By now it shouldn’t feel surprising to be surprised at finding yourself in agreement with Christopher Hitchens. Currently, following revelations by “curve ball” that the entire “Iraq WMD intelligence” was made up over a kitchen table, the Hitch must be hunkered down somewhere, planning his next move.
But before that latest disaster, he had time to fire off a piece on the film du moment, The King’s Speech, in which Australian speech coach — ha ha ha — Lionel Logue, cures King George VI’s stammer, thus making it possible for George to inspire the nation in time of war.
Hitchens focuses on the most egregious and obvious falsehood in the film — that Winston Churchill (played as caricature by Timothy Spall) — was a firm supporter of George — or Prince Bertie as he then was, at the time that King Edward VIII was trying to hold on to the crown, and marriage to Wallis Simpson, a divorcee.
One is accustomed to historical fudging, but even so this is a bit of an eye-popper. Though Churchill was at the time trying to pull together a popular front against the Nazis, he became an obsessive supporter of Edward VIII, a clear Nazi sympathiser and supporter. His support for Edward was an expression of his quixotic, romantic nature.
The film — now starting to haul in the awards — didn’t have time to explain such complexity — it didn’t have time for complexity at all. So why not leave Churchill out? Because it needs him. Its slickness and undoubted quality is devoted to a propagandistic presentation of World War II, in a way that resonates with the dominant neoconservative myth of the war — that it was a clearly understood moral challenge that can serve as a template for any current conflict. Furthermore, Britain was rallied by the royal family and the establishment to resist Nazism, even at the cost of its own survival.
None of this bears the slightest historical examination. George VI was no Nazi sympathiser, but, like much of establishment — and most of the British population — he was a supporter of Chamberlain’s attempt to broker a deal with Hitler in 1938. The deal is retrospectively constructed as folly and cowardice now, which ignores the fact that almost everyone wanted to avoid war, living as they were under the shadow of the previous one.
Nor did George VI change his views, even, or especially, in the darkest days of 1940 — the royal family didn’t want Chamberlain sacked, and it wanted Lord Halifax to become Prime Minister and strike a deal with Hitler, that would let him turn his tanks eastward.
That Churchill became Prime Minister and turned the war into a total offensive against Nazism had nothing to do with the royal family — it was forced on the establishment by the Labour Party who would not accept anyone else as a war-time coalition leader.
The Labour Party doesn’t make much of an appearance in The King’s Speech, but neither do the British people as a whole — whose opinion of the war they were drifting into was far more complex and conflicted than the film describes.
Many didn’t want it all. Many writers of the time, Orwell most famously, remarked on how little awareness there was of the stated reasons for war among the average population, and how little the theme of bestial Nazism, etc, played among the British people.
Some saw it as an inexplicable war — many agreed with Germany’s anti-Semitism, in theme, if not in method, and wondered why they should be fighting to defend Poland, and other places. The conservative government had already denied Jewish refugees entry to England — and in 1939 George VI wrote to Lord Halifax asking him to communicate to Germany that it was Britain’s wish that Jews not be allowed to leave their “country of origin”.
Support for the war was of two types: after Dunkirk it was simply and obviously a war for national survival. Those who supported it in those terms were neither particularly pro- or anti- the royal family; to the day-to-day thinking about the awful conduct of total war, they were fairly irrelevant.
My English grandmother could serve as an example. She signed on for an arms factory in 1940, pulling 12-hour shifts six days a week. Like many people at the time, she thought about what she’d do if invasion came — and concluded that she could probably take out two German soldiers with a kitchen knife.
She was a straight-down-the-line Tory and royalist. But her will to fight didn’t come from that, or from a speech or two from Buckingham Palace. It came from a deep atavistic desire to defend kith and kin. It was, it is, a sense of right that cannot be assimilated to a larger framework.
She, and millions like her, deserve a better memorial than The King’s Speech, which makes them no more than extras in their own history. There’s no surprise that the director, Tom Hooper, is from a left-liberal elite family, all of whom live within cooee of each other in Primrose Hill, London.
Hitchens and his ilk can ping the obvious political falsifications of The King’s Speech — but they’re unwilling to go deeper and challenge its base assumptions, that WWII remains a crusade for good to which everyone was committed, rather than a confused and multiple event. For to do so would be to knock away the supreme myth of the West, and the myth that the pro-war party relied upon for the invasion of Iraq.
The King’s Speech needs World War Two — to give it heft. Otherwise, it’s just the story of an ennobled dork who learnt not to stutter. Its truly noxious argument is that Britain only found its voice against Nazism when George VI did.
But the reverse is the case. The British establishment was so compromised by the process that they could not speak for the nation. Famously, after the invasion of Poland, when Labour deputy-leader Arthur Greenwood rose to speak, dissident Tory MP Leo Amery yelled from the benches “speak for England”, effectively acknowledging that the ruling class were utterly out of step with the British people.
That is the undistorted speech that lies beneath the film’s myth — that the ruling class had to be forced into action against Nazism by fear of their own people, and what would happen if the elite continued to compromise with European fascism, as they had in the Spanish Civil War. The film’s producers had a story that combined personal triumph against odds (good) with royalty (even better). But in making it a symbol of national resistance, they falsified the record in a way that libels and misrepresents the struggle and sacrifices of millions.