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Perspective: How true is 'The King's Speech'?

Screenwriter David Seidler did some tweaking and telescoping to tell his tale, a history professor writes, but it was done to advance the story, plus explore the relationship between the stuttering royal and his commoner therapist.

February 13, 2011|By David Freeman, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill, center, looks on as Princess Elizabeth, left, Queen Elizabeth, King George VI and Princess Margaret wave to crowds gathered below from the balcony of Buckingham Palace on VE Day, May 8, 1945.
Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill, center, looks on as… (Associated Press )

If any best-picture contender was going to face questions about taking liberties with the facts this Oscar season, it seemed likely it would be "The Social Network." But now that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg have tactfully retreated a bit from their initially contentious stands, the accuracy debate has shifted to "The King's Speech."

"The King's Speech" is being sold as a feel-good tale of how a friendship between a royal and a commoner affected the course of history. But some commentators are complaining, among other things, that the film covers up Winston Churchill's support for Edward VIII, the playboy king who abdicated to marry an American divorcee, and that the movie fails to acknowledge that the once tongue-tied George VI supported Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of the Nazis. (Writing last month at slate.com, Christopher Hitchens blasted the film as "a gross falsification of history.")

As a specialist in British history, I agree that screenwriter David Seidler certainly has tweaked the record a bit and telescoped events in "The King's Speech" — but for the same artistic reasons that have guided writers from Shakespeare to Alan Bennett, who wrote the screenplay for "The Madness of King George" (and the play on which the movie was based). While historians must stick to the facts, dramatists need to tell a good story in good time. It also helps if they can explore the human condition in the process.

Seidler's script opens with Colin Firth as Prince Albert (the future King George VI, but then the Duke of York and known to his family as "Bertie") facing the ordeal of making his first radio broadcast. To add to the strain, the duke must deliver the address in a stadium before a large crowd. However, his words come only haltingly, causing embarrassment for all present. Not shown but later referenced in the film is the fact that in the crowd was Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a speech therapist recently transplanted from Australia.

All this took place in 1925, but Seidler brings the speech disaster forward 10 years to the eve of the abdication crisis, which resulted in the duke unexpectedly being transformed into a king when his brother Edward VIII stepped aside. The compression of events, although understandable, requires a slew of historical alterations to explain the back story.

The duke's stammer derived in part from the verbal abuse he received as a child from his father, King George V (Michael Gambon). To indicate this, Seidler concocts a scene showing the adult Bertie still being hectored by his father, and it is only after this that he agrees to see Logue.

Much of the early part of the film is taken up with Logue's struggle to win the duke's trust. The therapist succeeds partly by trickery and partly because of continued prompting by Bertie's wife, the Duchess of York (Helena Bonham Carter). After achieving a "breakthrough" with his patient and following Edward's abdication in 1936, Logue helps prepare the new king for the ordeal of the coronation ceremony. That hurdle cleared, the film culminates with the therapist coaching Bertie through another historic moment: his broadcast to the British Empire at the start of World War II with an approving Churchill (Timothy Spall) looking on.

In reality, the duke first sought treatment from Logue in 1926, and, contrary to the film, the two hit it off immediately. Logue wrote in a note later published in the king's official biography that Bertie left their first meeting brimming with confidence. After just two months of treatment, the duke's improvement was significant enough for him to begin making successful royal tours with all the public speaking that entailed. George V was so delighted that Bertie rapidly became his favored son and preferred heir.

In interviews, Seidler has been ambiguous about what sources he consulted in writing the script. The various biographies of George VI all tell of the king's relationship with Logue. This includes the official biography published in 1958. John Wheeler-Bennett, the royal biographer personally selected by the king's widow, was himself a former patient of Logue's and so wrote about the episode with great emotion.

It remains unclear, though, to what extent sources not available to scholars or the public played a role in the final shape of the film. Seidler has said that Logue's son offered 30 years ago to show him his father's notebooks, provided the king's widow agreed. But when Seidler wrote Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, he was told that she found it too painful to remember the old anguish and begged that he wait until she had passed away.

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