Any hopes of The Brotherhood of the Bell: The Early Years are soon dashed in this “exposé” of the influential, nefarious and elite-spawning Yale Skull and Bones Society. That should come as little surprise, given the qualitative mean of writer-director Rob Cohen’s preceding and subsequent work. He claimed to know what he was talking about, having mixed with these people. On this evidence, however, one could only conclude The Skulls was made with their full blessing and co-operation, such that any clear-headed viewer would dismiss the notion of a conspiratorially active group asserting preeminent influence over and within the corridors of power as patently ridiculous.
Introduction: Every year at Ivy league colleges an elite group of students is chosen to join secret societies. Unlike fraternities, these societies conceal their actions as they mould the leaders of the future.
Cohen is perhaps best known for directing the first instalment in the unspeakably popular The Fast and the Furious franchise, his very next film after this one and also starring Paul Walker. Who, of course, went on to die in circumstances – the unaccountable car accident, of the ilk that also did for Anton Yelchin a few years later – some have suggested were suspicious, possibly linked to his being about to expose the Clinton Foundation’s Haiti activities and/or his co-star making a blood sacrifice. Less likely is the notion that it was retribution for starring in The Skulls. Surely that was punishment enough? And it isn’t as if Joshua Jackson’s had a bizarre water-skiing accident since.
You’ll be hard-pressed to locate a decent movie in Cohen’s resumé, which includes such a shocking litany of crap – Stealth, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Daylight and several more recent specimens I’ve avoided thus far: Alex Cross and The Boy Next Door – that one should be rightly mystified he keeps getting work. That may not continue going forward, on account of his being consumed by some fairly damning #MeToo allegations. Who knows, maybe he’ll claim they are payback for making this movie.
Levritt: Most important, remember. Our rules supersede those of the outside world.
Cohen was certainly boastful of his fidelity to the truth when he suggested “I had in my mind that I was telling the story of George Senior and George W Bush… I knew a lot about the secret societies, and I thought this is how the elite functions. This is how the elite knits together these bonds that take them through life and keep them in the elite heights of any society… It’s interesting how many of the critics missed this and didn’t understand it and blowed it off as silly. Skull and bones is a reality and the film got very close to how that reality works at Yale”. Yeah, okay Rob. The Skulls is silly. Not because the society doesn’t exist or because it doesn’t exercise untold power, but because you made it silly and superficial. John Pogue went to Yale (Cohen went to Harvard) and takes screenplay credit (also for The Fast and the Furious, The Skulls II and the Rollerball remake. Yep…) Does this suggest he has much in the way of insights into the movie’s unnamed university? Not really.
An article in The Harvard Crimson at the time of the picture’s release testified to its inaccuracy: “The truth is that there is no place for these old-boys’-networks in today’s society, which, as mentioned in the movie, is increasingly becoming a meritocracy”. Which sounds commendable and forward thinking, but then, as the writer probably knows from attending Harvard, appearances are everything (she doesn’t of course, suggest such societies have been disbanded). Anthony C Sutton, best known for his Wall Street Trilogy, died just prior to the 2002 reissue of his 1983 book America’s Secret Establishment: An Introduction to the Order of the Skull & Bones. Its publisher, in the foreword, found that suspicious. Sutton recounts that the Order is Chapter 322 of a German secret society, formed in 1833 and incorporated as The Russell Trust in 1856, also known as the “Brotherhood of Death”.
Levritt: Read your rule book. There’s a rule for every possible situation.
In his view, while the society is “powerful, unbelievably powerful”, it is not responsible for all the world’s ills (but everyone doubtless does their bit, in tandem with the likes of the Scroll & Key and Wolf’s Head societies and transatlantic cousins). He notably reported he could find no direct Illuminati connection, but I’m sure that’s how they like it. Some of his mentioned conditions of membership are reflected in the movie, although one would expect the like of any secret society.
Those selected join in their last year, reflecting that the society is orientated towards the post-grad outside world. Team players and sportsmen are preferred (loners, iconoclasts and individualists are unlikely; while Joshua Jackson’s Luke is not a rich kid and appears to hang out with only two main friends, he is a member of the rowing team). The most likely members come from Bones families and are characterised as energetic, resourceful, political and probably amoral (which is only partially how Walker’s Caleb Mandrake – yes, I know, the surname – comes across, since he nurses significant ideological and generational tensions towards father Judge Litten Mandrake, played by Craig T Nelson). Key to this is that a member will sacrifice himself for the good of the team (the membership scouts should have stuck with their first dissuasive impression of Luke).
Sutton suggests their names are changed, and that they are gifted a membership Catalogue (as opposed to the movie’s rule book). There is no mention of wristwatches, branding or a death-and-rebirth ritual (although the latter is a solid bet, even in as fratty a manner suggested by Cohen). Sutton repeatedly emphasises that only fifteen members are selected each year, which would make Pogue’s “soul mates” pairing off a rather difficult criterion to fulfil (Sutton also calculates there are 500-600 members alive and active at any one time but that only a quarter of members will take an active role in furthering the objectives of the order, the rest classified as silent drop outs).
Levritt: And some day, when I call on you for a favour, will you deny me? And if you deny me, will it jeopardise the life you build for your wife and your family?
Pogue offers up some familiar material regarding indebtedness to the society, notably with the dirt held on Senator Levritt (William Peterson), preventing him from dissenting with Litten, but the decision to show an edifice divided unto itself rather undermines its effectiveness. Litten manipulates the outcome of events to his own ends, but when Luke rejects his overtures to carry forward within the society, he responds “Well done, son. Well done”. Which might suggest a hollow victory, or that Luke will come to regret attempting to walk away. Levritt explains little else about operations, other than that the rules require a donation from each member’s estate on death (in answer to how the society is funded) and that the privilege of leadership requires the leader to wage a war.
We don’t, however, gain any insight into the overall remit. Sutton brings this down to Hegelian philosophical influences (the rational alone is real, and in terms of power, “the State is supreme, and the individual exists only to serve the State”). In this analysis, the two-party system, contrived conflict, and the clash of opposites makes for progress (with those pulling the strings dominating the nature of the outcome). This feeds into the system itself, which “trains children to become mindless zombies, serving the State”. For Sutton, the explicit parallel to the designs of the Illuminati may be seen on this axis; morality is what is good for society, so justifying any methods and objectives to that end. Sutton opined that “institutions supposedly devoted to the search for truth and freedom have given birth to institutions devoted to world enslavement”. He expressed the hope that “Nothing this outrageous can survive forever”. Which might also be the one voiced by The Harvard Crimson (albeit with less emphasis on conspiracy), but forever is a long time and carries with it many permutations and changes of form.
Will: The CIA was founded inside these four walls.
Luke: Yes, it was, but back in World War II when they were still the good guys.
I said The Skulls has a silly plot, and it’s in this regard that any potential is quickly dissipated. It doesn’t really have to reveal anything about power, influence or machinations, because it has instead a juvenile murder mystery to side track you, before it devolves even further into crazed car chases and a duel. Yes, a duel! Hitch would have been proud, as he never got to do that for the released version of Topaz.
The essential set up with Luke and Caleb is reasonable, and the initiation, if lacking much imagination, is serviceable. It’s when Luke’s pal Will (Hill Harper) becomes obstreperous at his old chum’s decision to dance with the devil and breaks into the ritual room that things take a turn for Hollywood overkill (the society has been broken into, but not with any known devastating ramifications for the perpetrators).
Will: If it’s secret and elite, it can’t be good.
Will shows up dead, apparently having hanged himself, but we know a tussle with Caleb preceded this; it turns out Caleb only accidentally injured Will – because Caleb maybe a privileged shit, but he’s a good privileged shit deep down – and it was the upper echelons of The Skulls, including dad, who had Will’s neck snapped. From here, there’s only escalation, with estrangement from friend Chloe (Sam Rockwell’s missus Leslie Bibb) and a nosy detective (Steve Harris) casting aspersions. Bugs are discovered everywhere (“None of us are safe!”), and Luke’s attempts to glean justice result in his being sectioned.
Part of the problem here is perhaps that, through dealing with members at inception, there’s no real exploration of the consequences of the pact (hence the Litten and Levritt subplot, but they’re both active conspirators in their way). Mostly, though, The Skulls is opting for sensationalism rather than thoughtfulness at every turn.
One scene I did like finds Luke at the police station, bringing in evidence. The incriminating video tape in his possession is revealed to be blank. He begins railing in paranoia at all those present as complicit (“The Skulls, man! Who do you think is pulling the strings around here?”) It’s suggestive of Glenn Ford’s TV show meltdown in The Brotherhood of the Bell. But ultimately, the movie fails to give the impression of an all-powerful edifice. Instead, it’s one of petty bickering and crazy armed assassins. The senior administrator (Christopher McDonald) is about to shoot Luke in the head after a reckless car chase, only to be shot dead by Harris. Then there’s the duel, in which Caleb shoots his own dad instead of Luke (dad is about to shoot Luke!) before turning the gun on himself (Luke stops him!) It’s all too too silly.
Levritt: We live by the rules. We die by the rules.
You do see The Skulls regularly name checked as evidencing how The Skull and Bones actually is, but all it’s really doing is diminishing the society’s plausibility and making its purported reach deniable. Cohen’s movie was successful enough to spawn a couple of straight-to-video sequels, but if you want a Hollywood take on this subject with some bite, you’d be better off checking out The Brotherhood of the Bell. It’s less glossy and much less OTT, but it carries with it an authentic chill.