In History of the World, Part I (1981), King Louis XVI (Mel Brooks) proclaims, in word and song, that “It’s good to be the king.” The Madness of King George (1994) paints a different picture. As a side note, there is an interesting historical parallel between the two films. King George III (Nigel Hawthorne) was, indeed, mad, or at least that is what many modern historians have determined based on the written record of his behavior. Despite his peculiarities, he managed to stay on the throne, if at times in name only (more about this later), until 1820. The real King Louis XVI, which one could argue was crazy for how he ignored the growing French Revolution, was guillotined by his own people in 1793. Does this make the English monarchy superior to that of the French? Who knows? Whatever side you fall on, it is difficult to imagine any French monarch being subjected to the treatment of George III when it they finally determined to do something about their ruler’s eccentricities. This is the subject of today’s movie, by the way, not just me nerding it up on historical fact.
To rearrange and repurpose Mel Brook’s line, in The Madness of King George it is more like it takes a special person to be king. That person is George III, and as becomes apparent early on, everyone, even his own, rather large family waits on his every whim. The nation moves on his command, from the prime minister, William Pitt the Younger (Julian Wadham) to the common people granted an audience with him as he emerges from his throne room. You might think, given the title of the movie, that one of them attacking the king with a dull knife would send him into a frenzy. Yet, he seems to take this in stride, and it is off to the rest of his day at the break-neck speed with which he does everything, so much so that one of the newly appointed officers to his staff, Captain Greville (Rupert Graves), has trouble keeping pace. There are aspects of George III’s life amiss, other than the half-hearted assassination attempt. The main one is his eldest son and heir, the current Prince of Wales and future George IV (Rupert Everett). George III refers to his namesake as fat, while the son languidly chafes (if that makes any sense) at not having anything of value to do. The boredom and insults become ripe fodder for the Prince of Wales to begin plotting, and his primary co-conspirator is an avowed enemy of the institution of the monarchy, Charles Fox (Jim Carter). George III is no fan of Charles, particularly with the latter’s enthusiastic support of the United States of America, or the colonies as George III continues to refer to them. Despite the growing political turmoil, there is little to be done as long as George III is in command of his faculties. This begins to change from his usual high-strung nature to clear madness through a series of increasingly odd behaviors. The worst comes when he gathers Queen Charlotte (Helen Mirren) and the rest of his large and frightened family on the roof of their palace in the firm belief that there is a coming flood when there is not a drop of rain falling. At first, Dr. Richard Warren (Geoffrey Palmer), the royal physician, is afraid to do much because of the king’s temper, even though George III’s urine is the color blue. That is not good, folks. There are further consultations with the medical minds of the day, who all recommend the usual treatments, which are all various degrees of ridiculous and the king’s condition worsens. What changes is when Queen Charlotte’s lady of the bedchamber, Lady Elizabeth Herbert (Amanda Donohoe), Countess of Pembroke, suggests a Francis Willis (Ian Holm), who had treated her mother-in-law. Francis is known for having unusual methods for addressing mental illness, but times are desperate. While the king toils, Charles, with the Prince of Wales’ backing, is pushing a bill through parliament to make the son regent of the land, who would rule because of dad’s incapacity. Francis is brought in, but he treats George III not as king but as he would any other patient. In his more lucid periods, George III does not take kindly to impertinence. Yet, Francis is given freehand to treat the king as he sees fit, which includes restraining and muzzling George III during particularly violent outbursts. The cycle continues every time George III gives himself over to his outrageous delusions, and it gets to the point where all Francis has to do is look at the king and he will meekly go to the chair. Push comes to shove when Charles triumphs in parliament over William, and the bill to impose the regency is printed. At this crucial moment, the Lord Chancellor, Edward Thurlow (John Wood), Baron of Thurlow, visits George III and finds the king placidly reading Shakespeare’s King Lear. There seems to be a recovery, and his urine is once again yellow. Thus, the king is hastily returned to London, and the regency is defeated. We conclude with the royal family on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral waving to an adoring crowd, fulfilling the main function of royalty when it comes down to it.
There is an interesting moment in The Madness of King George when the king is being roughly handled and he shouts his disapproval. One of the things that he reminds those who are carrying his thrashing body is that he is the Lord’s anointed. There is an intersection of faith and history in this statement. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were a time of absolute monarchies in Europe when those sitting on thrones saw their rule as being divinely ordained. At this time, there were two religious camps across the continent, Catholic and protestant. The concept of divine rule comes from Catholic countries like France, the Holy Roman Empire, and Spain. Without justifying the reasoning behind these flights of fancy, such ideas are not without a Biblical counterpart. This is how David came to be king of Israel. In fairness, whether you are in charge of a country or working in a toll booth off Interstate 88 in the suburbs of Chicago, we can all look at our station in life and say we are exactly where God wants us. The problem with the potentates of the past is that they used their birthright as a tool of political power, and not always in a manner that helped their people. The already mentioned French Revolution would be exhibit A in making this case. George III is a special type because even though he was not Catholic, as monarch of the United Kingdom, he was also the head of the Church of England. By the way, if you ever pass an Anglican church, that is what the Church of England is called in the United States. This is a practice that is continued to this day, with the throne having political and spiritual authority wrapped into one. I bring this up because Francis, in addition to treating people with mental illness, is also a member of the cloth for that particular Christian sect. If there were ever a pope that goes mad, I could see a priest being called upon to perform the same kinds of duties as does Francis. However, when you also throw in the ability to make laws, it becomes an entirely different kettle of fish. Faith does not make up a major component of the king’s recovery, which seems a missed opportunity since it is a part of the fabric of the era. At the same time, the power that Francis wields over somebody who supposedly has a hold over the life and death of others is remarkable.
Based on the research I have seen, The Madness of King George is pretty accurate. That is refreshing for me, but some of you might get bogged down in the detail. In any case, it paints a sympathetic portrait of a man, King George III, for whom history does not have typically have kind things to say. The important thing to remember is that whatever else he was, he was still a man. We may look at Francis’ treatments today as medieval, but there is still a kind firmness with which he deals with his patient. Francis also do not seek accolades for his work, and instead disappears into the crowd at the end. It indicates humbleness, and it is appreciated. Some parts of this film are difficult to see, but it is a surprising tale of triumph.