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#14. The Madness of King George, #15. Amazing Grace, #16. The Duchess - Analysis

The Madness of King GeorgeCinema as a medium, by necessity, must always adhere to the strengths of its elements. As a means of storytelling, film is unequaled in its ability to quickly and succinctly engage its audience with visual tenacity. Restricted by the endurance of the common spectator, films are obligated to tell dynamic, fleshed out stories within a limited time frame. Of course filmmakers must attempt to “show” their story, not simply “tell” it, so when tackling such weighty topics found in historical period pieces similar to The Madness of King George (1994) and Amazing Grace (2006), a director must often choose between what is accurate and what is engaging. The filmmakers of these three films were given the opportunity to adapt divergent stories all set within the same location and time frame, often portraying the same characters. William Pitt the Younger and Charles James Fox appear in both The Madness of King George and Amazing Grace, but each film paints a decidedly different image of the 18th century politicians.

The Madness of King George is a heartbreaking, often humorous, account of King George III’s mental collapse towards the end of the 1700s. His son, the Prince of Wales, is nipping at the dying man’s heels, anxious to obtain the throne and the power it promises. The Prince has made an ally in James Charles Fox, a notable British Whig statesman eager to purge England of its tyrannical King. The country’s Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, has much to lose if the Prince were to successfully remove George III from power, and so must tirelessly defend the king while also desperately finding a cure for his illness.            

The introduction of Pitt and Fox in the film would suggest a playful competiveness shared between the two politicians. Pitt patiently stands by as Fox criticizes the King’s choices and English politics, quipping “God wrought all royals, give us the wisdom of America.”  Their amiability was an interesting twist that delivered spontaneous wit and some much needed exposition in the film, but to the frustration of many British historians, their relationship is highly improbable. According to author John Simkin, Fox resigned as Foreign Secretary for the Whig government following the death of the Marquis of Rockingham, as he was “unwilling to serve under the new Prime Minister, Lord Sherburne. Sherburne appointed the twenty-three year old William Pitt as his Chancellor… after this the two men became bitter enemies.” Less than a year later, at the age of twenty-four, Pitt would become England’s youngest Prime Minister. It seems in all actuality Pitt and Fox were more akin to being archenemies than playful competitors.

Looked upon separately, the portrayal of each man is rather true-to-life. Simkin confirms Fox’s controversial opinion of American policy, that in fact he was opposed to the “taxation of the Americans without their consent,” and when war broke out between the countries Fox argued for peace. Jim Carter portrays the statesman as conniving and outspoken, devilishly quick tongued but lacking true obedience. Marg Baskin complies with this notion, “As with many radicals, his political views were marked by forward-looking ideals but marred by a lack of practicality… (Fox) was subject to wildly emotional highs and lows which sometimes led him to resign power, and seek to regain it again on a changing whim… he left his mark on late-18th century politics for the brilliance of his way with words far more than for tangible accomplishments.”

Amazing Grace 2006Pitt, on screen and factually, was almost the polar opposite of his political nemesis. In The Madness of King George Pitt is self-contained, a calculating and cold man that is always the politician. This portrayal too seems quite accurate. Information found on the Blankeney Manor site dedicated to The Scarlett Pimpernel novels describes Pitt as “notably withdrawn.” His frigid demeanor is understandable considering the difficult predicament he found himself in during George III’s fall from grace. His political future was reliant on a man who was literally losing control of his sanity.  Blankeney Manor and the film concur on just how close Pitt came to losing everything: “(Pitt) most serious crisis came in the winter of 1788-89, when, during George III’s madness, Pitt lost the support of the crown. Had the dissolute Prince of Wales, who favored the opposition, become regent, Pitt would certainly have been dismissed.” In retrospect “notably withdrawn” could have easily been misperceived for quiet concern.

The Duchess 2008From sworn enemies to political confederates, both Pitt and Fox receive a major character overhaul in the 2006 film Amazing Grace. No longer fighting over British regency, the politicians join forces to support William Wilberforce and his twenty-year campaign to abolish the British Empire’s involvement with the slave trade. Although both men are portrayed differently in Amazing Grace compared to The Madness of King George, it is William Pitt that receives the most apparent reconditioning. His indifference is replaced with empathy, frigidity with compassion. This is not only a direct contradiction to the character on display in Madness, but also challenges documented accounts of the man. Blankeneye Manor explains that Pitt never bothered to marry, had very few friends, and that his inaccessibility caused problems with other members of government. This notion of a disagreeable statesman is hard to believe having been introduced to the sensitive activist fighting for human rights in Amazing Grace. It is true that Pitt and Fox both worked for the nullification of the slave trade, but this film does little to suggest any history of animosity or vitriol between the men.

This notion that historical figures can be appropriated for narrative design is an interesting one. Filmmakers seem to pay no mind to the sounds of wincing historians, dismayed at the blatant disregard for accuracy in the name fictional fusion. Should the directors of films like The Madness of King George and Amazing Grace be slaves to the details, or does history just make-up the building blocks for their interpretations? The answer is of course subjective, but one must consider the medium. The films discussed in this essay each admirably strove to depict a moment in time, an event worthy of representation, in the most engaging manner possible. The cold, unlikable William Pitt the Younger found defending his position as Prime Minister and that of the King’s in The Madness of King George, out of narrative necessity, would make no sense befriending William Wilberforce in Amazing Grace. Films cannot be expected to reach the intellectual and factual watermarks that textbooks define. James Fox is the conniving politician in Madness, the spunky supporter of human rights in Amazing Grace, and the outspoken playboy in The Duchess, because that is exactly what those films required to achieve narrative success. Each of the three films presents a different character, but when taken in context with documented history they combine to create an amalgam of the man, which in a way is perhaps accurate enough. 

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