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!

†Nuclear weapons in the hands of belligerent nations, militant Islam, and our own ignorant apathy pale in comparison!

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.

    • Benjamin
    • March 4th, 2011

    I’ve noticed similar disapprovals with other movies as well. For example, I had a friend who was bothered with the movie Ray because it ends by praising his ability to quit several types of drugs while failing to mention that he was an alcoholic for the rest of his life. I think you hit the nail on the head – these facts definitely have their place and should not be entirely ignored, but may not have a place in a particular story that is being told.

    • Christopher
    • March 8th, 2011

    While I understand your specific point that a two-hour movie doesn’t need to have other, true sub-plots thrown in when they will interfere with the point of the movie, I’m going to have to disagree with what I think is your more general point that our heros/legends/myths shouldn’t include the faults that those people had.

    I argue against that point for a few reasons.

    The first is that acknowledging the faults of heros has, historically, not detracted from their lasting place in our pantheon of heroes. David is the classic example of this, and the Greek heroes you mentioned (and the ones you didn’t- and couldn’t be expected to because the number of flawed Greek heroes, and even gods, is endless) are also great examples. If modern-day heroes are truly as heroic as the older pantheons of heroes, they, too, will not be overwhelmed by their failings. Time concerns in a two-hour movie may be a good reason to leave a failing out; fear that their heroism will be sullied is not.

    The second is that recounting the mistakes and failings of our heroes allows us to better hope to emulate them. The knowledge that even they are not perfect, that even they made mistakes and that those mistakes did not disqualify them from achieving hero-hood keeps us from being discouraged from imitating our heroes. If heroes present impossible standards of perfection, many will find the myth to be inspiring, but to impossible to be applied to daily life.

    The third is that leaving failings out of our myths is dishonest and unfair to the heroes of those myths. This is especially true when we deal with heroes who did not consider their failings to be failings at all. Your example of Helen Keller is an especially good one. Her political beliefs and activities (she was actually not a Communist, but a member of the Socialist Party and the IWW) most likely stemmed from her concern for others with disabilities and needed the care of others, which I think is safe to assume came from her own experience of needing the care of others. Her political beliefs and activism were an integral part of her and it is dishonest to us and unfair to her to take that away from her myth.

    So, yeah, I think it’s important to remember the faults (if we consider them to be such) of our heroes and to include those faults in their myths.

  1. Christopher –

    Please forgive my delay in responding to your post; I’ve been turning your points over in my head, attempting to support my position in light of your comments. The problem has come because I believe your points are both valid and true, but as I think I’ve over argued my point, it doesn’t come through very clearly. I never support suppressing truth and certainly do not believe that we ought not be aware of the flaws of people we admire. My argument only extends to heroes as they relate to the common narrative, not in all circumstances.

    I’ll explain further. If one is writing a person’s biography, say, the entire truth as we know it should be included – that’s history, and we have a responsibility to tell all that we can. We should also include all facts when seeking a personal hero, but the faults and “bad facts”, if you will, are often set aside. For example, I can wish to be as dedicated to liberty and as clever as Benjamin Franklin, without agreeing that his many conquests were acceptable.

    The third category, the one in which I wish to place my argument, is that of common narrative, which I explained in a footnote above. These stories are very broad, kind of like those in the Book of Virtues; they teach various character qualities and provide examples of people who were brave, or determined, or honest. In this case, adding character flaws of specific individuals, I believe, unnecessarily problematizes the examples for their purpose. Like “The King’s Speech” tells a very specific story and adding Nazis makes it too complicated, the very basic level doesn’t require all the nitty-gritty details to accomplish it’s purpose.

    Ideally, of course, the three levels should co-exist. I hope they do in my own life. Movies, though, I think usually only exist on the lowest plain as they tend to be our modern Homer.

    • Staples
    • March 24th, 2011

    Interesting. I don’t think we have much, if any, disagreement about biography or hero-searching/emulating. (I’d quibble that it is important to engage a hero’s faults; what attracts me to a hero may give me a tendency to fall in the same areas as my hero did.)

    So far as common narrative goes, if it is to be so broad and simple, I’m unsure of its relative value. If this level is our Homer (and I’d agree with you that it does take the place of Homer and the other myths to the Classical Greeks), I’d rather it have the strengths of Homer- three-dimensional characters who learn and grow and sometimes utterly mess up their lives, then, sometimes, recover. I’d rather that we have a finite set of myths that we all know; the best of the myths, the ones that have beat out the other myths. Instead, we have an already huge and rapidly growing corpus of stories that only sometimes reach the level of true myth, but that have edged good, solid myths out of our society.

    But you’re probably going to talk about that in subsequent posts, so I’ll stop there until you have a chance to clarify and expand your position.

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