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The King’s Speech

By now most will have heard of The King’s Speech, the critically acclaimed film that tells the story of The Duke of York (later King George VI)’s struggle to overcome his stammer. Although Bertie, as he was known to his family, had previously tried a number of treatment options, it is Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue’s unorthodox combination of breathing exercises, tongue twisters, and talk therapy that finally proves effective. When the King dies, older brother David ascends the throne as King Edward VIII, but his infatuation with Wallis Simpson, a twice divorced American woman, threatens to bring down the government. With World War II just around the corner and Bertie first in the line of succession, Bertie’s ability to speak is more important than ever.

The King’s Speech was one of my favourite films of 2010 and I left the theatre wanting to know what had really happened. My research began with a copy of Mark Logue and Peter Conradi’s book The King’s Speech: How one man saved the British Monarchy. Based on the diaries kept by Lionel Logue, and on his correspondence with George VI, the book was written after filming began, meaning it isn’t the source material behind the Academy Award winning film. While the movie dramatizes George VI’s struggle, the book was written by Mark Logue, Lionel’s grandson, to “tell the story of my grandfather’s life from his childhood in Adelaide, South Australia, in the 1880s right the way through to his death”.

Conradi and Logue’s book is a great source and complements the movie nicely, but the critical and popular success of the film has ensured that it receives more press than most period dramas and, as a result, that there is more written about its historical accuracy.

In order to examine them all, it is prudent to divide criticisms into two categories; the accuracy of the central relationship between Logue and Bertie depicted in their treatment sessions, and the historical events that serve as the background for their relationship, including the abdication and the rise of Hitler.

Most articles criticize The King’s Speech for its treatment of relevant events but pay little attention to the central relationship of Bertie and Lionel. The main change here is a tightening of chronology. The film begins their sessions in 1934, but Bertie actually began visiting Logue in 1926. By the early thirties his speech had improved so dramatically that he rarely visited Logue’s Harley Street premises, but when the abdication crisis resulted in his ascension to the throne, George VI again turned to Logue for help.

Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) and Bertie (Colin Firth) have a session.

Logue’s diaries did not record his sessions with the King, but scriptwriter David Seidler drew from his own experiences as a stutterer to decide on both the treatments Bertie would have tried, and on the methods Logue used with his patients. Seidler’s theories were confirmed when he learned that his uncle was a former patient of Logue’s and that the talk therapy depicted in the film was one of the methods the speech therapist had used.

Although it makes for a humourous scene in the film, Lionel’s wife Myrtle did, in fact, know about her husband’s most famous patient. She was even “presented” at court to Bertie’s parents in a show of gratitude for Lionel’s work and wrote an article for an Australian newspaper about the experience!

Another humourous moment is more accurate. At the film’s climax Bertie broadcasts a speech immediately after Britain’s Declaration of War against Germany but Lionel remarks that he made one mistake. While the exchange that follows did take place, it actually occurred after another speech given by the King in December 1944 to mark the disbanding of the Home Guard. The only mistake was a stumble over the ‘w’ in weapons.

“Afterwards Logue shook hands with the King and, after congratulating him, asked why that particular letter had proved such a problem.
‘I did it on purpose,’ the King replied with a grin.
‘On purpose?’ asked Logue, incredulous.
‘Yes. If I don’t make a mistake people might not know it was me.’” (p 200 *)

While the timeline has been compressed and the lack of formality in Bertie and Lionel’s friendship is likely exaggerated, they did remain friends until the end of their lives and the film is essentially accurate in this portrayal. However, press have focused on the historical events that provide the background for the film, and here The King’s Speech takes more liberties.

Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) supports her husband.

The biggest change is that Winston Churchill actually supported Edward VIII (later given the title the Duke of Windsor) during the abdication crisis. This was more dangerous than the film makes out because Bertie’s brother was not just spoiled and naive; he was also suspected of being a Nazi sympathiser. Even after his abdication and forced exile the British Government thought that the Duke of Windsor’s willingness to enter an alliance posed a threat and he was sent to govern the Bahamas. In his draft of a telegram informing the Prime Ministers of the Dominions that the Duke had been appointed Governor of the Bahamas, Churchill wrote “The activities of the Duke of Windsor on the Continent in recent months have been causing His Majesty and myself grave uneasiness, as his inclinations are well-known to be pro-Nazi and he may become a centre of intrigue.” The sentence was omitted from the final version.

As shown in The King’s Speech, Edward VIII’s father even doubted his eldest son’s ability to rule. Before his death, George V, said about his younger son Bertie and granddaughter Elizabeth, “I pray to God that my eldest son [Edward] will never marry and have children, and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne”. He also made a prediction about Edward, confiding to Prime Minister Baldwin that “After I am dead, the boy will ruin himself in 12 months.”

Churchill’s support of Edward VIII during the abdication crisis meant that George VI was, in turn, not a great supporter of Churchill. The Royal Family were in favour of a policy of appeasement, and after Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement he was invited to appear on the Palace balcony with George VI and his wife in a show of support. This endorsement of foreign policy by the Royal Family has been called “the most unconstitutional act by a British sovereign in the present century” by historian John Grigg.

Although the film undoubtedly takes liberties with historical facts, It remains a moving film with wonderful dialogue, a great cast, and a musical score that should be celebrated. It is important to acknowledge, discuss, and understand the inaccuracies present in The King’s Speech, but these deviations from historical fact don’t take away from the central story of Logue and George VI’s friendship and the King’s success in overcoming his crippling stammer.

Verdict: Its Oscar success was well-deserved. This is a film that everyone should see and the book is a wonderful complement for those interested in learning more.

The King’s Speech is released on DVD & Blu-Ray today.

The King’s Speech: How one man saved the British Monarchy by Conradi and Logue is available now.

* Peter Conradi and Mark Logue. The King’s Speech. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2010.



Filed under British History, Movies

The Wind That Shakes the Barley

This is my second review for the 2010 Period Drama Challenge hosted by Lights, Camera…History!

Set in rural County Cork, the 2006 Palme D’Or winner The Wind That Shakes the Barley is the story of Damien and Teddy O’Donovan, two brothers (played by Cillian Murphy and Pádraic Delaney respectively) who take opposite views on the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

The film begins in 1920 with a hurling match between young men. After the game they are confronted by the Black and Tans, an armed force employed by the Royal Irish Constabulary. Although he witnesses the fatal beating of his friend Micheail, who refuses to say his name in English, Damien elects to pursue his medical studies at a prestigious London hospital. But as he prepares to leave town, Damien sees a railway guard and the train driver resist armed British forces. The guard is beaten and Damien chooses to stay behind and help, subsequently joining his more militant brother Teddy as a member of the IRA.

The IRA column promptly infiltrates an army barracks for guns, which they use to assassinate four British Auxiliaries in a local pub. The brigade is captured after an Anglo-Irish landowner presses his servant Chris Reilly, a teenage IRA member, into revealing their location. All are set to be executed the next morning but a sympathetic Irish officer helps all but three prisoners to escape. Unfortunately Chris’ part in their capture means that the brigade have orders from Headquarters to execute him as a traitor. The act is performed by Damien, who has known him since he was a child. “I’ve crossed the line now Sinéad…I can’t feel anything,” he tells his sweetheart afterwards.

Further acts of violence on both sides persist until a truce is declared and the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed, but the Treaty divides the IRA and the brothers. While Teddy argues that the terms are a starting point and that more gains can be made in the future, Damien believes that the war must continue until complete independence form Great Britain is achieved.

Damien (Cillian Murphy) joins the IRA.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley features fictional characters but historical events and figures are mentioned, such as socialist leader James Connolly. While awaiting execution, Dan and Damien discuss Connolly’s ideas, and Dan says that he saw the man speak at the Dublin Lock-out which occurred between August 1913 and January 1914. The sport of hurling, played in the opening scene of the movie, also has a historical basis. Many members of its Gaelic Athletic Association had been connected to the 1916 Easter Rising, so by 1918 the British government banned the organization completely. Yet the sport continued to be played as an act of Irish defiance.

The title of the movie comes from a poem of the same name. Written by 19th century poet Robert D. Joyce, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” is about a rebel soon to take part in the doomed 1798 rebellion. The poem has since been set to music and performed by many artists. The ballad is used in the movie at Micheail’s funeral.

Of course the most controversial part of the film is the atrocities committed by the Black and Tans, often ex-soldiers who had fought in the trenches. The Wind That Shakes the Barley has been criticized by a minority for glorifying the IRA but while the audience is led to sympathize deeply with the IRA, I don’t think that the violence is glorified. Before shooting Chris Reilly, Damien comments to his friend, “I studied anatomy for five years, Dan. And now I’m going to shoot this man in the head. I’ve known Chris Reilly since he was a child. I hope this Ireland we’re fighting for is worth it.” This isn’t a film about the glorious tactics of the IRA, it’s a brutal story about the devastating effect that violence has on people. Discussing the IRA and the Black and Tans, historian Calton Younger sums up the conflict best by writing:

“The Irish fighters dealt out shrewd and relentless death to the invader. The forces of the Crown struck back with ever less pity or scruple. Terror was met with terror. Atrocity was piled on atrocity in a ghastly game of tit for tat that seemed as if it could have no end. Who began it did not matter anymore. Each blow was an answer to the one before, and a prelude to the next. The British government condoned the tactics of its servants and protected them with the starkest lies while raising pious hands in horror as they reported the outrages of their adversaries. As always, the bitter truth was that neither side had much to be proud of.”

Part of the charm of this film is that it doesn’t depict the perfect Hollywood world of ideal speeches. Its characters speak realistically, talking over one another and sometimes stuttering, which I believe draws the viewer in and makes them feel a part of the movie. The film also contains what I consider one of the best political debates to be shown on film as IRA members debate the Pro-Treaty and Anti-Treaty sides:

Director Ken Loach filmed the movie in rural County Cork and the Irish countryside is beautiful. Some viewers will have trouble understanding the thick Cork accents used by most of the main characters at first, but I found that it became easier to understand as I continued to watch and the dialect became familiar.

The film does a wonderful job of re-creating the time period and is so engaging because it examines history in a regional light, looking at how the Anglo-Irish Treaty and guerilla warfare affected average citizens in rural Ireland. The acting is also excellent with Cillian Murphy in particular standing out. His Damien displays all the conflict that a doctor who must take action against a friend should display, but Pádraic Delaney is also wonderful as brother Teddy. This is not an easy movie to watch but it’s absolutely brilliant and provides an important look at the motivations, and events behind this turbulent time in Irish history. In The Wind That Shakes the Barley violence divides families and causes a doctor to kill in cold blood. Losses occur on both sides and no one remains immune to the violence. That is the tragedy of this powerfully moving film.

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Filed under Irish History, Period Drama Challenge