The Paper Chase

Movie review by
S. Jhoanna Robledo, Common Sense Media
The Paper Chase Movie Poster Image
Love of learning is tops in classic law school tale.
  • PG
  • 1973
  • 111 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Knowledge is important. Great achievements take work. Learning is its own reward, and life is about more than just what happens in the classroom.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Hart is a brilliant student, but it's clear that intelligence only gets you so far and he's got to work extremely hard to maintain his grades. He worships his professor, Kingsfield, who inspires equal parts awe and dread, and the instructor uses those feelings to motivate the students to deliver their best work.


Some heated bickering among stressed-out students preparing for finals. A man is said to have attempted suicide -- he's later seen to be fine, though obviously upset.


A couple has numerous discussions in bed, nude, though no body parts are shown. They're sometimes seen kissing, but never more. Men are sometimes shown from the chest up, talking as they bathe together in a gym-style group shower. Men talk about being horny and trying to "get laid."


Infrequent swearing, including "ass," "boobs," "s--t" and "piss."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A few scenes feature people drinking liquor.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Paper Chase is a 1973 college drama that shows its age. While the content is relatively mild -- some discussions between couples in bed, a bit of swearing and drinking -- the story won't be of interest to most kids. Teens might be able to identify with academic pressures, plus the messages that knowledge is its own reward and one must work hard to achieve a difficult goal are all positives for this age group.

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What's the story?

THE PAPER CHASE opens in an empty classroom that slowly fills with eager, nervous students. It's their very first day at Harvard Law school, and the brilliant Professor Kingsfield (played by the brilliant John Houseman) lets them know they shouldn't expect an easy ride. He's incensed that some weren't aware of the reading assignment for the first day of class, badgering them with question after question until a student literally runs to the bathroom where he loses his breakfast. That's the template for their first year, pressure followed by more pressure. That unfortunate student, Hart,(Timothy Bottoms) turns out to be one of the standouts, who's willing to pull endless hours of studying and truly manages to understand the material. But it comes at a cost, as he struggles to maintain a life outside of class, including a new girlfriend (Lindsay Wagner) who just happens to be Kingsfield's daughter.

Is it any good?

The Paper Chase is a quiet, thoughtful film about an unlikely subject: the joy of learning. It was released in 1973 and certainly looks its age, especially the clothes and hairstyles. It's hard to imagine the film being released today, at least not without a studio demanding a car chase or two. But the message is timeless -- that knowledge is important, that great achievements take work, that learning is its own reward, and that life is about more than just what happens in the classroom. 

The film revolves around the demanding Kingsfield, and Hart, who will do whatever it takes to win the great man's favor. It's not at all clear that he will, and in some cases Hart's best just isn't good enough. He fails in some tasks, and even when he succeeds, those victories are short lived. While the story revolves around the student, Houseman makes the professor into one of the great characters of film, a tyrant in the classroom who never yields an inch. The classroom scenes are the best part of the film. The rest of the story is less fascinating, and mostly shows Hart and his classmates studying and trying to squeeze in the rest of their lives around the edges of their reading. We're not give a lot of reasons to be happy when Hart succeeds, and at the end of the film it's unclear whether he made much of an impression on Kingsfield either.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the themes in this movie. How do you balance academics with free time? Do you think kids are pressured to excel in school? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? What's this movie's perspective?

  • What allows some movies to stand the test of time and others to just feel dated?

  • Does this make you want to apply to Harvard Law School, or does the thought seem terrifying?

Movie details

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