Movie Reviews
1:53 pm
Wed December 20, 2006

The History Boys

Excellent tension between the poles of learning

"History is just one fucking thing after another." Rudge in The History Boys


The above quote from the athletic, anti-intellectual Rudge in Alan Bennett's London and Broadway hit, The History Boys, is the antithesis of the high-minded quotes and philosophies spouted by teachers and aspiring "Oxbridge" scholars at a public grammar school in Yorkshire. Yet the quote epitomizes the sub-textual disdain for intellectual snobbery and solipsism that hangs about academic institutions anywhere, anytime.

History can be an accumulation of facts that have power in their reality ("This is Oxford and Cambridge. You don't just need to know it backwards. Facts. Facts. Facts."). Or it can be a set of insights into the human condition whose power derives from the understanding one extracts from them ("All knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use."). This film reveals the tension between those poles of learning and the in-between state of wisdom.

It's 1983 in a boys' public grammar in Yorkshire as the gifted "history boys" prepare for their "Oxbridge" exams for entrance to Oxford or Cambridge. The months before the exams will put them in hyper drive as the results-oriented headmaster vies with the portly sensibility teacher, Hector, who believes more in the experience of education than the quantifiable outcomes. Memorized lines from Keats or learning French by acting out a scene in a brothel is his preferred mode.

The latent and sometimes overt homosexuality, not a stranger to boys' schools, is handled as just another learning experience for boys and teachers, at least those couple of teachers such a Hector who are known to prefer boys. The sexual orientation is as much figurative for decisions that must be made and the experience that will bring understanding of life's unpredictability, not just historical facts. The acceptance and casualness of the issue stretches credulity, but not as metaphor.

The transition to film from stage is not always smooth: Some scenes are played directly into the camera; others are static, less fluid on screen than under the proscenium arch. But who cares with all that inspired dialogue? If you love to hear English as it was meant to be spoken, albeit highly stylized, and young people grappling with big ideas, see The History Boys.