Reel vs. Real: Speeches of Kings

I love going to the movies, however with the exception of certain films involving a boy wizard and other sci-fi epics, I rarely go to see films twice in the movie theater.

I made an exception for The King’s Speech. As a historian I often go into historical films with the recognition that the film we see on the “reel” is not at all going to be a one-hundred percent accurate vision of what actually happened, the “real” history. So I was hardly surprised after my first viewing of seeing this article by Christopher Hitchens that talks about the glossing over of Winston Churchill’s real relationship with the royals and it having a very light treatment of the Nazi’s and the issues of World War II.

On one level, this movie isn’t about the history at all. It is about a man overcoming an incredibly debilitating speech problem–one that leads to abuse by his father, his brother, and attacks on his own self confidence–and his relationship with his therapist to overcome that problem. The classic triumph over adversity storyline.

Obviously though, the movie’s additional strength comes from who the man is, and the reason why he has to overcome stuttering. As Bertie (King George VI, played by Colin Firth) points out near the end of the movie, the monarch has no power in England except to speak to the people; and what the filmmakers, screenwriters, Colin Firth and Geoffery Rush did was provide an incredibly humanizing glimpse into a man thrust upon the throne following his brothers abdication–on the eve of another war.

Sometimes a film or a miniseries, demands accuracy on all levels in order to do justice to the story–and sometimes the artistic license is acceptable. However is it only excusable because The King’s Speech is a fantastically plotted and acted movie? That is, would I be quick to defend other films like The Patriot (or even Pocahontas) which whitewash much of the past to serve the narrative?

Probably not–but I try, at least, to see the flaws for what they are–a limitation of the medium, and another example of human subjectivity when it comes to historical truth.  So tonight–on Oscar night–I’ll be rooting for this crew of British actors that were able to move me.

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