Thursday, January 27, 2011

Historical Fiction

Though I still enjoyed seeing it, I've recently come across a pair of columns offering some criticism of The King's Speech. The more meaningful of these critiques came a couple of issues ago in The Economist. A more scathing one appeared this morning in The Inquirer. The former is an interesting commentary on how the film's story touches on some quirks of English collective memory.

The latter is more of a knock on the film's historical accuracy, making the point that it overshadows some ugly details from the time period. My response: no kidding.

Further, I'm glad the film did what it did.

In my experience, the best historical films often squeeze and manipulate details from the past. If films don't, one ends up with bad films. If I'm paying to go to the theater, I'm conceding some bad history for good storytelling.

The best historical film I know of is Glory. The broad outline of that story is accurate, as was the case with The King's Speech. But the details of the story, namely the preposterous coincidence of the four main black characters (Trip, Jupiter, Rawlins, and Thomas) joining the same unit, are pretty off the mark. But I often try to teach my students how the film is deliberately trying to pull together the four dominant stereotypes of the black man in the Civil War era to teach us something. It's a contrivance attempting to turn stereotypes on their heads. And, in my opinion, it's a brilliant teaching device. Glory is more a tale of the saga of race in war than it is a biopic of the 54th Massachusetts. It is for those reasons that The King's Speech resonates with me: it's more about overcoming awesome obstacles in times of crisis than it is a good biopic.

To a certain extent, we must concede that film has powerful limits in telling historical tales. I walked away from The King's Speech mulling over my favorite speeches made by Prime Minister Churchill in the war. To me, those speeches are far more meaningful. But film probably couldn't convey the awesome power of those speeches in the way grainy recordings can, or even just the words on the page. I can't help but think of Gettysburg's finale: the portrayal of Pickett's Charge. The film tried its best to make that the awesome and awful (for some) moment that it was but it simply fell short. Even with digital technologies now available, I don't think one can capture the full weight of tens of thousands marching across fields into cannon and rifle fire. Ironically, the film's depiction of the smaller action on day 2 at Little Round Top is more compelling. If one reads The Killer Angels, the gravity of those two scenes are reversed.

By the way, note the contrivance in the film and the novel that Chamberlain's regiment just happens to be at the center of the Union line on the third day.

I'm going on a bit too long, now aren't I.

Capturing an event accurately isn't the job of film. That's the domain of authors trained in the arts of history and journalism. That's the job of documentaries. Filmmakers have the crucial task of making a story come alive that will let an era resonate with us for days after leaving the film we were fortunate enough to see. It is on that matter that The King's Speech fares so well.

1 comment:

Nancy, Near Philadelphia said...

Thanks for this post and for the links to the reviews which I found interesting. I loved the film and, like many, I imagine, was unable to determine what was fact and what was literary license. I'm glad you got to see it.