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Royal Mess

‘The King’s Speech’ is an ugly distortion of history.

In a critically and commercially disappointing year for the film industry, one of the few highlights has been the reception given to The King’s Speech. The movie has been nominated for just about every existing award, and a bevy of Oscar nominations are forthcoming. The period drama is also on its way to financial success.

Like Stephen Frears’s film from 2006, The Queen—which won Helen Mirren an Oscar for her eponymous performance—The King’s Speech is a testament to Americans’ continuing fascination with the British Royal Family. But, unlike The Queen, which was merely simplistic in its portrayal of the monarchy, The King’s Speech is historically inaccurate, entirely misleading, and, in its own small way, morally dubious.

The film tells the story of King George VI (Colin Firth) and his battle with a speech impediment. Bertie, as he was known, seeks the help of a speech therapist (played by Geoffrey Rush), and the two spend most of the film—differences in social status be damned—bonding. By the time the credits roll, Bertie has conquered his stammer, and the British people are well on their way to vanquishing fascism—the latter, naturally, having been aided by the former, thanks to an inspiring royal address from Buckingham Palace after the German invasion of Poland. This heartwarming tale plays out predictably and unsubtly—The King’s Speech is one of those films that is not content to show us a friendship developing over two hours; no, the characters must also tell us how much the friendship means to them.

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.

Bertie ascended to the throne at the end of 1936. Three years later, he gives the speech of the film’s title. In the time between these two events, the British government notoriously blundered and appeased the Nazis, most famously at Munich. Less well-remembered is that after Prime Minister Chamberlain returned from giving away a chunk of Europe to the Germans, he was immediately invited to Buckingham Palace to appear on the balcony with the King and Queen (the latter is now better known as the recently departed but beloved “Queen Mum”). This was both a violation of protocol—the Royals are supposed to stay out of politics—and an extraordinary endorsement of a prime minister whose foreign policy was disastrous. Much of the Labour Party was rightly furious. This despicable historical fact is less well-known than it should be, but the film fails twice—first, by not showing it at all, and, second, by implying that Bertie was staunchly anti-fascist from the start.

The strange unwillingness of The King’s Speech to mention any of this is at least somewhat surprising for one reason: The actual arc of George VI’s character would make a fine and interesting movie. Just think: A king fights against a stutter and his dastardly, treasonous brother, while eventually sloughing off his old instincts for appeasement. He even overcomes his distaste for Winston Churchill—the politician who bent over backward for that very same brother—and lends his steadfast support to Churchill’s aggressive policy against fascism.

Why wasn’t this story told? The likely answer is that even highbrow critics and audiences love to toast the House of Windsor. While the Royal Family may frequently appear more tawdry than anything else, cheap American Anglophilia can always be counted on to provide thunderous applause. Take The Queen. Unlike The King’s Speech, that movie was witty and compelling. But it also presented the Princess Diana phenomenon with a complete lack of distance. Viewers who wondered why the Western world came to a halt for two weeks solely because of an unexceptional woman’s death were unlikely to find any answers from the movie. Now, The King’s Speech has taken things a step further by not only simplifying its story but grossly misrepresenting real events and people. Apparently, the life of George VI had too many shades of gray for a mainstream film.

Isaac Chotiner is the executive editor of The Book.