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‘The King’s Speech’ — how one man saved a king and a country

"One of the hardest things in life is having words in your heart that you can’t utter.’’ — James Earl Jones, renowned American actor, who at age 5 developed a stutter so severe that he refused to speak in public for eight years. In essence, he was mute, until a high school teacher helped him to speak.

The speech disorder known as stuttering affects about one of every 20 children, usually for a few weeks to a few years, and can be caused by several different conditions. It can run in families — scientists have isolated genes that cause stuttering. Sometimes it’s developmental — for example, a child trying to talk faster than speech and language abilities allow. Brain injuries can cause stuttering. Less commonly, emotional trauma can be blamed. That was the case with James Earl Jones; he began stuttering after being traumatized during adoption, apparently.

Sometimes stuttering lasts into adulthood, and life as a stutterer can be difficult, indeed — but it can make for a terrific movie. Case in point, "The King’s Speech," which garnered this year’s Oscar for best picture and for Colin Firth’s top-flight portrayal of the Duke of York, later to become George VI. In the film, the duke struggles to overcome agonizing shyness and a crippling speech defect, all the while developing an unlikely friendship with a commoner, actor-turned-speech therapist, Lionel Logue.

The superbly confident Aussie is played in the movie by Geoffrey Rush. Logue has developed a unique and controversial method of treating stutterers that he is convinced is far superior to other therapies in vogue at the time — some of them barbaric, by today’s standards, such as surgery on the tongue. (It didn’t work, by the way.) He refuses to stand in awe of his royal patient, insisting upon treating him as a man with a problem that can be overcome.

Along with the movie comes a book of the same name, "The King’s Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy" by writer and filmmaker Mark Logue and journalist Peter Conradi. Mark Logue also is Lionel Logue’s grandson and custodian of the Logue Archive. Fortunately for us, he has access to much of Lionel Logue’s correspondence and documents. Also fortunately for us, the senior Logue diligently preserved the paper of his life — clippings, journal entries, photographs, letters to and from a king.

As they started the course of therapy, neither the duke nor the speech teacher could know how important it soon would become for the duke to speak confidently in public. The duke assumed — and gladly so — that he would live a quiet family life with his wife and two daughters in the shadow of his older brother, Edward, the golden-haired charmer and father’s favorite who was in line to the throne.

But then came Wallis Simpson, and a tyrant named Adolph Hitler. Scarcely a year after becoming king, Edward abdicated to marry the scandalous American divorcee. The Duke of York became a reluctant king and received, along with his crown, the heavy duty of leading and inspiring a Britain facing the fearsome might of Hitler’s Nazi war machine.

See the movie for the drama, read the book for the story. It’s treasure for World War II history buffs, for fans of the British royal family, for language students. It’ll encourage and inspire — as does the movie — those who struggle with stuttering or other speech issues. It’s a reminder, as well, that one person can turn the course of history.

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