The King's Speech Revisited
The movie's screenwriter goes too far in defending his version of history.
Brush even a fingertip against the balloon of Hollywood ambition and prize-mania, and it can burst with gratifying speed, emitting huge gusts of narcissism and megalomania. Ever since I, and one or two others, published some criticisms of The King's Speech, there has been a lovely value-for-money response of outraged ego. Tinseltown reporters have e-mailed and telephoned me to report that Harvey Weinstein goes around saying that all who doubt the perfection of his latest offering are in sinister league with the makers of The Social Network. I had some difficulty in believing that this was really true, but it did cheer me up. Yet now the film's screenwriter, David Seidler, has given a foam-flecked interview to the Puffington Host, or whatever the hell it's called, in which he speaks darkly of a "smear campaign" against his baby, a campaign of which I constitute a "prong." So perhaps the termites of paranoia have been dining long and well on the Weinstein Co. cortex. A hitherto almost unpunctuated stream of praise and tribute is not enough—the chorus of adulation must be unanimous. This is what comes of immersing oneself in the cult of hereditary monarchy and of seeking to bask in its tawdry glare.
Seidler first unmasks his batteries by saying that I "accuse" him "of not knowing that Churchill supported David (Edward VIII) not Bertie." I did nothing of the sort. I accused him of deliberately omitting the fact (suppressio veri, or withholding the truth) even as he strongly implied that Churchill's loyalty was to the babbling Bertie, which constitutes suggestio falsi, or the insinuation of untruth. He now tells us that a scene in which Churchill supported the pro-Nazi princeling "David" was cut from the final version, allegedly because it "sagged." Well, why not craft a scene—illustrating the far more fascinating truth of the matter—that does not sag?
Perhaps admitting more than he should, Seidler adds that the decision of the royal physicians to euthanize the dying King George V (by means of an injection of morphine and cocaine, designed to ensure that the timing of the announcement would favor the extreme-right Times of London) was also removed from the film. Did that not-uninteresting detail also sag in the telling? Or would its inclusion, along with the accurate Churchill scene, have made it harder to sustain the uncritical and anti-historical reverence for the palace and for Churchill that the whole movie seems designed to perpetuate?
By a similar mixture of suppressio veri and suggestio falsi, The King's Speech also part-whitewashes and part-airbrushes the consistent support of Buckingham Palace for Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain and their unceasing attempt to make an agreement with Hitler that would allow him a free hand in Europe while preserving the British Empire. Here, let me quote Seidler again:
Hitchens also accuses Bertie of supporting Chamberlain in appeasing Hitler. Well, just about everyone in England, except Churchill, did the same. Hindsight is always 20/20. England had lost the cream of a generation in WW1. Nobody wanted another war. And England wasn't ready. Chamberlain had to buy time to gear up war production, which he did; hardly the actions of an appeaser. When he returned from Munich with "peace in our time" crowds gathered around 10 Downing Street and cheered him as a hero. Of course the King and Queen supported him. Constitutionally they had to.
That lame cliché about "20/20 hindsight," usually a bad enough sign on its own, certainly doesn't apply in Seidler's case. Not only does he get everything wrong that can be gotten wrong, but he eases himself into an actual apology and rationalization, even now, for the Chamberlain policy.
As I wrote in my original piece:
1) There was a large and growing movement in Britain against the sellout to Hitler. Extending across the Labour and Liberal parties, and including an important number of senior Tories, it took the name Arms and the Covenant, calling for rearmament and the solidarity of all anti-Hitler governments and parties. Many of its leaders were horribly distressed when Churchill split the ranks in order to pursue his near-suicidal allegiance to the ghastly Edward VIII.
2) Chamberlain's deal at Munich did not only hand over the free peoples of Czechoslovakia, bound and gagged, to Hitler. It also surrendered to him one of Europe's most important centers of arms manufacture, based around the enormous Skoda munitions factory. The only "war production" to be "geared up" by this crazy action was that of the Third Reich, now enlarged and more aggressive. This was widely noticed at the time. And if any "time" was "bought," it was for the Führer.
3) The king and queen did not echo or follow public opinion. They helped decisively to shape it in Chamberlain's favor. He was met by a royal envoy as soon as he landed from Munich, taken straight to Buckingham Palace, and displayed on the balcony with a monarchical baptism for his treaty, which had yet to be submitted to Parliament. The effect on the press and the public was immense. The mobs in Downing Street came later (and, in fact, it was only then that Chamberlain uttered his memorable fatuity about "peace for [not in] our time." Seidler's ignorance of constitutional questions—if it really is ignorance—is near-perfect. The monarchy has no business publicly taking sides in ongoing debates, let alone pre-empting Parliament. The monarchist Tory and Churchillite historian Andrew Roberts is quite correct, in his exhaustive chapter on this subject in Eminent Churchillians, in agreeing with those who describe this moment as "the most unconstitutional act by a British sovereign."
4) Even the late queen herself told her biographer William Shawcross that she and "Bertie" had been mistaken in doing what they did. She still attempted the defense that nobody wanted another war (though Munich of course brought war much closer and on terms more favorable to a Nazi victory). But this would not explain why she and her husband privately fought to keep Chamberlain in office even after the war broke out—and tried to ensure his replacement by the arch-reactionary and appeaser Lord Halifax, instead of Churchill, when the Nazis were almost at the gates.
In giving this recent interview, then, David Seidler has gone far beyond the original misrepresentation and falsification that lie at the heart of the film and has become a propagandist for the Munich faction. As I wrote originally, The King's Speech is an excellently made movie that features (with the awful exception of Timothy Spall's Churchill) generally first-rate acting. Oscars should go to those who entertain and amuse. But if the academy gives an award to Seidler, a man who absurdly fancies himself subject to persecution when confronted with the historical record, it will have conferred approval on something, and someone, extremely shabby.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Still of Colin Firth in The King's Speech © 2010 The Weinstein Co.