In the film, The King’s Speech, we hear Winston Churchill thunder: “War with Germany will come — and we will need a king we can all stand behind.” At this point Bertie, as the king was known to his family and friends, was virtually shaking in his well-polished boots, for (as we all now know) he was afflicted with an appalling stammer. The movie documents both the royal ascendancy and personal demons of King George VI, and has been a subject of criticism for its historical inaccuracies, despite being an otherwise excellent film.
Discussion and Criticism
The movie tells the story of King George VI of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, who had most reluctantly ascended to the throne in 1936 after his brother’s abdication, and the speech therapist who helped him overcome his terror of public speaking, to rally the country in its hour of need in 1939. The film features superb performances by Colin Firth (as Bertie), Helena Bonham Carter (as Queen Elizabeth, later the “Queen Mum”) and Geoffrey Rush (as the actor and therapist, Lionel Logue). The king has already (in 1925) failed miserably and embarrassingly to deliver a speech opening the British Empire Exhibition, while his supportive — but horrified — family, including his father King George V, looks on. The advent of radio and film, broadcasting his speeches to the entire British Empire as well as the United States, made this failure all the more mortifying. It must have been a terrifying experience for the poor king, who suffered from shyness and never even wanted the job.
Three distinguished journalists have discussed The King’s Speech, with varying degrees of criticism. These writers — Christopher Hitchens (slate.com), Isaac Chotiner (newrepublic.com) and Roger Ebert (rogerebert.com) — state that it would have been more historically accurate if the screenplay had delved more deeply into the relationship between King George VI and his elder brother, King Edward VIII. In fact, the complete omission of the former king’s initial policy of appeasement toward Nazi Germany and his subsequent change of heart, plus the total endorsement of Hitler by the latter, would have added drama that could have made the already dramatic speech all the more powerful. Additionally, the change in Churchill’s attitude toward both kings, at first standing firmly behind Edward and then, almost reluctantly, endorsing George, would have made the film a much more gripping drama, as well.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was, according to his obituary in The New York Times, an atheist, a British Trotskyite and a “slashing polemicist,” who often took aim at the British monarchy (Grimes, 2011). Citing The Last Lion by William Manchester, Hitchens asserts that Churchill was embarrassingly enamored of the “conceited, spoiled, Hitler-sympathizing King Edward VIII.” Eventually, even Churchill had to admit that Edward was dangerously useless, and exiled him to the Bahamas where he could be well supervised and create minimum damage in Europe during the War (2011).
Isaac Chotiner, a senior editor of the New Republic (and, in 2011, executive editor of The Book), suggests that due to Churchill’s wartime reputation, he is so beloved that we insist on overlooking his support of Edward right through the abdication (Chotiner, 2011). He takes the criticism one step farther than Hitchens did, however, saying that in the film “Bertie himself is
also romanticized” (2011). As a child Bertie was, perhaps, cruelly tormented by his brother (2011), which could have contributed to his stammer. The movie gives the impression that King George VI, upon ascending the throne in 1936, had always opposed the Nazis, in spite of his endorsement of Chamberlain’s famous appeasement blunder at Munich. In fact, as soon as Chamberlain returned from that debacle — in an inexplicable breach of royal protocol — the king invited the prime minister to be cheered by the British public from a balcony at Buckingham Palace (2011).
As Chotiner (2011) points out, the following scenario would make a much better story: “A king fights against a stutter and his dastardly, treasonous brother, while eventually sloughing off his old instincts for appeasement.” His explanation for why these two stories were not told in the film is that it is due to the strength of the rather absurd Anglo-American love affair with the House of Windsor (2011).
Roger Ebert, the late, noted film critic, does not focus much on history, but describes the masterful acting of Colin Firth as he prepares to step to the microphone for that terrifying speech in 1939: the one scene that is crucial to the entire movie (2010). Ebert does, however, express mystification at the attention paid by this film (and by other writers) to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor after the abdication, saying: “The unsavory thing is that Wallis Simpson considered herself worthy of such a sacrifice from the man she allegedly loved” (2010). This film, he declares, tells a more interesting tale about people whose story really deserves to be told (2010).
Given that King Edward VIII’s happy relations with Hitler are not a secret (he even honeymooned in Nazi Germany) (Hitchens 2011) — not to mention Churchill’s raptures over the former king — and that King George VI’s leanings toward appeasement continued right up until it was apparent that he could no longer safely support such a stance, it is indeed odd that the filmmakers chose to ignore these historical truths about which so much has been written and debated. The facts would have added much to an already compelling drama, and given it the depth it actually needed to make it a great film, rather than a very good one.
Perhaps they believed that the American public is so terribly ignorant that these facts are unknown to them. If so, they may have been right. The film certainly captured the American imagination, nominated for almost every U.S. award and winning Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay; plus the Best Actor Golden Globe Award and the Best Ensemble Cast and Best Actor Awards from the Screen Actors Guild, in 2011. The only actor who could arguably have won another Oscar for his wonderful performance was Geoffrey Rush — which is not to belittle the work of Helena Bonham Carter, who was given a lesser, but very interesting, role.
I admit to having personally enjoyed The King’s Speech as a film, and overlooked those historical omissions as I got caught up in the story, even while knowing its obvious outcome. After all, it had to fit into a two-hour format. Overall, The King’s Speech is a powerful personal drama as well as a compelling historical one. However, it could have been a much greater film had more tensions been introduced and resolved.