The King’s Speech: a right royal falsification

February 15, 2011 at 3:50 pm (cinema, fascism, history, Jim D, war)

The King’s Speech predictably carried all before it at the Baftas and seems set to do the same at the Oscars. As everyone (even a sharp critic like comrade Clive) acknowledges, it’s a well-made and superbly-acted film that in many respects deserves the accolades that have been showered upon it. In Colin Firth (as King George VI) and Geoffrey Rush (his speech therapist Lionel Logue) the film has two outstanding lead actors. Even the usually annoying Helena Bonham-Carter puts in a convincing performance as as George’s wife, the late Queen Mother.

But the film is based upon some serious misrepresentations of history. Most importantly, while depicting George’s brother Edward VIII as a selfish and irresponsible playboy, it scarcely hints at the fact that he and his mistress Mrs Wallis Simpson were Nazi sympathisers, offering themselves  to Hitler as “regents” in the expectation that Britain would fall to Germany.

It also flatters Winston Churchill (played by a badly miscast Timothy Spall), suggesting that he was a consistent opponent of Edward, whereas in fact, his friendship with the pro-Nazi King  seriously jeopardised the anti-appeasement cause. And it flatters George, who was in reality only slightly less craven an appeaser than his brother, and favoured the arch-appeaser Halifax over Churchill when Chamberlain resigned in May 1940.

The Windsors with Hitler in 1937
The Windsors and  Hitler in 1937
For all the film’s many  qualities, I for one can’t help suspecting that this is a piece of pro-monarchist propaganda put out in the run-up to the next royal wedding. As Christopher Hitchens notes in The Slate,
“In a few months, the British royal family will be yet again rebranded and relaunched in the panoply of a wedding. Terms like “national unity” and “people’s monarchy” will be freely flung around. Almost the entire moral capital of this rather odd little German dynasty is invested in the post-fabricated myth of its participation in “Britain’s finest hour.” In fact, had it been up to them, the finest hour would never have taken place. So this is not a detail but a major desecration of the historical record—now apparently gliding unopposed toward a baptism by Oscar.”
Apart from anything else, wouldn’t the true story (or, at least, something closer to the truth) have made for a much more interesting film?


  1. Karl Dallas said,

    You say:
    “And it misrepresents Edward, who in fact was only slightly less craven an appeaser than his brother, and favoured the arch-appeaser Halifax over Churchill when Chamberlain resigned.”
    I think you mean Bertie/GeorgeVI.
    You’re right in almost every other respect, of course, except I think Spall was an excellent Churchill.

  2. jim denham said,

    Thank you Karl: correction made.

    Spall’s performance is, of course a matter of opinion, but I think it verges on pastiche. In fairness, it’s got to be an almost impossible role.

  3. Dr Paul said,

    I think that Timothy Spall looked more like Roy Hattersley than Winston Churchill, see the picture here.

    On a more serious note, when the ex-Edward VIII was in exile in the Bahamas, the official instruction was that if a German invasion of Britain took place, he was to be shot. This would have had to come from the very top: the current king, George VI and his wife (subsequently the Queen Mother, and my candidate for the one recommending assassination), and Churchill. My source? A pal of mine who heard his dad and dad’s brother, both very senior military men, discussing it when he was young.

    There were a couple of very interesting telly programmes about Edward VIII. One reckoned that when he was with the British military mission in France — still in a military post after he’d abdicated on account of his pro-German views (that’s the real reason, the marriage issue was the public excuse) — important confidential information he knew ended up in German files via his non-German but pro-Nazi friends. The other looked at the intense US surveillance of him, especially when he was in the Bahamas, and noted his continued favourable attitude towards fascism and his anti-Jewish opinions.

  4. Martin Ohr said,

    Leaving aside the politics. I can’t imagine why anyone would go and see this film- it’s a familiar retelling of an already popular and sanitized period of history.

    I generally find Colin Firth unwatchable, so obviously I’d steer clear of it merely on those grounds. But Jim (and Hitchens) are right that an accurate re-telling of the story would have been much better -but presumably would not have attracted the funding and cast had it shown the queen mother waltzing with Hitler.

    I watched a small part of the BAFTAs on sunday night; it was a stomarch-churning affair largely, which served to highlight just how few decent films had been made in the last 12 months, and just how self-congratulatory luvvies are.

  5. Laban Tall said,

    Not just the travesty of history (Baldwin, for example, didn’t resign with the words ‘Churchill was right’ – far from it, he laid down his office confident that Churchill was well and truly sidelined and out of the way).

    The dramatic core of the film – that the King was helped by an ur-hippie teaching him to loosen up by jumping about while shouting obscenities – is also its biggest lie. Logue’s grandchildren described him as a ‘very Victorian’ character, not over-familiar – pretty much the opposite of what Rush gives us. “I don’t think he ever swore in front of the king and he certainly never called him Bertie.”

  6. Rosie said,

    I thought The King’s Speech was like one of those very good BBC4 biopics. Good on period details of clothes and furniture, looked very nice with the misty light, and excellent performance from Colin Firth. History though even dodgier than I’d thought at first. I suppose they wanted to make the drama larger. A constitutional monarch can do with a king who can make speeches, but they had to put in the huge context of Britain’s finest hour etc. And George VI was made so obviously a sympathetic character – warm father, loving husband. There were some good moments though – eg when the abdicated Ed VIII & Wallis are in exile somewhere sunny and jet setty listening to the speech from foggy grey London.

    Timothy West’s made a better Churchill in his time but Churchill is so much a caricature anyway with that distinctive voice.

  7. Laban Tall said,

    What I really want to know is – what exactly did Wallis have that Edward found he couldn’t do without? Must have been quite something.

    • Rosie said,

      A follow up to The King’s Speech? The Duchess of Windsor’s Technique?

  8. Maria J said,

    History … isn’t that what filmmakers lightly reference and then promptly recreate in many movies these days.

    West was definitely the better-cast Timothy when it came to playing Churchill. Hard to do justice to the role, but Spall didn’t even look like him.

    (Jim, could you contact me at attached email address regarding a book I’m writing about Jake Hanna)

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