The King’s Speech is a fine film. What are its leadership messages for today?
This is not intended to be a film review. Rather, I want to reflect on the leadership messages in a tale of the trials and duties of a monarch dealing with his human frailty. Or, if you like, the dilemmas of everyman everywhere any time.
The film itself has won widespread acclaim. It is expected to receive further accolades in the Oscars ceremonies this weekend [Feb 27th 2011]. In a nutshell, the story tells of Albert (‘Bertie’) the surviving youngest son of King George 5th. When George 5th died, Albert’s eldest son David ascended to the throne.
What follows is rather confusing, even for those familiar with the story. David briefly became King Edward 7th. This sort of name-changing and brand-tweeking was repeated when Albert replaced him and acquired the title King George 6th. King Albert was considered “too German” as someone said. And King David was too close the biblical King David for someone who would be anointed as defender of faith and secular head of the Church of England. The entire royal line rebranded itself The House of Windsor some years later to airbrush out signals of its Germanic ancestry.
The heart of the story is that Bertie was never considered up to being king, which didn’t matter because that was to be David’s job anyway. He was bullied quite a bit as a child, unconsciously on the part of King George, sneakily on the part of his older brother. This treatment is suggested to have triggered the stammer which played such a vital part in the story.
Edward was a bit of a wild thing, which used to an almost obligatory feature of the role of Prince of Wales, king in waiting. He was also rather popular with the masses, although this is glossed over in the film in order to get a better portrayal as a villain. He was rather a glamorous figure a la Blackadder officer class. No surprise then, that David becomes infatuated with a person with a past, a Mrs Wallis Simpson, played in the film as a Cruella deville figure.
King George dies. Hitler is rising to power in Europe. David becomes King Edward (still with me?) but constitutionally causes a lot of trouble by refusing to relegate Mrs Simpson to the substitute’s bench.
Courage and duty
There follows a display of what another recent remade film labelled as True Grit. Bertie is introduced to Lionel Logue, a speech guru and potential mentor. The clash of roles and class becomes central to the story. Logue demands an intimacy to provide technical success with the royal stammer. Various advances and setbacks occur. The audience cringes at the embarrassment of Bertie’s public performances. The leadership dilemmas are beginning to come into focus. We have a fine example of the courageous battle between duty and capability for Bertie. And between private and public obligations and passions for David/Edward
At least the dashing David/Edward had looked and sounded good in public. But the new king was determined in his demands. Duh! No Queen Wallis, no deal. Edward quits (abdicates if you like the technical term). Which of course leaves everyone including Bertie sensing all sorts of trouble ahead. And not just moonlight and dancing…
Meanwhile in Europe …
Meanwhile, events in Europe are not going well. Except for Hitler who seems to be doing very well indeed. The government in England eventually twigs that Hitler is about as amenable to friendly advances as Colonel Gadhafi proved seventy years later. Something has to be done. Change the Government.
The king’s battle
The increasingly important story-line is the painful battle of a suffering soul as Albert continues in his struggles to defeat his handicap adequately to fulfil his regal obligations. Concessions have to be made by King and commoner. The rights and obligations of the noble leader come into focus. The commoner pushes hard to claim rights of friendship and dismisses cherished symbolism of rights of monarch over subjects.
We see how art throws light on real-life problems. The dilemmas help us transmute the specific to the personal for beyond the story of the trials facing an anguished monarch who accepted the greatness thrust upon him.
 The author acknowledges the insights provided in discussion with Susan Moger for the dilemmas suggested in this post. Without her contributions, the text would have little substance beyond one person’s reactions to a considerable work of art.
 Image from Wikipedia