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At oscars, don’t look for accuracy

The King’s Speech might take home the Oscar for Best Picture, but judging from the criticisms it’s receiving, it won’t win any awards for historical accuracy.

entertainment Updated: Feb 27, 2011 00:10 IST
Jeanine Basinger

The King’s Speech might take home the Oscar for Best Picture, but judging from the criticisms it’s receiving, it won’t win any awards for historical accuracy.

King George VI didn’t really stammer that badly, we’ve been told.

Critics have also pointed out that Winston Churchill didn’t actually think it necessary for the king’s brother, Edward VIII, to abdicate the throne before marrying a divorced woman. We’ve also learned that Churchill was not nearly as fat as Timothy Spall portrays him and that King George was far too plain and short to be played by the tall, handsome Colin Firth.

The criticisms are right — but they nitpick a good story to death. Historians see a film and ask how accurate it is. Filmmakers ask: How accurate does it have to be? Part of what makes historical movies Oscar-worthy is precisely their myth-making. The King’s Speech does what such movies should do: use facts to create drama. It’s happened before. It will happen again. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Oscar voters have often favored historically faulty movies, with inaccuracies ranging from minor details to outright fiction. In “Patton,” 1970’s Best Picture, Axis and Allied powers fought in the same kind of tanks — American ones, manufactured after the war.

Braveheart in 1995 put Mel Gibson in a kilt, even though his character, William Wallace, was a lowland Scot (and only highlanders wore kilts). Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, honored by the Academy in 2000, killed the Emperor Commodus in the gladiatorial arena, when in fact he was offed in his bath.

Russell Crowe, the star of that film, would offend historians again the next year in A Beautiful Mind as a schizophrenic mathematician John Nash, who, divorced by the time he won the Nobel Prize in 1994, had no faithful Jennifer Connelly standing by him. And, though it will break the hearts of Julie Andrews fans, the real Maria of 1965’s Best Picture winner, The Sound of Music, freely admitted that she was not in love with Georg von Trapp when she married him — a full 11 years before the Nazi invasion of Austria. (How do you solve a problem like the date of the Anchluss?)

The 1981 Best Picture winner, “Chariots of Fire,” really asked for trouble. Presented as a true story, the film nonetheless took many liberties to create a dramatic arc for the track-and-field competition in the 1924 Olympics. For example, England’s Harold Abrahams, a Jew, in reality ran first in the 100 meters and won a gold medal, then came in last in the 200-meter race. The movie had him lose the 200 meters first, then win redemption in the 100-meter contest, capturing the gold and striking a blow against anti-Semitism.

Of course, there are some things filmmakers know they can’t get away with. “Titanic,” which won Best Picture in 1997, had to sink the ship. No matter how much sympathy Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler elicited in 1939’s winner, “Gone With the Wind,” the North had to win the Civil War. And in “Gandhi,” 1982’s Best Picture, the leading man could not live happily ever after.

But history — whether in books, lectures or movies — is always someone’s story. Every movie based on a true story has condensed, simplified, telescoped, created explanatory characters, eliminated facts, introduced political significance, altered timelines and omitted details. It’s part of the craft.

Audiences would do well to remember Lawrence of Arabia (Best Picture, 1962). The film, which sought to distill the Middle East’s complex history to two and a half hours of screen time, took so many liberties that the lead character’s brother exclaimed, upon viewing the movie, that had he not known its title, “I would have had a hard time recognizing my own brother.”

Jeanine Basinger is the Corwin-Fuller professor of film studies at Wesleyan University and the author of The Star Machine