Bertie’s Stammer

Betty and I went to see “The King’s Speech” on New Year’s Eve. Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter and Geoffrey Rush put on quite a show. Based on the present Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain’s father, the film depicts many of the conflicts and roadblocks King George VI overcame to become monarch over the world’s largest empire. I liked being reminded that rich and famous people have problems that they, too, must surmount. One of the reasons I like to watch this kind of movie is to get the sense that “everybody has problems” as my father used to say to me.

This movie is short on bawdy and bodacious action and adventure, outwardly anyway, but is loaded with Freudian (or is it Jungian, or something else psychological) conflict that kept me on the edge of my seat. Some people may want more of a shoot-‘em-up and I’m not against shoot-‘em-ups, but sometimes portrayals of the battles fought in mind and will are just as engaging as a shoot-out in the hills of Helmand Province, Afghanistan or along the Rio Grande.

And of course, there will be questions surrounding whether parts of the movie really happened in such-and-such a way in real life. But in a movie, holding to the strict facts isn’t as important as the truth of the emotions and in that regard, the movie rings true. Whether George (or Bertie as his family called him—one of his names was Albert) really said such-and-such to his brother Edward (or David as his family called him) is not the salient factor to me. What matters to me, the viewer, is the emotional impact of the conversation, the interplay, what’s not said, what goes undone.

I hear people say things like, “That film had stuff in it that wasn’t real.” When I think about that, then I think that nothing in a film is real except the acting…acting, and the actual costumes and the DVD they put it on. The actors are real as themselves, but they act out the characters, and the words are someone else’s and they use props that are nothing more than props. Nothing in a film is real, nothing of substance when you get down to it. It is make believe. Even a biopic isn’t really real. A lot of stuff gets left out. What the director and screen writer choose to put in is what we see, not all the rest of the stuff that doesn’t fit with the movie makers’ sense of what is important, saleable, relevant to life. What is real—maybe the only important reality—is the emotional truth of the movie and if the film fails there, it will probably fail in the show house.

One of the big issues in the movie character Bertie’s portrayal is a speech impediment that he battles all his life. In the film, it takes on monstrous dimensions and becomes an enemy just like a German sniper might do in “Saving Private Ryan,” or that Ned Pepper might be in “True Grit.” The reasons for Bertie’s impediment appear multifarious, but they are based on fear. Bertie’s fear became his worst enemy and caused all kinds of embarrassment and folly for his movie character.

But back in the Depression and in World War II, fear wasn’t just Bertie’s problem, it was a lot of peoples’ problem. Remember what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when trying to convince the American public that the Depression was not of infinite length:  “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” How true that seems. I have many fears that try to keep me locked up in a narrow space that funnels my efforts in predictable and boring channels, unless I take a deep breath, don’t think about the infinity of sad ramifications if I fail and move on to new and dangerous (at least for my pride if I fail) endeavors.

I recall the first time I ever spoke in public. It was 1953 and I was six. I gave a speech on the American flag to the local Rotary Club of Casa Grande, Arizona. I remember fighting to keep from peeing my pants. But I prevailed and in that prevailing, one would think, I had overcome fear, but I didn’t. My whole life I’ve had to battle that monster. All through school, in Vietnam (and man we had some fear there) and later in my life. But if I want to enjoy my time on this spinning blue orb, and experience an exciting life, I must keep overcoming, keep sucking in air and closing my eyes and leaping into the future without knowing the end result.

And often, the fear of what might happen is more dreadful than what does happen when the feared event arrives. The fear of giving that speech in 1953 was worse than standing up in front of those lawyers and insurance salesmen and business owners and actually speaking. Ms. Emily Dickinson wrote a poem to that effect and I quote its entirety here:

1277 [1]

While we were fearing it, it came –
But came with less of fear
Because that fearing it so long
Had almost made it fair –

There is a Fitting – a Dismay –
A Fitting – a Despair –
‘Tis harder knowing it is Due
Than knowing it is Here.

The Trying on the Utmost
The Morning it is new
Is Terribler than wearing it
A whole existence through.

Our private fears do not go away. To us they are often as real as the stew bubbling on the stove, the ice in the corners of the backyard fence. Fears lurk behind the door, in the alley, between the medulla oblongata and the cerebellum. We must continue to overcome them. That’s what is interesting to me, among a number of other things, about “The King’s Speech.” The truth of the movie lies in the fact that Bertie overcomes his fears; we must keep overcoming fear all the days of our lives.


[1] Emily Dickinson, “1277,” from the website : http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2004/12/10, 2011.

2 Replies to “Bertie’s Stammer”

  1. Just saw “The King’s Speech” last night and, though there were some very painful moments to endure with “Bertie,” I very much liked the movie. I was especially drawn to what the three main characters were able to express non-verbally, as those nuances said much more than words, stuttered or otherwise. As someone in the field of public speaking, I can testify that many of our students have fainted, peed, vomited, run from the room, and in other unique ways exhibited the fear that “Bertie” battled, a fear of perceived failures, past, present, and future, fear that has nothing really to do with public speaking as much as it does with being exposed for who or what we fear we are.

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