By Christopher Hitchens
The King's Speech is an extremely well-made film with a seductive human-interest plot, very prettily calculated to appeal to the smarter filmgoer. But it perpetrates a gross falsification of history. One of the very few miscast actors – Timothy Spall as a woefully thin pastiche of Winston Churchill – is the exemplar of this bizarre rewriting. He is shown as a consistent friend of the stuttering prince and his loyal princess and as a man generally in favour of a statesmanlike solution to the crisis presented by the abdication of the prince's elder brother, King Edward VIII.
In point of fact, Churchill was – for as long as he dared – a consistent friend of conceited, spoiled, Hitler-sympathising Edward VIII. And he allowed his romantic attachment to this gargoyle to do great damage to the very dearly bought coalition of forces that was evolving to oppose Nazism and appeasement. Churchill probably has no more hagiographic chronicler than the American author and biographer William Manchester, but if you look up the relevant pages of his The Last Lion, you will find that the historian virtually gives up on his hero for an entire chapter.
By dint of swallowing his differences with some senior left and liberal politicians, Churchill had helped build a lobby, with strong grassroots support, against Neville Chamberlain's collusion with European fascism. The group had the resonant name of Arms and the Covenant. Yet, as the abdication crisis deepened in 1936, Churchill diverted himself from this essential work – to the horror of his colleagues – in order to involve himself in keeping a pro-Nazi playboy on the throne. He threw away his political capital in handfuls by turning up at the House of Commons – almost certainly heavily intoxicated, according to Manchester – and making an incoherent speech in defence of "loyalty" to a man who did not understand the concept. In a letter to Edward VIII written that same year – not cited by Manchester – he spluttered his hopes that the king would "shine in history as the bravest and best beloved of all the sovereigns who have worn the island Crown". (You can see there how empty and bombastic Churchill's style can sound when he's barking up the wrong tree; never forget that he once described himself as the lone voice warning the British people against the twin menaces of Hitler and Gandhi.)
In the end, Edward VIII proved so stupid and so selfish and so vain that he was beyond salvage, so the moment passed. Or the worst of it did. He remained what is only lightly hinted in the film: a firm admirer of the Third Reich who took his honeymoon there with Wallis Simpson, the woman for whom he forfeited the throne, and was photographed both receiving and giving the Hitler salute. Of his few friends and cronies, the majority were Blackshirt activists such as the odious "Fruity" Metcalfe. (Royal biographer Philip Ziegler tried his best to clean up this squalid story a few years ago but eventually gave up.) During his sojourns on the European mainland after his abdication, Edward, then the Duke of Windsor, never ceased to maintain highly irresponsible contacts with Hitler and his puppets and seemed to be advertising his readiness to become a puppet or "regent" if the tide went the other way. This is why Churchill eventually had him removed from Europe and given the sinecure of a colonial governorship in the Bahamas, where he could be well-supervised.
All other considerations to one side, would the true story not have been fractionally more interesting for the audience? But it seems that we shall never reach a time when the Churchill cult is open for honest inspection. And so the film drifts on, with ever more Vaseline being applied to the lens. It is suggested that, once some political road bumps have been surmounted and some impediments in the new young monarch's psyche have been likewise overcome, Britain is herself again, with Churchill and the king at Buckingham Palace and a speech of unity and resistance being readied for delivery.
Here again, the airbrush and the Vaseline are partners. When Chamberlain managed to outpoint the coalition of Labour, the Liberals and the Churchillian Tories and to hand to his friend Hitler the majority of the Czechoslovak people, along with all that country's vast munitions factories, he received an unheard-of political favour. Landing at Heston airport on his return from Munich, he was greeted by a royal escort in full uniform and invited to drive straight to Buckingham Palace. A written message from King George VI urged his attendance, "so that I can express to you personally my most heartfelt congratulations. . . . (T)his letter brings the warmest of welcomes to one who, by his patience and determination, has earned the lasting gratitude of his fellow countrymen throughout the Empire."
Chamberlain was then paraded on the palace balcony, saluted by royalty in front of cheering crowds. Thus the Munich sell-out had received the royal assent before the prime minister was obliged to go to parliament and justify what he had done. The opposition forces were checkmated before the game had begun. Britain does not have a written constitution, but by ancient custom the royal assent is given to measures after they have passed through both houses of parliament. So Tory historian Andrew Roberts, in his definitively damning 1994 essay The House of Windsor and the Politics of Appeasement, was quite correct to cite fellow scholar John Grigg in support of his view that by acting as they did to grant pre-emptive favour to Chamberlain, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter to you) "committed the most unconstitutional act by a British Sovereign in the present century".
The private letters and diaries of the royal family demonstrate a continued, consistent allegiance to the policy of appeasement and to the personality of Chamberlain. King George's forbidding mother wrote to him, exasperated that more people in the House of Commons had not cheered the sell-out. The king himself, even after the Nazi armies had struck deep north into Scandinavia and clear across the Low Countries to France, did not wish to accept Chamberlain's resignation. He "told him how grossly unfairly . . . he had been treated, and that I was terribly sorry". Discussing a successor, the king wrote that "I, of course, suggested (Lord) Halifax." It was explained to him that this arch-appeaser would not do and that, anyway, a wartime coalition could hardly be led by an unelected member of the House of Lords. Unimpressed, the king told his diary that he couldn't get used to the idea of Churchill as prime minister and had greeted the defeated Halifax to tell him that he wished he had been chosen instead. All this can easily be known by anybody willing to do some elementary research.
In a few months, the British royal family will be yet again rebranded and relaunched in the panoply of the wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton. Terms such as "national unity" and "people's monarchy" will be freely flung around. Almost the entire moral capital of this rather odd little German dynasty is invested in the post-fabricated myth of its participation in "Britain's finest hour". In fact, had it been up to them, the finest hour would never have taken place. So this is not a detail but a major desecration of the historical record – now apparently gliding unopposed toward a baptism by Oscar.
© 2011 Slate magazine, distributed by the New York Times Syndicate.