As the prizes and nominations pile up for “The King’s Speech” – it took top spots at both the directors’ and Screen Actors Guild awards this weekend – so do the criticisms about its historical inaccuracies.
Some of those finding fault with the movie’s facts have griped about the use of the wrong kilt tartan, while others have done nothing less than charge that Nazi sympathies on the part of King George VI are whitewashed.
At the same time, defenders of both this particular biopic and the genre of historical drama in general are hoping that the unusual number of true-story pictures up for awards this season will help expand viewers’ understanding about the differences between documentaries and drama.
“The King’s Speech” recounts the emotional struggles of Britain’s Prince Albert, second in line to the British throne between the two world wars. He had a debilitating stammer that took on excruciating importance as his public duties mounted and radio ushered in a new era of communication. The film follows his unconventional therapy with an Australian actor and self-trained speech expert named Lionel Logue.
In one of the film’s many dramatic licenses, the screenplay compresses more than a decade of collaboration between the prince and therapist into a brief story arc, culminating in Albert’s ascension to the throne when his older brother abdicates.
La Salle University history professor John Rossi takes on what he considers serious lapses in a film he otherwise enjoyed. “What sets The King’s Speech apart is the loose way it deals with historical facts especially the attitude toward Hitler’s Germany in England during the 1930s,” he writes in an op-ed piece in The Philadelphia Inquirer, pointing to what he considers widespread prejudice in the royal family during that time.
In a phone interview, he explains that the king “had the unthinking anti-Semitism shared by the British upper class.” Like others in his government, the king opposed Jewish immigration to the British territory of Palestine – ostensibly because it would destabilize the Middle East, Professor Rossi says. But, he adds, this was happening while the Jews were being openly persecuted in Germany.
British screenwriter David Seidler vehemently defends the choices he made.
“Let me be really blunt: I lost my paternal grandparents to the Holocaust,” he says. “Can you imagine I would spend a huge portion of my life obsessing about a movie about a man who I knew to be an anti-Semite? It’s a vile suggestion.”
While he acknowledges that he is not a trained historian, he says he read extensively about the prince and found nothing, “not even a whisper to suggest he was anti-Semitic.”
Moreover, he says, the film is not about British history, but rather is a deeply personal meditation drawn from his own youth during wartime Britain. “The king was my hero,” says the screenwriter, who himself suffered from a childhood stutter and penned the film as an homage.
Such sparring goes to the heart of what sets dramas and documentaries apart, says Susan Mackey-Kallis, an associate professor of communication at Villanova University. Her book on controversial filmmaker Oliver Stone addresses the question of a storyteller’s obligation to history.
“Oliver talks about ‘story truth,’ ” she says, which is distinct from rational details about a time and place. She points to the Cartesian split – “a moment when rational, scientific knowledge separated from feeling or intuitive knowing.”
Drama functions on the intuitive, narrative level, she says, adding that filmmakers give us a window into a time and place in a way that dry facts simply cannot convey. Narrative truth, she adds, comes from the emotional fidelity of a story, not its rational assemblage of facts.
Dramas are memory pieces, says Carolyn Kitch, a specialist in memory and meaning at Temple University. Film is an exercise in recapturing and reshaping moments from the past into meaning for the present, she says. This is not a history lesson; that is what documentaries are for, she adds.
“The King’s Speech,” she says, “is memory film.”