By Jeanine Basinger
Thursday, February 24, 2011;
"The King's Speech" might take home the Oscar for Best Picture on Sunday, but judging from the criticisms it's receiving, it won't win any awards for historical accuracy.
King George VI didn't really stammer that badly, we've been told. Critics have also pointed out that Winston Churchill didn't actually think it necessary for the king's brother, Edward VIII, to abdicate the throne before marrying a divorced woman. We've also learned that Churchill was not nearly as fat as Timothy Spall portrays him (he was fat, of course, just not that fat, maybe a little pudgy) and that King George was far too plain and short to be played by the tall, handsome Colin Firth.
The criticisms are right - but they nitpick a good story to death. Historians see a film and ask how accurate it is. Filmmakers ask: How accurate does it have to be? Part of what makes historical movies Oscar-worthy is precisely their myth-making. "The King's Speech" does what such movies should do: use facts to create drama. It's happened before. It will happen again. And it's not necessarily a bad thing.
The Oscar voters have often favored historically faulty movies, with the inaccuracies ranging from minor details to outright fiction. In "Patton," 1970's Best Picture, Axis and Allied powers fought each other in the same kind of tanks - American ones, manufactured after the war. "Braveheart" in 1995 put Mel Gibson in a kilt, even though his character, William Wallace, was a lowland Scot (and only highlanders wore kilts). Ridley Scott's "Gladiator," honored by the Academy in 2000, killed the Emperor Commodus in the gladiatorial arena, when in fact he was offed in his bath.
Russell Crowe, the star of that film, would offend historians again the next year in "A Beautiful Mind" as schizophrenic mathematician John Nash. Though he and his wife eventually remarried, Nash had long been divorced by the time he won the Nobel Prize in 1994, a salient fact the movie omits. And, though it will break the hearts of Julie Andrews fans, the real Maria von Trapp of 1965's Best Picture winner, "The Sound of Music," freely admitted that she was not in love with Georg von Trapp when she married him - a full 11 years before the Nazi invasion of Austria. (How do you solve a problem like the date of the Anchluss?)
The 1981 Best Picture winner, "Chariots of Fire," really asked for trouble. Presented as a true story, the film nonetheless took many liberties to create a dramatic arc for the track-and-field competition in the 1924 Olympics. For example, England's Harold Abrahams, a Jew, in reality ran first in the 100 meters and won a gold medal, then came in last in the 200-meter race. The movie had him lose the 200 meters first, then win redemption in the 100-meter contest, capturing the gold and striking a blow against anti-Semitism.
Of course, there are some things filmmakers know they can't get away with. "Titanic," which won Best Picture in 1997, had to sink the ship. No matter how much sympathy Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler elicited in 1939's winner, "Gone With the Wind," the North had to win the Civil War. And in "Gandhi," 1982's Best Picture, the leading man could not live happily ever after.
But history - whether in books, lectures or movies - is always someone's story. Every movie based on a true story has condensed, simplified, telescoped, created explanatory characters, eliminated facts, introduced political significance, altered timelines and omitted details. It's part of the craft.
With all the hoopla surrounding the dresses and the red carpet each year, it's easy to forget that the Oscars are in-house awards for film craftsmanship. They are not voted on by critics, scholars, historians or fans, but by people who work together to make movies. They recognize one another's work in categories that define their art: performing, directing, cinematography, editing, sound mixing, costume design, makeup and the rest, all of which are in some way or another arts of deceit.
I am a film historian. I understand and accept that history matters. But just as filmmakers must take responsibility for how they portray history, audiences have to take responsibility for what they believe, asking themselves how seriously a film wants them to trust its accuracy, and why. Churchill's waistline aside, "The King's Speech" told me a good story about a brave man who had to suck it up, overcome his past and do his job. The fact that he was a king was not the main emotional point.
Audiences would do well to remember "Lawrence of Arabia" (Best Picture, 1962). The film, which sought to distill the Middle East's complex history to 21/2 hours of screen time, took so many liberties that the lead character's brother exclaimed, upon viewing the movie, that had he not known its title, "I would have had a hard time recognizing my own brother." Yet the movie absolved itself of responsibility by recycling an old disclaimer near the end of its long credit scroll:
"This story is based on actual events, however, some of the characters and incidents portrayed and the names herein are fictitious, and any similarity to the name, character, or history of any person, living or dead, or any actual event is entirely coincidental and unintentional."
That's enough historical accuracy for me.
Jeanine Basinger is the Corwin-Fuller professor of film studies at Wesleyan University and the author of "American Cinema: One Hundred Years of Filmmaking" and "The Star Machine."
Read the rest of our Oscar coverage.