Jan. 26, 2011
Americans are storming the theaters to see the movie, The Kings Speech. Nominated for a clutch of Oscars, this film is proving highly popular. Its not like that pudding Winston Churchill complained of: It has no theme.
This one has a most uplifting theme. Its about King George VI of England and his struggle to overcome a painful childhood stammer. And who would imagine that theyd see a film with a pro-life theme as a major contender for a host of Academy Awards?
Well, its an obliquely pro-life theme, Ill admit. But what it demonstrates is the sense of triumph that comes from overcoming physical or mental adversity. Unborn children today are lost because of such treatable defects as cleft palate and harelip, as well as deafness. These conditions, like stammering, can affect speech.
The king was not born with a stammer. For that matter, he wasnt even born to be king. It was his elder brothers absorption with the alluring Mrs. Wallis Warfield Simpson that led the Prince of Wales to become a runaway bridegroom.
Bertie, as George VI was known within the Royal Family, had suffered a childhood trauma and was further paralyzed by the thought of having to assume the throne. Britain in the 1930s seemed doomed to a second horrific clash with Germany. How could a stammering monarch rally his people and fulfill the role expected of him?
Im happy to hear that the movie may be scrubbed to replace some of the sailor words that were apparently part of the treatment for the Kings speech defect. Bertie actually was a sailor, serving as a young man most admirably at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. Since he was then the Duke of York and not expected to reign as king, he was allowed to go into combat. His father, King George V had, as they say, an heir and a spare. Several spares, actually.
My own connection with this worthy royal is, admittedly, a shirttail one. King George VIs official biographer, Sir John Wheeler-Bennett, was our beloved professor of diplomatic history at University of Virginia long ago. We felt truly privileged to have lectures by this learned English don.
Sir John was very tall, very thin, and wore his English tweeds even in a blistering Charlottesville summer. Whenever we undergraduates spotted him across Mr. Jeffersons Lawn, we would hail him. Wed introduce ourselves, but he seemed amazingly to remember our names.
Oh, hello, Hello, HELLO, Mr. Morrison, he would say, in greeting me. Hed take a handkerchief out of his shirt cuff and mop his brow as he proceeded in conversation. We knew he was the leading historian of the interwar period. Everyone cited Wheeler-Bennett. He memorably said the democracies had appeased the wrong Germans
after the First World War.
We knew, or may have known, that he had done the official biography of George VI, but I cannot recall any of us ever asking him about that. We wanted to know about the rise of Hitler and the grim path that led the Western democracies to war. About all that, no one knew more.
Only decades later did I return to Sir Johns work. I was researching a book on U.S. history and wanted Wheeler-Bennetts insights. I borrowed what seemed a whole shelf of his works from the Naval Academy library. On that same shelf, I just happened on Sir Johns bio of King George VI, and some of his personal reminiscences.
Opening any one of his books, he seemed to jump outlike the genie in Aladdins lamp: Oh, hello, Hello, HELLO! I read the rest of his story and learned that Wheeler-Bennett had tried politely to decline the invitation to become the Biographer Royal. But, Im a diplomatic historian, he mildly protested.
He was quickly informed that one does not turn down Buckingham Palaces invitation to write the official biography of a beloved King. Only then did I learn why John Wheeler-Bennett was selected.
He had also overcome a profound childhood stammer. His house had been bombed by German Zeppelins coming over London in World War I. Little John was in his cradle then. He wasnt injured, but the too-near explosions caused him to stammer.
That hello, Hello, HELLO bit was actually a breathing exercise to help him kick-start his talk. We had no clue he had a stammer. He was chosen because the Palace knew that Wheeler-Bennett would have special empathy with the late King. And he did.
He had special empathy for us, too. For many of us young, unsophisticated college students, the idea of having Sir John among our friends gave us confidence. His opinions were based on the most careful and probing research. We could quote him with assurance. That double-barreled patronymicas he called his hyphenated last namelent authority to our case. It helped to win any debates.
Sir John Wheeler-Bennett won his knighthood just as the Kings speech coach Lionel Logue did. He too performed outstanding service to the Crown. He was the most approachable and welcoming of professors. He wore his great learning lightly. His struggle to overcome a paralyzing handicapalong with his late Kingsproves that every human life has immeasurable worth.