By: E&P Staff
When it ran on Broadway, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to “The History Boys.” I knew it was widely praised and in some ways it was right up my alley, since I am something of a historian — and, at the time, my son was 18. But I never bought a ticket or read deeply about it. If there was any controversy surrounding it, this certainly didn’t pop out at me.
So I imagine my surprise when I saw the movie recently and discovered that it presented a pederast as something of a hero. How did I miss that in the many stage and film reviews? Perhaps because it was rarely mentioned, or soft-soaped when it was.
Now, I realize that this simplifies a complicated plot line, and the movie, beyond this major fault, is quite fine. The actor playing Hector, the obese teacher who likes to goose his high school students, puts on a remarkable performance in making the character so likable he disarmed not only his students but film critics everywhere.
In the film, Hector’s administrator and fellow teachers know what he’s up to — he invites the boys on the back of his motorcycle so he can reach around and grope them — but barely protest, and love and respect the old perv anyway.
Looking back at some of the reviews of the film, I was amazed at how little outrage or even criticism over the treatment of this character emerged. Can you imagine the response if that teacher repeatedly brushed an arm across his female students’ breasts — and still turned out to be a hero? Compounding the problem — and the stereotype — the other main character also nearly sleeps with a student, and another school boy, who becomes a teacher himself, admits in the epilogue that HE has to fight the temptation to hit on his male students.
I thought I must be nuts, until I read a piece by Caryn James in today’s New York Times.
It’s not an all-out blast at “The History Boys” but does discuss it as one of several current films that focus on May-December relationships. James observes that the movie “assumes that the audience will embrace its lecherous hero as fully as the film?s creators do.” Certainly most reviewers in the audience did.
Given how the film ends, they might have called it, “The Dead Perverts Society.”
James notes that writer Alan Bennett has engaged in “hair-splitting” in interviews. ?It wouldn?t be pedophilia because they?re 17 or 18, but he is a pederast,? he told a British newspaper, about Hector and his students. ?The boys are much more knowing and sophisticated than Hector is.?
James comments: “They?re not history boys, apparently, but history young-men-of-consensual-age.”
Or maybe I’m just sensitive about this because I have a son just out of a high school, and because there was a “Hector” at my high school back in the mid-1960s. He was a physics teacher who liked to goose boys in the same fleeting, good-natured manner displayed by Bennett’s hero. I’m sure it was one reason he volunteered to teach the SAT prep class — held in the evenings with no administrators around.
Like the boys in the film, most of us just poked fun at our teacher back then, and I can’t say if he ever got caught and disciplined. Also, I don’t know if any (or how many) of the hundreds or thousands he goosed were highly disturbed or traumatized by it. But remember, this was 40 years ago, while Bennett’s film is set much closer to the present time. Surely, we have a more enlightened and stricter view of such antics today, though you’d never know it from most of the reviews.
One of the exceptions was Richard Roeper, who said: “It gave me the creeps.”
Negative reviews were based mainly on the film’s “stagey” qualities. Peter Marks in The Washington Post pointed out that the groping, “merely mentioned in the play, is documented in the movie.” While he recognized the film’s attempts to “ameliorate” the foul behavior, this did not cause him to hold back on his overall rave.
Since he writes for the same paper as Caryn James, let me just mention that Stephen Holden’s review in the Times of “The History Boys” was fairly typical.
He described Hector as “eccentric” and as “Mr. Chips With Kinks” but blessed with “pure idealism.” He observed: “Hector lands in trouble when he is caught touching a student on the back of his motorcycle and is reported. When the school?s ambitious, stiff-backed headmaster (Clive Merrison) confronts him with his behavior, Hector ruefully replies, ‘The transmission of knowledge is in itself an erotic act.’?
Holden just left it at that. Also, he made it sound like the touching on the back of the motorcycle happened just once. Actually, it had been going on for ages.
Again, I ask: Would the movie have drawn so many cheers if the students were girls?
Holden then summarized how the movie depicts all this accurately, but without his own disapproval, noting that it “sympathizes with Hector, whom Mr. Griffith plays not as a predator but as a lonely dreamer whose ineffectual gropes are not much different from pats on the back. These whip-smart 17- and 18-year-old students not only tolerate his fumbling advances but also accept them with good humor as expressions of devotion.”
Film critics obviously joined students in that tolerance and good humor.
UPDATE: The above is sure to draw many responses, I suppose.
Here is one from reviewer Mary Pols
I too was offended by the perv plot, and if you look up my review, which ran in the Contra Costa Times, Mercury News and I believe the Oakland Tribune, you’ll see another opinion more in keeping with yours (and Roeper’s). I gave the movie a C+, and that had a lot to do with the distaste I felt for the main character. Interesting to see your column, because after all the raves for ‘The History Boys,’ I ended up feeling a bit of a prude for taking the
movie to task.
Another from Trevor Butterworth
My (ex) girlfriend was in a similar state of moral confusion after we saw the History boys in the cinema, and as I was trying to explain why, we were accosted by another couple, who heard my Anglo-Irish accent. The guy, who was English, said, “wasn’t that spot on?” To which I replied, “it was.”
The fact is that before the 1990s, Irish and British boys attending single-sex schools in their respective countries encountered a low hum of homoerotic behavior among certain teachers. It was, for the most part, neither an occupational hazard nor seen through the prism of abuse, even though similar behavior in a girls’ school would have been seen as unacceptable. And as there was no discourse to tell us that this was wrong, we never really got outraged about it or felt abused (the same went for physical violence, which was rather more prevalent).
Teachers who made school interesting were cut a lot of leeway, hence, in my school, we sort of jokingly accepted, circa 1987, being whacked with a leather strop (known as the “bum burner”) for blunders in Gaelic grammar. That all changed, of course, with the clerical abuse scandals of the 1990s. But the fact is the History Boys was set in Britain in the eighties; whether you like the underlying pedagogical subtext or not, it was “spot on”; the boys, however, were too precocious to be entirely believable.
and one from Judith Coyne
I agree with Greg Mitchell that the beloved teacher’s groping of his
students has been oddly passed over by reviewers. When I saw (and
enjoyed) this smart, entertaining play on Broadway, I was surprised
that such a significant plot point had barely been alluded to in the
reviews. When you add in the younger teacher’s more serious
infatuation with a student, you end up with two out of three of the
teacher characters being gay men with active designs on the students.
(the third teacher, a middleaged woman, does take a disapproving
This homoerotic hum (as one of your English readers has termed it) may well have been common in English schools as recently as the 1980s, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be acknowledged and
discussed as an important part of the play in 2007 (just as
heterosexual teachers’ preying on the kids would have to be noted and
What’s interesting is that two other plot points involving these characters changed somewhere between the stage and the movie screen. [One] plot change: In the movie, a gay student grows up to become a teacher who doesn’t grope or seduce the boys but admits to
struggling with his own attraction to them. In a striking addition, he
also speculates that perhaps this makes him a better teacher. The
play is quite different: that same character grows up to be an unhappy,
disturbed adult who never finds a satisfying life or career. In other
words, the movie (written and produced by the same folks who created
the play) lightens things up considerably, while backing off a bit
from the idea that actively pursuing sexual contact with one’s students
is perfectly fine, as long as the jokes are good (they are) and one’s
liberal arts values are in place.
As author, Alan Bennett is entitled to his own views, and the less simplistic the play, the better. What is surprising is how many cultural journalists have left all of this out of their discussion.
One more, from Stephen Whitty:
Interesting column. Not to jump on the me-too bandwagon, but my review — which ran in the (Newark) Star-Ledger, and I believe other Newhouse papers — pointed out that the teacher’s perversion was being treated as a mild eccentricity. I heard from readers who were glad to see that point raised, but it was a lonely one.
Interestingly, the abuse in “Notes on a Scandal” — which, by the way, is a fine film — seems to have gotten even less attention, perhaps because the sexual offender in that case was female (and attractive). Movies that look at the situation from that distaff side (“The Good Girl,” “Tadpole”) not only are more forgiving, they often edge into outright comedy.