At the movies again!

Well, as I said in the last post I’m not a movie-goer (or haven’t been since I was a kid and seemed to see everything that came out with a “U” certificate). But we sat down last night to watch a long-recorded video of The King’s Speech, and jolly entertaining it was too. 

Being the geek I am, I subsequently Googled the Royal Speech Therapist, Lionel Logue, for some background, and came to the realisation that the film’s whole plot had been fictitious. Despite the opening scene’s journalistic-looking date/time caption of 1934, the Duke of York’s first embarrassing public speech had actually taken place in 1925, and Logue had more or less sorted the issue in seven months, though he remained as a supporter into his reign as King George VI over a decade later. It wasn’t quite so embarrasssing as portrayed, either.

That of course defuses one of the sub-plots of Logue as a figure of Establishment suspicion, being discovered by British Intelligence just before the coronation to be medically unqualified and therefore seen to be on the make through bagging a Royal client. It turns out, in fact, that the film uses broad-brushed artistic licence not only for the personality of the therapist, but for his methods and the therapeutic relationship, and for other matters both personal and state. I find some of the criticisms of the film’s accuracy are summarised in its Wikipedia entry.

Does it actually matter? The film is a piece of drama, not of documentary, and such a loose link to historical truth has been present in drama since at least Shakespeare’s time. We have fun spotting the (many) historical bloomers in Downton Abbey, but consider those who get too worked up about it pedants.

Yet film – especially blockbuster, high-budget film – is a very powerful medium. There’s a pretty good chance that for most viewers of The King’s Speech, it will form most of their understanding of British politics and social structures in the 1930s, just as Titanic did for the 1910s.

Ones image of individuals is also subtly coloured by a film portrayal that may have little relationship to fact. George VI was indeed a lefthander forced (as was the custom) to use his right, and did have early duodenal ulcer problems (as did many including my grandfather): but was he actually physically abused and alientated from his parents by a wicked governess? Maybe so – but maybe it fits a modern agenda of child abuse too well to need a factual basis. In any case, there seems no strong indication that Logue had the analytic approach to stammering that underpins the therapeutic relationship in the film – after all the use of nicknames and the cathartic swearing are untrue, though once again suited to a 21st century social agenda – the film has no sex scenes so it has to have expletives somewhere, right?

Portrayals of other key figures are also likely to mislead anyone picking up their history casually at the cinema. Wikipedia mentions significant inaccuracies about Baldwin, Churchill and others. One might also question whether Derek Jacobi’s one-dimensional portrayal of the villainous and ever-present Archbishop Cosmo Gordon Lang gives a useful understanding of 1930s spiritual life in Britain.

It appears that Mel Gibson’s Braveheart has done more to disinform the world’s public (and especially the Scots) about both political history and social reality at the time of William Wallace than The King’s Speech has about Wallace Simpson’s times. And with the question of Scottish independence and the breakup of the United Kingdom very much on today’s agenda that is not without significance. Mythical versions of history (on both sides) have had much to do with the bloody realities of my ancestral homeland, Ireland. And of course, in the evolution debate the Scopes Trial’s iconic place depends on Inherit the Wind, whose story is actually that of the McCarthy era.

I don’t know if anyone else shares my scruples about history being abused in fiction. But it may explain partly why I’m not a filmgoer – I am soaked in and assailed by contemporary prejudices from all sides anyway: I don’t need those blinkers to be read back into the history of the whole world. So if I want to know about Kiwi Burt Munro’s biking exploits I should forget The Fastest Indian. If I want to understand South African colonial history Zulu isn’t the place to go. And A Man for All Seasons may have formed the view of Tudor history of one (now excluded) poster here, but provides little understanding either of the man Thomas More or the times in which he lived.

And that’s a shame, because they’re all cracking films.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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