Sentimentality overwhelms the need to study history

Posted by Tory Historian Friday, February 18, 2011 ,

Tory Historian was quite excited by the prospect of a film about George VI, the Abdication Crisis and the beginning of the Second World War. All these events were within living memory (still) but, because of the lack of historical teaching in schools, are not as well known as they ought to be. A viewing was in order as soon as possible and a few subsequent discussions. Tory Historian has been somewhat discouraged both by the film and, especially, by the discussions. Sentimentality seems to overwhelm the need or desire to study history.

It is necessary to acknowledge that the film is good. It is not brilliant but it is good in a solid way: good script, good acting with many of the best known British thesps on parade, accurate in detailed knowledge of the period. Compared to most films that have been produced in the last ten years or so, it is very good, but that is a reflection on the state the film industry is in around the world.

The historic background, on the other hand, is very poor. Whoever did the research should have their salaries docked. Or be told to wash dishes in future, if they can manage it. This is not about details of when exactly the Duke of York or George VI made the first truly successful speech. This is, after all, a film not a biography and certain dramatic tension is required. It is perfectly reasonable to build the story towards the speech at the outbreak of war when the fairy tale comes to fruition: the younger son (in this case a prince but that is irrelevant) overcomes the many handicaps and difficulties, gains the throne and the love of his people as he already has the love of several princesses who are his wife and two daughters.

What is objectionable is the complete disregard for historical accuracy in other matters. It is not possible to imagine that George V (or, for that matter, anyone else) said in 1935 (readers, please mark the date) that whoever inherited the throne from him would be facing Hitler threatening half Europe and Stalin the other half. Nobody thought that about Hitler and nobody paid that much attention to Stalin except on domestic matters.

Baldwin did not resign in 1937 because he thought "Winston was right". Very few people thought that in 1937, before Anschluss and invasion of Sudetenland; certainly not Baldwin who supported Chamberlain in 1938.

All this amounts to a promotion of Churchill as the secondary hero of the story, presumably for the American market. It culminates in the complete reversal of Churchill's role in the Abdication Crisis. The film shows him broadly supportive of the Yorks. In reality he supported Edward beyond any realistic expectation, making a speech in the Commons as late as December 1936 in his favour. He was humiliatingly shouted down.

There is, in addition, a problem with Timothy Spall who plays Churchill or rather a pantomime Churchill as one reviewer said. Mr Spall is the one exception in the film - among all the other superlative performances his is dreadful.

Does any of this matter? Tory Historian has been assured by various people that it does not as the film in itself is a good thing and will probably encourage others to go away and find out more about the Abdication Crisis, George VI and other related matters. Sad to say, this does not seem to be true. There is no evidence that the film is driving interest in the actual events of that period. In fact, all references to historic facts or inaccuracies are pooh-poohed with a somewhat gooey sentimental sigh. It is just so lovely, that film and gives one such lovely warm feelings. Who needs to learn history? Tory Historian remains very sad and disappointed.


  1. Simon Harley Says:
  2. I read in The Sunday Times a while back that a scene where KGVI starts swearing was inserted not because of any basis in fact, but because the screenwriter had been made to swear to overcome his stammer. What utter conceit!

    The King was no stranger to foul language, however. I've read the term book kept by his term officer at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, and young Prince Albert was apparently a bit of a snivelling sneak who was prone to swearing - aged fourteen! Alas, one won't find that tidbit in the history books.

  3. I think he did swear. Not unusual in naval officers or naval cadets. I seem to recall some story the Duke of Edinburgh told in that first big programme about the Royal Family about finding his future father-in-law in the garden hacking through some bush or tree swearing his head off.

    Actually, the whole swearing sequence, made so much of by the journos is very short.

  4. Anonymous Says:
  5. I fear that on hearing they were making a film on this subject I made a conscious decision to avoid watching it. I was born before the war and remember books on H.M. George V and George Vl. I recall hearing about the abdication and the sudden promotion of the younger Brother. I think he did a great job in the circumstances and did not think a film would do him justice.
    As for Spall as Churchill, words fail.

  6. Hollywood has never been reliable as a source of historical knowledge. It has to tell stories, and stories, unlike reality, have to have some form to them, a narrative arc, etc. The majority of people who will see this will never read a history book anyway. 80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year. Britain may be a little better. Probably the movie is a net positive overall.

  7. No, indeed, Lex, one cannot rely on films or plays to tell the historical truth. Even Shakespeare did not exactly do so. And, certainly, overall the film is, if not positive, then certainly not a negative. What is sad is the sentimentality that is preferred to any desire to find out more. Don't know about relevant figures about book-buying in the UK but I doubt if they are any better. It is well known, for instance that more English language books are bought in the Netherlands than in the UK. And there is no VAT on books here.

  8. Having only watched this film at year’s end (rather than at its start), I was curious to check out how Tory Historian rated the movie, and find myself largely in agreement, leaning on TH’s assessment of its historical accuracy and in the wider benefits (or lack thereof) in spurring the public to explore the period with a critical mind. I will demur somewhat, though, with the success of The King’s Speech as a piece of cinematic art: before watching it, I wondered how one could make a successful film about a speech impediment and the art of overcoming it and, now, after the viewing, am none the wiser and no more convinced.

    Without dismissing the undoubted personal aggravation attached, there was no high drama and no ‘Rubicon’moment that I could detect (even the public switch in favour from elder to younger brother was so low key it is possible that only a familiarity with historical events would raise one’s awareness to the transfer of affections). Only the close relation between the various Yorks—and with Logue himself—piqued my greater interest, and left me wondering whether this was true or another act of cinematic licence.

  9. I think the account of the relations in the York family is accurate enough. It seems to be reasonably well known that they were a close and loving family, unusually so in royal circles.

    As to a "Rubicon" moment, I agree there is none, but I am not sure it is needed. I see the story essentially as an old-fashioned fairy tale: the younger son overcoming certain dangers and disabilities (of various kind though in this case it is a physical one) to win the throne (in this case establish himself on it) and the love of, in this case, the people. This plot has enchanted people for many centuries so I see no problems with it but it is, after all, about historical figures, therefore there ought to have been better historical research.

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