The Myth of The Madness of King George

The Madness of King George is a film that was sold off the back of a story that wasn’t true…

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Nominated for four Oscars, and bringing the late, great Nigel Hawthorne to the attention of movie audiences (following his sensational work in television and on the stage), The Madness Of King George was a real breakout hit. Premiering in December 1994 (just two months after filming wrapped!), and released in the UK in March 1995, the film won one Academy Award, three BAFTAs, and grossed over $15 million in the US alone.

But there’s one story about the movie that continues to circle. And it’s to do with its title.

The film is based on Alan Bennett’s play, The Madness Of King George III, that tells the story of the mental health issues that King George III suffered during his reign in the 18th century. But when it came to put the film together, the name of the production changed.

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I was on a couple of movie discussion groups at the time – this was very early world wide web, so we couldn’t even use pictures – and was chatting to a fan of the film in America. He told me that the name had been changed because British filmgoers would think it was a sequel. Conversely, the story going around Britain was that the name changed because Americans would think it was the sequel. It seemed like, quietly, both audiences were being told slightly different things.

Nicholas Hytner, the director of the film, has just released a terrific book, charting his time running the National Theatre. And he devotes a chapter of the book to his time in movies. The Madness Of King George was his film directorial debut, and he talks about how he went into it knowing next to nothing about filmmaking. He thus surrounded himself with brilliant people, and in hindsight, wrote that “knowing nothing, but surrounded by people who knew a lot, I made a better movie than I ever did when I knew more.”

The matter of the title change, though, was in the hands of Samuel Goldwyn Jr, who financed the film. He argued that “outside England, nobody knows who George III was.” In America, if he was known at all, it was as King George the Tyrant.

Between them, Goldwyn and Hytner agreed on the new title for the film, presumably with Alan Bennett’s blessing (although the book doesn’t explicitly state that).

And then the myth started to spread. “Someone reported that Sam had changed it because he was a vulgar Hollywood mogul who didn’t want the dumb American audience to think that The Madness Of King George III was the sequel to The Madness Of King George I and The Madness Of King George 2,” Hytner wrote. It wasn’t true, but Goldwyn was absolutely delighted.

“It’s a great story,” he said, and thus instantly decided to make no effort at all to deny it. Thus, the story spread, with television reporters picking up on it, and as they did, so word of the film continued to spread with it. It was a simple, accidental piece of publicity, that helped raise awareness of the film, and also appeal to people’s snobbish side. With that in mind, who cared, in the scheme of things, that it wasn’t true at all?

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One further aside: it was to prove to people he could hold the lead in the big screen version of The Madness Of King George that Nigel Hawthorne agreed to play the villain in the Sylvester Stallone film Demolition Man. Hawthorne, though, wasn’t a fan of either Wesley Snipes or Sylvester Stallone. And just to rub a bit of salt in for him, as it turned out, it was never in doubt that he’d get the lead in the The Madness Of King George film anyway. Samuel Goldwyn, as Hytner reveals in his book, was determined that Hawthorne would have the role.

Sadly, there’s no Blu-ray release of The Madness of King George, although it’s available to stream on Amazon. Do seek out the film if you’ve not had the pleasure, though.

Nicholas Hytner’s book, Balancing Acts: Behind The Scenes At The National Theatre, is available now.