The History Boys and Britain’s path to national suicide

If you don’t believe that the British elites despise their country, their culture, their history, and secretly or openly wish to have done with it all, see The History Boys. Not that I’m recommending it. It is an unpleasant experience, among other things the most explicit attempt by a movie to normalize homosexuality that I’ve seen. And the homosexuality it normalizes is far from the “nice,” “wholesome” homosexuality—presented as a model of moral uprightness and psychological health in comparison with the desperate neuroses of the heterosexual main characters—that has been the standard, pro-gay fare of Hollywood over the last decade or so. It is a homosexuality that is by turns depressing and nasty, even evil. Yet the movie approves of all of it, as do all the characters. Even the ostensible subject of the film—how eight boys in an undistinguished high school in northern England receive special preparation for their entrance exams to Oxford and Cambridge—is imbued with a homosexualist ethos, turning intellectual life and the experience of learning into either a hollow cynical game or a vampy theatrical exercise. As I said, by the time the movie ended, the realization hit me that the British elites that created a movie like this, that praised and recommended a movie like this, seek with cold and deliberate malice the destruction of their country.

To spare you the trouble of sitting through the film yourself, here, as an exclusive for VFR, are literary critic Carol Iannone’s thoughts on it.

I won’t say I wasn’t warned. Extremely discerning people whom I greatly respect told me The History Boys was not really about history, and only about boys in the homosexual connection. But it seemed at least to touch on ideas about school and teaching, and at one time I liked the work of Alan Bennett, or thought I did. Also, David Denby at The New Yorker, who once wrote a book about his love of the Great Books program at Columbia University, strongly praised it. Still, it was a shock just how perverse it was after all. Under the guise of a friendly play about boys from modest backgrounds aspiring to Oxford, the audience was coaxed into smiling and chuckling about such things as a respected teacher who amiably grabs the genitals of his male students as they ride behind him on his motorcycle (and, this, with the frenzy over Mark Foley barely over), and, in the culminating scene of the movie, a student who seduces a teacher to meet him for a rendezvous where the teacher would blankety blank blank, that is, administer oral sex on him, expressed in the vernacular.

And the teaching? The play is supposed to be contrasting two styles of teaching, but both styles are inane. The old teacher (the one who routinely grabs his students by the genitals, a habit he excuses as “passing on the tradition”), can’t be bothered to prepare a real class, but has the boys sing, act out scenes from movies, pretend they’re in a French bordello to practice the language, and identify wisps of poetry here and there. This is supposed to contrast with (and perhaps it is marginally less noxious) than the over-focused-for-success method of the young teacher who advises the students to mouth empty revisionist views of history to get attention on the Oxford entrance exams, and manages to suggest that Oxford, the great venerable institution of Lewis and Tolkien, is really just a burnt out pile of pretty stones and clever fakery. The true method in his madness, though, is the modern English desire to destroy any faith in their country at any time in its history. That’s also the purpose of Foyle’s War, a dark British TV series set during World War II, designed to inform us that even during England’s finest hour, the Island was full of ratty people who deserved to lose. No wonder the Muslims think they are entitled to remake Britain.

And the play went on tour throughout Britain. So that audiences in all the provinces are going to hear the surly student tell his teacher that by next week the teacher will be blankety blank blank, that is, administering oral sex on him, expressed in the vernacular. This isn’t even presented as a particularly pleasant prospect, more like something a timid pedophile might be threatened with by a prison bully. But audiences are expected to smile at it. The only thing you can say is, Plato was right. Art does corrupt.

Not that we don’t have the same kind of thing here. Sex and the City, for example. OK, I’ll admit, the clothes were fabulous and there were some funny and poignant moments, but overall it was horrendously vulgar. And again, it was the mixture: one moment a reasonably amusing satire on contemporary male-female relations, and the next, something appallingly perverse and disgusting, like when Sarah Jessica Parker in that bubbly little girl voice would say these filthy things in the voice-over narrative, something like—“and as for Charlotte, well, she learned just how much she liked blankety blank,” that is, administering oral sex to a man, stated in the vernacular. Almost like a ten-year-old telling us about things to do with genitals. And then when Sarah Jessica Parker started to be routinely featured in the media as New York City’s little sweetheart and the series was referred to as “beloved,” as if they were Shirley Temple and Lassie, respectively, yet another line had been crossed into an explicitly nihilist culture.

The weird reverence accorded Sex and the City was similar to the reverence accorded to Madonna when she decides to play the proper married lady after her years of turning a couple of mini-generations of American ‘tweens into tramps. One moment she’s the mature English matron and mother writing children’s books, the next moment she’s an unhinged celebrity tongue-kissing women at televised awards ceremonies. It’s the mixture of the two modes that is more offensive than one or the other. Something that draws you in with its seeming normalcy and then shoves perversity in your face.

* * *

Here is David Denby’s review in the New Yorker, in which he treats the movie as an uplifting story about the power of education, and gives no hint of its relentless, ugly, degrading focus on homosexuality, nor of the emptiness of the type of “education” it presents.

“Bobby,” “Fast Food Nation,” and “The History Boys.”
Posted 2006-11-20

Both “Bobby” and “Fast Food Nation” were conceived at a moment, perhaps, when liberals were unable to tell stories, so deep was their despair. Looking at these screwed-up movies, even a conservative might say that it’s time for liberals to pull themselves together and begin their narrative anew.”The History Boys” is alive on the screen. The director Nicholas Hytner, who staged the original production of Alan Bennett’s play for the National Theatre in London, shot the movie quickly, in five weeks during the summer of 2005, just before the play went on tour. Revved by the stage performances, the cast courses through the material with disciplined exuberance—especially the eight young actors at the center of the drama, many of whom have never appeared in a film before. A few of the early reviews complained that the movie version is no more than a filmed play, which is beside the point. Bennett’s conceit is that the classroom is a theatre. In his classroom, learning is acquired as much through performance as through study; wit is a form of action, and music and poetry create and release emotions too private to be spoken. The setting is Yorkshire in the nineteen-eighties—a grammar school at which a group of eight boys, seven of them very bright, are being prepped for the mind-crushing exams that could lead to a place at Oxford or Cambridge. The eight are neither jocular aristos nor resentful proles but hardworking, solidly middle-class kids. Yet status certainly matters to them. For the boys, and for the school’s ambitious headmaster, Oxbridge remains the gold standard. The question is: By what means shall they get there? By rote study? By mastering exam-taking tricks? Or by love of knowledge? For these boys, theatricality is a means to self-realization, and, for Hytner, honoring the play’s artifice is the best way to get to the heart of the matter.

No actual classrooms, I imagine, have ever been as animated as these. The boys talk back to their teachers, and everyone seems familiar with the details of everyone else’s private life. Inarticulateness doesn’t exist; even the lone dunce explains his slowness vividly. This is what we want in a film about learning: not humdrum stammer and error but brilliant shenanigans, with everyone leaping, bodily and intellectually, around the room, and all eight students competing to be the brightest boy—that is, the best actor—in class. In part, what goes on is licensed by the unorthodox pedagogy of the movie’s hero, Hector (Richard Griffiths), a portly, sixtyish English master who runs a class in General Studies. Hector teaches only one subject, poetry; the rest of his discourse is dedicated to the education of souls. Among the boys rising to Hector’s challenge are the chubby clown, Timms (James Corden); the cunning, dark-eyed seducer, Dakin (Dominic Cooper), who has benevolent as well as cynical tendencies; and the smooth-cheeked Posner (Samuel Barnett), who’s physically less mature than the other boys and hopelessly in love with Dakin. In the classroom, Posner sings Rodgers and Hart’s “Bewitched” in a high, unbroken voice; he’s like a Shakespearean boy actor offering plaintive Elizabethan ballads in the interludes between action. His unrequited love brings him close to Hector, who carries an aura of melancholy and mortality around with him. The boys adore their teacher, so they wearily put up with his habit of groping them when they ride home on the back of his motorcycle—it’s merely the price of being his student. The movie is imbued with a shrugging acceptance of homosexual longing; Hector is not so much a predator as a lonely old man (he’s married, sort of), and Richard Griffiths, cranky, red-faced, and eloquent, makes him a wounded humanist not quite at bay.

Hector’s antagonist is a new man, the young Irwin (Steven Campbell Moore), who teaches the boys how to summarize historical periods with easy-to-remember categories and ready-made quotes. Irwin is a kind of clever highbrow trot. He acquaints the students with the power of perversity. In order to gain the attention of a tired exam-paper reader, he says, take the received wisdom and turn it inside out: make Hitler or Stalin sympathetic. Interest, in the Irwin doctrine, is more important than truth. Irwin was made for television, not for teaching, and Bennett appears to be using him to vent his disgust at hyper-articulate prime-time historians who are overly fond of clever paradox. Not that truth is a unitary and certifiable phenomenon—I don’t think Bennett would say that. On the contrary, the movie advocates the limited but powerful truth-telling of poetry, as well as ordinary decency and plain speaking. Auden, Larkin, and Orwell are its gods, but only Alan Bennett could have melded the spirit of those three into an entertainment about education. If pleasure is the ultimate teacher, Bennett and his faithful director, Hytner, are superlative pedagogues.

And here is Yahoo’s capsule review of the movie, which treats the movie as entirely normal and gives no hint of its decadent sexual content:

The History Boys—Movie Details—Yahoo! Movies

Centers on an unruly class of bright, funny teenage boys in pursuit of sex, sport and a college degree. Bounced between their maverick English teacher, a young and shrewd professor hired to up their test scores, a grossly out-numbered history teacher, and a headmaster obsessed with results, the boys attempt to sift through it all to pass the daunting university admissions process. Their journey becomes as much about how education works, as it is about where education leads.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 02, 2006 11:03 AM | Send

Email entry

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):