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“The King’s Speech” as a piece of writing

“The King’s Speech” won the Oscar for Best Picture. The film tells the story of King George VI’s radio address of September 3, 1939, delivered as Britain prepared for war with Germany. In the movie, the speech is recited by Colin Firth with soaring music behind him—circumstances that could make a reading of the phone book sound like Shakespeare.

If we strip away the movie magic and look at the speech purely as a work of writing, how does it hold up?

It still sounds very good—true in fact and in spirit, inspiring in tone, and economical with language. The entire text is just 404 words, though with George VI’s labored delivery, it took him 5 minutes and 44 seconds to read it.

Here is the full text of the King’s speech, with the actual 1939 recording embedded so you can follow along:

In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in history, I send to every household of my peoples, both at home and overseas, this message, spoken with the same depth of feeling for each one of you as if I were able to cross your threshold and speak to you myself.

For the second time in the lives of most of us, we are at war.

Over and over again, we have tried to find a peaceful way out of the differences between ourselves and those who are now our enemies, but it has been in vain.

We have been forced into a conflict, for which we are called, with our allies to meet the challenge of a principle which, if it were to prevail, would be fatal to any civilized order in the world.

It is a principle which permits a state in the selfish pursuit of power to disregard its treaties and its solemn pledges, which sanctions the use of force or threat of force against the sovereignty and independence of other states.

Such a principle, stripped of all disguise, is surely the mere primitive doctrine that might is right, and if this principle were established throughout the world, the freedom of our own country and of the whole British Commonwealth of nations would be in danger.

But far more than this, the peoples of the world would be kept in bondage of fear, and all hopes of settled peace and of the security of justice and liberty among nations, would be ended.

This is the ultimate issue which confronts us. For the sake of all we ourselves hold dear, and of the world order and peace, it is unthinkable that we should refuse to meet the challenge.

It is to this high purpose that I now call my people at home and my people across the seas who will make our cause their own.

I ask them to stand calm and firm and united in this time of trial.

The task will be hard. There may be dark days ahead, and war can no longer be confined to the battlefield, but we can only do the right as we see the right, and reverently commit our cause to God. If one and all we keep resolutely faithful to it, ready for whatever service or sacrifice it may demand, then with God’s help, we shall prevail.

May He bless and keep us all.

Powerful words. When you listen to the original recording (also available at the BBC site) you can imagine the fear that the British people must have felt. The King gave them reassurance that the country was on the side of right. What’s more, he gave them something to do—”stand calm and firm and united in this time of trial”—an instruction that probably helped people feel more in control of an unpredictable situation.

It’s interesting today, when broadcast writing is all about short sentences, how long the sentences are in this address. The most challenging part of the speech comes early, when the king expresses regret that war is necessary. Saying so risks taking the power out of a call for courage. To apologize for leading the country into an undesirable war would be to acknowledge failure. The only right way to say it is to say the war was forced upon you. Hence this complicated, yet still effective, sentence:

“We have been forced into a conflict, for which we are called, with our allies, to meet the challenge of a principle which, if it were to prevail, would be fatal to any civilized order in the world.”

The cadence echoes the King James translation of the Lord’s Prayer. (“For thine is the kingdom… and the power…”/”For which we are called… with our allies…”) That might be a coincidence that, but if the speech sounds familiar, this might be why.

Imagine how hard it must have been to write this speech. Remember, we enjoy historical perspective that everyone alive at the time lacked: We know who won the war.

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under Politics

3 comments

  1. Bachelier says:

    Pouvoir lire le texte en Français c’est bien mais j’aurais tellement préféré pouvoir lire le texte anglais. Exemple de problème: “in this grave hour, perhaps the most” et là j’entends le mot”faithful” sous-titré décisive. Mais aucun dico ne donne faithful comme voulant dire décisif.Alors quel est le mot vraiment prononcé?

  2. John H says:

    Bachelier,
    Je suis un interprete americain, et je crois que le mot est “fateful”, pas “faithful”. J’ai la securite de mon web-browser/navigateur sur haute, donc je ne vois pas les sous-titres, mais d’apres que tu dit, je crois que l’interprete de sous-titres a simplement fais une faute. De l’autre cote, des fois la traduction est une triche bizarre!
    En francais, je crois pour “faithful”, on dit “fatidique”? Ca explique pourquoi “decisif” n’egale pas “faithful” dans les “dicos”! J’espere que ca aide.
    -John H.

  3. John H says:

    Correction: …pour “fateful”, on dit “fatidique”?… (pas “faithful”. Desole!)

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