It was the great romance and scandal of the early 20th century — King Edward VIII of Great Britain abdicated his crown after a mere 327 days so he could marry the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson. “I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love,” he declared on December 10, 1936.
Sure, he was racist and Nazi-sympathizer and she was domineering and a spendthrift. And the two of them became ‘international society’s most notorious parasites for a generation.’ But as characters in a historical drama, they cut fine figures, showing up time and again at the heart of their own romance or to spice up someone else’s story. Often, terrible people make for juicy stories, so let’s look at some of the frock flicks about this couple.
Note: I’m only including TV shows and films where both Wallis and Edward both appear. I skipped a few that have one or the other as a character because that’s not as interesting!
Faye Dunaway and Richard Chamberlain in The Woman I Love (1972)
This soapy, full-on romantic American TV version seemed to cause some scandal in Britain by bringing up the earlier generation’s royal scandal. So much so that hardly any promo images, contemporary reviews, or DVD of it can be easily found today! Just a poor quality video on YouTube. Still, Chamberlain is a dashing portrait of the King and Dunaway is elegant as Simpson.
Cynthia Harris and Edward Fox in Edward and Mrs. Simpson (1978)
This seven-part miniseries was the first UK drama to dive deep into the story, and it won multiple BAFTA’s (including for Best Costume Design) and an Emmy (for Outstanding Limited Series). It goes chronologically and very methodically through the the then-Prince of Wales’ randy life in the ’20s, eventually meeting Mrs. Simpson, and on to the abdication.
Jane Seymour and Anthony Andrews in The Woman He Loved (1988)
Another American TV movie, and a very pretty one at that. High production values and gorgeous costumes, though admittedly both Seymour and Andrews look too handsome to be their characters. Maybe it’s just that the YouTube video quality was better than the ’72 flick, but I enjoyed it more even though it’s otherwise the same.
Amber Sealey and Charles Edwards in Bertie and Elizabeth (2002)
Not really Wallis and Edward’s story, but Bertie and Elizabeth’s lives wouldn’t get exciting if Edward didn’t abdicate, so there’s that. A more complete look at George VI’s ascension than The King’s Speech.
Joely Richardson and Stephen Campbell Moore in Wallis & Edward (2005)
This ITV drama is supposedly written from Wallis Simpson’s point of view, and it does paint her in a more flattering light. Her affair with Edward is presented as all his idea, and her divorce from Ernest is explained away as all his idea as well. It’s almost as if Wallis is cornered into the marriage because Edward wants to abdicate.
Eve Best and Guy Pearce in The King’s Speech (2010)
This movie didn’t win four Oscars for the Wallis-Edward storyline; that’s far in the background to Colin Firth’s stuttering and Geoffrey Rush’s scenery-chewing. But I’m including it because it’s still relevant.
Gillian Anderson and Tom Hollander in Any Human Heart (2010)
I haven’t seen this TV miniseries about a novelist who seems to meet every famous person from the 1920s through the 1980s. But the Duke and Duchess of Windsor share enough scenes to get some spiffy costumes, at least.
Andrea Riseborough and James D’Arcy in W.E. (2011)
The almost universally panned film directed by Madonna compares the love story of Wallis and Edward with a modern couple. Nope, haven’t seen it. Maybe for Snark Week? The historical costumes look good though and were nominated for an Oscar.
Lia Williams and Alex Jennings in The Crown (2016)
The Netflix series about Queen Elizabeth II’s reign dips into the royal past when the Duke of Windsor (Edward’s title post-abdication) visits London for his father’s funeral. He learns that he and his wife won’t be invited to his niece’s coronation, so they watch snarkily on TV from their Paris apartment.
I’ve seen all of these save for Any Human Heart and the ones that focus on Wallis and Edward tend to overly-sentimentalize the pair in order to emphasize their “legendary” romance, which ignores the fact that they were both objectively terrible people with horrible personalities, and it’s debatable how romantic their relationship even was.
I only got through about half of Edward and Mrs. Simpson when it was on Netflix ages ago and I found it very tedious, although the costumes were nice.
And I have to reiterate a comment I left on another post here while ago: W.E. is one of the most inept attempts at film-making I’ve ever seen. Stunning production values wasted on a director who clearly had no idea what she was doing. Bloop.
I only got thru about half of Edward & Mrs. Simpson as well — in trying to cover every tiny bit of history, it just becomes dull. Opposite of the American productions, which shorten the story into just Romance! & Drama!
And, oh yes, Wallis & Edward do sound like terrible people. I think the scenes in The Crown come closest to showing them realistically as petulant schemers.
That’s also the reason I don’t really like to watch movies about them. I did enjoy Bertie and Elizabeth (also on youtube afaik) a lot. They are more or less cast as the villains in that one. :P
The King’s Speech also did a pretty good job of depicting how petulant and immature Edward could be. Wallis only has a couple of lines in that movie iirc.
The ‘Wallis & Edward’  was good: costume wise…had an overall authentic feel. But indeed made it feel like it all came from his side. Like she was innocent in it all. He became very obsessive & possessive and almost threatened “to do himself in” because he couldn’t live without her love!?!
But that was also some of the feeling I got from Guy Pearse in ‘The King’s Speech’: of Edward behaving/acting childishly obsessed & spoiled.
Made me think about the scandalous leaked taped secret phone conversations between a then married Prince Charles & divorcee Camilla Parker Bowles. [Wanting to be her Tampon!!!]
‘W.E.’ is sooo bad!! Such a waste of time & money and beautiful things & great “royal” costumes.
Ripe for SNARK week indeed.
Would love to see ‘Any Human Heart’ great overall cast.
Yeah, I should add W.E. to next year’s Snark Week list. While the costumes look gorgeous, everything else about it sounds awful!
As a historian I can confim that Wallis & Edward was actually based on Mrs. Simpson’s own personal letters including those to he ex-husband whom she never stopped loving. Here is an excellent documentary on her letters. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Swd3ISRF_wY The letters shown have been authenticated. Really does turn the myth on is head.
RE: the Wallis/Edward Charles/Camilla comparison – its appros therefore that Alex Jennings also is Prince Charles in “The Queen” (the one with Helen Mirren as QE2)
I’m old enough to remember the one with Edward Fox, and I feel as though he nailed it. Such a wonderfully abhorrent couple, with the best clothes and jewels?
The worst people seem to get the best stuff, don’t they???
Edward Fox was quite good looking, wasn’t he. I also remember this one, although I caught it later on. It was so fabulous, like 1930’s Dynasty.
So am I … and after watching that series, I disliked them both very intensely. Of course, it only developed later on what thoroughly awful people they both were. I wonder if the writers and actors had subconsciously picked up on those qualities.
Still my favorite rendition of the story.
I watched most of these. You explained the appeal really well. They were pretty awful and also glamorous AF.
Totally glam jerks!
Not a fan of either of them, but I’ve always felt a bit sorry for Wallis Simpson. I think she would have been happy to have a glorious, lucrative affair and gracefully bowed out when someone else took his fancy……….that was the plan, but she was badgered into a situation she didn’t want and had no appetite for. She was beautifully dressed and bejewelled for the rest of her life, mixing with amazing people, but at what cost?
Great romance are you kidding? Edward did love her but Wallis grew to dislike the man and was often annoyed by him. I’ve always found their story to be a depressing one.
They were horrible people, no doubt.
But the British Secret Service did its best to diss them, and spread rumours, like the one about Wallis and the Tantric Sex techniques.
I don’t think she wanted to be Queen, and I don’t think she wanted to marry him. He was just one of her conquests. There’s some evidence that she loved Edward Simpson the most. They certainly kept in touch after the divorce and were on very friendly terms.
Apart from his stubbornness, which Stanley Baldwin said made him impossible to handle, Edward might have made a decent King. He wasn’t bright, but he was good looking, and he could have done all the state stuff. He’d have lapped it up.
But she led him into meeting Hitler, although he was willing enough. I think that was the real reason for the abdication, rather than the divorce stuff. The politicians were aware of their proclivities. It was clear that Wallis wasn’t going to have babies, so if they’d been better people, they could have made a go of the monarchy.
I actually really love “W.E.”; it’s absolutely gorgeous to look at, it tells two stories simultaneously (one of them about a girl trying to find meaning in her own life, through her obsession with Wallis) and I think it has a more fair representation of Wallis than most of them — inferring she was somewhat trapped into the marriage in the end, and then stuck it out, due to devotion and social shame (he left his throne for her, so she has to stay).
The 2005 one with Joely Richardson seems to hit the same notes as Anne Sebba’s 2013 book “That Woman” which casts parts of the story as almost a stalker-y relationship in which Wallis felt compelled to marry him because he gave up the throne for her, and it ws NOT her idea or demand. That always struck me as waaaay too far (she most have been entranced by the glamor and prestige etc..) but that note peeks out in other versions too,
The version of Wallis (Edward too!) in the Crown are delightful, viciously skeezy characters! Wallis’ reaction upon seeing Princess Margaret’s “scandalous naked” pictures makes the whole thing worth watching!
It’s almost as if Wallis is cornered into the marriage because Edward wants to abdicate.
The affair wasn’t solely Edward’s idea. I believe that Wallis wanted it to happen as much as he did. But their marriage? Yeah, she was cornered into the marriage due to his decision to abdicate. It has been verified.
“Dull” as it is, I believe the best production about the Windsors was 1978’s “Edward and Mrs. Simpson”.
I just caught up on The Crown S2 so this is appropriate. They present quite a level of human complexity. They do both seem to have been pretty awful, and I do take the same read on scheming and self-seeking. But it’s profoundly interesting that Edward abdicated to marry her when there’s plenty of monarchs with favored mistresses in history… He really could have had both (not that that would’ve been a great solution, particularly for whatever princess would’ve been the third wheel in his great love story, but a willingness to sacrifice for love despite generally being rather selfish doesn’t fit the mold).
Will admit I haven’t seen most of these—just Crown and King’s Speech. I remember seeing the awful reviews of WE when it came out.. my impression was that perhaps there was a bit of a self-justification from the director? Certainly it sounds like there was self-indulgence.
Also, whoever has seen Wallis & Edward… that screen cap above—are the tucks under the bust better looking from the front? They look rather sloppy compared to the original photo and the same dress show in the screen cap for Edward & Mrs. Simpson. But maybe it’s just the angle.
You missed one! BBC2 aired a docu- drama called Royal Wives at War. It’s a Feud-style show in which both Wallis and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon talk to the audience with flashbacks. I missed the first part of it, but what I did see was fascinating. The 1920s-30s aren’t my favorite clothing period, so I didn’t catch any glaring inaccuracies. It’s not on YouTube at the moment, but this preview is: https://youtu.be/K7MurYSJp8s
Didn’t miss it — I avoid the documentary versions bec. they’re a different category from the full fictionalized movies we usually review. Except during, oh, Snark Week…