The King's Speech
Special to The History Place
King George VI’s life does not appear to have been a very happy one. If it’s possible to feel sorry for a king, he just might be the one. The second son of George V, Prince Albert’s childhood was a plague of ailments. A southpaw, he was forced to learn to write with his right hand. He suffered from chronic tummy troubles and had knocked knees that were corrected by painful braces. Worst of all, he stammered.
As George V’s number two son, Prince Albert’s defect was a source of occasional, but severe, public embarrassment, as when in 1925 his father ordered him to make the closing address at Wimbledon. Colin Firth, playing the Duke of York, ably conveys what a humiliation that was, not only for His Royal Highness, but for his pained, embarrassed subjects, as well.
Determined to overcome the malady, Albert consults a series of speech therapists and physicians, one of whom prescribes smoking to relax the larynx. This advice leads to George VI’s lung cancer some decades later. In the meantime, the nasty habit does nothing to solve the problem. Finally, the prince’s wife, played by Helena Bonham Carter, tracks down Lionel Logue, a quirky Australian speech teacher and ‘wannabe’ Shakespearean actor.
Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush – a master of the quirky characterization, is told at first he will be treating a “Mr. Johnson,” the alias accorded Prince Albert by his fellow naval officers, when he served with distinction during the Great War. Learning his new client’s true identity, Logue dubs him Bertie, insisting they must interact as equals. What follows is a series of amusing activities, many of them resembling a cross between calisthenics and schoolyard games. Gradually, Bertie’s elocution improves, but a break occurs between commoner-professor and royal student, when Logue pushes too far across the class boundary.
The break, predictably, is short-lived, as the rush of events overtakes Prince Albert. George V dies. King Edward VIII, nee David Prince of Wales, prefers to abdicate, before even being properly crowned, in order to marry the Baltimore divorcee Wallace Simpson. As if this isn’t enough for a poor prince to endure, there’s that other little matter of Herr Hitler and the looming Second World War.
Re-enter Lionel Logue, despite Bertie’s discovery that the Aussie holds no formal degrees and had no formal training. Logue explains on the eve of the coronation that he learned his trade working with shell-shocked WWI vets. He regains Prince Albert’s trust and guides him through the thicket of the coronation ceremony.
However, there’s no rest for the royal. In September 1939, a state of war existing between the Empire and the Third Reich, King George VI is expected to buck up his entire empire via a live broadcast on the BBC. Needless to note, this is the speech of the film’s title and the climax of the movie.
Before the red light blinks and the king is on the air, he asks Logue, “What can I ever do to thank you?” Without hesitation, the impudent Australian replies, “A knighthood?” At the film’s end, we are told that Logue received his knighthood in 1944, after being present at every subsequent wartime speech the king gave.
As for George VI, his childhood health problems and lifelong struggle with that blasted stammer were preludes to cancer and heart disease in his few post-war years. Additionally, he got to be the monarch who presided over the dissolution of the Empire: Transjordan in 1946, India (the jewel in the crown) in ’47, Burma and Palestine in ’48, and Ireland a year later.
In 1952 he succumbed to his several serious ailments, passing the crown to Elizabeth II, who wears it to this very day.
The King’s Speech tells the little-known tale of Prince Albert’s stammer, sweetened by a depiction of an unusual, if not unique, friendship between the king of 25 percent of humanity and a commoner from the colonies, who dared call his sovereign “Bertie.”
If you are a student of World War II or only a filmgoer who can appreciate exceptionally strong performances by fine actors blessed by a great script, see The King’s Speech. And watch for it to win some Oscars a bit later this year.
Rated R for some language.
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Jim Castagnera, a Philadelphia lawyer and freelance journalist, has published 18 books, including Al Qaeda Goes to College: Impact of the War on Terror on American Higher Education (Praeger 2009) and Handbook for Student Law (Peter Lang 2010).