When the Whole Truth is Too Much: A Response to Christopher Hitchens
In the last month or so, Christopher Hitchens has written several articles about The King’s Speech, which, this last weekend, won the Academy Award for Best Picture. In the first, Hitchens states that while he thinks the film well made, it has several historical errors he wishes had been addressed, primarily dealing with the film’s portrayal of Winston Churchill. The second, written in response to an interview with the screenwriter David Seidler, makes the same points more vitriolically. A more serious accusation receives more attention in this article as well: that George VI (known in the film as Bertie) and his government actively pursued an appeasement policy towards Hitler in the late 1930s. I do not intend to find fault with Hitchens’ history; I am not a 20th century historian and know far more about the dynastic alliances of 15th century Habsburgs than Churchill’s foreign policy. However, I do believe his articles do both the movie and the general public a disservice by insisting that the entire truth be told.
In the second article, Hitchens faults Seidler and the film for being unable to include scenes offering the actual facts about several minor characters – for example, Churchill’s support of Edward VIII and the euthanization of George V. While any history or even well produced documentary about the period would be amiss to leave it out, including such information would drag down a two hour movie that is, at its core, about a bromance and a stutter. If Seidler had fabricated Bertie’s stammer or Louge’s existence, it would be right and necessary to call a foul. If the movie had transplanted the two men to Nazi-era England from 12th century France, that would be worth protesting. To raise a fuss because several minor facets of minor plot points did not make the final cut is to miss the point of the story.
The accusation of appeasement is even more apparently damning; after all there is no greater threat to Western Society than Hitler’s regime!† But in truth it is even less relevant. The climactic speech at the end of the movie, a declaration of war, occurs after the deal with Hitler has been made and broken – a period the movie neglects entirely. Not only would discussion of appeasement bog the pace of the film, but it would entirely derail the story the movie is telling: a simple story of a man who stutters. Britain’s situation at the time may have provided the occasion for the eponymous speech, but surely George VI would have always had a speech impediment, and he would still have worked to cure it. The King’s Speech doesn’t need Nazis to be powerful. All it needs is a man fighting a debilitating problem, and succeeding with the help of his friend.
And there, really, lies the crux of the matter. George VI’s foreign policy has absolutely nothing to do with Bertie’s stutter and it should not distract us from an otherwise interesting and inspiring story. In fact, I argue that, in many cases, interesting and inspiring stories supersede their main character’s “whole truth”. Certainly the truth cannot be suppressed. However, there is a vast deal of difference between suppression of fact and acknowledgement that, sometimes, the exact and complete truth is not the most relevant information.
- Helen Keller became a Communist.
- Benjamin Franklin was a notorious womanizer.
- Abraham Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus.
All of these facts, while true, ought not destroy their legends as exemplary Americans. The common narrative depends on heroes who are bigger than their flaws and failures.‡ The ancient Greeks esteemed Hercules and Achilles despite their serious emotional dramas; similarly, today’s mythological figures cannot be expected to struggle through the entirety of their past and emerge unscathed before passing the test for “herodom”. In the end, How Bertie Beat His Stutter is no less encouraging if, for a few months, he and his government attempted to stave off war by giving in to Hitler’s demands.
Allowing people’s worst moments to overwhelm their equally true shining ones is neither honest nor charitable. Heaven help us all if we were held to that same standard!
‡ By “common narrative”, I mean the quasi-mythological stories and pantheon of heroes we utilize to explain what it means to be American, or Western, or human. Expect to hear more on this subject in the future.