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#30. The King's Speech, #31. Elizabeth, #32. Robin Hood (2010) - Analysis

The King's Speech PosterWhen considering the sheer amount of films in existence detailing the British monarchy it is safe to assume that the English adore their own history. With hundreds of films, mini-series, docudramas, documentaries, and made-for-television movies having been produced, the subject of British kings and queens has evolved into a substantial subgenre in and of iself, and understandably so. Even the oldest of monarchs make exciting cinematic subject matter. 6th century ruler King Arthur has appeared in several different settings, some action, others fantasy. Peter O’Toole’s rendition of Henry II in Becket (1964) and The Lion in Winter (1968) are still considered the definitive interpretation of the king to this day. What is this attraction to not just royalty, but British royalty specifically, and does it only affect native Englishmen?

The simplest answer to this question is also its most apparent. From Richard I in countless Robin Hood adaptations to this past year’s Oscar winning portrayal of King George VI in The King’s Speech, England’s monarchal system of government provides an endless source of inspiration for storytellers and filmmakers alike. While some screenwriters take advantage of a certain monarch’s legend, others will use a king or queen as a base, creating inventive story threads amongst history’s more peripheral characters. Somewhere between a local celebrity and a demigod, English rulers’ popularity fluctuates throughout history. With each monarch landing somewhere unique on karma’s ever-judging reticulum, actions can most definitely (but now always) speak louder than words. Of course, it is when actions hit the screen, and dialogue professed in actuality rings false that cinema, a medium forever shackled down by the limitless possibilities yielded by fiction, as a tool and a curse, shall fail as a device employed for truth. For films like Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth, and even Ridley Scott’s disastrous Robin Hood adaptation, these historical reconstructions all begin with good intentions, and must find the line where accuracy meets entertainment.

Robin Hood 2010

The King’s Speech and Robin Hood can be found on opposite ends of this spectrum. Although riddled with inaccuracies, The King’s Speechnot only won over the public, but enchanted critics as well. In an article defrauding the film’s more apathetic intentions, journalist David Freeman wrote that The King’s Speech “. . . is being sold as a feel-good tale of how a friendship between a royal and a commoner affected the course of history. But… the film covers up Winston Churchill’s support for Edward VIII… and that the movie fails to acknowledge that the once tongue-tied George VI supported Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of the Nazis.” (Freeman) How does a film that bears false witness to a moment in time also generate positive buzz and audience affections? I believe it goes back to my original answer, and that is drama trumps reality. The common moviegoer is more interested in Freeman’s “feel-good” film than the alternate version where the hero George VI is instead a Nazi sympathizer. Robin Hood on the other hand failed on both accounts. Scott overly produced a nonsensical take on a highly divisive legend and was unable to successfully tell a historically accurate or engaging story.

Elizabeth PosterWhile the obvious dramatic baggage that comes along with hijacking history provides ample fodder ripe for cinematic theatrics, I do believe there is a deeper motivation that guides this regal obsession. It is more interesting peeking behind the royal curtain to witness a king’s hardships than an equal; a mere mortal if you will. There is a voyeuristic quality no doubt, and this notion of behind-the-scenes access coupled with elitism and class barriers perhaps tickles some evolutionary suppressed instinct built into our human nature. That is, we all envy those that tower above us, especially those presumably chosen by God, so there is a very natural feeling of enjoyment when we find out these royal men and woman have the same insecurities (The King’s Speech) and idiosyncrasies (The Madness of King George) that plague all mankind; thus substantiating the middle class fraternity that is populism. By defining great and powerful leaders, these films, in some way, help us to define ourselves.

Interestingly enough, and somewhat off topic, it must be asked why, not just Americans, but filmgoers in general, do not crave films focused on past presidents? The attraction to films chronicling English monarchs does not just affect the Brits, but Americans (and every other country to be sure) as well. It is a curious attitude indeed, especially considering the dramatic properties so obvious when considering the lives and careers of our many great leaders. Although one could dedicate an entire thesis in an attempt to answer this question, I do feel it must have something to do with the fact that all presidents begin as common men. Unlike English kings or queens, who are believed to have been appointed by God, presidents are men. They play on and manipulate the very insecurities defined by populism to gain favor among the common, and it may be that throughout the election process they lose that mystique.

Kings and queens will forever be a fascinating topic, if for no other reason than they are in fact the “them.” The unknown, a lifestyle shrouded in secrecy and defined mostly by presumption. It is with this clouded culture, filled with as much pomp-and-circumstance as cloak-and-dagger, that will both excite and endear storytellers and moviegoers for as long as the medium exists.


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