Lee Ruddin: The King’s Speech -- Where's FDR?





[Lee P. Ruddin is Roundup Editor at HNN. He lives in England.]

I have always considered Colin Firth (Bridget Jones’s Diary) to be an uptight, repressed Englishman. British film director Tom Hooper (John Adams) must think similarly otherwise he would not have chosen Firth to play the part of, well, an uptight, repressed Englishman in his period drama, The King’s Speech. Granted, the former Mr. Darcy pulls off the role as the ascendant King George VI. Yet it is Geoffrey Rush, cast here as Lionel Logue, the stuttering monarch’s Australian speech therapist, who deserves all the plaudits; he remains engaging throughout. The same, alas, cannot be said for the Queen Mum-to-be (Helena Bonham Carter); viewers no doubt would have preferred more of King George V (Michael Gambon) or King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce).

As disappointing as the marginalization of Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall) is, it is the omission of Franklin D. Roosevelt which leaves this particular cinema-goer speechless. Fair enough, the foundation of the movie is the relationship between master and mentor. (Even then, though, it has been claimed that the film team overlooked the key one: Sir Louis Greig.) That The King’s Speech airbrushes out of history such an historical figure as FDR, however, is perplexing at best and unforgivable at worst.

Since you need only refer to Will Swift’s splendid book, The Roosevelts and the Royals: Franklin and Eleanor, the King and Queen of England, and the Friendship that Changed History, to understand the effect FDR’s private encouragement had upon someone overcoming a physical handicap. “The support that George VI received from the president”, writes the American royal-watcher, “was psychologically crucial as the King grew from an insecure, self-doubting monarch into a masterful world leader.” Robert Rhodes James, author of A Spirit Undaunted: The Political Role of George VI, says likewise: “It was not until the triumphant [visit] to the United States in the summer of 1939 that doubts about the King’s physical capacity to hold the job were finally allayed.” Their Majesties’ pioneering 1939 North American tour is not even mentioned in the movie, and yet, chronicles James, “After sailing back, [George VI] spoke in the Guildhall with a new authority and eloquence that surprised his distinguished audience.”

Highlighting the marginalization of the 41st Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and omission of the 32nd President of the United States might appear trivial to some, but these oversights form part of David Seidler’s larger historically inaccurate script. Take the representation of Churchill as a supporter of George during the Abdication Crisis, for instance. Standing tall in his older brother’s corner, as many a historian knows, proved near-fatal for the man who would be voted the Greatest Briton in 2002. As I all too vividly recall from my days reading biographies of the great statesman at Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education, Roy Jenkins remarks that “had Churchill succeeded in keeping Edward VIII on the throne he might well have found it necessary in 1940 to depose and/or lock up his sovereign as the dangerously potential head of a Vichy-style state”.

It is pretty incontrovertible to say that Christopher Hitchens has been the film’s most vocal critic, attacking the political aspects of the plot as “riddled with gross falsifications of history.” Notwithstanding Churchill’s support for what the Slate columnist calls a “pro-Nazi playboy on the throne,” the Member of Parliament for Epping is (falsely) portrayed as favoring abdication in favor of Edward VIII’s younger brother. “The private letters and diaries of the royal family demonstrate a continued, consistent allegiance to the policy of appeasement and to the personality of [Neville] Chamberlain,” Hitchens reminds us. And yet, the film continually and consistently suggests otherwise. The final scene, which portrays “Churchill and the King at Buckingham Palace and a speech of unity and resistance being readied for delivery,” is a case in point. (The Royal Family, for the record, did not appear on the balcony of Buckingham Palace at the outbreak of World War Two.)

Even though Seidler and Hooper worked together for four months on the script to ensure its authenticity, their end product bypasses Queen Elizabeth’s pro-appeasement stance, quickly skating over the years 1936-1939. Even Tory historian Andrew Roberts, whom, according to Independent columnist Johann Hari, defends “the crimes of a white man’s empire,” cites fellow scholar John Grigg in his essay ‘The House of Windsor and the Politics of Appeasement’ (in Eminent Churchillians) in support of his thesis that by sticking with Chamberlain, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth “committed the most unconstitutional act by a British Sovereign” in the twentieth century. (It was greeting Chamberlain on the balcony of the Palace after the prime minister negotiated the Munich Agreement in 1938 that the court historian was referring to.)

But as Ted R. Bromund, the Margaret Thatcher Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, points out, “If George had a bad peace, he had a good war.” George VI, to be sure, was anything but irrelevant during the years 1040-1945, holding luncheons with members of his government as well as offering counsel to Prime Minister Churchill. “The political influence of the King”, James reiterates, “was transformed from being virtually non-existent to becoming a major element in government.”

Whether or not Madonna’s forthcoming feature film, W.E., will present a more historically accurate take on the whole Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson affair is anyone’s guess; according to early press reports, though, the so-called Queen of Pop is to portray Queen Elizabeth in a brutal new light. Meanwhile, despite The King’s Speech being based on Logue’s letters and diaries--published in full for the first time only recently, but available to Seidler and Hooper a couple of months prior to filming--it adds comparatively little to our portrait of George VI the man. Make no mistake about it, The King’s Speech tramples on the historical record. Firth may have been robbed of an Academy Award last time out in A Single Man while Hooper’s 2009 sports drama, The Damned United, may not have received the recognition it ought to have done, but there is something of a royal scandal about the way their latest outing is, as Hitchens so eloquently remarks, “gliding unopposed toward a baptism by Oscar.”

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Geoffrey Cassady - 1/31/2011

Though spoken by an Englishman, I cannot help but smell the fresh scents of Americanocentrism in this review and, moreover, the foul odors of that common mistake of assigning the duty of historical accuracy to filmmakers and storytellers. Certainly, too, in a limited space no historian can say everything?

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