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Customer Review

on 22 March 2004
The origin of all the inspirational teacher movies, Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a heartwarming film that unfolds the story of a man who is transformed by love, and goes on to influence the lives of his pupils and colleagues. Nostalgic, even when it was released in 1939, this is a tender and affectionate study of a society, an education system, and a man who belatedly outgrows his constraints and develops a true vocation from his professional commitments. It is Chips' transformation that makes this film a classic example of a man who belatedly discovers how to use strengths that ultimately give meaning and value to his life.
The film opens amidst the hustle and bustle of a new academic year at Brookfield with new and returning pupils hurrying to attend the first-day assembly. Chips arrives late for the event and is locked out with a young pupil with whom he shares his knowledge of the stone tablets that serve as memorials to past students and staff.
Mr. Chips: So, you're a stinker, eh?
Student: A stinker, Sir?
Mr. Chips: A new boy. That's what we call them here. Stinkers... (he indicates a stone tablet that commemorates the hero of the Armada: "Sir Francis Drake 1552")
Student: Drake! Was he here, Sir?
Mr. Chips: Yes.
Student: Was he a stinker too, Sir?
Mr. Chips: To be sure he was. But he grew out of it. And so will you.
This exchange sets-up the question of how 'stinkers' are helped to mature into the fine young men and heroes whom we see later in the film. We see the answer in a series of flashbacks that extend over sixty years of Chipping's life.
The young Mr. Chipping arrives at Brookfield, filled with enthusiasm and ambition. Some early misjudgements make him vulnerable to criticism by the Headmaster who reprimands him for his poor control of the boys.
Our profession is not an easy one, Mr. Chipping. It calls for something more than a University degree. Our business is to mould men. It demands character and courage. Above all, it demands the ability to exercise authority. Without that, I think any young man should ask himself seriously if he has not perhaps mistaken his vocation. When a man is young, Mr. Chipping, there are many other walks of life open to him.
In a disastrous attempt to assert his authority, the teacher forbids his pupils to attend a cricket match, which the school then loses because of the absence of a key player. Despite Chipping's apology, the reaction of the pupils and his colleagues leads him to develop a protective shield of authoritarianism and inflexibility. Chipping's enthusiasm ebbs away over the years: he is so intimidated by life that he retreats into a sterile existence that smothers rather than protects him. Passing him over for promotion, the Headmaster praises Chipping for his ability to exact high academic performance from the boys but explains that he is thought to lack the empathy and vision that is needed in a Housemaster.
... We felt that with your unusual gifts of getting work out of the boys that you'd rather concentrate on teaching and leave the rather tiresome job of Housemaster to someone with special gifts in that direction...I doubt if Mr. Wilkinson will ever turn out as many minor Latin poets as you have.
Although surrounded by the rich, social network of the school, and a senior member within it, Chipping is exposed as an isolated figure whose relationships are restricted to the functional, and are grounded only in perfunctory respect and status. Humiliated, Chipping withdraws into his room, where his loneliness and the darkness close in around him. Fortunately, a young colleague persuades him to accompany him on a walking tour to the Tyrol where Chipping meets the fascinating Katherine Ellis who is destined to be his wife and help-meet.
Chipping's feelings are reciprocated in a charming courtship that changes his view of himself, and alerts him to the possibilities of living his life in a different way.
Chipping: Do you suppose a person in middle age could start life over again and make a go of it?
Katherine: I'm sure of it. Quite sure. It must be tremendously interesting to be a schoolmaster.
Chipping: I thought so once.
Katherine: To watch boys grow up and help them along. To see their characters develop and what they become when they leave school and the world gets hold of them. I don't see how you could ever get old in a world that's always young.
Chipping: I never really thought of it that way. When you talk about it, you make it sound exciting and heroic.
Katherine: It is.
Chipping: (He turns to her) And the schoolmaster? Is he exciting and heroic too?
Katherine: (teasing him for his earlier actions and diffidence) I've met only one - a reckless person who climbed the Blochner in a mist...
The couple marry before the start of the school year. And from the start, the pupils and colleagues view Chips (as he is now affectionately named by Kathy) in a new light. She encourages him to use the strengths (such as empathy and a dry sense of humour) that she knows him to have, but that are little seen by others. Inevitably, Chips wins the trust and admiration of the pupils and the change in his status is reflected when he wins the appointment of Housemaster.
Despite personal and larger-scale tragedy, we see that Chips' life becomes one of meaning and influence: we see his crucial role in the transformation of 'stinkers' into admirable men and the foundations of the freedoms enjoyed by others, built on their sacrifices.
This film epitomises key aspects of a meaningful life: Chips learns to use his previously concealed Signature Strengths (see "Authentic Happiness" by Marty Seligman), is transformed by love and a capacity to be loved and is taught that it is never too late to change.
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