Summoning the Courage to Speak: A Movie Review of “The King’s Speech”

by Derrick G. Jeter

The ability to speak well in public can turn a commoner into a king, and turn a king into a court jester if he lacks such talent. Eloquence is power; it is freedom. Winston Churchill, a man of enormous verbal talent concurred, “Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king. He is an independent force in the world. Abandoned by his party, betrayed by his friends, stripped of his offices, whoever can command this power is still formidable.” [1] But he who cannot command this power is perceived as weak, even if he be a king. Stammering is slavery, as Euripides noted: “A slave is he who cannot speak his thought.” [2]
This is the basis of the movie The King’s Speech. It’s the story of a man destined to become king of England—his responsibilities require him to speak in public, but he can’t speak. Prince Albert, the Duke of York (King George VI), played brilliantly by Colin Firth, suffers from a severe speech impediment. He stutters and stammers, in public and in private. The opening scene has Albert addressing a large crowd at the 1925 Empire Exhibition in Wembley Stadium. Standing before the microphone, with the knowledge that his speech is to be broadcast throughout the whole of the British empire, Albert is frozen, as if cast in ice. And the audience is frozen with him, both on screen and in the theater. You feel his terror and the embarrassment of the audience who cannot bear to look at him. It is too painful to see a man—a prince . . . your prince—shatter like glass.
Albert’s loving wife, Elizabeth, portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter, is determined to find a cure for his stuttering, not because she is embarrassed by it—she calls it beautiful—but because he is tortured by it; he is a slave to his own rebellious tongue. In an intimate moment with just he and his family, Albert is unable to read a bedtime story to his two girls, Elizabeth and Margaret. But he is able to stammer out a quick story of a penguin who has wings but cannot fly and cannot embrace his loved ones like other birds. The penguin becomes a metaphor for Albert’s life. He has a voice but he can’t use it speak words of affection to his children as other men might speak to their children. So, from one quack doctor after another, Elizabeth embarks on a quest until she discovers Lionel Logue, an Australian with some unusual professional techniques, played masterfully by Geoffrey Rush.
Birdie, as his family calls Albert (and which Logue insist on calling him, must to Albert’s dismay), and Lionel begin working together . . . and begin developing a friendship. Albert slowly begins to improve, gaining confidence and courage, until his older brother, King Edward VIII, suddenly abdicates the throne to marry the twice divorced American, Wallis Simpson. Albert becomes King George VI. He doesn’t want to be king. The responsibility is too great. His life, as the second son, had been in preparation to serve his country as a prince and a naval officer, not as king. History wasn’t suppose to work this way. And yet, there he was, sitting on the throne in Westminster Abby for his coronation.
George VI came to the throne in 1936, just as Hitler and his Nazi machine was gearing up to invade Poland and unleash the hellfire known as the Blitzkrieg over London. In the scene after his ascension to the throne, George sits with his family watching the newsreel of the coronation. Immediately following the pomp and circumstance of his crowning the newsreel cuts to Hitler giving a speech to an adoring throng. “What is he saying Papa?” one of the girls asks. “I don’t know, but he seems to be saying it very well,” the king stammers.
George is king. He is England. But how can he rule as the stammering monarch of Great Britain during a time that calls for strength, not stammering? Hitler was formidable, as the newsreel speech proved. George was weak, as anyone who ever heard him try to spit out a complete sentence without stepping on his tongue could attest. This was no time for a stumbling monarch, because it was no time for England to stumble. What would he do? What could he do? Would he find his voice?
This is the movie . . . at an entertainment level. But the movie is so much more than this, and if we leave the theater thinking that it is a movie about a stuttering king then we’ve missed the real richness of this movie. It is a human story of friendship—between a king and a commoner—of love and courage and perseverance, of humility and humiliation, of frustration, and family disfunction, and of duty and self-sacrifice. But it is a story that delivers a profound message about our culture.
We have become vulgar. Vulgarity is violence—it attacks the sensibilities. It stems from a Devil-may-care attitude, rooted in a culture centered on self. The vulgar declare: “To hell with conventional notions of art and beauty—art to me is a crucifix in a jar of urine.” “To hell with old fashioned ideas of love and marriage—love to me is sex with no strings attached.” (Ironically, that was the name of a movie previewed before the showing of The King’s Speech on the day I went to the theater.) “To hell with conservative idealisms about truth and goodness—truth to me is whatever I decide is it.” “I . . . Me . . . I’m the measure and standard . . . I’m god!” Banal. Boring. Bland. There is nothing interesting or heroic in the world of “me,” where everyone is expected to sacrifice for me . . . but no one does; where everyone is expected to seek the welfare of me . . . but no one does. How trivial, how base—how vulgar—such a culture becomes.
Vulgarity, in all its forms—language, art, literature—is tasteless; it is gruel. And for a culture brought up on gruel, a culture that has forgotten or never known how to savor sweetness, a movie like The King’s Speech washes over our palette as if it were a king’s banquet. We delight in every morsel, because unlike the slop of our daily diet, this movie has texture and taste. This movie tells us, without stammering or stuttering—and without preaching—that civility and decorum and decency and courage and self-sacrificing are more persuasive and winsome than the vulgarity of me. This movie reminds us that we can be a people of beauty. Our culture need no longer stammer under tasteless vulgarity. We can speak with eloquence.
“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak,” Churchill said. [3] During the dark days while London was being bombed, King George VI—the stammering monarch of Great Britain—stood courageous before a microphone and spoke courage into his beleaguered people. Perhaps we could learn a little courage ourselves and speak, without halting, of beauty and truth into a culture that has become too vulgar.
[1] Winston Churchill, as quoted in Churchill by Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations, ed. Richard Langworth (New York: Public Affairs, 2008), 56.
[2] Euripides, as quoted in Edith Hamilton, The Greek Way (New York: W. W. Norton, 1942), 43.
[3] Churchill, as quoted in Churchill by Himself, 572.