Movie Review – The History Boys (2006)


When I saw the trailer to this movie, I expected the British version of Dead Poets Society or Stand and Deliver. This movie presents a fairly classic example on how a very good movie has been poorly marketed and may have missed its target audience.

The film centers around eight boys from the north of England in the mid-80s who have qualified to take the “Oxbridge” exam, which could possibly earn them admission to Oxford or Cambridge. For boys from a small town, this is a rare opportunity. They are guided by their teachers: Hector (Richard Griffiths) and Mrs. Lintott (Fraces de la Tour). The school also hires Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), a young teacher with radical ideas, specifically to teach them for the exam.

From the trailer, here is what I thought the plot would be: a teacher inspires a bunch of boys who aren’t so bright to be the best that they can be. He even sets lofty goals for them, such as possibly gaining admission to Oxford or Cambridge. The boys are skeptical. After all – why would Oxford or Cambridge take people who were so rude and crass? But the teacher persists, and since he is the ultimate inspiration, he tells them to go for it, and they do. And they succeed. And everyone is super happy.

This is not the plot of the movie.

First of all, these boys are extremely bright and self-motivated. They want to go to Oxford and Cambridge and they have earned the right to try with their excellent scholarship. The inspirational teacher, Hector, wants to help the boys to succeed but, in some ways he sees academic rigor as an obstacle to inspiration (though this may be an oversimplification of his position). Also, the boys are somewhat rude and crass, but no more so than most teenage boys. Their crassness is largely the perception of the headmaster of the school (played by Clive Merrison). Their teachers realize they are more than that.

With such a large ensemble cast, it is easy to lose track of the eight boys. The film makes a little effort to give them each individual personalities, but, generally, it is easier to take the group of boys as an entity unto itself. Taken individually, the characters may seem underdeveloped, but, as a whole, I think we have a fairly good impression of the personality of the group. It makes me wonder what the film would be like if it were only two or three boys rather than eight. I think the dynamic between the teachers would have been different if they had only been teaching a very small group of students. It was important that the teachers had a semi-full class to truly give the audience the impression that the teachers were teaching a class rather than tutoring. Of course, the film could have portrayed a full class and chosen to focus on two of three boys. However, then most of the class would become generic, nameless characters. Part of the charm of the film is, even though the boys are a group, each one has his individual characteristics that make him unique.

This film has a lot to say about the nature of academics and what it means to be a scholar. Each teacher has his or her own approach. Mrs. Lintott prefers to take a traditional approach and fill the boys’ heads with names, places, facts, figures and dates. Hector teaches the boys “General Studies.” This includes everything from the ridiculous to the sublime. Though it includes great poetry and the French language, it also includes show tunes and recitations of scenes from films such as Brief Encounter. Hector confesses at one point that his biggest nightmare would be for someone to say that he has instilled a love of language or words in the boys. From what I can gather, Hector uses the ridiculous to give the boys perspective. In some ways, it is all ridiculous, but at least his methods keep the boys grounded. He keeps them from becoming too full of themselves. Hector knows that the important thing about education is the process, not its actual content.

If Hector wants to keep the boys grounded, Irwin wants them to think in new and innovative ways. Irwin encourages them to use the ridiculous quotations and bits of knowledge acquired from Hector (“gobbets” as he calls them) in order to impress the readers of the Oxbridge exam. He tells them not to write the same essay that everyone else is writing, but to take a new approach. For example, he says they could write an essay defending Hitler, since no one will take that approach. As a writer, I can really relate to this. No one wants to write the same thing that everyone else is writing.

What this movie says about education is that all these approaches are necessary for a sense of balance. This movie says important things about the way we view not only education in general, but history, literature and sexuality.

Whoa, what’s that? Sexuality? I didn’t mention much about sexuality in my review, and it’s a theme that is prevalent in the movie but notably absent in the trailers. Hector, as well as Posner (one of the students, played by Samuel Barnett) are both gay and there is a strong homosexual theme running through the movie. This theme is not necessarily the main point of the movie, but it is an element that adds depth and complexity to the film. I note this because the marketing campaign for the movie had me expecting a contrived, formulaic plot, but it is really not so simple.

3 1/2 stars

One response to “Movie Review – The History Boys (2006)

  1. Sheffield is far from a “small town”.

    Population-wise, it’s nearly twice the size of Oxford and Cambridge combined.

    The boys in this film aren’t from some tiny village, looking towards moving to the bright lights – they’re from a sprawling urban metropolis, looking towards moving to places that are quaint and pretty – places where buildings are as much art as shelter. And more importantly, they’re working- and middle-class kids trying to enter an environment that’s the natural habitat of the upper-class.


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