Humanities - Python's posh idiots

14th October 2011 at 01:00
How the present day has a hand in historical interpretations

I was glad my headteacher did not walk into the lesson while I was showing my Year 9 class a clip from Monty Python's 1983 film The Meaning of Life. A raised eyebrow, I do not doubt, would have ensued. This was, nevertheless, a carefully thought through opportunity for my students to grasp a complex historical idea.

My students were completing an enquiry around the question "Why have interpretations of the Battle of Rorke's Drift changed over time?" After studying various interpretations of the battle, such as Elizabeth Butler's 1879 painting The Defence of Rorke's Drift and Cy Endfield's 1964 film Zulu, we finished the enquiry by examining Monty Python's interpretation of the battle.

By the time the Monty Python team wrote The Meaning of Life, the British Empire was, in a sense, a dead parrot. The years between 1964 and 1983 had seen considerable social change within Britain, and - if you'll excuse a generalisation - there was less respect for tradition and authority in the country than there had been in the middle of the century.

Monty Python set one of their scenes in the Zulu wars on a set that looks remarkably like one from Endfield's film. The scene opens with John Cleese calmly shaving as the ordinary soldiers die around him. He walks, oblivious to the death cries of his men, to the officers' mess, where he and Michael Palin go to find that Eric Idle's leg has been bitten off in the night (by a tiger? In Africa?) As an NCO runs in to announce appalling casualties, all the officers care about is Eric Idle's missing leg.

The contrast with the previous portrayals of Rorke's Drift is stark. Whereas in Elizabeth Butler's painting and in Endfield's film the officers are shown as brave, steadfast and completely committed to their task, the Monty Python depiction shows the officers as - to quote one of my students - "posh idiots". Herein lies a chance for students to grasp one of the most elusive ideas in the study of history: that interpretations of the past change over time, based on the context in which they are produced.

For some of my students, this was a chance to situate interpretations within a chronological framework of British imperial decline and social change, drawing on prior work on the British Empire and changes in British society in the 20th century. For others, I was satisfied that they had made good progress if they could explain why the time in which an interpretation is produced affects what is shown. Like all the best historical enquiries, an investigation into why interpretations of the Battle of Rorke's Drift have changed can be accessed on many levels.

Michael Fordham is head of history at Cottenham Village College, Cambridgeshire


To try this with your pupils, Michael Fordham recommends his scheme of work on the Battle of Rorke's Drift

See for all links and forum discussions in this issue.


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