s second stab at the material is distinguished not just by gore of the sort that, in the early 1980s. inspired much U.K. pearl-clutching over “video nasty”s. He stages sequences of fluid, electrifying cinema craft: the tense silence of dozens of boys before a climactic explosion; the breathless, long-take dash of chief tough Carlin (a strapping young Ray Winstone) out from a common room, up some stairs, into a cell-like dormitory and then into a bathroom, where he cold-cocks a punk even Quakers might concede has it coming. His weapon: two snooker balls in a long sock, almost a parody of testicular might. The boys, of course, call the top dog among them “Daddy.”
One key element got lost in the TV-to-film transfer. In the BBC version, Carlin (again played by Winstone), the borstal’s daddy, offers special protection to a boy the residents and administrators jeer as a “poof.” Carlin also has sex with him, an intimacy common in all-boys schools and prisons but represented in the ’79 film only by a soiling scene of assault. Of course, such same-sex tenderness would likely have proved even more upsetting to the national dignity than the violence was. Without it, Carlin ’79’s brawling takeover of the factions within the institution seems simplified.
At first, in both iterations, he’s an avenging liberator, abused by the home’s Dickensian adults but at least able to end the terrors that the strongest of the boys visit upon the weakest. Eventually, though, as he secures his power, this Scum slips from being a study of what it takes to survive in such a cruel system to a fantasy of how a badass might thrive. Clarke’s sympathy for the institution's outcasts — especially the black kids who even the adults call “coon”s and “black bastid”s — on occasion seems to vanish. Carlin’s besting of a black “daddy” plays like something out of Get Carter: a movie star in total command rather than a boy ginning himself up for a fight. Carlin himself spits out “You black bastid!” during this quick beatdown, which should jolt action fans back from dreaming along with the brutality.
Carlin is occasionally heroic, but he’s no hero — he, too, is stunted by the pathologies of the system. Only beatific Archer (Mick Ford), a hippy smartass who is part Christ and part Puck, dares to insist on his humanity. (Ford’s performance, like all the young men’s, is transparent; you see a boy, not an actor.) It’s Archer, of course, whom the adults vow to break down and who still serves, decades later, as a model of prankish human decency.