Truth and Fiction in ‘The King's Speech’

Truth and Fiction in 'The King's Speech'

Historians and critics charge that George VI was a nitwit and a Nazi appeaser

On the heels of its 12 Academy Award nominations, “The King’s Speech,” an inspiring story of King George VI and his triumph over stuttering, is being criticized for historical inaccuracies.

It’s as predictable as the Oscars themselves. A new front-runner often means some fresh round of attacks, and the charge of historical distortion is a perennial one.

In this case, intellectual gadfly Christopher Hitchens and the New York Review of Books’ Martin Filler are charging that the monarch in question was no better than a Nazi appeaser and, in Filler’s words, “a nitwit.” They paint a portrait of the wartime king that is far different from the shy family man essayed by Oscar nominee (and favorite) Colin Firth.

“‘The King's Speech’ …perpetrates a gross falsification of history,” Hitchens wrote on Slate on Monday, saying the king was not worthy of hagiography. Fillers says the king had an uncontrollable temper and even struck his wife.

But Hugo Vickers, a historian who consulted on the film and author of a biography on the Queen Mother, disagreed: “He was a humble man and a courageous man and he was called upon to do a job for which he had not been trained,” he told TheWrap.

He said the depiction of a man struggling to overcome a crippling speech impediment is accurate.

The filmmakers themselves declined to comment, but have said publicly that the movie was carefully researched.

The appeasement charge stems from the king’s decision to pose with Neville Chamberlain on the balcony of Buckingham Palace after the prime minister negotiated the Munich Agreement with Hitler in 1938 (a fact that the movie skirts over).

Whether George VI’s evolving views of the threat of Nazism should be defined solely by that photo-op with Chamberlain are at the heart of the current debate.
Historians and journalists sympathetic to the film say the criticism is overly simplistic.

When war came, King George VI and his wife bravely remained in London even as the blitzkrieg raged. It was his brother, Edward, they say, who was known to have Nazi sympathies, while the king eventually rallied the country – as the film depicts – to meet the threat of war.

And anyway, they add, the film is about stuttering, and not wartime politics.

Filler goes further than the acerbic Hitchens, emphasizing George VI’s personal deficits as much as the king’s leadership deficiencies.

“‘The King’s Speech’ doesn’t dwell on George’s limited intellectual capacities, but many who dealt first-hand with him did,” Filler wrote in the New York Review of Books.

For journalists such as Harold Evans, who reminisces about a wartime George VI in his book “My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times,” Hitchens and Filler misinterpret the king’s legacy. He also maintains that Hitchens’ anti-monarchist beliefs have colored the social critic’s view of history.

“It is hard for Americans to understand the atmosphere in England in the thirties. Everyone had lost a cousin or had a relative killed in World War I. They were horrified that we’d go back to war again,” Evans told TheWrap.

“It’s not a film about appeasement. It’s a film about the struggle of a man to overcome a great handicap,” he added.

Or is it just about Oscar politics?

Among Oscar campaigners, the articles by Hitchens and Filler are suspiciously timed – coming directly after the Weinstein Company film dominated the Oscar nominations, which followed an upset win at the Producers Guild Awards on Saturday.

For months critics have harped that “The Social Network” gets the story of Facebook’s founding gravely wrong.

Complaints about Hollywood biopics playing fast and loose with the facts are a staple of Oscar races (and are often gleefully passed along by rival films’ camps), and this season is shaping up to be no different. 

In the case of “Network,” critics have chirped that the David Fincher overstates the importance of Harvard eating clubs to Mark Zuckerberg and the seminal role a painful breakup played in the creation of Facebook.

Last week at a Digital Life Design conference in Munich, Sean Parker, the Napster co-founder and Facebook executive played by Justin Timberlake in the movie, “a complete work of fiction.”

In his Golden Globes acceptance speech, “Network” screenwriter Aaron Sorkin seemed to answer those critiques by saying he was using Zuckerberg as a metaphor.

In past years, Oscar candidates such as “A Beautiful Mind,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Queen” have been similarly bedevilled by charges of inaccuracy.

Nor are these the first times that the portrait of King George VI painted in “The King’s Speech” has been called into question.

Just days after the film began its limited release, Andrew Roberts in The Daily Beast, griped about the “…very many glaring and egregious inaccuracies and tired old myths that this otherwise charming film unquestioningly regurgitates.”

However, this latest set of slams are particularly trenchant.

In addition to griping about George VI’s wartime leadership, Filler and Hitchens contend that the movie misrepresents the relationship between Winston Churchill and the monarch. In the film, Churchill is depicted as pushing for the abdication of Edward VIII, so that the king can marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson.

In reality, Churchill fiercely opposed the decision, and his support for Edward VIII initially led to a frosty relationship with his successor.

Splitting hairs, say those who endorse the film’s version of history.

“If this were a documentary, rather than a theatrical release, I’d be the first to complain,” Evans said, adding, “I feel irritated by this attempt to make a political point with something that is an inspirational film.”