A King’s (True) Story-Film Review
The recent success of the movie, The King’s Speech, gives one plenty of food for thought. Undoubtedly a slick, sophisticated Hollywood production with some good performances by the cast, at times it takes woeful liberties with certain historical facts. Particularly biased is the movie’s depiction of Edward VIII (later the Duke of Windsor after his abdication in December 1936), elder brother of King George VI—shown as an extravagant and callous young man, with a slightly malicious attitude towards his younger brother.
Nothing could be further from the truth; and it frankly seems as if Hollywood is deliberately misleading movie-goers. And under the circumstances, it would be useful, at this time, to turn to the Duke of Windsor’s own authoritative account, his famous A King’s Story: The Memoirs of the Duke of Windsor (New York, 1947), written with admirable directness and honesty. As the author remarks in his introductory note:
“… after the passage of a decade. the political passions aroused by the most historically controversial aspect of my career, the Abdication, have long since cooled, and a just perspective of my life and reign should by now be possible. [Yet] as the years have gone by, error and supposition have persisted; and it has become plain to me that it is my duty to tell the facts as I know them before time and unchallenged repetition have given their sanction to misconceptions.”
HRH Albert Edward Christian George Andrew Patrick David Windsor (‘David’ to his family and friends), was born on 23rd June 1894, at Richmond Park, Surrey, to the Duke and Duchess of York (the eldest son and daughter-in-law of the then Prince of Wales and later King Edward VII). The child’s great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, was then in the 57th year of her illustrious reign. “At the time of her accession ”, writes the author, “The whole population of the United Kingdom was only twenty-five and a half million…[now]the empire over which Queen Victoria ruled was the most powerful in the world, embracing a quarter of the earth’s surface and nearly a quarter of its population”.
Although the young ‘David’ had a privileged childhood, there is no evidence of any special favouritism towards him, or of any abusive treatment of his siblings by comparison, as suggested in The King’s Speech. Indeed, the siblings had a rather close and affectionate relationship, with considerable adult support and an idyllic existence, in close proximity to beautiful natural surroundings. Even after Queen Victoria died and the children’s’ grandfather ascended the throne, both their parents and grandparents continued to be quite indulgent towards them. After a pleasant upper-class childhood, young David was sent off to join the Royal Navy, as a naval cadet, in February 1907, as part of a long-standing tradition. However, the prince’s grandfather suddenly died in May 1910; his father was crowned King George V; and he was invested as Prince of Wales, Heir-Apparent, and it was decided that he would not carry on in the Navy but be eventually given a more ‘public’ role. Thus, after a brief European tour and an academic stint at Oxford, he was thrust into such a role, at the age of 18 already a rather serious and earnest young prince, with a strong sense of his duty and an active ‘social conscience’.
In June 1914, with the prospect of war looming ominously close, he enrolled in the Officers’ Training Corps —but events were moving at a rapid pace, and on the 28th of the same month, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife were assassinated at Sarajevo. On August 4th, the German Army attacked Belgium and Britain declared that it was at war. The Prince was soon gazetted as a subaltern in the Grenadier Guards and on 16th November 1914, he was sent overseas with the British Expeditionary Force, serving in the field in France, Italy and Egypt, until 1918. The following comment about the ‘Great War’ is certainly not that of a vain, shallow person:
“I in time shared the weariness and cynicism of the front line. The general disillusionment, the unending scenes of horror—not to mention several narrower escapes of my own—had done their work…”
It is not difficult to speculate that, at the age of 24, having seen the frightening reality of war up close like millions of young men around the world, Prince David, too, felt a strange mixture of thankfulness (for being still alive) and anger (at the sheer carnage of the war); which marked this entire ‘Lost Generation’—immortalized in literature by the likes of Ernest Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms), Erich M. Remarique (All Quiet on the Western Front) and others. Something of his later intensity, his quest for love and passion, his sincere humanity, his sensitivity to pain and discord, might be explained in terms of the overwhelming experiences of these terrible years.
After the war, from 1919 to 1936, he again threw himself fully into his public responsibilities. He also made extended tours of the British Empire and Dominions and other parts. On his father’s death and his accession as Edward VIII in January 1936, he was already fully committed to the monarchy and cognizant of his role. He began tentatively to take up the reins of his authority and to make small, basic changes, adapting to the needs of the time. There were obvious signs that “many welcomed the advent of my reign as an event of happy augury”. Even his eventual foes, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Cosmo Lang, at this point waxed eloquent in his praise.
Yet, trouble was soon to arise for this young king, over his love for the American Mrs. Wallis Simpson (whom he’d met earlier in 1931), leading to his eventual refusal to continue in his duties if he could not marry her. The love between Edward VIII and Wallis seems to have been quite sincere and there is certainly no sham, no exaggeration to the King’s famous statement in his Abdication Speech addressed to the nation and empire:
“But you must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King, as I wish to do, without the help and support of the woman I love.”
And his affectionate and respectful tribute to his brother, King George VI, in the same speech, is also sincere:
“This decision has been made less difficult to me by the sure knowledge that my brother, with his long training in the public affairs of this country and with his fine qualities, will be able to take my place forthwith.”
Another relationship that has also been grossly misrepresented in the movie The King’s Speech, is that between Edward VIII and the grand old British statesman, Winston Churchill. Even in 1936, Churchill was a formidable figure and a great deal of mutual respect existed between him and the King. During the height of this crisis, Churchill kept calling for “time and patience” and stressed that no Prime Minster or Cabinet could confront the monarch with the choice of abdication, without first putting the matter before Parliament for serious and careful debate and deliberation. It was unconstitutional to issue an ultimatum to the Sovereign. Although Churchill was shouted down by Mr. Baldwin’s majority government when he tried to express these views in the House, his impact was no less:
“Although I had long admired Mr. Churchill, I saw him that evening in his true stature. When Mr. Baldwin had talked to me of the Monarchy, it had seemed a dry and lifeless thing. But when Mr. Churchill spoke, it lived, it grew, it became suffused with light.”
In the final analysis, readers will continue to wonder and argue over what Edward VIII did, or did not do. Is it better, greater, to rule well over millions in glory? Or to live a quiet, secluded life with the woman that you love? Opinion will certainly differ. Yet, no one can detract from the force and truthfulness of this fine account by a man who made a clear, unequivocal choice.
This was originally published in Nexus (Pakistan) , Spring 2011