History, Cinema and ‘The Kings Speech’

“Would the true story not have been fractionally more interesting for the audience?”

“The King’s Speech is riddled with gross falsifications of history.”

These are just a couple of the comments made concerning the The Kings Speech and it historical accuracy – or perceived lack thereof.

It is suggested that the film is good but the history is bad. What does that mean? What is cinema’s relationship to history? Numerous articles berate the film makers for not telling ‘the truth’ about the circumstances and characters depicted. This seems to miss the point about how we relate media and film in particular to our notions of history and we construct those historical narratives.

In Negative Dialectics (1973), Theodor Adorno develops an aesthetic theory that  has, as its central core, the concept of the dialectic in modern artworks,  revealing them as being simultaneously autonomous and social.[i]

The autonomy of the artwork is what separates it from all other forms of social production, but, Adorno argues, that autonomy does not mean that the work is static and complete. It embodies within it cultural and social forces that allow the possibility of a transition to a new meaning. At one and the same time, it stands alone, able to posses meaning and a symbolic nature, but also is connected by an ideological component, present in all artworks, to the social conditions of its production.

Interestingly, this describes rather well the relationship of cinema to what we understand as our history.

On one hand, traditional ideas of the writing of history have stemmed from a perception that historical inquiry has some kind of scientific status, that what historians deal with are ‘facts’,  and that their task is to objectively work with this ‘data’ to produce narrative histories that have the strongest possible correspondence to ‘what really happened’. These narratives base their epistemological status on the idea that history, as the stories of civilisations, cultures, wars, etcetera, just needs someone with rigorous methods and an analytical mind, to ‘discover’ them. They already exist, ‘out there somewhere’, as an inherent part of the process of history itself.

On the other hand, contemporary postmodern and poststructuralist concepts of history seek to undermine these traditional notions of history, arguing that all historical narratives are constructed by figurative language, and as such these discourses are culturally and ideologically constructed. Historians can never access the past as such, it can only be ‘read’ through its remaining traces, its textual remains. As the past can, then, never be accessed outside  discourse, since to do so would mean the past having to re-enact itself,  any discussion of history is, necessarily  as much about the text as it is about the past itself.

In this reading, narrative becomes considerably widened as a category, and refers to the imaginative space that constitutes all historical texts, even the apparently most ‘factual’. As these historical documents, now read as narrative accounts, are always figurative and allegorical, history itself cannot have a ‘true’ correspondence in the traditional sense of being seen as empiricist or mimetic.

From this standpoint then, every mimesis can serve as the starting point for yet another description of the same event, one claiming to be more faithful to ‘the facts’. In cinema, for instance, the development of techniques for reproducing historical eras, places and events on screen has led to more and more films being seen as the ‘ultimate experience’ of whatever is being represented. Each successive representation is hailed as increasingly ‘realistic’, each one giving the audience a greater ‘feel’ of what it was like to really ‘be there’.

These historical films are often accused of grossly misrepresenting the historical ‘facts’ and relying on inaccurate or substandard research to create their stories. This is particularly noticeable in contemporary cinema, where films are remade, reinterpreted, generate sequels, prequels and spin-offs. However, far from muddying the waters of historical narratives, this abundance of different angles and interpretations help to generate a more complete  understanding of a particular event. If we only have one interpretation of say, the lead-up to the outbreak of the second world war, then we have no interpretation at all.

What I mean by this is that interpretation relies on the comparisons and arguments created by a variety of different approaches to a subject.  An interpretive way of seeing the past only works in the presence of other models, they mutually define each other and therefore owe their identity to their intertextual relations. Cinematic representations of history, therefore, can be seen to define themselves by their intertextual connections to each other. Saving Private Ryan can be defined by its relation to, for instance, The Longest Day (1963 Ken Annakin) and other war films.

The problem with traditional historiography is that this intertextuality has been ignored in favour of judging historical narratives by an assumed correspondence with the past. There does not exist, outside these narratives, some objective yardstick against which we can measure with some empirical certainty, the correspondence between historical narratives and the past itself. The past may suggest arguments for and against the variety of narratives, but it can never be used as a quantifiable judge for one or other narratives in toto. Historical debate is really as much about the abundance and form of narrative interpretations of the past, as it is about the past itself.

In this case, the reality of the past is not so much non-existent as impossible to reveal. To make any connection with ‘reality’ is, therefore, dependent on our perspective, our imagination and our cognitive faculties. The world is not so much constructed by textualised accounts, as unidentifiable outside them.

White (1978) argues that all history “is as much invented as found.”[ii]

What he means by this is that any event or sets of events have to be related to some context or totality in order that we make sense of them and, by extension, make them significant. The difficulty comes in locating the context or the totality. The historian can certainly uncover traces of past events and thus establish some of the ‘facts’ about an event or period, but can never find a sole context or background against which these events become meaningful.

The filmic text is read as an indicator of the moment of production but also the text is constructed by a society’s cultural and historical understanding, and, in some ways, has no referent other than the pool of other narratives, fictive or ‘factual’, to which it relates intertextually. The analysis of the narrative, then, is not just a function of the text, but a combination of textual construction and cultural mythology.

So, The Kings Speech would be understood as an historical text constructed in a contemporary, postmodern society. Intertextual relations, therefore play as much a part in the creation and defining of the historical narrative, as do traditional notions of an extra-textual real in which any fictional historical narrative can ground itself.

Historical narratives are discourses produced by people working in the present, from certain ideological standpoints, and using various types of metaphorical language. As such, the construction of historical narratives can be seen as taking place entirely in the present, whose cultural conditions play an important factor in the final interpretation of the particular historical event. It may seem an obvious point that these narratives are constructed at a particular temporal reference that to the creator of the narrative is ‘the present’. However, I would argue that historical narratives, while dealing with events in the past, are products of a present.

One could argue that past knowledge of the event is brought into the present during the construction of these narratives, and therefore that historical narratives can never be constructed ‘entirely’ in a present-centred framework.  However, that past knowledge changes from its original meaning because the context within which it is ‘read’, that is, its social, cultural and temporal frame of reference, has changed.

In any discussion of historical films then, our analysis must accordingly look simultaneously at the representation of the historical events in the film’s narrative and at the cultural conditions and language of its production.

As the past is no longer directly perceivable, then it must be constituted in language. As history does not have the technical and terminological systems that the sciences do, it must be constituted by ‘ordinary’ or figural language. These texts then become interpretations of the past, open to the  influence of ideology, modes of emplotment and the tropes of metaphorical language, and not simply objective reflections of a pre-given or ‘found’ past.

The Kings Speech can be seen then as an allegory of the linguistic nature of historical narrative. A historical figure struggling to speak and set the great events of 1939 into a historical context. The film itself becomes part of the historical canon, part of our understanding of that period of history.

Its global consumption inserts the film into a growing and changing historical consciousness that owes just as much to the cinematic and other media representations of that era, as it does to the classroom teaching of the event as part of traditional history.

These historical narratives have to be seen primarily as human constructs, visual and literary artefacts which owe as much to the imagination as to the past events they interpret. By producing historical narratives with closure, they can be seen to be autonomous and, therefore, to be understood and have meaning in and of themselves. Past events have no inherent ‘meaning’, but, by producing narratives which have closure, and which can be understood as ‘stories’, real events are understood and given meaning for any particular society or culture.

Yet, while narrative closure gives each historical ‘story’ a certain autonomy, the very fact that they are then cultural productions, means they relate intertextually to all other historical interpretations, and to the cultural and societal conditions of their production. This creates the continuous transformation of meaning Adorno proposed as central to the aesthetic of the modern artwork.  As new interpretations of the past are continually added to the historical consciousness of postmodern society by the mass media, they shift the ground upon which our understanding of the past, and consequently our relationship with the present, is based.


[i] Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics. Seabury Press, New York. 1973

[ii] Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse, p49. Johns Hopkins University press, 1978.

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