by Larry Smith
This year's Best Picture Award went to a historical drama called The King's Speech, starring Colin Firth (who also won Best Actor). The film focuses on the personal story of Stuttering Geordie (father of the present Queen Elizabeth), who came to the throne by accident. But that is really just a subplot.
In actuality, the film takes us back to a critical hinge moment in history, and this larger story is far more gripping than the well-acted relationship between the staid king and his blunt Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush). If you haven't seen this movie, you really should.
The historical context centres on the waning days of the British Empire, and includes the abdication of King Edward VIII, the looming catastrophe of the Second World War, and the creation of the modern world - exemplified by the introduction of radio broadcasting.
These close familial ties had a lot to do with the abdication of Edward in 1936, although the pretext was his marriage to a twice-divorced American named Wallis Simpson. When Adolf Hitler became ruler of Germany in 1933 and began preparations for war, the heir to the British throne was a major liability, as both he and Wallis were sympathetic towards the Nazi regime.
Stanley Baldwin, prime minister at the time, used the constitutional issue of Wallis' status as a divorcee to force the king into a choice between abdicating or being publicly humiliated. Edward chose to abdicate. He married Wallis in 1937 and was eventually exiled to the Bahamas as governor for the duration of the war.
According to declassified British and American files, Edward and Wallis both passed secret information to the Nazis. And during a much publicised 1937 visit to Germany, against the advice of the British government, they were fawned over by Nazi leaders - including Hitler himself.
Simpson had also been the lover of German Ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop, (who went on to become Hitler’s foreign minister); and Edward had been identified by Hitler as a potential puppet king of England after the anticipated Nazi victory.
In 1939 - only four months before the outbreak of war - Edward made a radio broadcast in France that included a plea for peace, which the BBC refused to relay. And when posted to the continent as British liaison officer with French forces - he passed critical information to Hitler as Germany planned to attack France.
After the successful German invasion, the duke fled his post for a hotel in Biaritz, near the border with Spain, where he continued to communicate with the Nazis, even asking the Gestapo to collect his belongings from Paris. He eventually made his way to fascist Spain, where he advised the German ambassador in July 1940 that “continued heavy bombing would make England ready for peace.”
At this point, rather than ordering a court martial, Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent the Windsors to the Bahamas to keep them out of contact. Although a paradise to some, the Duke and Duchess were not amused by their Bahamian idyll. "I hate this place more each day," Wallis said at the time. "We both hate it. The locals are petty minded."
In a December 1940 interview with an American journalist who was a friend of President Franklin Roosevelt, the Duke said it would be a tragedy for the world if Hitler were overthrown and advised the journalist to tell this to Roosevelt – in an effort to persuade the US not to enter the war. On their visits to Miami the Windsors were always closely watched by American and British agents.
Edward's brother, the stammering King George VI, reigned from 1937 until his death in 1952. And as Colin Firth pointed out, “His only job was to speak for the nation on live radio – I mean, how cruel was that? …there is no recording yet, there is no editing for radio… this is live to the empire.”
But eventually, Churchill (a longtime friend of Edward's) was to say: "Your Majesty, I was very much mistaken in my estimate of your brother. You are a much better king than he was."
The film opens with George, as Prince of Wales, giving a painful closing speech at the British Empire Exhibition in London in 1925. It ends with his first live radio broadcast to the empire at the outbreak of World War II, choreographed by Logue. You can hear a recording of the real king's speech here.