Random Factoid #548

27 01 2011

How important is historical accuracy in film?

Get this: Issac Chotner of The New Republic called “The King’s Speech” “historically inaccurate, entirely misleading, and, in its own small way, morally dubious.”  That’s not exactly one of the jubilant cries in support of the movie that have become so boisterous recently.

Here’s just an excerpt of the article that looks to tell the ACTUAL events that Tom Hooper’s movie depicted:

“The only reason that Bertie managed to ascend to the throne in the first place was that his older brother, David (aka Edward VIII), decided to abdicate so he could marry a Baltimore divorcee by the name of Wallis Simpson. In the film, Edward VIII (nicely played by Guy Pearce) is presented as childish and cruel to his brother (which no doubt he was). And, as a way of presenting his political views, we see him make a single foolish comment about the Nazis. What the film never mentions is that Edward VIII was an ardent admirer of Hitler and of fascism, and a proponent of appeasement long after Germany moved onto Polish soil and hostilities began in earnest. Edward lived in continental Europe with Simpson after abdicating; following the German invasion of France, he absurdly asked the Nazis to look after his house. Eventually, the British government convinced the couple to move to the Bahamas, where he became governor. The idea was to keep the pair far away from the Nazis so as to prevent Edward from cutting any deals with Hitler. The last we see of Edward and Simpson in the film is when they listen to Bertie’s big speech. (There is a beach in the background but the viewer has no idea where they are.)

By shortchanging the danger that Edward posed to Britain, the viewer is likely to believe he was no more than a ridiculous and self-indulgent brat. But he isn’t the only character who is sanitized in the movie. First, there is Winston Churchill, played by Timothy Spall in a small role. Spall’s crucial scene takes place after the Simpson affair has become known. Churchill counsels Bertie and reports his (Churchill’s) dismay at the way Edward is behaving. This will come as news to historians because Churchill—astonishingly—supported Edward throughout the abdication crisis. His grandstanding on the issue even shocked his allies, who couldn’t believe that he would risk his political comeback to support an appeaser and fascist like Edward. Most likely because of Churchill’s historical standing, the film simply omits all of this and assigns the heroic war leader the opposite position to the one he actually held.

Bertie himself is also romanticized. He is seen presciently raising the question of German aggression before the invasion of the Sudetenland. Edward waves off Bertie’s warning, and, the next time we are instructed to focus on political questions, the King is heroically rallying his people to the battle against fascism. The film leaves out what happened in the intervening period.”

It’s hard to even say “inspired by true events” when you stray that far from the truth.  But while I find myself a little peeved that I got such a candy-coated version of history, I can’t get too worked up about this.  There’s a reason that “The King’s Speech” is not presented as a documentary or a History Channel special – it’s not about the events and the history.  It’s about the humans, and it’s about the emotional story of how one man overcame his stutter.  To move the audience, some liberties had to be taken.  Maybe they went a little too far, but it worked for me.

But I think Guy Lodge of In Contention said it best when he compared it to the smear campaign against the accuracy of “A Beautiful Mind” – the argument holds water, but it doesn’t destroy what the movie tries to do.


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2 responses

30 01 2011
Steven Flores

I’m a history buff and at times, strive for accuracy. I don’t mind taking liberties with some things in history if it helps advance the story. With this film, I didn’t seem to mind the dramatic changes that were made. It’s all because I was so into the relationship of Bertie and Logue, I didn’t care about accuracy or what really happened. It maybe a cinematic-telling of history, it at least creates a film that is engaging and fun to watch.

After all, at least it’s not “Pearl Harbor”. A film where if it was a history paper, I would give it a F. If “The King’s Speech” was another history paper, an A.

31 01 2011
Andrew

The Nazi connection is glossed over somewhat but it’s absolutely there, even if it’s not made clear that Edward really dug the shit out of Hitler. I’m also sort of past the point where historical inaccuracies in film adaptations really bother me, at least ones that are quite so trivial– even if Edward’s proclivities toward fascism aren’t thoroughly underscored the film clearly presents him as Bad News for Britain. It’s not as though he’s just written as a self-absorbed bon vivant.

I’m thankful for people like Chotner, though, because as much as I don’t think the inaccuracies mean much for the film, it’s important for us all to recognize the absolute truth of these events. Hooper’s just given us an interpretation of history, not a scholarly retelling of it; while I think Chotner’s kind of missing the joy of the movie, I wholeheartedly support what he’s got to say.

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