In today’s edition of Ivy on Celluloid, I want to dig into the portrayal of higher education in Rob Cohen’s conspiracy thriller, The Skulls.
The plot of The Skulls is summarized on IMDb as follows:
Luke McNamara, a college senior from a working class background joins a secret elitist college fraternity organization called “The Skulls”, in hope of gaining acceptance into Harvard Law School. At first seduced by the club’s trapping of power and wealth, a series of disturbing incidents, such as his best friends suicide, leads Luke to investigate the true nature of the organization and the truth behind his friends supposed suicide. He starts realizing that his future and possibly his life is in danger.
The screenplay of The Skulls was written by John Pogue, who has credits on films like U.S. Marshals, Rollerball, Ghost Ship, and The Quiet Ones.
The Skulls was directed by Rob Cohen, whose other directorial credits include DragonHeart, Stealth, xXx, and Alex Cross.
The cast of The Skulls includes Joshua Jackson (The Mighty Ducks, D2: The Mighty Ducks, Urban Legend, Fringe, Dawson’s Creek), Paul Walker (The Fast and The Furous, She’s All That, Into The Blue, Pleasantville), Hill Harper (Homeland, Concussion, CSI: NY), Leslie Bibb (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Midnight Meat Train), Christopher McDonald (Quiz Show, Broken Flowers, The Faculty, The Iron Giant, Happy Gilmore), William Petersen (Manhunter, To Live And Die In LA, CSI), and Craig T. Nelson (Coach, Poultergeist).
The cinematographer for the film was Shane Hurlbut, who also shot Terminator Salvation, Into the Blue, Need for Speed, Semi-Pro, We Are Marshall, and Drumline.
The editor for The Skulls was Peter Amundson, who has cut some other notable films – Pacific Rim, Gamer, Hellboy, The Buttefly Effect, Godzilla, Blade II, and Shoot ‘Em Up, to name a few.
The music used in The Skulls was composed by Randy Edelman, who also provided music for the television series MacGuyver and Alvin & The Chipmunks, as well as for movies like The Mask, Balls of Fury, xXx, Corky Romano, Anaconda, Ghostbusters 2, My Cousin Vinny, Executive Action, and Twins.
Film critic Roger Ebert famously despised The Skulls, and gave it a biting review. In it, he states that the movie is “so ludicrous in so many different ways it achieves a kind of forlorn grandeur.” Most other critics were of a same mind – The Skulls currently holds a dismal Rotten Tomatoes critic rating of 8%. Audiences were hardly fond of it either, giving it a 43% on Rotten Tomatoes and an IMDb user score of 5.6/10. Financially, despite the bad reviews, The Skulls easily took in a profit on its production budget of $15 million – all in all, it had lifetime theatrical gross of $50.8 million.
The Skulls, as the critics have described it, is “boneheaded,” “ludicrous,” “ridiculous,” and “stupid.” However, it definitely had a solid acorn of a concept for a thriller – lots of people believe that secret Ivy League societies have sinister intentions, and far too much power and influence on society. As far as the portrayal of higher education goes, The Skulls is a bit of a doozy – while there are definitely real inspirations, there is also a lot of conjecture, assumptions, and illogical leaps made for dramatic effect. Let’s start with some basics.
To begin with, let’s figure out the host school for the plot. The real Skull and Bones society, which The Skulls are based on, is located at Yale University, so it a isn’t a huge leap to assume that Yale is the story’s setting. Adding to this, a number of other Ivy League institutions are mentioned by name throughout the film, including Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth College, Cornell University, and Princeton University. However, the clear inspiration – Yale University – is never explicitly mentioned. However, there are a ton of allusions to the institution in the film’s details. First, the inclusion of their Ivy League fellows in the crew competition is a pretty big hint, particularly as Yale is conspicuously absent from the commentary. Going even further than that, the school that serves as the backdrop for the events of the story is shown to have Yale’s colors, Yale’s mascot (bulldogs), and there are even large “Y”s located all over the campus. The production clearly did the bare minimum to conceal that Yale was their target of criticism – they wanted people to know, but didn’t want to be so explicit as to open themselves to potential legal ramifications.
In the opening scene of the film, a class is shown discussing the nature of modern American society. Specifically, they are discussing whether it fits the definition of a meritocracy or an aristocracy. This is a huge part of the conflict of the film, as it follows a commoner trying to rise in social status through meritocratic means. However, this is also a point of great debate when it comes to discussions of college in general. Higher education institutions, particularly the most prestigious of colleges, have an elitist reputation, which comes from years of preferential admissions policies and prohibitive costs. Are colleges really meritocratic, as they claim to be, or are they a function of an aristocratic, classist society? Critics of the Ivy League, and traditional higher ed in general, often argue the latter.
As mentioned previously, the inspiration for the film is the long-running secret society at Yale University called Skull and Bones. Ironically, it is hardly much of a secret society anymore – there is not only a wikipedia list of suspected or confirmed notable members, but there was a detailed expose of the society written in 1977 by Ron Rosenbaum, and published in Esquire. Also, if you really had the desire, you could find a litany of conspiracy theory YouTube videos speculating as to the society’s misdeeds. At a certain point, you aren’t really a secret society anymore.
That said, Skull and Bones is far from the only secret society housed at a university. Wouldn’t you know it, but there is a thorough wikipedia page for that too! Some, of course, are more secret than others. At my undergraduate institution, The University of Alabama – Tuscaloosa, the secret society known as The Machine was all but an established public entity. Honestly, I don’t think anybody didn’t know about them. From what I understood, though, they mostly just functioned as a corrupt, back-channel bureaucracy.
Early in the film, Luke and Will discuss what they expect their total higher education debt to be by the time they graduate. Luke, assuming he gains admittance to Harvard University’s law school, anticipates to owe between $100,000 to $110,000 for his undergraduate studies at [redacted], and an additional $100,000 to $115,000 for his law school costs at Harvard. According to the Harvard Law website, the total cost for the 2018-2019 academic year is estimated to be $95,930. Assuming that number stays level (tuition raises are hardly uncommon), a full three years of law school at Harvard University would now cost almost $290,000, over twice that of Luke’s 1999-2000 estimate. That isn’t just inflation, either: $115,000 in 2000 is roughly equivalent to $166,700 in 2018. Yale’s undergraduate tuition, meanwhile, is currently estimated at just north of $69,000 per academic year, which is equivalent to $277,720 for a full four years – well above the $100,000 to $110,000 range that Luke notes.
The first assignment given to the new prospective Skulls in the film is to steal a statue from a rival secret society. This isn’t a terribly uncommon prank on college campuses, but the most similar instance in history I can think of is the ritualistic stealing of the The Harvard Lampoon‘s Ibis statue by staff members of the rival student publication, The Harvard Crimson. It has apparently happened many, many times over the years – at one point, the statue was even gifted to a Soviet consul as a symbol of peace, in an attempt to move the statue out of the country.
One of the most ludicrous aspects of The Skulls is the character played by Christopher McDonald. As is stated in the film, he is the Provost of the university (remember, this is essentially Yale University). However, it appears through his actions that he has the skill set and abilities of a special operations agent or a hitman, and is shown attempting/committing murder numerous times.
For context, a Provost is one of the highest positions at a university, and is typically the #2 administrator behind the President. It is the equivalent position to a Vice President, and is sometimes even called a Vice President of Academic Affairs. The idea that such a person would have this skill set is a reach – they would likely be a senior career academic. However, the notion that they would actually use such skills – or even have the time to – is utterly bonkers. Universities are big, complicated mechanisms, and being the #2 ranking person running such an operation doesn’t afford a lot of free time to gallivant about and murder folks. Honestly, at best, they might delegate the task. However, the idea that the Yale University Provost is a gun-slingling, car-chasing, neck-snapping henchman is nothing short of laughable. Try to picture the current Yale University Provost, Dr. Ben Polak, doing anything that McDonald does in this film:
Dr. Polak was an Economics professor for roughly 20 years, and was a passionate member of the University Budget Committee during that time. Unless he has some unexpected hobbies, he doesn’t seem like the kind of dude a secret society would use as muscle.
One of the most notable symbols of The Skulls is a brand, which is located on the wrist of members, and concealed by a watch. While there is no evidence of branding bring done by the real Skull and Bones, the watch detail is apparently accurate: members of the society do receive a wristwatch. In fact, star Joshua Jackson was able to acquire one of these watches, and gave it to director Rob Cohen as a gift.
The climax of the film takes the form of a traditional pistol duel between Luke and Caleb. This got me pretty curious – have there been any formal pistol duels on a college campus? Nowadays, the idea of a firefight between students on campus is horrifying, but duels were a very real (though not necessarily accepted) part of American society for quite some time. As it so happens, I found an example of just such a case. In 1833, two students at South Carolina College engaged in a pistol duel “after an argument over a plate of fish at the college dining hall.” Both young men apparently died of their wounds.
While I am definitely not a fan of The Skulls as a film – it is actually shockingly boring – I definitely think that there was potential from the real-life source material to make an interesting story, particularly when you consult some of the more outlandish conspiracy theories surrounding the Skull and Bones. While it does touch on some contemporary issues in higher education, the foundation in reality is pretty shaky, to the point that it is basically a fantasy film. If the screenplay hadn’t delved into the deeper, wilder conspiracy stuff, there was potential here for a fish-out-of-water, class conflict drama with the exact same premise, that might have even been more interesting (and definitely more accurate and relatable). For what exists, though, this isn’t a movie I can recommend – it is a huge squandering of an intriguing idea and wonderful cast of character actors.