Thursday, 6 January 2011

On Kings, Character, Acting, and a Bit of Historical License

[George VI giving one of his wartime speeches]

This week I finally took in The King's Speech, a film I had desired to view for some time, and enjoyed it thoroughly as a deft piece of filmmaking -- by turns poignant and lighthearted. It is sure to run off with many Oscars, including, no doubt, one for the fine Colin Firth. One critic quite hilariously deemed it "part monarchical bromance,* part speech impediment Rocky," with a "sports-movie storyline" of triumph over adversity. We may playfully admit that these elements do exist in the film, but are melded in so well with history, the human story of a King, and the glimpse into his fears, insecurities, and foibles as to become one quite remarkable whole.

In the same week I also watched My Boy Jack on PBS (starring Daniel Radcliffe as John Kipling), named after the moving poem Rudyard Kipling wrote after his only son went missing during the Battle of Loos in the First World War -- his death was not confirmed for many years. The film is a startling look into the soul of Kipling, the Bard of Empire, who suddenly discovered that everything he believed in was shattered not only by the seemingly futile sacrifice of his son, and his guilt at having encouraged his son to pursue military glory, but the fact that the old truisms of gentlemanly warfare no longer held true. He was a man for whom the Empire was literally everything, one who truly believed the words he spoke regarding England being like a "mother and father," guiding and protecting its many peoples spanning the globe. The film therefore encompasses two circles of "kinship" -- his immediate family and his "imagined community" of the Imperial family in peril.

[Rudyard and John Kipling]

Among the most interesting moments in this film are Kipling's visits with King George V, which bookend its start and finish. The first visit is lighthearted and fun, with Kipling racing in his car to complete the journey to Windsor Castle in under 3 hours. The last visit is sorrowful, Kipling having lost his son Jack in France, and the sickly youngest son of the monarch, Prince John, having died suddenly at the age of 13. What I found quite striking, watching the two films within 24 hours of each other, was that the portrayal of King George V in both reflected polar opposites. While in My Boy Jack he is the most sympathetic of figures, in The King's Speech he is a distant and dictatorial father who (the implication is) perpetrates the insecurities and stammering of his second son the Duke of York, later George VI.

This discrepancy throws up that most banal and commonplace of questions regarding historical adaptation: what is truth? Regarding the character of George V: possibly something in the portrayal of both films, or something in-between. There is no evidence that he was a tyrant, but no doubt he was a man of his time and may well have treated his children in ways that he considered proper and dutiful, but to us may be cold and unfeeling. In The King's Speech he has one of the most striking lines as he informs his son Bertie that, in the age of radio and mass media, monarchs had become mere "actors." Whereas previous rulers simply had to stand straight and not fall off their horse (George I, for example, was imported to the British throne from Hanover -- hence the Hanoverians -- and did not seem to consider the fact that he spoke no English to be a speech impediment for Kingly duties), twentieth-century royals had many different roles to play. They were, and still are, required to balance a whole host of contradictory elements -- their regal position and identifying with the common man, appearing human but without any fatal weaknesses, confident but not arrogant, useful but not meddling, etc.

It cannot be a particularly easy job, and The King's Speech highlights this tension very well with Bertie's hints of misery and utter inability to escape the pressures of his life. As he tells his speech therapist, Logue, if he were a "normal man," they would never have met. He would be at home with his family, his unfortunate stammer having no more consequence than to himself and his own ego. The film gives a good sense of the slow increase of the political stakes throughout the 1930s, as the rise of Hitler and European Fascism make both the character of George VI (as opposed to the Nazi-friendly Edward VIII), and his ability to communicate with and inspire the nation, of vital importance. All historical films naturally take literary license, or else they would be rather pedestrian and undramatic, as most of real life is. The King's Speech takes one rather major historical license, and that is to interpose Winston Churchill more deeply into the events of the mid-1930s than was actually the case. These were his "wilderness years," during which he was excluded from power and at times even ridiculed by his own party. The scene in which Churchill and Bertie discussed the possible abdication of Edward VIII, with Churchill encouraging the royal to take the name of George (!) almost certainly would never have happened, even if only because Churchill famously "backed the wrong horse" in the Abdication Crisis. He headed up an almost one-man, and ultimately futile, attempt to enable Edward VIII to remain on the throne, with or without Mrs. Simpson, a doomed cause that did nothing to help his popularity at the time.

Churchill, however, is "cast" in these scenes because he is, perhaps, the figurehead we need or want to remember in this particular narrative. Just as in one film George V is required to interact in a jovial way with Rudyard Kipling, and in a completely different way with his intimidated second son in the second film. As an historian it is, of course, not the done thing to endorse any sort of revisionist history, as this can do great harm. Yet, as we can recognize, there is a line between minor and tolerable instances of historical liberties, and egregious ones. Where this line lies, however, is difficult to say. Taking the case of Churchill, for example, is it acceptable to transpose him into scenes in the 1930s for nostalgia's sake, meanwhile forgetting that Churchill was not "rehabilitated" until 1940, and that up until almost the start of war itself support for peace and Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policies were widespread? Is it all that innocuous to instead wrap ourselves in a cozy blanket for the sake of the moving and human story of George VI and his tribulations? (This writer thinks it is alright.) The answer is beyond the remit of this already rather lengthy post. I shall leave the question up in the air.

*The "bromance" moniker was taken up by Peter Bradshaw, reviewing the film in The Guardian. It is a fine review -- one choice line: "Set in the 1920s and 30s, it is populated by that sort of well-suited patrician Englishman of yesteryear who drinks spirits in the middle of the day, whose middle and index fingers are rarely to be seen without an elegant cigarette interposed, and who pronounces the word "promise" as "plwomise" (try it)." Begging the question: what is so "yesteryear" about drinking spirits in the middle of the day?

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 


James said...

The other day we briefly talked about Kipling and TR's friendship. As I watched "My Boy Jack" I was struck by the irony that two of the worlds biggest jingoists would lose a son so tragically in the same war. The show was well done, I thought Kim Cattrall did a nice job stepping out of her cougar persona. I suppose one could explain George V by using Churchill's own father. Lord Randolf was an outgoing type to his male counterparts, and a distant figure to his own son. As you say a man of his times.

~Tessa~Scoffs said...

Wonderful post. I've seen My Boy Jack (liked it very much) and I look forward to the King's Speech. Now my interest is piqued for The Guardian as well.

One thing struck me as you discussed the different ways in which George V is portrayed. Every human, and certainly every parent, is never the same from day to day. We are constantly changing, learning, growing, trying harder and losing temper. Just ask my kids.

IdleHistorian said...

Thank you both for your comments!

Indeed I'm sure that George V -- as all of us -- had many different sides to his character.

As for Kipling, I had read an article many years ago about his son and the progression of his attitudes towards WWI -- from propagandist to great regret and some guilt. Very fascinating, and I thought the film captured this emotional arc very well.

Michael said...

I was glad to read your comments about "The King's Speech." As I was watched the film over the holidays, I found myself thinking, "I'm rather enjoying this, but what would the Idle Historian think?"

In the hands of lesser actors, the thing might have been unbearable melodramatic, a kind of Windsor Pygmalion. But Firth and Rush redeem a familiar story arc thanks to their remarkable ability to communicate without words.

I had the curious experience of seeing the movie with an American (my sister-in-law, a native of Orange County). She makes her anti-monarchical state of mind known with some regularity, demanding "What purpose does the Queen actually serve?" I thought this film nicely illustrated the burden carried by a Head of State, as national cynosure (a role divided in America between its Head of Government and members of the Hollywood firmament).

This is depicted in an almost unbearably poignant scene in "The King's Speech." Reluctant Bertie has just been invested as George VI, and encounters Queen Elizabeth and their young daughters in a corridor. He reaches for the girls, expecting a familiar embrace. But the princesses recognize that their father has undergone a fundamental change. They curtsey and greet him as "Your Royal Highness." Nothing will ever be quite the same. The mantle of regal duty is heavy indeed, even in microcosm.

IdleHistorian said...

Thanks for your comments, Michael. I agree that Firth and Rush really nail their respective roles. I heard one critic term the film "in essence formulaic... but it just manages to hit all the right notes perfectly." I also found the scenes with the present Queen as a young 10-14 year old very intriguing. Having seen photographs of her as a lighthearted youth -- and having heard the supposed story that she asked the question "forever?" on being told that her father was to become King -- it is interesting to contrast how she was then with the dignified monarch we know today.

Hels said...

I read My Boy Jack ages ago but have only recently seen the film. And I agree with you: Kipling suddenly discovered that everything he believed in was shattered by a hideous war. He really _was_ a man for whom the Empire was literally everything, guiding and protecting its many and diverse nations.

Being an older person myself, I really do understand why change is both difficult to deal with AND morally offensive. For example I learned the rules of spelling and grammar in the early 1950s and I HATE it when young people ruin the English language today.

But I am not sure that Kipling's values were totally desirable, even by the standards of the era he grew up in. Have a look at Kipling Down Under, a book I examined in

Thanks for the link

IdleHistorian said...

Thanks for your comments, Helen. Kipling was indeed a fascinating and complex character and it is difficult to really know what to make of his values and writing. I enjoyed your own post on Kipling running away to Australia in 1891! Another interesting little piece of the puzzle with a curious story behind the scenes!

Enid said...

I am looking forward now to seeing this film because of all your comments (let's hope for an early television showing) but wonder if any other person remembers the feeling we had at the time of the abdication. I remember my mother remarking to my father that Albert was the second choice, a substitue for the real King, and for ages after, my aunts would follow the doings of Edward and say how well the King looked.

I feel Edward would have been a disaster as King and am glad we never had chance to find out.

IdleHistorian said...

Thank you for your comments, Enid. Your first-person memories of reactions to the abdication are very interesting! I know that Edward VIII was very popular with ordinary people in the 1930s (especially following his famous quasi-political comment in the 1920s that "something must be done" about poverty). There is a scene in The King's Speech in which Bertie says something like "I've seen the posters that read 'God Save the King' and I know that they don't mean me." I'm sure there was a lot of residual good feeling towards Edward for many years. Yet you are correct -- it is hard to escape the feeling that one or more of his personality traits would have done him in and that he would not have have made a good King, particularly during that crucial time before and during the War.

Enid said...

The residual good feeling you remarked on was engendered by ne of the newspapers or radio reporting his affair with Wallis
isSimpson or carrying details of how far involved Edward was. I realise it would have been common knowledge in certain circles but for most of the population, we were unaware of any danger to the succession and the whole thing came as a surprise.

My mother made me tear out Wallis Simpson's picture from my scrapbook and when I asked why, she said 'Because she has been divorced and has upset the Royal family and me'

Until willie Hamilton came along, the Royal family were revered and I can remember how shocking the first open criticism was to me - very lese-majesty. And the word divorce : it carried such stigma in the 30's (or perhaps only in working class families) that most of the blame fell on Wallis, and if we had known more, then the good feeling might have evaporated.

IdleHistorian said...

All very interesting. The deference that used to be shown by newspapers etc. towards public figures such as the Royals has rather changed these days!

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