“All human knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use.” This quote from A. E. Housman, uttered by Richard Griffiths as a British preparatory school teacher, nicely sums up not just his character’s view, but the overall theme of the new film “The History Boys.” Based on Alan Bennett’s award-winning play, this movie about inspiring teachers and their students is not just another “Dead Poets Society” or “Goodbye Mr. Chips.” While it may share many elements with films like those, it does not tell you what to think. Rather it presents issues—what is history? what is education? what should or should not be taught? what is the proper student/teacher relationship?—and asks each audience member to decide for him or herself. That’s what good teachers do and that’s what good films do.
Richard Griffiths may be best known to American audiences for playing Harry Potter’s mean Uncle Vernon in the “Harry Potter” movies, but his amazing performance as Hector in this film will make you completely forget all that. Like Mr. Chips or John Keating (the character played by Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society”) Hector inspires his boys as they inspire him. He opens them up to the grand sum of human knowledge and allows them to have a little fun with it; he encourages them to act out scenes from old movies like “Brief Encounter” and “Now, Voyager” and lets them practice their French by improvising a scenario in a bordello.
This particular scene, almost entirely in French, without subtitles, is wonderful and there is enough action that you can pretty much figure out most of what they are saying even if you don’t speak French. I was fortunate that I saw this movie with my sister who studied French and could whisper into my ear a translation of a few lines I didn’t get. Would the scene be better understood with subtitles? I’m not sure; perhaps they are not necessary.
Another really great scene—one of the two best scenes in the movie, in my view—is when Hector helps explain the poem “Drummer Hodge” by Thomas Hardy to one of his students (Samuel Barnet) by putting it into historical context for him. Both student and teacher—and audience—are touched by this, on many levels. (The other best scene is the final scene which my film critic’s code not to reveal the ending prohibits me from discussing in detail. I can say, at least, that it is the most theatrical scene in the movie and one can easily imagine seeing it on stage. That it works in a more realistic film like this is testament to the great directing of Nicholas Hytner.)
Of course, Hector’s widely open approach to teaching and to life, and his loyalty to the truth, cannot be allowed to go on unchecked. Not when the question of whether or not these boys will get into Oxford or Cambridge is in doubt. So the headmaster (Clive Merrison) decides to hire another teacher, Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), to teach the students how to wow admissions committees with original thinking and unique perspectives on historical issues; truth be damned.
And so the race is on, for the hearts and minds of the students. They love Hector but some of them love Irwin too. Irwin’s teachings seem very positive, yet he encourages original thought for the sake of getting into a top university, not for sake of becoming full, well-rounded free-thinking individuals. So is what he teaches good or bad? The same question for Hector—is he hurting them or harming them? These are good issues to debate. At times the film may seem to lean more towards one side or the other; in the end, it’s up to you as an audience member.
As fate would have it, it turns out both Hector and Irwin happen to be homosexuals and happen to be attracted to the students. But one being a pragmatist and the other being a Romantic, you can guess which one gives into temptation. Hector offers his students rides home on his motorcycle and, while stopped for a light, reaches back for a grope. One of the big questions of the film is just how serious is this. From Hector’s point-of-view, it’s a compliment. Perhaps he thinks of it as an extra special pat on the back—an x-rated one—and for some reason the boys don’t seem to mind. They love the guy; perhaps they view it as a right of passage.
Perhaps you may disagree with how the film deals with this so matter-of-factly and almost (note the keyword almost) excuses it since Hector does so much good for these kids. But just like the other issues in this film—those of education and history and life—this is a topic worthy of discussion. In the end, it doesn’t matter what the film says; it’s what you say.
Overall, I think “The History Boys” is a really good movie that gives you a lot to think about, and it’s also very enjoyable to watch the great acting. I already said that Richard Griffiths is amazing, but Stephen Campbell Moore, Clive Merrison, and Frances de la Tour as another teacher, all turn in excellent performances also. And all of the boys, too, are very good, but Samuel Barnet and Dominic Cooper really stand out.
If you like films that make you think, don’t miss this one. It’s an education.
Return to Chizfilm Movie Reviews