Tag Archives: Boston Massacre

In Defense of “The King’s Speech”

During my winter break, I saw one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time.

A week later, I saw a review of that movie—from a respectable magazine—that missed the point entirely.

I’m a bit of an Anglophile at heart, and watching The King’s Speech reinforced my love of all things British. Tom Hooper’s magisterial film about the accidental accession—and heartbreaking speech struggles—of George VI (played by Colin Firth) is one of the best films I have seen in a long time. It reminded me of how movies used to be made: with purpose, elegance, painstaking detail and thoughtful gravitas.

As a director, Hooper is already developing a fan base among my students. As the force behind the HBO miniseries John Adams, Hooper gets serious kudos in the classrooms where I integrate his work in my lessons. The direction and lighting of the Boston Massacre scene in the first episode is particularly noteworthy, and gets plenty of airtime with my students.

That said, it was something of a shock when I read Isaac Chotiner’s review of The King’s Speech in The New Republic last week. In a scathing blast, Chotiner dismisses the work as “historically inaccurate, entirely misleading, and, in its own small way, morally dubious.” Specifically, he cites the downplaying of Edward VIII’s pro-Nazi tendencies, the “distortion” of Churchill’s character, and the supposed ingenuous conclusion that “Bertie”, George VI’s nickname, was anti-fascist from the beginning, overlooking political missteps.

Chotiner’s review, apart from dripping with Anglo-hatred and smug intellectual doubletalk, suffers on two points. He is very selective himself of certain historical inaccuracies. Furthermore, in his nitpicking, Chotiner neglects to see the film for what it is.

Anyone can pick and choose the facts that best suit them, and Chotiner gives us a smorgasboard.

Yet the best facts are those that are overlooked.

While Chotiner harps on Edward’s flings with Nazis in 1937, subsequently to be put out of the way as governor of the Bahamas, he neglected to look at things from the German point of view. Hitler, even before Edward and Wallis’ visit, had a fond view of Britain, especially her colonial empire. This was cultivated not by any crowned head, but a former prime minister, David Lloyd George, who visited Hitler in 1935 and had got along smashingly with the Fuhrer.

Looking at Operation Sea Lion, Germany’s presumptive occupation of Britain, supports this view. The occupation had no role for Edward, partly due to his place in the Caribbean, but mostly due to Nazi understanding that more important leaders, such as Lord Halifax, could manage the occupied British Empire, especially her other dominions. Edward’s threat to British liberal government is thus grossly inflated.

Churchill, an early supporter of Edward, also warrants scrutiny, according to Chotiner. Here he bears some credit—some. Winston Churchill was a steadfast supporter of Edward during the 1936-1937 accession crisis, a fact glossed over by the film (although in the film, it isn’t clear at what point in the crisis Churchill discusses the succession with Bertie). Yet although his decision was shocking to his allies, as Chotiner claims, it was not so deplorable to the majority of British voters that supported Edward as well.

Churchill was (gasp!) practicing good politics in supporting the wayward Windsor, even as the political elites in both parties expressed disapproval. Edward, as a dashing force for modernizing and de-formalizing the royal family, was seen as a humanizing force by the British public, who overwhelmingly supported Edward over his stammering younger brother Albert.

In bad taste? Most certainly. Yet Churchill the politician was simply pandering to the electorate, which keeps in line with his political comeback of the 1930s.

Lastly, Chotimer claims that the future George VI was a reluctant anti-fascist, although the film supposedly depicts him as anti-fascist throughout. His evidence is the viewing of Neville Chamberlain in 1938 at Buckingham Palace after the Munich agreement, an agreement that postponed World War II for less than a year.

Really?

Show off your own prime minister off a balcony and he’s an appeaser who “violated protocol” in endorsing the actions of a prime minister—which were disastrous in HINDSIGHT?

It’s flimsy, to say the least. And he neglects to paint the same bleak picture when George VI does the exact same thing with Winston Churchill on V-E day in 1945. He certainly endorsed a prime minister then for his foreign policy: shouldn’t he merit the same scrutiny then?

There is plenty of evidence that proves George VI’s loyalty and duty to his people. He worked a remarkable personal relationship with Franklin Roosevelt and his wife during the desperate period of the Battle of Britain. When advisors warned him to escape, George stayed in London with his beleaguered people, enduring blackouts, rations and boarded-up windows at Buckingham Palace (just ask Eleanor Roosevelt when she visited). A German bomb landed on their lawn, to demonstrate the danger. George and his family made a point to visit military bases, towns, bombed-out factories and villages all over the British Isles, even at great personal risk.

That was just during the war. The New Republic being a more liberal tome, it would hearten Chotimer to see George’s early advocacy of racial equality. He was the first royal to play tennis with a black man in 1927 in Jamaica, which shocked local elites as a perceived sign of racial equality. In 1947, in a tour of South Africa, George was appalled when the white racist government insisted that the king shake hands only with whites. He would have none of that, referring to the South African security forces derisively as “The Gestapo.”

In sum, although Chotimer brings up interesting points about the film’s subject matter—even alluding that it would make a superb film—he misses the point entirely, largely due to a bias against royals and for deeper accuracy at the expense of quality filmmaking.

Chotimer remarks, in words dripping with disdain, that

“This heartwarming tale plays out predictably and unsubtly—The King’s Speech is one of those films that is not content to show us a friendship developing over two hours; no, the characters must also tell us how much the friendship means to them.”

Liberals don’t like to be told anything. Heck, I can’t stand being told things myself.

Yet in a vapid cinematic landscape, where amateur directors bend over backwards to be subtle, ironic, and overly symbolic to the point of tedium, we often need to be reminded—not TOLD, but reminded—of the way films used to be made, of heroes and foils, of dark times and heroic deeds that gets lost in the minute inconvenience of fact.

I saw The King’s Speech with my sister, herself a left-leaning liberal with a low opinion of the royal family. We both wept numerous times during the film. She turned to me and asked in the most sincere way, “Where are the people like that today?”

Where, indeed.

George VI, to be sure, was a reluctant monarch who had his faults and would misstep during his reign. Yet the film was not about his politics. It was not about Edward’s appeasements or his Nazi sympathies. It wasn’t about Winston Churchill. It certainly wasn’t about Hitler.

At its heart, The King’s Speech is not about king nor about any one address he gives. It is about a man with a tough childhood that produced a debilitating speech impediment. He gives up on his improvement until fate, and world events, hand him an enormous responsibility. In building a relationship with his teacher, as well as confronting his own demons, George VI learned to overcome his disability to deliver a message of hope and encouragement to his people when they really needed it.

It’s about how a man from who little was expected could deliver so much to his people.

This is what made George VI among Britain’s greatest monarchs.

It is why I loved The King’s Speech. I only wish that others, especially other writers, felt the same way.

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You Didn’t Hear this from me, but…: Teaching through the rumors

boston_massacre_high-res1First, a new addition to the Neighborhood–a motorized one.

My car-buying woes are over as I am the proud owner of a brand-new Navy Blue 2009 Nissan Altima 2.5S.  The car is beautiful and price was right.  Mr. D and the rest of the Neighborhood thank the good folks at Habberstad Nissan in Huntington, NY for a fair price and a courteous, professional manner.  Thus not all car dealers are ravenous sharks with a thirst for the ignorant.

Now back to our regular programming.  It seems that as much as we try, rumors will always persist in our society.  In today’s networked community, an entire industry has developed around rumors–TMZ, the National Enquirer, Smoking Gunn and other sites thrive on the hearsay of others.  Who doesn’t love their favorite celebrity looking his/her debauched best for a police mugshot.

History and government is no exception.  We still persist with rumors about United States complicity in the 9/11 attacks.  In many parts, cynics still believe that the United states knew beforehand about the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  Many revisionist scholars today are re-interpreting events in a supposedly more “modern” lens, mostly using the rumors and gossip of intellectuals as a jumping-off point.  This has often wielded good results–the Armenian genocide of 1915, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments in the 1930’s, etc.  The classroom, however, can be a minefield for rumors, especially if kids aren’t able to process information thoroughly. 

The most blatent rumor in American history is probably of the most mundane event.  On March 5, 1770, a group of Boston street kids decided to abuse and taunt a local soldier with snowballs, rocks and oyster shells.  The soldier called for help, his colleagues arrive, and a mob of people now face them, heaving abuse and projectiles.  Someone yells, someone panics, a shot is fired, more shots, and five people lay dead.  In any other case, this would have been a direct end to a small local disturbance.  Yet two Bostonians, artist Henry Pelham and silversmith/engraver/professional pain-in-the-ass Paul Revere, create a scene for the public where the merciless soldiers are mowing down innocent civilians with smiles on their faces.  To add insult to reality, they labeled the incident a “Massacre.”

The rumor has stuck to the point that this local disturbance is officially called the Boston “Massacre.”  It wasn’t the only name it had–John Adams named it the more-benign “Slaughter on King Street”, which sounds mercifully like a Wes Craven gorefest.   Children all across the United States have shocked in horror at the mass slaughter of civilians…oh wait, there were only FIVE casualties.  The Turks killing thousands of Armenians in 1915 is a massacre.  The millions of deaths in the Holocaust is a massacre.   The millions that died of starvation due to tyrannical policies in the former Soviet Union and China is a massacre.  Yet five deaths doesn’t even warrant a front page in the local paper today.  The word “Massacre” was chosen deliberately: to paint the occupying British army as a brutal army of subjugation, not as a hapless tool of misguided imperial policy.  It was one of the first documented uses of “spin” in American history, and it wouldn’t be the last. 

New York City is the base for the other great rumor.  We all know the story of how Peter Minuit, director-general of the colony of New Netherland, “bought” Manhattan Island from the Native Americans for $24.  Today’s scholarship proves this wasn’t true: the agreement between the Lenape and the Dutch West India Company was more of a treaty of defense than an actual sale of land, with goods exchanged to seal the deal.  The one piece of evidence linked to this event is a letter by Minuit’s secretary, Peter Schaghen, to his superiors in Amsterdam.  The letter states that the Dutch “bought the island mannahattas from the wild men…”  Schaghen did not understand Lenape, so he probably wrote what he assumed was a real estate deal.

The $24 story, however, traces its origins to English chroniclers of later centuries, especially those from Puritan New England.  It got its final version in Knickebocker’s History of New York, a pseudo-history of Dutch New York written by Washington Irving, an author well-regarded in his time, but today considered something of a hack.  Both sources had the same agenda–to make the Natives and the Dutch look as stupid as possible.  Since the English takeover of New Netherland in 1664, the English attempted to rewrite the history of the area by diminishing the role of the Dutch period and virtually wiping out a place for Native Americans.  Never mind that the Dutch system of capitalism and representative government proved more a model for American society than England’s staid social structure.  Nor that government systems such as the Iroquois League have formed the basis for our own founding documents about government. 

The truth is that we’ll never know the full story of these events.  The only people that know what happened that snowy night in March in 1770 were the soldiers and colonists at the scene.  Only Minuit and the Lenape can give you a true telling of their meeting.  Even with that, there’s no guarantee you’ll get an unbiased account.  One of the bases of current social studies instruction is to help students think critically–to question and critique the sources around them.  The best way to do that is to use different points of view so that students can see what is fact and what isn’t, at least to their eyes.

I teach about the “Massacre” using three sources.  First, I tell my students that something happened in Boston.  I then have them describe each of my three sources in detail.  The first is Pelham and Revere’s famous print of the “Massacre.”  Second is the mid-19th century painting by Alonzo Chappell showing a more realistic scene.  Last is the event as depicted in the HBO miniseries John Adams.   I put as little input as possible: it’s more important that they see what is real and what is “spun.”  In comparing and contrasting the sources, my kids start to understand that there is no one “story.”  Multiple sources are needed to get a clearer picture.

Nevertheless, as long as people want to be in on the big secret, rumors will spread on half the information given.  Unfortunately, it’s in our nature.  Just make sure that all the facts are there before spreading rumors to the point that they end up in textbooks.

By the way, that Paul Revere would’ve made a fortune today.  Imagine him covering the O.J. trial–I wonder who’d be smiling.

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