Truth and Travesty

Is the Oscar-winning movie The King’s Speech an insight into a little-known episode in the life of King George VI or a historical travesty?

It is in fact both. The film distorts the details of the abdication crisis which brought George VI, the awkward stammering brother of Edward VIII, to the throne, especially the part played by Winston Churchill. In the 1930s, far from being an intimate and adviser of the Duke of York as in the movie, Churchill was a friend and supporter of Edward, both as Prince of Wales and King. He would have been the last person to have warned the Duke of York about his brother’s dangerous contacts with Nazi Germany. Something like that might have occurred in 1940 after Churchill became prime minister and George had succeeded to the throne when the Nazis were trying to turn Edward (by then Duke of Windsor) into a collaborator; but not in the 1930s. In addition, George VI was a supporter of Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. When Chamberlain returned from his meeting with Hitler in Munich, the King invited him to the Palace to congratulate him. Even after Chamberlain was forced to resign George wanted Lord Halifax—another appeaser—as his successor. The bond with Churchill came much later. None of which is in the film. Of course, The King’s Speech is historical fiction, but these are serious distortions of character and motive.

All of which is a pity because in the portrayal of the relationship between George and the brilliant Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue, who helped the King overcome his crippling stammer, the film gets just about everything right. Once again this is historical fiction but remains true to what is known about the two men’s relationship. According to recent postings on the internet, David Seidler’s script began as an imaginative recreation of the encounter between Logue and the King. However, nine weeks before shooting commenced Mark Logue made his grandfather’s notes available to the film-makers and some of this material was incorporated in the script. The King’s quip about deliberately stammering on the “w” in one of his broadcasts so the listeners would know it was him comes from Logue’s notes.

There has been some re-ordering of dates to intensify the drama. In reality George began working with Logue ten years before the abdication crisis and there was little or no sign of a stammer when as Duke of York he opened the Australian Parliament in 1927. In the film, however, the chronology was tightened so the future king’s work with Logue coincides with the abdication crisis.

To intensify the drama Seidler makes Logue probe more insistently into the psychological causes of George’s stammer than he probably would have done in reality. Still it is likely that at one time or another the King confided something about his truly ghastly upbringing to his therapist, and as in the film Logue did insist on treating his royal patient at his Harley Street consulting rooms. (The film-makers considered using Logue’s real rooms but found they were too small for filming.)

Seidler invents a quarrel and reconciliation when Logue tries to persuade his patient that he could make a good king. In fact there was no breach but almost certainly the therapist would have done his best to build up his patient’s confidence—a confidence the King needed when he had to rally the country in a broadcast when Britain declared war on Germany in 1939. The occasion was probably not the agonising challenge portrayed in the movie. But Logue marked up the King’s script and supervised the broadcast much as he is shown doing on screen; and as the final title states, King and commoner really did remain friends for the rest of their lives.

Geoffrey Rush nicely contrasts the quietly dignified Logue of everyday life with the charismatic therapist who is prepared to goad and challenge his royal patient to get him to overcome his handicap. Colin Firth’s George deserves all the accolades he has received. Seidler had the courage to make the character positively unlikeable at the outset—a shy, snobbish, bad-tempered, difficult man, and Firth plays these aspects to the hilt. One of Firth and director Tom Hooper’s greatest achievements is to let us see, emerging before our eyes, the decent courageous leader who with Churchill guided Britain through the war.

So when a film can be this good, why the distortions? Seidler and Hooper know that Churchill supported Edward VIII and that George VI was an appeaser. The problem, I believe, lies in a certain philosophy of screen writing. Everything must be focused on the main character and his emotional journey. The script should have carefully-placed turning points and conform to a three-act structure. If that means compressing minor characters, creating stereotypes and distorting history, so be it. Audiences, many film-makers believe, only have limited attention spans and shouldn’t be distracted by too much complexity. Of course, some very good films have been made this way and sometimes the only way history can be portrayed in a movie is through some adroit fiction, but film-makers should at least try not to distort historical characters with their inventions. It is fine for Wellington in Sergei Bondarchuk’s splendid Waterloo (1970) to use a blue crayon to circle Waterloo on the map when he actually used his nail, or to have his Quartermaster General, De Lancey, at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball when in fact he was down the road writing orders; or even, in The King’s Speech, to have the whole cabinet arrive for the King’s broadcast when they were really elsewhere.

But historical figures ought not to be made to act out of character. Moreover, with The King’s Speech the reality could have made better drama. Churchill had grave doubts about Wallis Simpson, for whom Edward was to relinquish the throne, and only intervened because he thought Baldwin was rushing things. At George’s coronation he whispered to his wife, “You were right, the other one wouldn’t have done.” George VI supported appeasement and was for a time hostile to Churchill, because he did not want to see a repetition of the slaughter of the Great War—the King had after all been at the Battle of Jutland. What is more he actually discussed this with Logue.

I know this because as a result of the film Mark Logue and Peter Conradi have published a book, also called The King’s Speech, based on Logue’s notes and his correspondence with George VI. It is of course not as dramatic as the film, but working with only extracts from what has now been published we can see that Firth, Rush, Hooper and Seidler honestly portray a relationship that was of vital importance to the King and his therapist. The book makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the period.

Can film-makers and their backers be persuaded to depart from the old formulas and, at least in historical movies, avoid distortion and convey something of the complexity of the reality? Recently there have been some encouraging signs. In Changeling (2008) Clint Eastwood and his writer, J. Michael Straczynski, introduce a major digression that was vital historically three-quarters of the way into the film. The new material is expertly integrated into the main plot and Eastwood’s mastery of narrative cinema does the rest. In his most recent film, Hereafter, the same director has three plot lines working simultaneously. These are all linked thematically, with the audience fascinated by the diverse characters. Hereafter is not historical drama but the device could be very effective in that kind of film and significantly shows a mainstream director prepared to break away from the conventional forms. Nevertheless, for all its faults The King’s Speech is a very accomplished film that provides a unique insight into the lives of two extraordinary men.

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