The Best Movie You Never Saw: Swing Kids

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’ll be looking at SWING KIDS!

THE STORY: In Nazi Germany, a group of teenaged boys resist the movement by embracing American jazz music and fashion. When a prank gets one of them, Peter (Robert Sean Leonard), in trouble with the Gestapo, he’s forced to join the Hitler Youth. His best friend, Thomas (Christian Bale), joins in sympathy, but eventually becomes indoctrinated, driving a dangerous wedge between the two.

THE PLAYERS: Starring: Robert Sean Leonard, Christian Bale, Frank Whaley, Barbara Hershey & Kenneth Branagh. Directed by Thomas Carter.

THE HISTORY: Disney was a way different studio in the nineties than it is today. Back then, they had two subsidiary companies, Touchstone Pictures, and Hollywood Pictures, that put out the movies they deemed inappropriate for the Disney Label, basically anything that wasn’t G-rated. Disney, as a company, still had a lot of stigma as a brand, and whenever they tried to do something a little edgier, like the PG-rated reboots of THE THREE MUSKETEERS and THE JUNGLE BOOK (actually a really fun movie – and a potential entry for this column), they usually failed to connect to older audiences. Thus, the subsidiaries dominated live action, which also meant Disney could make R-rated movies like TOMBSTONE and THE ROCK, something they don’t do now, with everything simply being PG-13 and being put out by Disney proper (Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures are still technically in operation, but don’t regularly put out movies – with Touchstone almost solely devoted to co-productions with Dreamworks, and Hollywood Pictures inactive for years).

Even though they didn’t need to, they would still target movies to younger viewers, often with bizarre results, and that’s where SWING KIDS comes in, as it’s probably the only “dancing Nazis” movie you’ll ever see, and as unlikely a choice for a major studio film as you could imagine. It’s actually based in fact, with the Jazz-loving “Swing Kids” based on a real group that resisted the Nazis in a non-violent way during their rise to power.

The studio really wanted Ethan (Hawke) to play Bob’s role. [Laughs.] And I was begging Ethan to do that role because, even though I liked Bob, I’d only just met him, whereas I knew that Ethan and I could have a great time, because we had to go to Prague. I was just trying to convince him that it would be the best movie that Disney ever made about dancing Nazis! [Laughs.] But I’m sure he regrets it now. I mean, are you kidding me? He could be famous if he’d only done that movie! - Frank Whaley- Random Roles Interview

Even still, most critics wrote this off as little-more than an After-school Special, with Roger Ebert especially damning in his review, calling the filmmakers on the carpet for seriously downplaying the atrocities of the era. This is a legit criticism, as other than one scene where the Swing Kids (accidently) save a Jewish Boy from a Nazi beating the persecution of the Jews is downplayed to a ridiculous degree, and the movie died a quick death at the box office.

WHY IT'S GREAT: Ok, so maybe great is too generous a term for SWING KIDS. Everything Roger Ebert said in his review is true, and were this a new film, I’d probably have the same complaints. However, I have the benefit of nostalgia, having enjoyed this movie as a kid, and I’ll say this – it encouraged me to learn a lot more about the Holocaust than I would have otherwise.

Christian Bale was in that movie, too, and this was three or four months of epic games of Risk, where everybody would put two or three hundred bucks under the board, and whoever won got all the money under the board, so this would lead to fist fights and people screaming at each other. But also on our off-hours we were scouring the underbelly of Prague circa the early ’90s, going to mosh-pit clubs and drinking shit that you had no idea what was in the glass. People would just give it to you. [Yells.] “Drink this!” And you’d drink it, and you’d wake up four days later. - Frank Whaley- Random Roles Interview

I also think there’s something interesting about the way the two boys, played by Robert Sean Leonard and a young Christian Bale, are shown to be indoctrinated into the Hitler Youth. Movies about the German mindset during the rise of the Third Reich are rare, and SWING KIDS, through the contrast between how the boys act when forced to join the party, is interesting. We see Leonard’s Peter, despite his father having been carted-off to a concentration camp as a young boy, able to sustain his own identity and independence a little better. Thomas, played by Bale, is the more privileged of the two, but he hates his cruel father, and finds a disastrous surrogate in Hitler, the same as Kenneth Branagh’s S.S officer, who gets a three-dimensional portrayal, even though it’s men like exactly like him that committed such unspeakable acts. It’s an interested companion piece to Sam Peckinpah’s CROSS OF IRON, Bob Fosse’s CABARET, or Bryan Singer’s more recent VALKYRIE (coincidently also starring Branagh).

Frank Whaley also contributes a fine performance as the group’s conscience; a crippled youth who’s disability makes him a mark for the Hitler Youth, in particular a sadistic ex-Swing Kid member played by a young Noah Wyle. The film probably comes off as a bit of a TV movie at times, although director Thomas Carter (COACH CARTER and the awesome “Miami Vice” pilot, “Brother’s Keeper”) keeps the pace moving quickly – even if it gets too Disney-maudlin at times, and could have used a less sappy musical score.

BEST SCENE: Christian Bale’s performance in SWING KIDS is a great early one for him, and is an interesting transition between his roles as a child in movies like EMPIRE OF THE SUN and the movies he’d become a superstar for a decade later. This one followed NEWSIES, and allowed him to show some real edge, as demonstrated in this boxing scene where he tries to get some payback for his crippled buddy against Wyle’s Nazi bully.

SEE IT: SWING KIDS isn’t out of Blu-ray, but you can still get the old DVD pretty cheap on Amazon.

PARTING SHOT: Look, SWING KIDS isn’t a perfect film, but if you’re a child of the nineties and are keen on seeing a good, early Christian Bale performance, it’s well worth a watch. I’ve always had a soft spot for it, and I was surprised, when I revisited it this week, how well it’s held up. Give it a look!

Extra Tidbit: Kenneth Branagh chose to go un-billed when the studio decided to bill him above Christian Bale, as he thought his role was too minor to deserve such a high position in the credits.
Source: JoBlo.com



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