You Don't Know Shat !?! : The Explosive Generation (1961)

Last week I talked about Shatner in the '80s "teens out of control" flick Broken Angel where he played a concerned Dad who wondered what was the matter with kids today. Today's film put The Shat on the other side of that equation. The early Sixties may well have been more of a time of chance than the latter part of the decade. With the rise of Rock and Roll (even in this pre-Beatles era) and "race" records, the conformity of the 50s was beginning to wane in the youth of the nation. As we all know by the mid to late 60s the pendulum had swung in favor of the hippie free love movement and anti-war protests. The makers of The Explosive Generation fashioned a movie that was prescient of the changes in youth culture, and even though the actions the teens take might not seem so "explosive" to us now, these were the kind of events that lit the fuse of the cultural explosion. Of course, as always, and I'm sure he'd be the first to say, William Shatner created that spark of revolution.

After winning a basketball game, some of the kids  pile out to a beach house for a night of dancing and partying, but for one young couple, Janet and Dan (Patty McCormack and Lee Kinsolving), it kicks off a moral dilemma that balloons into a culture clash. Dan convinces Janet to stay the night, and clearly the insinuation is that he wants her to go all the way. The next day at school teacher Peter Gifford (William Shatner) is supposed to prep his class of seniors for college admission and the job market, but instead, at the students urging, they plan to talk about the issues that really matter to them. At the top of the list is sex. When word gets out about what Gifford is up to, the parents freak out and demand his dismissal. He is given one more chance, but unable to let the kids down, Gifford is suspended for his non-conventional lesson plan. Taking matters into their own hands, Dan organizes a protest to get Gifford reinstated.

While none of what the kids in the film talk about would seem very scandalous today, it is still the kind of thing that is still frowned upon in schools. Frank discussions of matters such as "how far should a girl go to keep her boyfriend" are not di rigeur in today's sex education classes, which still focus on anatomy, venereal disease, and in some cases contraception. In addition, the students of The Explosive Generation also share their concerns about being drafted into the Vietnam war, fear of the Nuclear Bomb, and other hot button issues of the time. The film illustrates the sea change between the innocence of middle America during the 50s to the more wide eyed, youth based radicalism of the 60s. Near the films end, after seeing his students effect change with peaceful protest, Shatner's teacher comments, "That's our future down there, standing up for what they believe in." Little did Shatner or anyone involved in the film know how true that statement would become in only a few years.

While the kids are the main focus of the film, all the events revolve around Shatner's Peter Gifford. The Canadian actor is hailed as a classic over-emoter, and while that is certainly on display here, Shatner gives a deeply sensitive performance with some really nuanced moments. It is apparent that Shatner believes the same things that his character does, and it enhances the role to see how impassioned the actor was with the role.  Patty McCormack is probably best known to horror fans for her role as the evil child in 1956's The Bad Seed, but she is one of the few child stars to continue working through her teenage years and into adulthood where she would appear on The Sopranos and in the movie Frost/Nixon. McCormack gives a great performance which forms the emotional core of the film. I wish I could say the same about Lee Kinsolving's Dan. While he spearheads the protest, Kinsolving only has moments where real passion comes through. The best male performance comes from Billy Grey (perhaps best known as Bud on the classic sitcom Father Knows Best) as Dan's friend Bobby. Not  only does his character shift most dramatically, he exhibits a quiet cool that brings to mind another rebel, James Dean. Also be on the lookout for Beau Bridges in an early role and cult as well as exploitation film producer Arch Hall, Sr. in a rare acting performance as Janet's dad.

The Explosive Generation marked the feature film directing debut of Buzz Kulick who would go on to helm classic films such as The Hunter with Steve  McQueen, Brian's Song with James Caan, and the infamously weird TV movie Bad Ronald. Looking over Kulick's career, there is a thread that runs throughout, a predilection for films about the oppressed, underdogs, and youths achieving beyond expectations. Certainly, The Explosive Generation kicked off a career focussing on those issues, and Kulick, who had previously only worked in television, did a good job making the leap to the big screen. Apart from the film's subject matter, the other notable portion of The Explosive Generation is the jazzy score by composer Hal Borne. It sets the film apart from other similar features like The Blackboard Jungle which latched onto the emerging rock music trend.

I went into The Explosive Generation expecting a teens gone wild exploitation style flick, but instead it seemed aimed at the teens rather than warning adults about the perils of high schoolers. The message seemed to be one of inspiration for teens to be vocal in matters that traditional repressive values excluded from them. By 1966, the traditional values were being challenged harder than they have before or since by the very generation that the film sought to portray. By modern standards, when sex, politics, and religion seemed to be endlessly discussed on television, it is a little hard to imagine kids just starting to think outside the box about these important issues. However, many young people, even today, stay uninformed and garner any knowledge about those subjects from what their parents feel comfortable teaching them. While the 60s might have been an "explosive generation", the film shows that given proper inspiration youth culture can radically change society, and that is something that is true for every generation.

Bugg Rating

No trailer was available, but here's a nice clip. Netflix users can also find this on Instant Watch. 

1 comment:

  1. "The message seemed to be one of inspiration for teens to be vocal in matters that traditional repressive values excluded from them. By 1966, the traditional values were being challenged harder than they have before or since by the very generation that the film sought to portray."

    What an interesting phenomenon! I wonder why this is.


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