Friday, January 7, 2011

On symbols and relevance

I came of age in the sixties and seventies, in the era of the Viet Nam War, Watergate, the height of urban decline, the race riots, the liberation movements, and many other events that shook the world from the relative complacency of the fifties. It was a time when we lost faith in our leaders and in concepts such as "my country right or wrong." The mantra of my generation was "question authority."

It is safe to say that the world changed forever during those years. My baby boom generation likes to claim credit for that. Of course the world changed forever many times in the last century, once for each of the two world wars and the Great Depression to name but three of the many earth shattering events that took place during that tumultuous century. Needless to say, the world is constantly changing and for the most part the changes have moved (with some notable exceptions) in the direction of individual liberty, freedom, and away from traditional values and the establishment.

England has been whittling away the powers of its Monarchy since the Magna Carta was written in 1215. The past forty years have seen that venerable institution fall from influence perhaps as much or more than in the previous eight centuries put together. With its traditions of pomp and circumstance carried out in a time where they seem to be out of step with the current state of the once mighty Empire, (not to mention contemporary styles, taste and fashion), the Monarchy has lost for many that very significant virtue in today's world, relevance.

In the midst of this comes a truly wonderful film called The King's Speech. The movie is about Albert (Frederick Arthur George), who would become King George VI, the father of the current Queen Elizabeth. This King George, played in the movie by Colin Firth, reigned during one of the darkest periods of English history, World War II. His reign also saw what was to be the end of the British Empire in favor of the Commonwealth.

The King's Speech is a human drama rather than a biography or a didactic, historical epic. It centers around the King's stammer, a speech impediment that afflicted Albert/GeorgeVI for most of his life. The two people closest to Albert in the film were his wife Elizabeth, (today known affectionately as the Queen Mum), played by Helena Bonham Carter, and Lionel Logue, a failed Australian actor turned speech therapist, played by Jeffery Rush.

That speech deficiency turned into a catastrophe after Albert's older brother became King Edward VIII upon the death of their father King George V, only to abdicate less than a year later so he could marry his lover, the twice divorced American, Wallace Simpson. Albert, the next in line, reluctantly assumed the throne and took the name of George, presumably because the name Albert was "too German" as Winston Churchill pointed out. Public speaking would become an unwanted but essential part of George's new life, and much of the film deals with his abject terror of it.

To their credit the film makers, director Tom Hooper and writer David Seidler chose to trust the intelligence of their audience to fill in the historical details for themselves. The significant terms of the day, "rearmament", "appeasement", and "Munich Pact" are not uttered in the film. We also learn very few significant details of the lives of the principal characters as so much of their legacy takes place after the last scene of the film. Yet in the process of watching this movie, not only do we gain tremendous insight into the personalities of three remarkable individuals, in the climactic scene, we witness time standing still while the world as people knew it at the time, was about to end.

A slight downside is the fact that some of the most important political figures of World War II are reduced to plot devises. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin's main contribution to the plot is his refusal to support Edward's marriage. Winston Churchill contributes even less. His chief role is to inform King George that he too once had a speech impediment. And the politician most closely tied to the events that led directly up to the war, Neville Chamberlain, just stops in to say hello.

Even Adolph Hitler is used as a plot device. In a brilliant scene, the King and his family are gathered to watch newsreel footage of his recent coronation, the only depiction of the event in the movie. Following the coronation, the focus of the newsreel shifts to Hitler delivering one of his typically bombastic speeches. The newly crowned king watches the dictator with a mixture of horror and awe. His daughter Elizabeth asks him what Hitler is talking about and the king replies with almost starstruck bewilderment: "I can’t understand a word he’s saying, but he sure can speak."

In lesser hands the hero of the movie would view Hitler with nothing but contempt and disgust. Here, in one fell swoop, having George succumb ever so slightly to Hitler's compelling oratory style, not only gives the viewer insight into the Fürher's power over his own people, but also tells us volumes about King George's own feelings of inadequacy.

The speech referred to in the title of the movie is George VI's radio address to his Empire and to the world on September 3rd, 1939, announcing that the war that everyone (on the Allied side) had worked so tirelessly to avoid, had in fact begun.

Here is a recording of the actual speech:

In the film the king delivers the speech successfully, albeit haltingly with the help of Lionel Logue, and the soundtrack of the slow movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony. It is a masterful piece of film making with Lionel conducting the "performance" as the world listens in, guiding his famous patient through what must have been an agonizing six minutes. It is one of those scenes that leaves the audience spent, in the end there is hardly a dry eye in the house.

The king's personal triumph comes on the eve of one of the darkest moments of history and the "feel good" ending for some stands in marked contrast to the gravitas of the situation. However I couldn't imagine any other way to end the movie without greatly reducing its dramatic impact. We know what was to follow after all, at least one would hope.

The one historic event that is dealt with in great detail in The King's Speech is the abdication of King Edward VIII. To this day many people, including a friend's 91 year old mother who we ran into at the theater, still see the abdication through rose colored glasses saying; "how romantic, imagine giving up a kingdom for the woman he loved."

The movie does not hesitate to portray Edward as history has proven him to be, that is to say a creep. Being born into the royal family is indeed a double edged sword, excessive privilege is more than tempered by unimaginable responsibility and sense of duty. Let's just say that Ed was big on the privilege part and not so much on the rest. His father George V realized as much. He is quoted as having said: "I pray God that my eldest son will never marry and that nothing will come between Bertie (Albert) and Lilibet (Albert's daughter Elizabeth) and the throne." The first part of the elder king's wish did not come true but the last part was certainly fulfilled. Confirming the thought that things happen for a reason, the scandal that resulted in Edward's abdication resulted in the far worthier man ascending to the throne at a time when he was most needed, and made Mrs. Simpson unwittingly the woman who very well may have saved England.

A subtext of the movie is the awkward relationship between the regal Albert/George VI and the commoner Logue. The comedy of manners is of course a common device and dare I say a cliché in much of the drama coming out of class conscious England. In this case it is Pygmalion with the roles reversed, here it is the commoner who usually has the upper hand over the aristocrat. While a bit predictable, these scenes point to the ever so slowly changing roles of the classes in British society. In his performance, Firth skillfully walks a tightrope. He portrays the King as vulnerable, sometimes unable to utter a single word in stressful situations, and given to inappropriate fits of emotion. However at all times he maintains his dignity, Firth comes close but never allows his character to be pathetic. Even the superior attitude with which Albert/George VI views his position in relation to Logue is portrayed sympathetically, we realize that Albert has never been in such an intimate relationship with a commoner and he simply doesn't know how to relate. Unlike his brother, Firth's character is ever duty bound, and never does he step out of that role, even when he is being a mere mortal, which is most of the time.

Both Bonham-Carter's and Rush's performances give us characters that are every bit the equals of Firth's. Bonham-Carter's Elizabeth is tough, intelligent and fiercely devoted to her husband. Similarly Rush's Logue greatly respects the Prince soon to be King, if not necessarily his position. Together the three performances give us rich characters for whom we care a great deal, as well as prepare us for the lives they would lead after the final scene in the film takes place.

As I mentioned above, the legacies of George VI, his wife Queen Elizabeth, and one could say the current Queen, were forged during the war. In a brief epilogue we are told that the King would reward Logue by inducting him into the Royal Victorian Order, first as a member, later as commander. As such he was the first commoner to be awarded in this manner. It also mentioned that the two men remained close friends until the king's death in 1952.

There is no mention of the following:

While they could have easily been spirited out of England, well out of harm's way, the King steadfastly insisted on remaining in London for the entire war, even during the Blitz as the city was decimated by German bombs. After the bombs found their way to the steps of Buckingham Palace barely missing the Royal Family, the Queen was quoted as saying; "Now we can look East Enders in the eye" referring to the terrible devastation the working class section of the city had already endured. The King and Queen made it a point to visit the bombed areas of their city and victims in the hospital. When the Queen came under scrutiny for appearing in the poorer sections of London in all her finery she replied that if the public were to visit her at her home they too, would show up in their finest clothing, she simply was responding in kind.

The Royals became a visible symbol of the city and the country's resolve during its darkest days. There was a great deal of concern about their safety, especially the safety of the children. Of this the Queen said: “The children will leave when I leave. I will leave when the King leaves. The King will never leave.”

For all of her efforts, Adolph Hitler dubbed her; "The most dangerous woman in Europe." Considering the source, quite a compliment indeed.

Princess Elizabeth cut her teeth during those terrible days. She was 13 in 1939 and made her first radio broadcast to the English people the following year. At the close of the war she actively participated in the war effort as a member of the Women's Auxiliary Territorial Service. In stark contrast to her current public image, she was trained as a driver and mechanic and ended up driving and maintaining a military truck.

In the movie, King George contemplates his role as a figurehead, a man with a lofty title but without any jurisdiction, a mere symbol of the authority handed down to him from his ancestors. Because of his sense of duty and obligation, even though he questioned it, he took that role dead seriously and never strayed, just as his daughter after him.

In our society we value self expression and freedom above all, obligation and service are almost unheard of values these days. That is perhaps why George's brother's story continues to be so compelling to us. Edward it seems turned out to be much more a man of his day than George.

Regarding the Monarchy, today many of us are likely to just scratch our heads and say; "what's the point?"

As an American, it would be presumptuous of me to suggest what our brothers and sisters across the great pond with whom we share so much, do with their Monarchy. After all, we jettisoned the King of England, another George if I'm not mistaken, a long time ago. But I do believe that symbols matter. And a thousand year old symbol of a great nation's continuity is something that deserves to be considered, not just thrown out with the bath water.

Many years ago, around the time she ascended to the throne, the current Queen Elizabeth made a proclamation stating: "I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong."

Anachronistic as these words may sound, Queen Elizabeth as her parents before her, knows her place in the world.

To that all I can add is this:

May God save the Queen.

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