The History Boys (Nicholas Hytner, 2006)

History is five centuries of masculine ineptitude

A small class of British boys in the 1980s attempts to enroll into Oxford. Three teachers and one headmaster do their utmost to inspire them to greatness. They all have different ideas on how to achieve that goal, and between them linger feelings that dare not speak their name. Rather than an unsavory tale of pederast professors and demure disciples, The History Boys is a more uplifting and kindhearted story.

That’s not to say it speaks well of pedophilia, but neither does it aggressively stamp down on it. Suffice it to say the professor in question never truly assaults the boys, and the lads in turn seem more than adequately guarded against it. In fact, a recurring thread in the story is how the boys are much more comfortable with themselves, their sexuality and who they are than their teachers, who battle against feelings they know are wrong and win them over, but at the cost of a shroud of unhappiness enveloping them.

I have no experience with a situation like this, but it seems an honest appraisal. Not every person attracted to young boys acts upon it, and perhaps there are many cases where it doesn’t run out of hand. I wouldn’t know. The film brings this message in an attempt, I feel, to douse the mass (media) hysteria against pedophilia in Great Britain. This tendency was satirized brilliantly in 2001 by Chris Morris in his fake news show Brass Eye, with a special called Paedogeddon. It featured, amongst others, a pedophile disguised as a school to lure in children, and another shot into space to be rid of him, until to everyone's terror it is discovered a small boy was sent along in the rocket by mistake.

The History Boys was originally a theatre play. That heritage is plain to see in the back-and-forth banter oozing from the film, which has a snappy ‘stage play’ vibe. As the students are prepped for the exam, the teachers try to reach out to them in various ways. Corpulent Hector has an all-encompassing vision of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. His classes are performance art where poetry abounds. It’s a wonderful environment for the hungry mind. Supply teacher Irwin, in contrast, pushes the boys to be ruthless and cynical, trading what is true for what is interesting. The film doesn’t proclaim a preference between the two styles.

At the end of the line we are left with a film about the budding lives of a dozen people intersecting with the culminating lives of three. Their stories are believable, charming, small, sometimes sad. Though it inevitably becomes an important development, The History Boys is not about pedophilia in the classroom. It’s about the life and challenges of growing up, something we’re all familiar with.

Roderick Leeuwenhart