The History Boys Makes the Grade

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The History Boys by Fox Searchlight Pictures

At a somewhat less than grand public school in the north of England in the 1980s, a group of bright young students have been singled out for special tutoring with an eye to getting them into either Oxford or Cambridge, which would greatly enhance school's prestige. Or so, at least, its cranky and clueless headmaster believes. He places an eccentric teacher named Hector (Richard Griffiths) in charge of their tuition, then adds a newcomer to the faculty, a man named Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore).

The obvious conflict in The History Boys, which Alan Bennett has adapted from his well-received play, is between two pedagogical methods. Hector is a man who believes simply in learning for learning's sake. At one point he quotes the poet, A.E, Housman thus: "All Human Knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use." In his classes the boys sing classic show tunes, for example, or act out scenes from sentimental films like Now, Voyager or Brief Encounter. French is taught by having some of the lads act out an encounter between a prostitute and her client. And Hector is not above bopping an inattentive or disruptive student with a sheaf of papers. Needless to say, the kids respond to him with forbearance for his oddities and affection for his merry humanism.

For Irwin taking an exam is an exercise in gaming the system. He knows that the Oxbridge dons are bored witless by papers that simply regurgitate the standard academic line. Instead, he urges the boys to mild outrage — if, for example, you're writing about World War II, try to find something good to say about Stalin. Or even Hitler. The point is simply to get into a good college, by whatever means possible, and not be distracted by the delights of learning for its own sake. He represents results-oriented modernism. For him, as opposed to Hector, joy in a well-parsed Hardy poem or the rewarding sobriety of a morally serious examination of the Holocaust is simply irrelevant to setting forth on the only correct path: good school, good contacts, good career, good money.

You can probably guess who's going to win the struggle for these young souls. And once the film begins to unfold you will with equal ease see the chink in Hector's armor. He is a gay man, given to groping his students when he gives them rides home on his motorcycle. The kids are entirely unshocked by this behavior. As far as they're concerned its just part of Hector's wayward charm. Not so the headmaster, when the teacher is caught out. He's never much liked Hector's classroom style and the question of whether the teacher will go or stay is what the film has for dramatic tension.

But that's not really its main point. What Bennett most wants to show us is that Hector's homosexuality is preferable to the more closeted variety practiced by the extremely smooth Irwin. Bennett is also arguing, in his quiet and very civilized way, that especially in the context of an English public school almost a quarter of a century ago, homosexuality was not a very big deal. Bennett, who is an openly gay writer, accepts it as a part of life — particularly as a part of life in English public schools — something the boys come to terms with in essentially undramatic ways. For some it is no more than, shall we say, a brief encounter. For some it may be more permanently defining. For most it is just part of growing up, rather like coming to grips with the subjunctive in their French lessons.

I happen to think this is a useful point of view to take; although Bennett is very largely preaching to the converted. His play and this film will find its audience among middlebrows who have long since learned the lesson of sexual tolerance. Not many fundamentalists are going to see The History Boys. The problems with it seem to me to lie elsewhere. There is something self-consciously adorable in the writing and playing of Hector. He is Mr. Chips written a little too large and soft — literally so, since Griffiths is an obese man. He needs someone among the students to resist his overbearing but yet rather theatrically conventional nonconformity. And although his end proves a point that Bennett keeps making — that history is largely determined by accident and is not as subject to rational explanations as those who write it like to pretend — there is something unearned about Hector's sad fate.

Beyond that, it seems to me that we have been too often in these classrooms, once again asked to be amused by restless lads and to admire their odd-ball teacher. But director Nicholas Hytner's film version of a play everyone thought was "cinematic” (mostly because it contained some film pieces) is an improvement on the original. It has a flow and an intimacy that the often awkward theatrical version lacked. And it employs the same cast that played it in London and New York and the relatively minor changes Bennett has made in adapting it to the screen are negligible in their effect. The History Boys remains what it has always been — watchable, mildly witty, not particularly gripping.