Last week I paired two films that appeared to be wildly divergent in style and that appear to be about wildly different classes, and pointed out how the two movies might talk to each other productively around the central concern of how a man – of any class – can lose his wife, and how he might win her back.
This week, I’m going to pair two films that tell two wildly divergent stories about the same person and period. Talking to each other they are unlikely to do, but argue with each other furiously they will do – and watching that argument could be the best entertainment of all.
“The King’s Speech” is, basically, “Rocky” story. The protagonist, at the start, isn’t even an underdog; he’s not even in the competition. His elder brother is destined to be the next King. He has no aspirations to replace him. And even if he did, nobody would seriously consider him for the role, because of his disability (particularly not his father, who seems especially disdainful of any impairment). He would like, if truth be told, simply to get through life without causing undue embarrassment to himself or his family. But, circumstances conspire to give him a shot at the title, for which he must be trained. Which he is – successfully – by an eccentric but wise old trainer. And then, when he finally earns the crown, he discovers that this was not the real contest. The championship bout will be with Adolph Hitler, a naturally gifted leader, and he will need to bring all his training to bear, and all the strength of character developed in relative obscurity, to prevail.
“Richard III” as adapted by the star, Ian McKellen, and the director, Richard Loncraine, is the opposite. It’s the story of a man who, sentenced to playing second-fiddle (and often hatchet-man) for his elder brother, the King, and held in contempt or worse by everyone because of his disability (particularly his mother, whose rejection is pointedly cruel), decides to do the only thing he can do, and win the crown by treachery and outright murder. Which he does, only to discover that this was not the real contest. To be safely and permanently king, he must triumph over Richmond, a naturally gifted leader. But, having no inner reserves to fall back on in the moment of truth, he is thrown down in utter defeat.
And, of course, the fun part is that are both about the same fellow, George V. [Um, or, rather, George VI. I can never keep the extra-Shakespearean monarchs straight] And they are both about the same question: the relationship of the House of Windsor to the fascist tide of the 1930s.
“The King’s Speech” tells a story about the monarchy as a focal point of national identity, the institution that rallied in the people the necessary fortitude to stand against Hitler in the dark early years of the war. Bertie’s elder brother, Edward, is portrayed (accurately) as a fascist sympathizer, but the film portrays him as an outlier, not as an extreme representative of his family. His younger, more capable (if stuttering) brother, who becomes George VI, is portrayed as anything but sanguine about the German threat. This, as Christopher Hitchens pointed out with his usual verve, is a considerable distortion of the facts. The royals were implicated more generally with efforts to support – including through constitutionally questionable means – Chamberlain and a policy of appeasement, a policy which certainly had substantial support but was hardly lacking for opposition. It is, in other words, something of a patriotic fairy tale.
If “The King’s Speech” is a fairy tale brief for the British monarchy, “Richard III” is a fairy tale brief for republicanism. If the British royal family are basically gangsters, who would happily have taken the country fascist if they could have done, then there’s really no point in discussing what their proper role is in modern Britain; they should simply have been tossed over the side long ago. The fact is that, unlike virtually the entirety of Europe, Britain didn’t go fascist in the 1930s. It is an interesting question as to why. It’s not adequate to say, well, they weren’t conquered by Hitler – many countries that weren’t conquered went fascist of their own accord (e.g., Hungary, Croatia, Spain, Italy) and in many of the conquered lands fascism was a potent force prior to conquest, to a far greater extent than was ever true in Britain.
The traditionalist conservative explanation for Britain’s relative reprieve is encapsulated best, I think, by Peter Hitchens’s quip, that the role of the king in the British constitution is akin to the role of the king in the game of chess. He doesn’t do much at all, but by occupying his square he prevents any other piece from occupying it. This explanation is, in fact, what is implicitly questioned by both movies. By “Richard III,” because if the monarchy was actively pro-fascist then Britain’s reprieve must be owed to other forces than this aspect of its constitution. “The King’s Speech” wields a subtler knife, and perhaps unknowingly, by suggesting that the fate of the Empire really did depend, at this moment, on the king’s ability, and not merely on his status. Because any ability he had cannot, in the terms the movie itself set out, be attributed to his lineage, which is the basis of his constitutional position. Britain’s reprieve, in other words, was a happy accident. Better not to count on accidents to save a constitution.
(Personally, I suspect that a well-timed and well-delivered speech has more often been the saving of the monarchy than of the nation. That’s the perspective of “The Queen“, another excellent film if you’ve got time for three – and one that subtly supports Hitchens’s contention, by suggesting that the alternative to the shabby sycophancy toward the royals is shabby sycophancy toward celebrities.)
In any event, regardless of whether you are exercised by these kinds of historical-political debates, both films are great entertainments. Both feature marvelous period costumes and interiors. Both are led and supported by wonderful actors. And one thing both the House of Windsor and the fascists know how to do is put on a spectacular show.