(Welcome to The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. This week we tour some exclusive boys schools that won’t leave you cringing at the prospect of cruel cretins crawling out into the world.)

Private schools for boys, usually exclusive and typically religious in some way, have been getting a bad rap in recent months for the miserable behaviors exhibited by their students and graduates. The truth is these schools are usually no better or worse than their public counterparts, but it’s always the terrible examples we hear about the loudest. In an effort to counter that I’d like to highlight some of the less criminal elements walking the halls of the nation’s boys schools. Of course, this being a movie site means I’ll be looking exclusively at exclusive schools in movies.

Some of the best-known include Class (1983), Dead Poet’s Society (1989) and School Ties (1992), and while one of those is clearly the better film all three are memorable and worth watching (again). There are others, though, that while worth your time are far less known for one reason or another despite showing boys and young men we can be proud of. So what do you say I share a few with you?

Keep reading for a look at six good to great boys school-set movies that you probably haven’t seen.

Tom Brown’s School Days (1951)

Young Tom Brown is new to the boarding school life but quickly finds friends in his grade to help him settle in. They’re not all as welcoming, though, and Tom soon finds himself in the crosshairs of a known bully named Flashman. Tom’s habit of standing up to the older teen gains him respect that soon translates into all of the underclassmen following his lead to take down Flashman.

Friendship, honor, and respect are the threads running through this classic tale, but all of them are wrapped around a main narrative involving bullying. The new headmaster wants to squash it out of his school, but while most kids just go along with it (whether it’s happening to them or others) it takes Tom stepping up to bring it all down. The ruffians aren’t fooling around as they abuse, berate, and even burn young Tom, but his actions spark a rebellion resulting in a terrific montage of kids turning the tables on the bullies with orchestrated pranks and attacks. It’s an extremely well-crafted and smart morality tale.

Thomas Hughes’ source novel was first published in 1857 and has been adapted for the screen several times — twice for television and three times for the movies — and its core themes and plot remain every bit as relevant today. Bullying is a real issue, and private schools have long proven to be a hotbed for the barbarity of youth. It’s a story that could easily be updated and remade for new American audiences, although the argument could be made that Scent of a Woman was already an unofficial adaptation of sorts so never mind.

Tom Brown’s School Days is available to stream and on DVD.

Her Twelve Men (1954)

Jan Stewart has no real teaching experience, but after her husband’s death she finds herself accepting a job as the first female teacher at a private all-boys boarding school. The boys see her as a “creep” at first, but what starts as a struggle between them becomes a lesson for everyone.

The structure here is as expected with the conflict between teacher and student finding resolution on a path of respect and love, but the change-up here is with the addition of a female teacher (played by Greer Garson). Seems like it shouldn’t be an issue, but back in the 50s? Madness at an all-boys school! A modern take on the tale would probably see some sexual tension or shenanigans arise, but these were simpler times leaving the film to focus on morality, social expectations, and what it means to be a great teacher instead.

The downside to its home in the 1950s, though, is that it still exhibits some old-fashioned sexism of its own. After opening with Jan’s fantasies about marriage to powerful men it’s no surprise to see that reality approaching in the form of one of the boy’s very wealthy father. Will she fall for his charms and pocketbook? Or will she fall for the cantankerous male teacher who wasn’t too keen on her presence? Either way, she has to fall in love with one of them. She has to. Has. To.

Her Twelve Men is not currently available.

Heaven Help Us (1985)

Michael Dunn is a shy teen sent to live with relatives and enrolled in an all-boys religious prep school. He’s a smart student who makes some rowdy friends and even meets a nice girl working a nearby diner, but when the real world takes another swing at him he decides to throw a punch of his own.

This mid-80s period comedy looks, for all intents and purposes, like just another teen sex comedy. The boys are horndogs and pranksters fighting against the restrictions of a religious institution in the 50s, but while those elements are on display there are some surprisingly serious threads running through it too. There’s sadness in the situation endured by Michael and his sister, the shop girl has her own slowly unfolding tragedy, and the corporal punishment exhibited by one of the school’s teachers is no laughing matter.

Andrew McCarthy, always the quietest of the Brat Pack, finds the heart and simmering anger in young Michael while three of his troublemaking friends come courtesy of Kevin Dillon, Patrick Dempsey, and Stephen Geoffreys. The underappreciated Mary Stuart Masterson plays the girl who connects with Michael while the various teachers are given weight by legends like Donald Sutherland, John Heard, and Wallace Shawn. It’s a funny, sweet, rowdy, and ultimately triumphant film that always leaves this Catholic school veteran smiling.

Heaven Help Us is available to stream and on DVD.

Toy Soldiers (1991)

When heavily armed men take control of a boarding school populated by troublemaking kids of wealthy and important parents the situation seems hopeless. What no one is counting on, though, is the resilience and ingenuity of young punks who refuse to give in to terrorists.

Sean Astin leads the group of boisterous teens forced to become heroes at the wrong end of a machine gun, and he’s joined by the likes of Wil Wheaton and Keith Coogan. They all bring personality and energy to their characters, and director/co-writer Daniel Petrie Jr. and co-writer David Koepp give them plenty to do. It’s a YA film of a sort, but it’s also an action-oriented “home” invasion movie complete with violence, danger, and extreme threats. The honor and loyalty that’s been instilled in the boys, in turn, fuels their courage making for an almost cheer-worthy action picture.

Everyone has movies that are automatic watches when they show up on while channel-surfing, and this is one of mine. It’s a great piece of fantasy fulfillment for teenage boys that doesn’t go the route of a T&A hunt. Granted, that’s partially because it’s a boys school and there are no girls, but it makes for an adrenaline-fueled adventure with teens who get to become action heroes. It feels overdue for a remake, but this time around I’d love to see it unfold at an all-girls school as they’re just as capable of kicking ass.

Toy Soldiers is available to stream and on Blu-ray/DVD.

The Emperor’s Club (2002)

Prof. Hundert is an idealistic teacher beginning another year at an academy for boys, but the arrival of a new student sends a slight ripple of disruption throughout the halls. Sedgewick Bell is the son of a U.S. Senator and arrives a spoiled brat more prone to outbursts than study sessions, but Hundert’s belief in the young man might just be enough to turn him around.

The film is based on a short story by Ethan Canin, but it feels every bit like it was clearly inspired by Dead Poet’s Society. It can’t match that film’s emotional effect or power, but it manages some engaging drama and unexpected story turns that shift its idealism into cynicism. It comes around again to find virtue in the institution of teaching, but its honest take on the reality exhibited by too many people — that lying and cheating is a necessary vice to get what we want — leaves a darkness amid the light. (As for the cheating, one need look no further than the closeup scenes of Kline rowing the nearby river when it’s clear the water isn’t moving and he’s probably sitting on a dock.)

It’s a good film made more enjoyable by a cast filled with familiar and talented faces. Kevin Kline plays Hundert and brings real integrity and compassion to the character. His students, meanwhile, are brought to energetic life by the likes of Paul Dano, Jesse Eisenberg, and Emile Hirsch. Edward Herrmann, Rob Morrow, and Embeth Davidtz also make an appearance while a jump twenty-five years into the future sees Patrick Dempsey playing the older Eisenberg. Movie magic!

The Emperor’s Club is available to stream and on DVD.

Spud (2010)

Heading off to an elite academy for boys is bad enough for a shy kid in 1990 South Africa, but it’s made a little bit worse when his classmates get a glance at his tiny pecker and balls that have yet to drop. Young John is nicknamed Spud from that moment onward, but it won’t be the only challenge he faces in his attempt to fit in, stand out, and survive the school year.

The coming of age film is a subgenre of its own typically highlighted by life lessons, defeats, and triumphs, and Spud follows suit accordingly. Our hero’s “private” issue sees him targeted for some light-hearted ribbing, but as a PG movie (in spirit) it never takes the route of a gross or cruel gag. Instead, through the ups and downs of the year, Spud makes friends, bonds with an alcoholic teacher (the always welcome John Cleese), and even finds himself in the middle of a near love triangle. There are hijinks and conflicts aplenty and maybe a little bit of wish fulfillment, but it’s an effectively heartwarming watch for anyone who .

The film is an adaptation of the first book (of the same name) in a popular series, and two movie sequels have followed so far exploring Spud’s second and third years at school. I haven’t seen either of them, but the cast returns and they appear to continue the teen’s coming of age in ways both sweet and obvious. We’ve seen a lot of these beats before, done both better and worse, but Spud (and presumably its sequels and source novels) succeeds in its sincerity.

Spud is available to stream.

Read about more of the best movies you’ve never seen.

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