Films about inspirational teachers are a dime a dozen and modern moviemaking philosophy says that if something worked once it’ll work ten times more. Even if Dead Poets Society taught a generation of kids that a good education means funny voices and shattering decorum, the point is valid: teachers mean a lot to those who are taught by them. The History Boys is based on the wildly popular stage play from Britain about a teacher at an average grammer school that touches his students, literally and inappropriately. I’m sure that the movie works very well on stage, but the movie was somewhat lacking.
Eight boys named Crowther, Posner, Dakin, Timms, Akthar, Lockwood, Scripps, and Rudge have garnered the highest grades in the history of Sheffield Grammar School, and suddenly the door is open for them to take up positions at Oxford and Cambridge. They have to pass a tough-as-nails examination in order to get in and the boys are set about a term of prep in order to get ready for the test. The “general studies” teacher, whom the boys nickname Hector (Richard Griffiths) spends their periods together trying to open their minds to literature and poetry. The history teacher Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour) teaches the boys the facts they need to know to pass, while Mr. Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) tells the boys that in order to impress admissions they’ll have to learn to spin that history.
And that’s when a cybernetic killer machine with a machete comes and… just kidding. Truth of the matter is, I’m not entirely sure what The History Boys is about. The boys study for the test, trade literary references with Hector and wonder about the future, which includes ambiguous sexuality for some. Then there’s the whole thing with Hector fondling his students in turn as he gives them a lift home on the back of his motorbike, which makes me feel uncomfortable even writing it. Maybe it’s the times, but I can’t imagine that even in 1983 everybody would just be cool with it. The boys laugh off Hector’s forward behaviour, but if The History Boys was an episode of Law & Order: SVU, Elliot Stabler would have beaten Hector into a smear by the end credits.
I did enjoy the movie somewhat for its quick wit and humour and for its timely lesson about the loss of that personal touch (no pun intended) in teaching. It also says something important about the nature of spin, and the diluting of fact in not just history, but all areas of intellectual pursuit, in the name of being “original” over objective analysis. Meaning, for example: “Stalin was misunderstood” is an appropriate topic to explore. The film stars the original National Theatre cast and the movie itself can’t seem to really get over its stage origins. One bit that does translate well is the ending coda were the boys and Mrs. Lintott talk about where they all ended up years after the end of the movie. A number of school-based movies have done this kind of thing with title cards, but The History Boys delivers the scene in an original way.
Not half bad, but really not that great is the feeling I have about The History Boys. It’s got some fun bits but in the end it’s confused, a little false and nowhere near as significant as it thinks it is. Frankly, if this is what it takes to get into the most prestigious universities in Britain, who needs it—especially if the criteria are hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty. Then again, I think I read somewhere that this is a comedy. Meh.