Friday, 9 May 2008

'The History Boys': what is truth?

Today the Relay Workers and I watched Alan Bennett's film The History Boys, a film that I'd been hoping to watch for quite some time. It was a really engaging watch - an excellent script, some really humorous moments and a set of excellent performances from the lead characters.

Set in Sheffield in 1983, the film follows a series of bright Sixth form history students preparing for their Oxbridge entrance exams. The boys have been taught up to the point of the film's opening by the fairly orthodox Mrs Linnott and the maveric Hector, whose input into the boys' education includes teaching poetry, songs and the arts. However, the headmaster of the grammar school where the boys are based decides that a fresh face is needed to give them the 'extra' they need to get through the interview process. Oxford graduate Mr Irwin is recruited, challenging the boys to question traditional interpretations of historical events. Irwin is after 'more than just the facts'. He dismisses their essays as, 'not even bad, just dull,' and sets about feeding them 'gobbets' of information which, he claims, will set them apart from the thousands of other Oxbridge hopefuls. The main plot contrasts the different teaching styles that the boys receive, building up to their Oxbridge interviews.

However, underneath the plot the film poses a number of questions. Perhaps the most important is: what is history and how do we make sense of our lives? The film comes from an atheistic viewpoint, and Christianity is presented as a superstition and repressive influence. Death is a tragic end. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, history is understood as being, in the words of one of the characters, Rudge, 'one thing after another', with no obvious direction. Events happen for no obvious reason. Why one event happens and another does not cannot be rationalised; they are, in the words, of Mrs Linnott 'utterly random'. Events occur as just one direction rooting from 'the junction of a dizzying range of alternatives.'

Perhaps the most powerful scene of the film is where Hector, Irwin and the boys discuss the Holocaust (below). Irwin tries to convince the boys that there is no way of objectively knowing and evaluating history. One of the boys suggests that to 'explain' such unprecedented evil as the death camps of the Holocaust is to 'explain it away'. In other words, to try to find a cause and to blame certain individuals lessens the impact of the event and appears to excuse it. Irwin enthusiastically endorses him, as this suits his subversive and postmodern view of history.Yet to others sat there, not to label the Holocaust as an evil act is offensive. This, perhaps, comes to one of the unresolved questions that the film asks: can any historical event be categorised as evil, given that we have imperfect detail about that event?

The other question that the film poses is how to make sense of events and how to live in the universe the film portrays. There's a stark difference between the view of history that Irwin espouses and the morality by which he governs his life. He may muddy the waters of right and wrong in his view of history, yet struggles to show the same flexibility in his own morality. (One of the boys asks him, "Reckless, impulsive, immoral - why is there such a difference between the way you teach and the way you live). Perhaps the film points towards a kind of existentialism - of being true to oneself; seen most clearly in the characters of Rudge, who makes decisions for himself and not what others want him to do, and Posner, one of the boys who is coming to grips with his homosexuality. But one cannot help but notice the sadness that most of the characters feel. Hector looks back on his teaching career with sadness, despite having been appreciated by many (I wonder if this might be an autobiographical note from Alan Bennett). The closing scene of the film is also somewhat sad.

The film is fun and I really enjoyed it. It's also a dark glimpse into the mind of the existentialist that lives for the moment, but perhaps also illustrates the in-built uneasiness that atheists have in a world of no moral absolutes.


Dave K said...

It's a great scene.

I found the film is a bit disappointing overall though.

It seemed to be all about sex, with the other themes as a bolt on! It didn't really get to grips with anything.

Interesting post as always.

peterdray said...

Yeah Linda didn't really enjoy it for that reason too. But I think it's an interesting question of the relationship between sexual ethics and the philosophy we confess....

Dave K said...

But I think it's an interesting question of the relationship between sexual ethics and the philosophy we confess....

Hmmm... perhaps. I will have to think about that next time.