In Contention


Debating historical hiccups in ‘The King’s Speech’

Posted by Guy Lodge · 1:15 pm · January 26th, 2011

Unless you really haven’t been paying attention, you’ll have noticed by now that a few people have taken issue with the history lesson given by “The King’s Speech.” Or more specifically, with the one not given: that George VI supported British PM Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement towards Adolf Hitler, while his brother Edward VIII was an outright Nazi sympathizer, none of which is acknowledged in the film.

Writing for The New Republic, Isaac Chotner took the film to task both for “grossly misrepresenting real events and people” and for shortselling its own dramatic potential through these omissions, while none other than Christopher Hitchens raised the same issue in a recent Slate essay, damning the film as “a major desecration of the historical record.”

Whatever my own issues with the film, its historical filleting hasn’t been high on the list. As much as I think the gray political alliances of the Royal Family would make for a far richer narrative, the bottom line is that screenwriter David Seidler was more interested in George VI’s personal struggles — as a dramatist, it’s his right to frame the story as he wishes, free of the obligation to furnish the audience with every historical detail.

Yes, the film rather blandly romanticizes the Royal Family — at a time, conveniently enough, that ties in with many viewers’ sympathies toward the upcoming royal nuptials — but only inasmuch as any writer is permitted to form his own relationship with his characters.

The conversation around this issue has been tetchy — particularly in the heat of Oscar season, with the looming threat of smear campaigns à la the “A Beautiful Mind” controversy of 2001. So I appreciated the more even-handed perspective of historian and film buff Alex von Tunzelmann, whose Reel History column in The Guardian is a weekly must-read. Acknowledging the film’s inaccuracies great and small (ranging from Guy Pearce’s too-posh accent to a misleading portrayal of Winston Churchill’s royal loyalties), she ultimately permits Seidler artistic license while downplaying the monarch’s own error in judgment:

True, it could have made more of George VI’s support for Chamberlain… But shoehorning a whole load of heavy stuff about the royal family’s many political imperfections into The King’s Speech would not have advanced the film’s theme of Bertie’s private struggle with his public role. Leaving it out, meanwhile, is not the most offensive of cover-ups. The extent of the scandal is that the king supported Chamberlain – a regrettable misjudgment, but a common one at the time. And, anyway, he wasn’t the sharpest tool in the box. He came 68th out of 68 in his final examinations at naval college. Portraying Bertie as an appeaser also wouldn’t have helped audiences like him – but the truth is sometimes inconvenient like that.

Good piece; read the rest here. Meanwhile, I doubt Academy members are thinking too hard about this.

[Photo: The Weinstein Company]




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37 responses so far

  • 1 1-26-2011 at 1:25 pm

    John G said...

    I think the portrayal of Bertie in the film is perfectly consistent with this. He never seems too eager to enter a war with Germany; on the contrary, he’s reluctant to even make a speech about it when it’s happening anyway. His frame of mind going into the historic speech is that of someone who’s ran out of ways to avoid the inevitable; if you’d asked me what his political sympathies were, I’d guess appeasement.

  • 2 1-26-2011 at 1:39 pm

    Manuel L. said...

    Well since we’re now in Phase II and “The King’s Speech” seems to be the frontrunner, I’m guessing the attacks are gonna keep coming in the next few weeks. And it’ll probably have no impact whatsoever, just like the controversies surrounding “The Hurt Locker” last year didn’t stop the film on its way to Oscar glory.

  • 3 1-26-2011 at 1:39 pm

    SC said...

    As an historian myself (and with particular interest in Churchill/appeasement issues; actually, interpretations of Munich was the subject of my graduate thesis), I would say that the Churchill stuff is mostly a result of Seidler just wanting to work in some Churchill cameos (it’s not like there are any other “name” politicians from this era that audiences will recognize immediately). The film also has Stanley Baldwin confessing his error about Hitler to the King in 1937, which isn’t accurate; Baldwin didn’t resign over Hitler, he just retired after a long career. Again, probably just to be foreboding.

    The film doesn’t really bring up George’s stance on appeasement, but it basically jumps over the whole era, straight from the Coronation/Baldwin’s retirement in early 1937 through to the eve of the war, so I wouldn’t say it really misrepresents anything.

  • 4 1-26-2011 at 1:42 pm

    Maxim said...

    This is serious. People can talk about dramatic and artistic licenses all they want, but this kind of fact twisting has nothing to do with making scenes flow better, romanticizing away unbecoming tratits or making them more cinematic – it is a very conscious attempt to prettify things for, when put under this kind of light, seems like rather cheap and calculated effect. In other words, these types of changes are politically, rather than artistically motivated and they not so much fail to do justice to people or facts as misrepresent them.

    I have said it before, to much blanket disgreement, that certain subjects require both artistism and responsibility. If said in regards to the “other” movie and they mean just as much here.

    But, in the end it’s just a movie, though I could argue that the points made should diminish its perceived accomplishments, in the end it is still just a movie.

    Far, far more discouraging, however, are the attempts to concolidate the criticism by making it seem like it’s not addressing anything of importance (downplaying it). From calling Nazi Sympathizing “GRAY political alliancing” (perhaps the most unacknoledgebly stupid thing I have heard on this site in years) to excusing its omission by saying it’s just one of many other details (As in “it’s his right to frame the story as he wishes, free of the obligation to furnish the audience with every historical detail.)

    I don’t mean to single out Tapley here – it’s just that his is the only reaction I see right now. Nor am I implying anything negative about him in the least. I know it wouldn’t be in the least true. And there are far worse takes I have seen elsewhere.

    I just wish that in their desire to defend the film people would not say or imply thing like the ones above just because intentionally or not, they come off terrible.

    I also wish people would acknowledge that Seidler’s wasn’t taking risks and that the kind of movie King’s Speech is trying to be requires it to be different. Otherwise, set it in a different place at a different time.

  • 5 1-26-2011 at 2:01 pm

    RealDogBoy said...

    As I remember, the film made Edward VIII out to be a Nazi-sympathizer — but an apathetic one. His priority was partying.

    I like this quote about Edward VIII from Tunzelmann”s article:

    “Pearce does not perfectly capture David’s accent. Owing to a childhood spent almost entirely with nannies, the Prince of Wales spoke in private with a Cockney inflection – and later, in exile, developed an American twang. ”

    I also agree with her opinion of Timothy Spall’s portrayal of Winston Churchill — my least favorite element in the movie.

  • 6 1-26-2011 at 2:02 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Yes, Spall is dreadful.

  • 7 1-26-2011 at 2:02 pm

    Will said...

    Happens every year. Let the smear campaign begin.

  • 8 1-26-2011 at 2:21 pm

    RealDogBoy said...

    Slightly off-topic: seeing The King’s Speech made me wish some great filmmaker would make a warts-and-all bio-pic about Edward VIII.

  • 9 1-26-2011 at 2:42 pm

    Simone said...

    (sniff) What’s that smell?

    A smear campaign!

    Well, somebody, somewhere is skeered of TKS winning Best Picture.

    tsk tsk tsk! This doesn’t change shit! It’s winning!

  • 10 1-26-2011 at 2:48 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    RealDogBoy: You mean you don’t think Madonna’s “W.E.” is going to be a hard-hitting historical study?

  • 11 1-26-2011 at 2:56 pm

    geha714 said...

    The point here is the role of the monarch in British government. The king or queen have the so called “royal prerrogative”, but the real power lies with the parliament and the government.

    The Prime Minister makes the decisions in the monarch’s behalf. Probably, the head of state has a difference of views, but is the head of government who has the authority (The UK has no written constitution, so is the combination of witten laws and unwritten traditions).

    In the end, George VI couldn’t do much about Chamberlain, just like Elizabeth II couldn’t do much about Tony Blair when he decided to support the Iraq War.

    The writer used his right of artistic licence to omit certain details and focus on George VI’s struggle. No problem with that. The Social Network did that as well with Mark Zuckerberg.

  • 12 1-26-2011 at 3:25 pm

    RealDogBoy said...

    Guy Lodge: I didn’t know about “W.E” — I had to look it up.

    It sounds interesting, but not quite the film I had in mind when I made my comment above.

  • 13 1-26-2011 at 3:59 pm

    Sertan said...

    This movie is up for Best Picture, not for Best Documentary, isnt it???

  • 14 1-26-2011 at 4:08 pm

    The Dude said...

    Speaking of TKS, did anyone else see the rumors that the Weinsteins’ may edit the movie to get a PG-13 rating? Apparently, they’re thinking of re-releasing the movie in February around the same time that Oscar ballots would be due, and to boost the money made from the movie (thus upping it’s Oscar profile) they may edit out the f-bomb scene to get a PG-13 rating for the re-release.

    I saw it on EW, although I don’t think anything has been confirmed yet.

  • 15 1-26-2011 at 4:11 pm

    daveylow said...

    Since I know you’re not much of a fan of Speech, I appreciate your pointing this out without attacking the film further. But I do think it’s important to know what’s not being explored truthfully in the film. I doubt it will change any voters’ minds.

    Anyone could play this game with the favorite, The Social Network, since so much of the script is a fictional version of what actually happened. But this has never been considered a weakness of the film since so many have treated it as a flawless masterpiece.

  • 16 1-26-2011 at 4:13 pm

    daveylow said...

    The Dude– I read they wouldn’t try to release the edited version of Speech until after the Oscars so younger people could see the film. In England the film can be seen by age 12 and over, which I think is perfectly sane.

  • 17 1-26-2011 at 4:24 pm

    SC said...

    “From calling Nazi Sympathizing “GRAY political alliancing” (perhaps the most unacknoledgebly stupid thing I have heard on this site in years)”

    Nazi sympathies, much like Communist sympathies, were at their peak among certain classes in the 1930s because of the Great Depression (and, earlier, World War I), which had created a widespread sense that democracy had pretty much run its course, and that there were alternative political models that were doing much better. That turned out to be incorrect, obviously, but it’s not a black-and-white thing.

  • 18 1-26-2011 at 4:39 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    In England the film can be seen by age 12 and over, which I think is perfectly sane.

    In fact, this is the result of an appeal after the film was initially given a 15 rating.

  • 19 1-26-2011 at 6:42 pm

    RJL said...

    I have not seen the movie but I’ve watched many online extracts, etc. Along with Black Swan (and Burlesque! – yeah, Guy), it is my most anticipated film of the year (no cinemas in my neck of the Canadian wilderness, so I have to rely on DVDs when and if they arrive). If I were to have any complaint about the movie, sight unseen, it would be in the casting of Guy Pearce. I think Guy is an unsung actor and one of those overdue for a nomination. But casting him (7 years younger than Colin) as Colin’s older brother struck me as odd the moment I saw it. The other historical discrepancies mentioned in this thread are mute, in my opinion. And, for all intents and purposes, is that not what the best is all about? A consensus? Most of the contributors to these Oscar blogs are younger and haven’t realized that. “If you don’t agree with me, you’re stupid, or ‘sheep’.” is a statement I’ve seen once too often this year. I’m an old fart, watching the Oscars since 1962. I’ve agreed with some, I’ve disagreed with the majority, but I’ve not attacked those who don’t agree with me. The Academy has its membership and their decision is what is keeping you blog keepers in business. Don’t belittle them. Accept that they represent the majority opinion. If you want a young majority opinion, then stop blogging about the Oscars and only discuss MTV, People’s Choice, or other such awards. Watch your revenues dwindle. No? then accept the Academy’s decisions as indicative of the general populace. After all, the general populace is older than the majority of your readers, myself excluded.
    Needed to vent. Hope it gets submitted.

  • 20 1-26-2011 at 9:23 pm

    RealDogBoy said...

    About the re-edit to get a PG-13, here is a link:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/jan/26/kings-speech-swearing-weinstein-oscars

    It’s a sensible change since the cussing isn’t important to the story or the character, IMO.

    It annoyed me that it was R-rated in the first place. They seem to follow certain formulaic rules without exception.

  • 21 1-26-2011 at 10:27 pm

    Derek 8-Track said...

    was Pearce in Makeup? I was surprised they cast him seeing as he is some years younger, but when I was actually watching the film, i didn’t think anything of it, he just seemed more fit and energetic but around the same age. which i guess the princes were actually only around a year apart.

  • 22 1-26-2011 at 10:28 pm

    Derek 8-Track said...

    and by makeup i mean aging makeup.

  • 23 1-27-2011 at 12:41 am

    le duff pascal said...

    First, the fact that many people were Nazi sympathizers does not make it right or forgivable. It’s a bit more than a mistake. As for Edward VIII being nazi friendly, I’ve known about that for years, and it’s not pleasant to see it underplayed that much. Some of the comments to ” support” the historical inaccuracies of the movie, to make Bertie ( ! ) more liked by the audience is a bit simple.
    Imagine for a second someone trying to make a movie on Hitler leaving out the few dead bodies he is responsible for and focusing on his problems with his beloved Eva ? The comparison is harsh but I am making a point. As for the plot with poor King George VI stuttering and being treated for it. Riveting indeed … I just believe black and white statements need a bit of black.
    As for the smear campaign, stressing flaws in a historical movie that says so little about history should not be called a smear campaign but investigation, telling the truth or just stressing out a few facts.

    And I do hope in a year when movies directed by Aronofsky, Coen brothers, David Russell, Christopher Nolan or David Fincher are nominated, one directed by Tom Hooper won’t beat them all. Honestly, if not for historical reasons, merely for artistic ones. That would be another wasted year on great auteurs.

    Being the most nominated film does not mean you should win the oscar for best film for that reason, receiving 12 nominations should be award enough. Does that mean that it will receive awards for cinematography, art direction and costume just because of that ? And over True Grit, Inception and True Grit ( in that order ) just to make them not feel too bad.

    Sometimes, I believe the Oscar Academy is getting more and more like the Razzie one…

  • 24 1-27-2011 at 12:42 am

    Paul Outlaw said...

    Edward was 42 when he abdicated. Pearce was 42 when he filmed the role.

  • 25 1-27-2011 at 4:23 am

    Dominik said...

    As far as I know George VI. was not a “Nazi-sympathizer”. His brother Edward was, and you can read a lot of his pro-Hitler statements that he expressed in certain interviews with newspapers in the late 30´s.
    But the movie is about George, not Edward. The only thing you could blame him for IMO is that he was against the immigration of jewish refugees to Palestine in the pre- World War II.-era.
    But that was the official policy of the British Government who wanted to becalm the arabic population in Palestine (and Palestine was under British mandate at that time, as many will know). To remind you, in 1936 a huge Arabic revolt broke out against the immigration of more Jews.
    Just to clarify the historical situation.

    And another thing: Nearly each foreign country (aside China) were restricting the immigration of Jews into their country.
    [For more elaborate informations to that issue I can only recommend the excellent book "Nazi Germany and the Jews" by Saul Friedlander to you, that also reflects the unflattering role of other countries and governments]

  • 26 1-27-2011 at 4:51 am

    Bill_the_Bear said...

    Here in Québec, “The King’s Speech” has a G rating, which means that all ages can see it. I don’t know, however, if maybe they worked around the “F-word” in the French dubbed version.

  • 27 1-27-2011 at 5:20 am

    Markku said...

    Hooper and Seidler did make a very brief reference to Edward’s sympathies in the film: he is shown saying that “Herr Hitler will clean up Europe” or some words to that effect. And later on, Wallis’s relationship with Ribbentrop is brought up. I was actually pretty pleased that they said even that much, given how rosy and romantic the couple’s portrayals have traditionally been.

    Far more serious for me, was the whitewashing of Churchill. The guy actually showed up drunk at the Parliament and gave a downright embarrassing speech in support of Wallis and Edward! I’m inclined to believe, like SC, that Seidler just wanted some juicy Churchill cameos, but making him sympathetic to Bertie right from the start was pretty jarring. I get it that Americans love Churchill, even more than the brits do, but his real character was far more fascinating than the benevolent, distorted image many people have of him. Even though TKS is a british production, it’s pretty clear some things were simplified and some things were emphasized in order to make the movie more commercial in the US and European markets. It happens all the time, but still.

    I do wish they would have at least mentioned Bertie’s support for Chamberlain, but making an entire subplot out of it would have been unnecessary and distracting, given how tight and economical the rest of the script is.

  • 28 1-27-2011 at 6:18 am

    Michael C. said...

    When The Social Network wins tI hope his sideshow distraction isn’t given the credit.

  • 29 1-27-2011 at 6:19 am

    interstellar said...

    (do we want to talk about Gladiator? the sound of music? a beautiful mind? etc..)

    Well, I’m glad they didn’t insist on the “oh, his brother and wallis simpson love each other so much so he’ll abdicate” (something that surely Madonna is producing right now..);

    the 2 royal brothers are all ‘good boys’, but at least are clearly mentioned simpson’s simpathies for Ribbentrop.

    Nah, it wasn’t a manipulative movies like sadly many others are… sorry, the writer and the cast are too good. :)

  • 30 1-27-2011 at 7:08 am

    tunktunk said...

    Guy, thank you for posting this thread and the article at The Guardian. Great read.

    I wonder if those who attack the movie’s accuracies actually read those articles.

    I did not know much about the British politics of the time or Edward or George until I watched TKS, and these allegations started appearing on movie websites. Now that I have read a plenty I think I can say I have at least a semi-informed opinion.

    King George VI was not a Nazi sympathizer.

    He supported the appeasement policy. Bad decision. I wonder even if he did not whether he had any real power to prevent his government. Currently the monarch does not have any real authority or say in these matters. I suspect the same was true then.

    Regardless, the appeasement, even though now seen as an awful decision, was at that time supported by many, who thought it would stop Hitler. There were many other details to take into account, how fresh the memories of the Great War were, how it still affected life, the state Germany was in after the war and Versailles Treaty, etc…

    Some people love to simplify the politics. See everything as black and white. Unfortunately it is not that simple. Neither should we judge the events that occurred 70 years ago from our current perspective.

    At the end I also feel the movie does not have serious inaccuracies. This is not a documentary and changes have been made for dramatic effect. The movie does not present a Nazi sympathizer as a War Hero. King George VI apparently became a symbol of unity during WWII and I read on Wikipedia that he and his wife refused to leave London during the German bombing raids. I am sure that must have provided the people of London great comfort. So he is a figure who is fondly remembered by the Brits.

    At the end of the day this is a movie. Do not expect to take your history lessons from movies and get upset when they are not 100% accurate. If you are interested in history, pick up a history book and read. Besides which account of history is 100% accurate anyway.

    Oh, and about Hitchens, The guy is a zealot. I tried to like him over and over again, but he just does not do it for me. Too aggressive for my taste. He is also a staunch anti-monarchist. I think even if a royal does something extraordinary, like find a cure to cancer, he will find something negative to write about it.

  • 31 1-27-2011 at 7:57 am

    Matthew Starr said...

    Are there any films at Sundance this year getting recognition like Winter’s Bone, Blue Valentine and Kids last year? I have not heard much.

  • 32 1-27-2011 at 8:37 am

    Keil Shults said...

    Wait, so the king had hiccups? I thought he was just stuttering.

  • 33 1-27-2011 at 9:22 am

    Ella said...

    Well said, tunktunk. It’s sad that the name of a decent man is being smeared in the heat of an Oscar race.;-) I do thank Guy and this site for the even-handed approach.

    From what I’ve been told by my grandfather, everyone’s families had been devastated by World War I. Everyone had lost someone. I can understand why King George was reluctant to plunge his people into that misery again (with whatever little power the monarchy had). Using 21st century hindsight on events from 70+ years ago, while a legitimate conversation, can oversimplify things. Without context, it’s unfair to the man and to the film. Thoughtful persons look at the context of the times.

    And I agree with you on Hitchens. From what I understand he was a big proponent of the Iraq war, so his judgement may be suspect.

  • 34 1-27-2011 at 10:01 am

    Freddy Ardanza said...

    Wait a minute, there’s some President who promise to appease some of the worst dictators in the world (Admadinejah, Chavez, Kin Jon Il) all for the sake of peace.

  • 35 1-27-2011 at 11:51 am

    Walter said...

    Is this 1984, and are we talking about Amadeus?

    No one cares about getting every historical fact right, as long as it’s a good movie.