Blood, Class, and Nostalgia: Anglo-American Ironies, British Aristocracy, Christopher Hitchens, Colin Firth, confidence, elocution, Eurocentrism, Film, film review, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Individual Will, Jurassic Park, King George VI, Lionel Logue, Max Hastings, Nostalgia, Speech, The King's Speech, Tom Hooper, velociraptor nazis, What's New About the War?, Winston Churchill, World War II, World War II Rhetoric
I was only one of three people in the movie theater when The King’s Speech came to Tyler. Despite the fact that I live in the Bible Belt, and that every three of four stories my father told me growing up were about World War II (the fourth story was about Reagan during The Cold War) I couldn’t manage to find anyone willing to see the movie with me. I sat alone, in the dark, and felt reality slip away and I watched what was perhaps the first decent film about the war in Europe since Band of Brothers. I recognize though, that calling this a World War II film is giving the wrong message. The King’s Speech is not about the Second World War, it’s about a man trying to find his confidence.
And what better way to do it than smoking?
Lionel Logue: [as Albert prepares to light a cigarette] Well, please, don’t do that.
King George VI: I’m sorry?
Lionel Logue: I believe sucking smoke into your lungs will… will kill you.
King George VI: My physicians said it relaxes the… the… the throat.
Lionel Logue: They’re idiots.
King George VI: They’ve all been knighted.
Lionel Logue: [sarcastic] Makes it official, then.
Apparently I spoke too soon.
Before I began to actually write this essay I consulted with a friend of mine who, apart from being brilliant and having a better beard than me, her name is Caroline and she’s fantastic, he has more experience with film theory and history. He recommended, when writing this, to focus on what the director is doing visually alongside concerns about the narrative, and remembering this point the preceding quote assumes more significance. What struck me the first time I watched The King’s Speech was not just the acting, the Armani suits, or Colin Firth’s perfect chin, but Tom Hooper’s set up of a shot. This scene in particular is odd to watch the first time because the characters are placed either on the far left or far right side while the empty space of Lionel Logue’s office swallows up most of the audience’s attention. That space is in fact found throughout the film as Hooper (the director) attempts to place his characters within massive, contained period places so that the viewer either recognizes the emotional depth of the character or else is able to feel these characters existing in England during the 1930s. As such watching The King’s Speech is often a diagonal affair because the viewer is torn to either angle their attention towards the character or allow that space to maintain the focus.
Though eventually politics seeps back into the plot and eventually the viewer is reminded that Bertie is the future King of England, and at some point he was going to have to deal with Hitler:
Stanley Baldwin: Sir, I have asked to see you today in order to tender my resignation as Prime Minister.
King George VI: I’m so sorry to hear that… Mr Baldwin.
Stanley Baldwin: Neville Chamberlain will take my place as Prime Minister. It’s a matter of principle. I was mistaken. I have found it impossible to believe that there is any man in the world so lacking in moral feeling as Hitler that the world may be hurled for a second time into the abyss of destructive war.
King George V: [hearing the voice of his father] Churchill was right all along. This was always Hitler’s intention.
Stanley Baldwin: I’m only very sorry to leave you at this great time of crisis. I’m very much afraid, sir, that your greatest test is yet to come.
I’ll get to Churchill in a moment. Mr. Baldwin is referring to the fact that Bertie, who at that time had become King George VI, would have to become the symbolic leader against Hitler and the Nazi’s. Many viewers who watch The King’s Speech are likely to be bogged down either by the paradigms that govern the English aristocracy, the elitism of National identity (Australians were not highly regarded on the social ladder), the references to foreign currency, or even the constant references to Shakespeare. It’s hard for an American audience, who often entertain a pseudo-symbolic erection for English history and culture, to understand these guidelines because, for the most part, class is not so ingrained into our consciousness. As such some jokes may not reach every viewer:
King George V: In the past, all a King had to do was look respectable in uniform and not fall off his horse. Now we must invade people’s homes and ingratiate ourselves with them. This family’s been reduced to those lowest, basest of all creatures. We’ve become actors!
Despite this The King’s Speech does not take the time to criticize English aristocracy because its larger aesthetic goal is to place the viewer in England completely so that they may understand Bertie’s Struggle. It also offers an opportunity to remind viewers that unless you were English/English, you had to expect people to act like a dick to you on occasion
Lionel Logue: Would I lie to a prince of the realm to win twelve pennies?
King George VI: I have no idea what an Australian might do for that sort of money.
The King’s Speech is a biopic about the actual King of England during the Second World War Albert/Bertie/King George VI (I know it’s confusing at first, but to spare you I didn’t mention that he’s also the Duke of York…damnit) is the second son of King George V and stutters. This creates a conflict for, since he is the Duke of York (Second-in-line for the throne, see I explained it) he has to do a great deal of public speaking. The beginning of the film offers the viewers this and demonstrates what a clusterfuck this was for the man when he has to address a large crowd at Wembley stadium and can’t even make it through the first sentence of his speech. His wife (Helena Bonham Carter in the first non-hag role of her career in the last six years) Elizabeth eventually finds an elocution instructor by the name of Lionel Logue(Geoffrey Rush in one of his best performances to date).
Lionel Logue: Well, we need to have your hubby pop by. Uh, Tuesday would be good. He can give me his personal details, I’ll make a frank appraisal, and then we’ll take it from there.
Queen Elizabeth: Doctor, forgive me, ah… I don’t have a “hubby,” we don’t “pop,” and nor do we ever talk about our private lives. No, you must come to us.
Lionel Logue: I’m sorry, Mrs. Johnson – my game, my turf, my rules.
It should be noted that Logue manages to get Bertie to actually attends his sessions regularly and as the film continues they develop a confidence and friendship that is not only believable, it is vital for Bertie who confides in the man in a way that was impossible for royalty at that time. From the very start Bertie was abused and berated to the point that his confidence was near shattered and his stuttering most likely a result of that.
King George VI: You know, ih… if I’m a… a King, where’s my power? Can I… can I form a government? Can I… can I l-levy a tax, declare a… a war? No! And yet I am the seat of all authority. Why? Because… the nation believes that when I s… I speak, I speak for them – but I can’t speak.
Confidence is not acquired easy and I more than most can speak to that. It’s often been remarked by those close to me that they can’t believe that I was a shy kid. My favorite activity growing up was burying my face into the folds my mother’s dresses and pant legs because I was terrified of people in general. I have no real memories of this period, but even as I grew up the thought of making a fool of myself in any way was horrendous, until I got to college. Working as an SI tutor and addressing large classrooms (usually around 200 people in total) every day I quickly developed a thick skin and to this day I’d rather talk to large groups than small clusters. That confidence however came from a lot of mistakes, a lot of experience, and the influence of my parents who are outgoing people.
The King’s Speech to me is always a film about confidence first. Bertie is (was, he’s dead now, his daughter’s on the throne) the King of England, but Hooper’s effort as a director is demonstrate the man as a man first. One who recognizes his faults:
Lionel Logue: What was your earliest memory?
King George VI: What on Earth do you mean?
Lionel Logue: Your first recollection.
King George VI: I’m not… m… here to discuss… personal matters.
Lionel Logue: Well, why are you here, then?
King George VI: Because I bloody well stammer!
Within the last five years I’ve developed a general distrust of any and all films that are about, or deal with topics connected to the Second World War. The reason is not that I despise the period or am in any way a closet Nazi, though reading The Catcher in the Rye seven times and owning a paperback copy of Mein Kampf hardly convinces the government of that. Nor is the reason that I feel many of the films and television programs, that aren’t broadcasted on the Discovery Channel, are in any way inferior art pieces. The answer is far simpler: I don’t trust the level of pathos that is delivered to, as is often the case, largely American audiences.
Americans just can’t forget World War II and how fun it was. Nazis and Hitler and Normandy and Patton and flags and Garand rifles and heroes and French girls and saving Europe…also there was something or other happening in the Pacific, but who cares? Europe!
This observation is not without basis. Max Hastings captures this sentiment in one of the most recent articles published in The New York Review of Books, What’s New About the War?:
It is a publishing phenomenon, for which some of us who are authors have cause to be grateful, that seventy years after the conclusion of World War II, works about the conflict enjoy a popularity second only to cookbooks. This is unsurprising, because it was the greatest event in human history, a saga that offers narratives about a collision between the forces of good and evil much less nuanced—apparently so, at least, to unsophisticated readers—than the modern struggle between militant Islam and the West.
The Second World War allowed an unfettered, unrestricted observation of good vs evil with little, if any, gray area thus allowing the whole damn war to become almost archetypal. Churchill and FDR become archaic father akin to the founders of humanity, while the soldiers become titans defending that precious notion: liberty. However all this myth-making comes with a consequence.
Romanticizing of the past amounts to little else besides Eurocentric penis envy, and every time a new film emerges that deals with the time period I watch as over and over again Americans swell with nationalistic pride, puffing up their chests like bloated Chanticleer’s, and no that’s not a reference to Rock-a-Doodle. It’d be cool if it was but few people would actually get that reference I think. I, like many others, have noted America’s obsession with England, America’s obsession with beating Hitler, America’s obsession with World War II, and most of all the collected memories, History Channel biographies, Tom Hanks’s endless stream of Bi-opics, and of course the entire collected works of Steven Spielberg (if you look really close in Jurassic Park one of the velociraptors is wearing a Swastika armband, I swear, this is a thing) only further demonstrate how in love America is with the war in Europe.
For all of these reasons I’ve come to distrust films and fictional narratives based in or around the period of World War II. However I myself am not immune for one of my favorite films is the movie under review which happens to take place right before this period.
I promised though that I would write about Churchill, and when discussing all matters English it’s best to consult an Englishman. The second book by Christopher Hitchens I ever read was Blood, Class, and Nostalgia: Anglo American Ironies, and while the book is a dense series of references to historical figures, there is enough effort paid to understand Churchill as political icon that has assumed so much of America’s consciousness. In a Chapter entitled The Churchill Cult, he explores this phenomena:
How and why is it that the name and prestige of Winston Churchill are so easily appropriated by Americans of the kind I described in the Introduction: Americans who are generally identified with privilege and conservatism to an extent that Churchill himself never was?
The Churchill cult in the United States, as currently practiced, makes its association with such aspects of American life practically inevitable. The figure of the grand old man is the summa of “special relationship” politics and emotions. Invested in the awesome grandeur and integrity of the 1940 resistance to Hitler, and gifted as few before or since with the power to make historic phrases, Churchill is morally irrefragable in American discourse, and can be quoted even more safely than Lincoln in that he was never a member of any American faction.
Given the universality of his standing and appeal Churchill is an icon of which jealous use is made by the political and military conservatives to whom the “special relationship” is a potent source of reinforcement. But he also occupies an unrivaled place in the common stack of reference, ranging from the mock-heroic to the downright kitsch. (180).
Imagine my chagrin then when in the film, during a house party entertained by Bertie’s brother King Edward VIII, Mr. Churchill makes his first plump appearance. I cannot speak for every young man of my generation growing up, but I distinctly remember the figure of Churchill being synonymous with Ronald Reagan as a champion of conservative and military genius, because that’s what I was told growing up by my father and numerous other authority figures. That image would change however as historians began to lift the post-cold war curtain from the man, and the image presented in The King’s Speech is, thankfully, brief. It’s a small victory, but The King’s Speech achieves one of its greatest victories in making Churchill a minor character. It may not be a popular choice, but the film isn’t about following typical World War II rhetoric, for the European War is only the backdrop to a man’s individual conflict.
King George VI: [Sees Logue is sitting on the coronation throne] What are you doing? Get up! You can’t sit there! GET UP!
Lionel Logue: Why not? It’s a chair.
King George VI: No, it… That is not a chair. That is… that is Saint Edward’s chair.
Lionel Logue: People have carved their names on it.
King George VI: [Simultaneously] That… chair… is the seat on which every king and queen…
Lionel Logue: [Simultaneously] It’s held in place by a large rock.
King George VI: That is the Stone of Scone. You ah-are trivializing everything. You trivialize…
Lionel Logue: I don’t care about how many royal arseholes…
King George VI: Listen to me.
Lionel Logue: …have sat in this chair.
King George VI: Listen to me. *Listen to me!*
Lionel Logue: Listen to you? By what right?
King George VI: By divine right, if you must. I am your king.
Lionel Logue: No, you’re not. You told me so yourself. You said you didn’t want it. Why should I waste my time listening…?
King George VI: Because I have a right to be heard! I have a voice!
Lionel Logue: [pauses] Yes, you do.
Lionel Logue: You have such perseverance, Bertie. You’re the bravest man I know. You’ll make a bloody good king.
It may simply be the lingering shadow cast by the atomic bomb, but “Great” or “World” wars seem to be steadily becoming a thing of the past. As such the promises of glory and honor may seem to be steadily dwindling and immortality an unattainable delusion. I think that’s why stories from and about the Second World War continue to fascinate and intrigue us. So many great and fascinating stories can be told from it and The King’s Speech at first seems to be yet another wonderful story from that box of goodies, but upon further inspection this simply isn’t the case. The King’s Speech is a film about the power an individual voice can have upon others, and the struggle of one man trying to find his confidence. The fact that his struggle is drawn so closely to World War II, and the cartoon characters of history, is simply the nature of the historical record.
Bertie fights a war against himself. Against the ghost of his father. Against the reality of his incompetent brother, supported only by his wife Elizabeth and his friend Lionel Logue.
The friendship between Bertie and Logue is what gives the film the charm that keeps me coming back to it over and over again.
King George VI: All that… work… down the drain. My own… b… brother, I couldn’t say a single w-word to him in reply.
Lionel Logue: Why do you stammer so much more with David than you ever do with me?
King George VI: ‘Cos you’re b… bloody well paid to listen.
Lionel Logue: Bertie, I’m not a geisha girl.
King George VI: Stop trying to be so bloody clever.
Lionel Logue: What is it about David that stops you speaking?
King George VI: What is it about you that bloody well makes you want to go on about it the whole bloody time?
Lionel Logue: Vulgar, but fluent; you don’t stammer when you swear.
King George VI: Oh, bugger off!
Lionel Logue: Is that the best you can do?
King George VI: [like an elocution lesson] Well… bloody bugger to you, you beastly bastard.
Lionel Logue: Oh, a public school prig could do better than that.
King George VI: Shit. Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!
Lionel Logue: Yes!
King George VI: Shit!
Lionel Logue: Defecation flows trippingly from the tongue!
King George VI: Because I’m angry!
Lionel Logue: Do you know the f-word?
King George VI: F… f… fornication?
Lionel Logue: Oh, Bertie.
King George VI: Fuck. Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck and fuck! Fuck, fuck and bugger! Bugger, bugger, buggerty buggerty buggerty, fuck, fuck, arse!
Lionel Logue: Yes…
King George VI: Balls, balls…
Lionel Logue: …you see, not a hesitation!
King George VI: …fuckity, shit, shit, fuck and willy. Willy, shit and fuck and… tits.
Films and books that explore the characters that fought and bled and lead during World War II will always be plagued by some level of pathos. The energy of that great War has yet to truly wane, and some ways it may never settle, understandably so. Never has there been so “great” a war. Never has there been a struggle so glamorized, celebrated, dissected, or mass produced. Beneath the mountain of stories about Hitler and Churchill however, there is the story of Lionel Logue and Bertie, two men who, while they may not have led armies or crafted timeless speeches, helped a nation by giving it a voice. Through the fires and blitzkrieg King George VI became a symbol for the resistance. In face of oblivion was one man shouting into the dark, I have a voice.
I’ve included a link to Max Hasting’s Article. I should forewarn the reader however that unless you have a subscription the site may not let you read the entire article.
I’ve also included below the original speech by King George VI, spoken on 3 September 1939.