I’ve recently been rewatching one of my favorite movies, The History Boys, the 2006 film based on a play by Alan Benett. It’s one of my favorites, mostly because I like Very Intelligent People saying Very Intelligent things. In this respect the movie is like porn. If I’m being honest, I enjoy as much (or more) watching the smouldering sexual tension between Dakin and Irwin, and the unrequited love of Posner to Dakin. There will be spoilers, so click at your own risk.
The things that I love about the movie are still present for me on repeat viewing. I love the unapologetic wordiness of some of the characters. I love that the students can recite poetry on command, or reënact scenes from cheesy WWII films (of course, that’s the magic of the cinema. I still hold onto the belief that I might meet somebody as superhumanly educated as Hector in real life). I love the unabashed way that the headmaster trashes the non-Oxbridge universities, and his embarrassment when he is forced to admit that he attended Hull (“I could have applied, but it was the ’50s and… change was in the air”).
I think it has important things to say about the nature of education (although my more cynical self will say that the divide in philosophy he explores is hardly new ground), and I do think that it is significant that the film is set in the 1980’s. Presumably the battle has either been won or lost.
As I watch the film again, however, there are some significant flaws that I cannot ignore.
I am more divided on the soundtrack than anything else. It does a lot to place the film in time (I think that without the soundtrack, I could easily believe that it was set anytime from the 1930’s to 90’s) and also helps out the kind of stagey pacing by raising the energy. On the other hand, the trick of using New Wave pop songs with the lyrics edited out comes across as a little cheap.
Another thing that divides me is the screenplay’s wierd relationship with pederasty. Presumably awkward statements by Hector (“Some would argue that the very transmission of knowledge is, in itself, an erotic act”) are not to be taken at face value. More troubling is Posner in the epilogue, suggesting that he is a good teacher because of his attraction to his (presumably male) students; “I often think about the boys, but I never touch them. Perhaps that’s why I’m a good teacher.” I’m not saying that a piece of art that does not condemn pederasty outright is morally objectionable, but the film is inconsistent about whether it wants to be propaganda for a liberal arts education or a more subtle examinations of how that education becomes complete.
I am also becoming more mixed about the dichotomy that is established between Hector’s “there is beauty and truth” and Irwin’s “hard facts are for us to manipulate” perspectives. I think that, in practice, Irwin’s is the approach that wins out in modern life. One of the most heated debates in the film centers around the Holocaust, where it is argued that it was an event “surely unlike any other at all.” The Holocaust was an extremely well documented human failure, and it is impossible for any but the most specialized scholars to be familiar with all of the human memories, documents, songs, photographs, propaganda that make up what we know about the event. In that kind of landscape, narratives and counter-narratives are the only way for us to begin to process all that is left over.
Also, I have grown more uncomfortable with the way in which the film’s ethnic characters are treated. In fairness, the caucasian Lockwood is also marginalized, but even the comedic reliefs, Rudge and Scripps get a character arc. Both of the film’s non-white characters, Akhtar and Crowther, barely get speaking lines, and no personality. It really makes me uncomfortable that they are just furniture.
And, on the end of the scale that’s just bad, the film’s epilogue is preachy, unnecessary, and ruins what is at its best a subtle and convincing message. At its worst it’s the cheesy and sentimental “Pass it on!” which is the kind of on-the-nose quotation sentimentally quoted by Junior High School principals at commencements everywhere in the Anglophone world.
I don’t want to be too negative about the film. I still enjoy it, and recommend it. And I have found small things that I missed on first watching. I like how Hector’s annoyance with the art history teacher shows that he can be as blind as the headmaster when something is outside his sphere of knowledge. And I am constantly surprised by how good Frances de la Tour is as the associate history teacher, Totty (she also reminds me of an older Allison Janney).
Still a good film. No longer on my list of flawless works.