I don’t go to the movies too frequently. Last time, I think, was more than two years ago.
As Wikipedia points out, The King’s Speech (2010) doesn’t provide us with an entirely correct account of King George VI‘s historic stammer, but the scriptwriter was surely lucky in that the king’s speech disorder therapist‘s (Lionel Logue) notebooks were found nine weeks before filming. Some of the remaining inaccuracies struck me, too, even though I’m by no means a historian. Either way, as both the awards to date, and ticket sales in Britain would suggest, it is a movie which connects to the mood of our times. It seems to be a movie which can, in the view of many Britions and Americans, speak to and for Britain.
I’m no thorough critic. The easiest way for me to assess this Anglo-American narrative should be to take a French perspective (a German perspective would be problematic for obvious reasons). As this is a blogpost and no expert opinion, I’ll try to choose a French angle, as it seems to suit me best.
Marcel Pagnol, a popular French playwright and filmmaker of the 20th century, distinguished between a playwright and a belletrist (or novelist) as follows:
The language of theater sounds from the actor, it must sound as if it was improvised, and the answer must come right away, because once the right moment has passed, it will be lost. On the other hand, it must not come across in a literary way: it’s not the language of a writer, but the language of the character.
The playwright’s style is in his choice of characters, in the feelings he lends them, and in the proceedings on stage. As for his personal position, [the playwright's language] must restrain itself. May he remain silent! Because if he wants to make his own voice heard, the dramatic movement will drop. He must not leave the wings [...]: his actors speak to us for him, and they will impose his feelings and his ideas on us, and make us believe that they are ours.*)
There may be many French plays which are as full of educational intent as are Bertolt Brecht‘s. Maybe. But France, the Catholic Church’s first-born daughter (or so they say – the belated Italians might still differ), hardly produced as many missionaries proselytizing foreign lands as did America, or Britain.
If I may equate drama and movies (I believe that I may, in this context), Pagnol’s definition is true when applied to his own work. His characters don’t seem to educate the audience – they don’t come across as if their author wants to make people believe that their feelings and ideas, and those of Pagnol’s characters, were the same. They really seem to be the same. Pagnol tried to characterize the people as he saw them anyway, rather than idealizing them – and given that he was no idealist (or no self-professed one, anyway), but a business-minded moviemaker and playwright -, he did so with ease. Every shrewdness and even wiliness was in order, so long as it could be deemed “typically French”, or more specifically, provencal. Everything typical was something to be affirmed, rather than to be judged, let alone to be condemned. If there was any educational motivation behind it after all, it would probably be to encourage people to become even more themselves – not in a way the times or politics might demand, but for the sake of individuality itself.
At first glance, the same may be said about The King’s Speech. The king would speak both to the people, and for the people. He would be their voice – or that’s about how the movie puts it. The king himself was an actor – and his Queen consort was the Empire’s First Actress. The king stuttered, as did the Empire in the first phase of the second world war (the phoney war) – the irony can hardly be lost on us. But The King’s Speech isn’t about daily life – it’s about collective challenges in extraordinary times.
Given that I’m no frequent moviewatcher (and it really takes a few prods before I’ll find myself in a cinema after all), the size of a movie on the silverscreen alone will hardly ever fail to impress me. Besides, The King’s Speech is a great movie, and I’d recommend it to anyone except to people who are fundamentally opposed to strong language. But although Susan Sontag once condemned the habit, I’ll never leave an impressive piece alone. I’ll always try to categorize or to interpret it.
Two things came to my mind this week, when thinking the almighty pictures over again. One was a speech made by British prime minister David Cameron in Munich, on February 5th this year, on islamism – or stronger (collective) identities at home:
Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and a much more active, muscular liberalism. A passively tolerant society says to its citizens, as long as you obey the law we will just leave you alone. It stands neutral between different values. But I believe a genuinely liberal country does much more; it believes in certain values and actively promotes them. Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality. It says to its citizens, this is what defines us as a society: to belong here is to believe in these things. Now, each of us in our own countries, I believe, must be unambiguous and hard-nosed about this defence of our liberty.
Horatio Hornblower, a fictional British naval officer during the Napoleonic wars, came to my mind, too. I read several volumes of C. S. Forester‘s patriotic stories repeatedly when I was in my mid-teens. Hornblower is to some extent a fictional copy of Lord Nelson (but of much more humble ancestry), and just like the hero of Trafalgar, Hornblower rises through the ranks, and becomes a lord and an admiral in the end. And as is said about Nelson, Hornblower, another naval hero, suffers from the same embarrassing weakness, too: he’s prone to seasickness.
He copes, and - despite the setbacks that a believable military story requires, plus the personal problems that make him a believable human being – strides from victory to victory. The first novel, The Happy Return, was published in 1937, some two years ahead of the war, and at a time when British defense wasn’t in great shape. Two more novels, A Ship of the Line and Flying Colours, were published in 1938. And I’m pretty sure that they helped to raise public morale, and a preparedness to add to the military budget.
“I find Hornblower admirable”, Winston Churchill wrote in The Great Alliance, published in 1950.
Talking about Winston Churchill – in The King’s Speech, he’s portrayed as King Edward VIII‘s opponent, given Edward’s determination to marry a somewhat off-color lady, Mrs Wallis Simpson. Churchill was in fact one of King Edward’s most prominent (and rather few) defenders in parliament.
It doesn’t seem to make a great difference, as long as you don’t confuse fiction and history (but don’t be too sure that most of the audience won’t confuse these anyway). It doesn’t really hurt that King George – then still the Duke of York – had in fact overcome much of his stammer as early as in 1927. The culmination of his accession to the throne, and the beginning of the war, combined with his still (according to the movie) still continuing speech disorder, are good for the drama.
What appears more questionable to me, even if a movie must have the liberty of re-writing history when it seems to suit -, is the portrayal of the king’s happy family – the Queen consort, and the two princesses. That’s a very idealistic picture, and leaves some shadows out of the account. There should have been no need to divide the world of 1939 that much into colors of black (Germany) and white (Britain). Nazi Germany’s shape would have been sinister enough to allow for some shades of grey on the other side of the English Channel, without a loss of contrast.
The Queen reportedly found the movie moving and enjoyable. Maybe it wouldn’t have hurt if she had enjoyed it a bit less.
But I wouldn’t go as far as to suggest that The King’s Speech were mainly a propaganda movie. It was moving and enjoyable.
*) La langue du théatre sonne au sortir de la bouche d’un acteur, elle doit paraitre improvisée, la réplique doit etre comprise du premier coup, car une fois passée, elle est perdue. D’autre part, elle ne peut pas etre un modèle de style littéraire: ce n’est pas la langue d’un écrivain, c’est celle du personnage.
Le style d’un auteur dramatique est dans le choix des personnages, dans les sentiments qu’il leur prete, dans la démarche de l’action. Quant à sa position personelle, elle doit rester modeste. Qu’il se tamse! Dès qu’il veut faire entendre sa propre voix, le mouvement dramatique tombe: qu’il ne sorte pas de la coulisse: [nous n'avons que faire de ses opinions, s'il veut les formuler lui-meme: - couldn't translate this one, hence the omission in my quotation above - JR] ses acteurs nous parlent pour lui, et ils nous imposeront ses émotions et ses idées, en nous faisant croire que ce sont les notres.
!0AMarcel Pagnol: La Gloire de mon Père, Presses Pocket, Paris, 1976, 1986, p. 10
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Update / Related
Rallying round the Flag, World Socialist Web Site, February 3, 2011