A Touch of Greatness (2004, 53 min)
You won’t find 10-year-old children reciting Shakespeare soliloquies, acting out the Cuban Missile Crisis or performing Sophocles plays in most American classrooms today. But Albert Cullum’s elementary school students did all this and more. Combining interviews with Cullum and his former students with stunning archival footage filmed by director Robert Downey, Sr., A TOUCH OF GREATNESS documents the extraordinary work of this maverick public school teacher who embraced creativity, motivation and self-esteem in the classroom through the use of poetry, drama and imaginative play.
Regarded by academics as one of the most influential educators of the 1960s and ‘70s, Cullum championed what is, by today's standards, an unorthodox educational philosophy: the belief that the only way teachers can be successful with children is to speak directly to their hearts and to their instinctive and largely ignored capacity to quickly understand and identify with the great personalities, ideas and emotions found in classical literature. To that end, Cullum regularly taught his elementary school children literary masterpieces, exposed them to great works of art and engaged them in the events of world history. Without leaving the classroom, his students visited King Tut's tomb, attended joint sessions of the U.S. Congress, operated on “bleeding” nouns in his "grammar hospital," and clamored to play the timeless roles of Julius Caesar, Lady Macbeth and Hamlet.
When Cullum was an elementary school teacher in the New York City suburbs during the 1960s, his friend Robert Downey helped film several student plays and classroom events. In A TOUCH OF GREATNESS, these lush black and white films, with original music created by Tom O'Horgan, capture the work of this radical teacher and his students’ love of learning.
In one exhilarating scene, Cullum, dressed as old King Oberon of A Midsummer Night's Dream and draped in a long black cape topped with a crown, runs through a sparkling forest with a group of children scampering behind him in riotous delight. In another segment, Joan of Arc pulls out her sword, leads her army to Orléans and meets her death burning at the stake. Shot with extreme close-ups, the footage recalls Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1928 cinematic masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc—except that Cullum’s brave Saint Joan is a fifth grade girl from Westchester. Cullum, who passed away soon after the filming was completed in 2003, once said that "every public schoolgirl should have the chance to play the part of St. Joan before the age of twelve, because the older you get, the more difficult it is to hear the voices of St. Margaret and St. Catherine calling you."
Inspiring and joyous, A TOUCH OF GREATNESS weaves footage from these early films with rare television broadcasts and lively, provocative comments from former students as they speak about how these experiences resonate in their lives today. A TOUCH OF GREATNESS is a portrait of the lives transformed by a teacher who, with passion and aplomb, enabled a generation of children to embrace their own "heroic deeds" and inner greatness.