The New York Times today raised an interesting question about the Oscar front-runner for best picture, "The King’s Speech." It wondered whether the real King George–who aggressively endorsed a policy of appeasement toward Hitler, something the film entirely ignores–might derail the film’s chance for capturing the golden statuette.
"In the last week or two," the Times reports, "a flurry of news reports and Internet banter have chewed over questions about the real King George, particularly whether he was actually less than stalwart in his opposition to the Third Reich."
The Times highlighted Christopher Hitchens’ essay in Slate, from Jan. 24, which reminded readers that even sympathetic British historians have looked derisively on their country’s position in the run-up to the Second World War, which is when "The King’s Speech" is set. I think Isaac Chotiner in The New Republic made a better case a few weeks ago, but more on that in a minute.
What Hitchens wrote was that King George’s brother, Edward, the Duke of Windsor, was actually a slavish sychopant for Hitler, before and even during much of the war. The film shows Edward as nothing more than a reckless playboy whose decision to abdicate the thrown is what gives his younger brother George the crown. Aside from a passing off-color remark about Hitler, viewers of this serious historical drama are given no clue of Edward’s sympathy for Hitler.
Worse, the film plays to the hagiography of Churhill, suggesting that all along he was on George’s side. In truth, as even Churchill’s more sympathetic biographers have written, Churchill remained strangely loyal to Edward throughout the abdication crisis. Though Churchill was an early detractor from Neville Chamberlains’ policy of appeasement, he nevertheless made many question his resolve to fight Hitler because of his support for Edward.
As Hitchens’ writes: "[Churchill] threw away his political capital in handfuls by turning up at the House of Commons—almost certainly heavily intoxicated, according to Manchester [his biographer]—and making an incoherent speech in defense of "loyalty" to a man [Edward] who did not understand the concept. In one speech..he spluttered that Edward VIII would ‘shine in history as the bravest and best-loved of all sovereigns who have worn the island crown.’"
Chotiner raises this ugly fact about Churchill too. And like Hitchens, he also discusses George’s own appeasement stance–long after Hitler invaded the Czechoslovakia, when it became increasingly clear that Hitler was on a path towards all out war. George even privately wrote in his diary that he supported the arch-appeaser Lord Halifax for prime minister as opposed to Churchill, who by 1939 had become the clear pro-war candidate.
All this makes you wonder whether a great film–and it is one; I loved it–would have been harmed by including all this historical detail. Or would it have become overstuffed, too complicated? Hitchens doesn’t address that concern, but Chotiner does, and it’s why his is the better piece. Here’s what Chotiner writes:
"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."