What's the True History Behind 'The King's Speech'?
By Moviefone Editors Posted Feb 4th 2011 04:34PM
They say truth can be stranger than fiction, but that seldom stops Hollywood from adding an embellishment or two when it comes to transferring truth to the big screen. Films purportedly "based on a true story" (or bearing the even murkier "inspired by true events") tread treacherous ground with film buffs, historians and purists. How far can artistic license stretch for the sake of entertainment? Do we eschew the nitpicky details of historical accuracy in favor of a good movie, or should filmmakers be beholden to every detail, regardless of how it paints their characters?
'The King's Speech' is the latest project to stir up such a debate (just in time for an Oscar smear campaign, the cynics among us note). The film leads the Oscar race with 12 nominations, and with increasing regularity, critics have been crawling out of the woodwork to point out the film's numerous historical inaccuracies, from Slate and The Daily Beast to The Wrap. But how much of 'The King's Speech' is fact and how much is fiction? And does it really matter anyway? Read Moviefone's thorough investigation after the jump.
Directed by Tom Hooper, 'The King's Speech' centers around Prince Albert (known as Bertie to his family, played by Colin Firth), a man who suffers from a debilitating stutter. Since the impediment hinders him from executing his royal duties -- namely giving rousing speeches and mingling with the commoners -- his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), enlists the help of an unorthodox Australian speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who helps the future king overcome his insecurities and speak without fear. The task becomes even more pressing once Bertie's brother, King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), abdicates the throne to marry an American divorcée, leaving Bertie to bear the crown and the responsibility of boosting the country's morale while Britain is on the brink of war with Hitler.
It's all very rousing and inspiring stuff -- the film's tagline is "Find your voice," after all -- much more uplifting than the backstabbing and money-grabbing machinations of 'The Social Network,' which has also been criticized for its factual inaccuracies. But the consensus seems split on just how much of the historical drama in 'The King's Speech' is historically sound and, for that matter, whether historical accuracy is even that important when it comes to telling a rollicking good yarn to entertain the masses.
Allow us to present a number of the film's most prominent facts and fictions, character by character, to figure out what Hooper and 'King's Speech' scribe David Seidler got right and what they, perhaps deliberately, got wrong.
King George VI
Played with pathos and charm by Colin Firth, Bertie is seen as a shy, retiring chap, albeit one who has legendary fits of temper. Still, he's our hero, which in Hollywood terms necessitates that he's sympathetic (if not perfect), with a relatable journey and, if at all possible, a happy ending. On that count, 'The King's Speech' ticks all the boxes.
Rumors of George VI's tortured upbringing weren't exaggerated: In addition to the stutter he developed as a child, though left-handed, the poor moppet was forced to write right-handed, and suffered the indignity of corrective leg splints to cure his knock knees. His fondness for smoking was accurately portrayed, too; he developed lung cancer in later life. It's also fair to say that Bertie was an extremely reluctant king. If anything, the movie may have downplayed that fact: Bertie was said to have gone to his mother, Queen Mary, the day before his brother's abdication, and later wrote in his diary that he "sobbed like a child" in her arms after telling her that he was to assume the throne.
His parents were fairly portrayed as distant, as was customary with upper-crust families of the time, with Bertie's father, King George V, once saying of his sons, "My father was scared of his father, I was scared of my father and I'm damned well going to see that they're scared of me." Bertie was known for his short fuse, as demonstrated by his many arguments and impatient outbursts with Logue in the film, though the filmmakers widely steered clear of rumors that he sometimes struck his wife in his temper; true or not, to publicize the king's less savory characteristics would have undermined the central message of the film, which was framed as a tale of overcoming adversity, not a biopic of Bertie's character.
The most prominent and widely criticized fiction within the film concerns Bertie's political affiliation. While 'The King's Speech' is at pains to portray the king as having a close and amicable relationship with Winston Churchill from the outset, in actuality Bertie and his wife were staunch supporters of the previous Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, and advocated his policy of appeasement (often defined as the practice of compromising and negotiating with a political adversary in an effort to avoid going to war) in regards to Hitler. They even went so far as to present Chamberlain on the balcony at Buckingham Palace following his controversial negotiation of the Munich Agreement, which handed over the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany. This was unheard of at the time since balcony appearances were traditionally reserved for members of the royal family alone. It's worth noting that appeasement was a favored position in much of Britain, since the country was still reeling from the losses of World War I and was in no hurry to charge back into battle and bloodshed.
Churchill, on the other hand, was firm friends with Bertie's brother, Edward VIII, and advised him against his decision to abdicate in order to marry Wallis Simpson. When Chamberlain resigned as PM, Bertie trumpeted another politician who favored appeasement, Lord Halifax, over Churchill (who, despite his bizarre loyalty to Edward, a known Nazi sympathizer, was one of the few politicians of the time who advocated going to war against Hitler) but was overruled. Still, the two did become close friends during the war, taking weekly meetings together and building what was purported to be "the closest personal relationship in modern British history between a monarch and a Prime Minister."
Another favored gripe from critics points out that physically, Firth bears little resemblance to the monarch he portrayed. George VI was seen as weak and weedy because of his various ailments, and was often described as a nitwit. (Hitler himself reportedly dismissed George VI as "a simpleton.") We spoke to historian and biographer Mary S. Lovell -- whose biography on the Churchills will be released in May -- regarding Firth's performance: "Physically, he has no resemblance whatever to King George VI, and there are still plenty of people around who remember the king very well (including me), who were prepared to be ultra critical," she said. "The fact that Firth is so believable in 'The King's Speech' indicates a truly great acting ability."
We're prepared to cede to artistic license here -- we can't imagine anyone playing George VI with quite as much aplomb as Firth. And though Bertie reportedly finished last in his final exams at Naval college, one doesn't necessarily have to be a genius (nor was Bertie really portrayed as one in the film) to be an inspiring figure.
We know it's not technically a character, but considering what an integral part of the tale Bertie's impediment is, we'd be remiss if we didn't tackle the facts and fiction behind it.
Although many critics deride the film for inaccurately portraying the severity of the king's stammer (Andrew Roberts at The Daily Beast insists, "his stutter wasn't anything like as bad as the film depicts. In fact, it was relatively mild, and when he was concentrating hard on what he was saying it disappeared altogether"), there is little evidence to prove this, since according to director Tom Hooper, there are no known recordings of the king speaking available from the time before he started working with Lionel Logue in 1926. We know that the king "successfully" gave the opening address to the Australian Parliament in Canberra in 1927, but that doesn't mean it was free from error. Bertie's 1925 speech at the British Empire exhibition at Wembley, which opens the film, has been described in various publications as "humiliating," "disastrous" and "painful," which was certainly how it was depicted in 'TKS.' Even in rare archive footage of a speech given at the Scottish Empire Exhibition in Glasgow, 1938 (often mistakenly labeled as the Wembley speech) signs of Bertie's impediment are still evident in his long pauses and stumbling speech, even after a decade of working with Logue.
Hooper admitted in an interview with the Guardian newspaper that he and Firth decided to portray the king stammering on practically every line to make sure that the stakes seemed high. "The film's structure is slight. Our constant fear was that the climax would not be climactic enough. But here is something Colin doesn't understand. On the first day of shooting, I had an extraordinary experience. We had to set the level of the stammer. When I pushed Colin toward making his stammer more severe, I was profoundly moved. It was intensely dramatic and powerful. I knew we were not running the risks we had envisaged." Despite this, Hooper stands by the portrayal, saying that he did believe that Bertie's stutter was as calamitous as it was depicted.
One thing we do know that the movie got wrong, however, was the age at which Bertie's stutter manifested itself; in the script, the king admits that he developed the affliction young, around 4 or 5 years old, when in actuality it appeared around the time he was 8. Also not so true: that Bertie practiced with a mouthful of marbles as a potential cure -- that was apparently straight out of 'My Fair Lady.'
Charmingly portrayed by Geoffrey Rush, Logue is perhaps the most likable member of the cast, one who didn't need too many tweaks for the sake of drama.
Facts: Logue was indeed Australian, taught acting and elocution in Perth, and certainly did work with war veterans whose shell-shock and PTSD had left them with speech impediments, before coming to Britain. He opened his Harley Street practice in 1926, which was where Elizabeth found him and enlisted his services to help Bertie.
Fiction: The main fiction of the film regards exactly when Logue and the king met, which was in 1926, after Bertie's disastrous speech at Wembley. But in the movie's narrative, their meeting is postponed until the late 1930s. Some critics say that Logue's relationship with the King is vastly overstated, although recently discovered letters from Bertie's wife, Elizabeth, to Logue, paint a different story.
Listen to a recording of the king's actual speech announcing the beginning of the war, which was recreated at the culmination of the film, below:
The most important factor in regarding the accuracy of 'The King's Speech' is to remember that a movie is, first and foremost, designed to entertain, which, according to the film's critical and box office success, it has managed in spades. Were the film a documentary, I could concede to its detractors. But if audience members are taking history lessons from the movies, they're liable to believe that Forrest Gump met JFK and that Obama is only the latest in a long line of black presidents, coming behind Morgan Freeman and Tom Lister Jr. While we must be wary of taking historical movies as gospel, there's certainly something to be said for films that are prepared to brave the tightrope of accuracy versus enjoyment to bring previously untold stories to the screen.
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