The History Boys (2006)

Dir. Nicholas Hytner. Starring Richard Griffiths, Stephen Campbell Moore, Samuel Barnett

The film adaptation of The History Boys manages to bring everyone back, as it were, for another term. Alan Bennett wrote the play and the screenplay. Nicholas Hytner directed the play and the film. The cast of the play and the film is identical. (Nearly ten years on, it’s hard to believe that each of those guys playing the “boys” would most want to trade his career for James Corden’s, but life’s funny that way.) One may be missing the energy of the stage in the film, that fuzzy sprite which inspires so many thespians to do their best work in the theater; however, to set the identical cast of people in a real-world(ish) setting has its advantages. What makes the play different from the film is the script, and these changes work largely to the benefit of the film. I think that the film provides much more ambiguity, denying the too-neat-by-half perspective that the theater version means to express. (Now I regret not including The History Boys in my discussion of plays-become-films with screenplays by the original playwrights, but all’s well that can be linked to.)

The genius of The History Boys is that every character in the film – and by this I mean every character who matters, and that list is not small – is relatable. There are no truly unreasonable characters in the film, and yet there’s no one to lionize either. Alan Bennett’s characters are the true everymen, and I know that’s true because no one calls them “everymen.” By definition, the everyman must sink into the mass; to make him stand out is to make him, at the very least, a someoneman.

I think the boys will always be the most relatable to me. I first saw this movie as a high school senior, and their desperate need to get into Oxford or Cambridge – for reasons that not one of them ever tries to express – rang true for me. I saw it around the same time that I was trying to express myself in terms attractive to colleges as opposed to terms in which I might actually express myself. The mock interviews that the boys do towards the film’s end – Irwin tells Crowther not to mention the theater to the dons before telling Posner to spice up the music he likes (Posner likes Mozart) – hit all too close to home for me while, private as I was, I pretended to bare my soul to half the college admissions boards below the Mason-Dixon Line via the Common App.

When I began to enjoy the movie again, once I had entered college, I recognized the boys’ befuddlement once they realized that the facts they learned in high school were insufficient for college. Their assessment of the causes of World War II (the unsatisfactory ending of the First World War) is rendered as accurate but vanilla in Irwin’s cosmology; I quickly found that everything I knew from high school, from my knowledge of how to set up a paper to my personal politics, was non-specific. “There is no such thing as general studies,” Hector opines, for “knowledge is not general: it is specific.” I had wonderful teachers in high school – I can, in retrospect, hardly imagine having had better – but I occasionally lament the fact that they let me muddle for years in so much anti-specificity.

It is, more than anything, the willingness that the boys share as a group to make connections to the texts outside themselves, from Philip Larkin poems to George Formby ditties, that I find relatable. Like them, I’ve come to think largely in someone else’s words, in someone else’s quotes. Hector calls it the best thing in reading, to recognize that the thoughts that we have are mirrored in texts written by those far away or long dead or both; it is, in his mind, as if the hand of the writer reaches out and takes the reader’s. A.E. Housman’s poem “On Wenlock edge the wood’s in trouble,” which Hector quotes at a key moment, reflects this sentiment well: “Then, twas before my time, the Roman/At yonder heaving hill would stare/The blood that warms an English yeoman/The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.” (Upon hearing a different passage from this poem quoted, the headmaster tells Hector that it’s hardly the time for poetry; Hector counters by saying he thought just the opposite.) The boys, at any rate, seem willing to have their hands taken. Just say “old masters” and Timms will give you Auden. Just start talking about World War I and Scripps will give you Larkin. It’s not always elegant when the kids do it, but it’s effective.

The conflict of The History Boys concerns the teachers, who are fascinating people but who are, as actual corporeal individuals, as likely to show up in a classroom as the Marquis de Sade. Three of them matter. The first, Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour), taught the “history boys” last year. From her they received an excellent if somewhat straightforward run of history instruction; this is not to say that she isn’t insightful, for her monologue about why women tend not to get into history is one of the film’s shining moments, but that her teaching style is not bold. The second, Hector (Griffiths), has everything memorized. (The play takes place in the ’80s; one can just imagine what someone like Hector would say about the effect of Google on our ability to commit poetry to heart.) His pedagogy is opaque; the boys know more poetry than they literally know what to do with, but they also take up class time performing scenes from films as a running bet with Hector. (Hector wins fifty pence for knowing that Now, Voyager is not only famous but takes its title from Whitman; the boys try out Brief Encounter on Irwin, who grudgingly passes the test they’ve set out for him.) Hector is not strict with them, aside from his penchant for hitting them with rolled-up newspaper or whatever else is handy; indeed, when the boys push the limits in class (say, when Posner gets Dakin to take off his pants), he doesn’t intercede. It’s hard not to look at Hector and not see a little John Keating, although I’m not sure those two would even be friends if they met; their entire program is about turning literature into an ennobling and, someday, useful experience for their students. Literature is neither ennobling nor useful, and thus I’m cynical about them as teachers (does anyone learn how to write in any of these English classes or do we just feel things?), but they are good people. Sort of.

The third teacher, and the true wild card, is Irwin (Moore). Irwin is, in the words of Scripps, “about ten minutes older than we are.” The headmaster, Felix (Merrison, in a really crucial and really underappreciated role), has a sudden desire to pump up his school’s reputation, sees the boys as his best hope in recent memory. He wants to see them at an Oxbridge school, and brings in Irwin to shake them up appropriately and then spit them out as serious candidates. Unfortunately, he has no time in the schedule to give Irwin his own class, and thus Irwin has to steal time from Hector’s so-called “General Studies” course.

Hector is old. Irwin is young. Hector is, by his tastes and values, traditional. Irwin is aggressively against the old ways of thinking in school. Hector’s training and pedagogy are rooted in formalist criticism. Irwin must have been in school just in time to get a whiff of poststructuralism, and it shows (especially if he only whiffed it). The problem with Irwin’s scholarship is not that it challenges the history as reported by Mrs. Lintott or Hector. The problem is that it is gimmicky, showoffish. Irwin doesn’t have a reason for doing history his way except that it’ll give the boys a better shot at Oxford and Cambridge; he knows a great deal, and at actual historical sites his passion shows (“it interests me,” he tells Dakin), but his sin is in making his presentation the flash rather than information. “It’s glib!” rants Hector. “It’s journalism!”

The boys split themselves into camps; at no time is that more clear than when Irwin and Hector are forced to share a class to discuss the Holocaust. Posner (Barnett) and Scripps (Jamie Parker, who, sadly for we Yanks who don’t frequent the British theater, seems more comfortable there) stay firmly with Hector, in intellectual and literal proximity; Dakin (Dominic Cooper), a self-diagnosed “aspiring lecher,” begins to worship the new teacher. “You’re even beginning to write like him,” Scripps condescends. Lockwood, who is maybe a little prejudiced against Jews based on his interaction with Posner/the Holocaust, falls for Wittgenstein. He and Dakin are closest to Irwin. Akthar, Timms (Corden), and Crowther more or less run for cover, trying to fulfill assignments and do the work for both of their divergent teachers. And Rudge (Russell Tovey), whose tagline about the way history progresses is fundamentally different from the way literally everyone else in the film thinks about it, seems to have a better relationship with Mrs. Lintott than with either Hector or Irwin.

In concert, Rudge and Mrs. Lintott act as lightning rods of sanity while everyone else, for whatever reason (sex, college, pride), runs around like a chicken without a head. Mrs. Lintott checks in on Rudge occasionally; she seems to share, in some small way, the headmaster’s opinion that Rudge is “an oddity,” much less likely to make it to Oxford or Cambridge than his peers. She gets the word on Irwin early on, thanks to Rudge: “It’s not like your stuff, miss. It’s got an edge.” And when a party is thrown for all of the boys who got into Oxford, it is assumed that Rudge did not; he peeks into the headmaster’s lounge, sees the revelry, and leaves; Mrs. Lintott follows.

Rudge, despite the fact that he doesn’t receive a scholarship like Dakin or Posner, actually has the drop on all of the boys; they told him on the day of his interview that he was accepted. (His father worked for the college years ago; Rudge is something of a legacy.) “I did the other stuff, too,” he admits to Mrs. Lintott, showing that he can play the game as well as Timms or Lockwood – or Posner, who calls Hitler “much misunderstood” in his entrance exam to Oxford and gets a scholarship. Rudge did “Stalin was a softie, and all that.” Mrs. Lintott notes that Rudge doesn’t seem terribly pleased about his admission. “It’s not,” says Rudge, who is an accomplished athlete, “like winning a match.” Alone among the boys, Rudge is content to live in the world that he makes for himself. In the practice interviews, Rudge expresses frustration for the pretending that supersedes Crowther’s love of the boards or Posner’s interest in Mozart. “If they like me and they want to take me, they’ll take me because I’m dull and ordinary.” Between his rugged, if somewhat ornery, good sense and Mrs. Lintott’s gift for being able to cut right to the heart of a moment, the two of them provide stability – among the boys and among the teachers – that no one else seems to appreciate.

Yet both of them – indeed, all of the boys and not just Rudge – fail to realize the seriousness of a situation under their noses. Hector is a homosexual, which would be mostly unimportant to the boys (which, in 1980s Britain, is no small matter), but the problem is that he likes to give them rides home on his motorcycle and then molest them. The boys are all fully aware of the practice, and there’s a chilling moment early on in the film where he offers to give some of the boys a ride home, and each of them refuses until Scripps, relenting, goes with him. Each of the boys – except Posner – has gone on the bike with him, and each has his own method of dealing with it. Scripps will move his teacher’s hand or use his textbook as a decoy. Crowther rolls his eyes and yells, “Oy!” Dakin, the most attractive of the bunch, uses a dark and effective reasoning exercise: “What does Mr. Hector want?” he asks his teacher. For this, he knows, Mr. Hector has no answer. Furthermore, Hector recognizes that this act, which he seems compelled to instigate for no explicit reason, makes him a joke to the boys. None of them report him to the headmaster or to the law; indeed, when Scripps finds out that Hector has gotten in trouble, he asks, incredulous: “Who told?”

The headmaster is an odious little man. His raw ambition to send as many students as possible to Oxbridge colleges doesn’t take into account the fact that some of these boys would be happier at Leeds or Newcastle or Manchester. His desire to quantify what goes into his school at the risk of totally devaluing the qualitative excellence is a sickness that American schools know well. He’s trying to get his young secretary into bed. The headmaster is not a good person. But he understands that what Hector does to his students is wrong, and while his reasons for wanting to dismiss Hector don’t flatter him (it cleans up the timetable, it gives a space to Irwin on the faculty, “this is a school and it isn’t normal“), those reasons are correct.

Very few stories about children are only about children. Lord of the Flies stands out as an example here. But the fairy tales of “Cinderella” and “Rapunzel” and “Hansel and Gretel,” the novels The Giver and The Poisonwood Bible and Pride and Prejudice, the films Pan’s Labyrinth and The 400 Blows and E.T. – as much as the children interact with each other, the stories function because of what the adults do to the children. (Philip Larkin, who was the librarian at Hull when the headmaster went there and whose poetry pervades much of the film, expresses this fear most admirably in “This Be the Verse.”) As adults, we are justly frightened by the influence we have on children. We are afraid that we will damage them. Of course we will, and we should worry about the extent. Of the adults working in the lives of these children, we focus, in The History Boys, on the teachers. We often use that focus in literature and film; the parental relationship is far more important but harder to structure, with much more pressure to make each moment mean something. (The parents are absent in the play; in the film, they are shown as near to the boys while they write papers or get their letters from Oxford.)

Each of the school adults fail in one way or another. The headmaster isn’t interested in helping children but in running a school. Mrs. Lintott is sadly ignorant of Hector’s running molestation; the headmaster, actually, assumed that she knew about it; it’s a blind spot, and a huge one. Irwin is fundamentally dishonest, which is a sin no teacher can come back from. And Hector risks the boys’ emotional well-being and their safety. None of this is disputed; what the film wants to ask is not if we do damage, or the extent of the damage, but if the good we do for them can counterbalance the bad.

The answer to that question is best summed up in two scenes from the film, which occur not quite consecutively, but in the back half, and they are meant to recall one another.

The first scene takes place at a monastery; the “history boys” and their three teachers: Hector, Irwin, and Lintott. Hector, miffed that Irwin thinks of the poetry the boys have memorized as little more than “gobbets” to be used on a college entrance exam, decides to hang back; Mrs. Lintott stays with him, and so Irwin is left by himself to lead the field trip. But Hector, in his own way, steals the afternoon back. While everyone else is setting up for a photograph, Hector walks up slowly and takes a place in the center of the group shot, saying:

Pass the parcel. That’s sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it, and pass it on. Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day. Pass it on, boys. That’s the game I want you to learn. Pass it on.

The second scene takes place in the classroom; it’s the aforementioned scene in which Irwin introduces the Holocaust as a potential topic for discussion. From the beginning, Hector is unsure as to whether or not one can actually teach it.The discussion devolves rapidly. In Hector’s mind, the Holocaust must be approached with decorum; Lockwood recommends silence; Dakin follows up with “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.” Irwin is impressed with the gobbet; Hector is lurid. “Wittgenstein didn’t screw it out of his very guts in order for you to turn it into a dinky formula.” It gets worse; Dakin, speaking with Irwin’s voice except more so, with the inelegant forthrightness that teenage boys instinctively peacock, wants to contextualize the death camps; Lockwood means to put them in “proportion.” What is the difference, Dakin wonders, between the Holocaust and other death camps compared, say, to the Dissolution of the Monasteries? Neither are unique events; there were death camps before the Holocaust, and monasteries had been dissolved before Henry VIII got to them. Irwin praises him (and Posner’s counterpoint), but Scripps is unimpressed. “Not ‘good point,’ sir. True! To you, the Holocaust is just another topic on which we may get a question.” Irwin’s response is easily as memorable as the “Pass it on” monologue, and just as neatly encapsulates not just his philosophy on education, but on his own life.

But this is History. Distance yourselves. Our perspective on the past alters. Looking back, immediately in front of us is dead ground. We don’t see it, and because we don’t see it this means that there is no period so remote as the recent past. And one of the historian’s jobs is to anticipate what our perspective of that period will be… even on the Holocaust.

I don’t necessarily agree with everything Irwin says (I’m not a historian, but I’m not sure historians need to do their research with an eye on the moral atmosphere of their audience a half-century on), but it’s his second sentence that I find most repellent and most appealing. When in doubt, Irwin distances himself. In history, this is simple enough; even walking around the monasteries, he can view it as a distant event which doesn’t need to affect him personally beyond stoking his interest. In his relationships with others, he seems interested in certain people – he welcomes Posner’s confession of a crush on Dakin as well as he can, he has more than one deep talk with Mrs. Lintott, and he keeps bumping into Dakin in increasingly flirty ways – but he always looks alone. He’s always at a distance; or even when he’s close to people, he tends to stand. Perhaps he knows that anyone who gets too close to him will realize that, despite his supposed know-how on how one gets into an Oxbridge school, he couldn’t do it as an undergraduate; he went to Bristol. Or maybe they’ll uncover his closeted homosexuality. Or maybe they’ll uncover his own willingness to have a brief encounter with a student. (Dakin, infatuated with Irwin and grateful to him for his help, offers. Irwin accepts, a little awkwardly, but not near awkwardly enough. When Dakin shares this information with Scripps, he spits out my favorite line of the entire film: “Just because he got you a scholarship doesn’t mean you have to give him unfettered access to your dick!”)

The movie does not have a happy ending. An abrupt accident changes everything for everybody. One wishes that the last scene of the film was the prelude in Irwin’s classroom to his presumed sexual congress with Dakin. If left there, the film allows us to see Irwin for what he is , without any blurring after the fact. Irwin is Hector, but only less wise and more intelligent; in that classroom, Irwin and Dakin accidentally chart a course that will create a new Hector and release him on forty years’ worth of students. The events of the last ten minutes or so smash that future up; for the future characters, that must be for the best. As a film, though, the viewer can hear the film’s voice cracking while it tries to make its most salient point. After being bold, the movie settles, in its final moments, for being careful.

That carefulness is in the epilogue, in which Mrs. Lintott and Irwin and the boys, somewhat randomly cast out of time, review what will happen to each of them. Dakin became a tax lawyer for the money. Lockwood was killed by friendly fire before he turned 30. Scripps became a journalist who wants to be a “real writer.” Posner, whom Hector never groped, became a teacher; Mrs. Lintott refers to him as the only student of Hector’s who took his words to heart, but the reason Posner can take Hector seriously is because Hector, for whatever reason, never molested Posner. (Writing “Irwin and Dakin” and “Posner and Hector” enough convinces me further of Bennett’s ear; of course the names of the students and teachers who match each other rhyme.) And, most importantly, Irwin got out of teaching and into television; he hosts history documentaries. In the play, this is an important factoid; in the film (to borrow a phrase from Timms), it feels like it was thrown on with an ice cream scoop.

The film forgets what it is at the very end. For a movie called The History Boys, it begins to lose its sense of history. After using the past as a frame, the distant future gets the spotlight; after so much discussion of causes and how difficult it is to predict ends, the end of The History Boys is giftwrapped.

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