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Three Types of Conflict: The King’s Speech

By Michael Schilf · November 9, 2011

Conflict arises in three basic ways: (1) physical conflict is often the most visual and can be as simple as trying to cross a raging river or defending a high kick to the head; (2) interpersonal conflict grows out of relationships with other characters within the story, fuelled by antagonists as well as the supporting cast; and (3) inner conflict is the inner thoughts, desires, or even personality defects that cause a character to take action (or not), often creating conscious (or unconscious) self-destruction.

The King’s Speech, which won multiple Oscars, including Best Picture at the 83rd Academy Awards, as well as critical and commercial box office success, is a great example to illustrate these conflict types. The film tells the story of the man who became King George VI, who was considered unfit to be a king (inner conflict) due to a severe stammer (physical conflict), and subsequently forced to employ the help of an unorthodox speech therapist (interpersonal conflict). As is the case with most dramas, often it’s not the what, but the who that makes the story, but even if a story has richly developed and unforgettable characters, it will only survive when different kinds of conflict are skilfully injected throughout, ideally in every single scene.

To illustrate further, let’s take a detailed look at how veteran screenwriter David Seidler incorporates all three types of conflict when stuttering prince George “Bertie” (Colin Firth) and speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) first meet.

Physical Conflict

The obvious physical conflict throughout the film is Bertie’s stammer; however, there are ways to incorporate quite simple physical conflict in a scene to bring out information that propels the plot forward or reveals character. For Bertie, this occurs with an elevator. Upon arrival in Lionel Logue’s building, Bertie struggles with the elevator gate, which becomes an minor obstacle between Bertie and his goal. Although the conflict is simple (Bertie must figure out how to close the gate, so he and his wife can take it up to Logue’s flat), it is still a physical obstacle that reveals something about Bertie’s character:

INT. GROUND FLOOR ENTRANCE, 146 HARLEY STREET

The Yorks enter the tiny elevator.

Bertie shuts the inner gate.

Elizabeth

(indicating outer gate)

No, darling, shut that one first.

Bertie gets the gates closed and Elizabeth presses the button.

Bertie

How did you find this…physician?

Elizabeth

Classifieds, next to a “French model, Shepherds Market”.

Bertie tries to smile despite his mood, but doesn’t make a job of it.

Elizabeth

He comes highly recommended. Charges substantial fees to help the poor. (realizes) Oh dear, perhaps he’s a Bolshevick?!

And with this little slice of physical conflict, not only do we see Bertie’s frustration with needing direction from his wife in order to operate the elevator, but we also understand his doubting disapproval of the man they are there to meet. His question “How did you find this… physician?” also gives Elizabeth a chance to deliver some backstory: the “classifieds and “help the poor” information give the feeling of someone not well known to the upper classes. Without that elevator fumble, the scene is in danger of feeling flat. Bertie is not particularly happy about going to see a therapist in the first place, so the first impressions so far are not good.

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Interpersonal Conflict

Bertie has many interpersonal conflicts to deal with during the course of the film: his father’s sternness, his brother’s flouting of the rules, even the British public and their expectations of him, but none of them are in the same class as his speech therapist Lionel Logue. Bertie is a reluctant patient when he arrives, and all he wants is to learn how to stop stammering, yet when he enters, he is barraged by a brass Australian who not only sees Bertie as his equal, but also seems more intent in finding out about Bertie’s private life than in treating him:

Bertie

Aren’t you going to start treating me Dr. Logue?

Lionel

Only if you’re interested in being treated. Please, call me Lionel.

Bertie

I prefer Doctor.

Lionel

I prefer Lionel. What’ll I call you?

Bertie

Your Royal Highness, then Sir after that.

Lionel

A bit formal for here. What about your name?

Bertie

Prince Albert Frederick Arthur George?

Lionel

How about Bertie?

Bertie

(flushes)

Only my family uses that.

Lionel

Perfect. In here, it’s better if we’re equals.

Bertie

If we were equal I wouldn’t be here. I’d be at home with my wife and no-one would give a damn.

Bertie starts to light a cigarette from a silver case.

Lionel

Don’t do that.

Bertie gives him an astonished look.

Bertie

I’m sorry?

Lionel

Sucking smoke into your lungs will kill you.

Bertie

My physicians say it relaxes the throat.

Lionel

They’re idiots.

Bertie

They’ve all been knighted.

Lionel

Makes it official then. My ‘castle’, my rules. What was your earliest memory?

Bertie

What on earth do you mean?

Lionel

First recollection?

Bertie

(stammer growing in intensity)

I’m not here to discuss my private matters.

Lionel

Why’re you here then?

Bertie

(exploding – stammer free)

Because I bloody well stammer!

Lionel

Temper.

Bertie

One of my many faults.

 

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Inner Conflict

Inner conflict is one of the most difficult things to show in a screenplay because the obstacles are within. While it’s entirely possible to write a functional screenplay that only has physical conflict and interpersonal conflict, incorporating inner conflict applies added layers of complexity to the story. In The King’s Speech, Bertie is a reluctant patient partly because he struggles to cope with the pressures of the monarchy. Combine that lofty expectation with the desire to be a good prince for his country along with a crippling lack of self-confidence, Bertie can’t help but feel a bit hopeless, and his first encounter with Lionel makes him feel even worse.

After a few minutes of formal, and then informal pleasantries, Lionel sets him on an unorthodox task, recording Bertie’s speech while forcing him to read aloud while his voice is drowned out by music, the goal of course is to prove Bertie can speak without stuttering. But the physical obstacle of the music sets off Bertie’s deep seeded self-doubt:

Bertie

You’re playing music.

Lionel

I know.

Bertie

How can I hear what I’m saying?!

Lionel

Surely a Prince’s brain knows what its mouth is doing?

Bertie

You’re not well acquainted with Royal Princes, are you?

Bertie’s response to Lionel’s comment about a “Prince’s brain“ is a clear example that Bertie suffers from a lack of self-worth. He simply doesn’t believe in himself, as his question-response is a bit of dry self-loathing that confirms that he doesn’t know what his mouth is doing.

But his lack of confidence comes into view even more as the scene continues:

Bertie replaces the earphones. Again, the LOUD MUSIC. His mouth moves as he reads, but all that can be heard is the music.

Finished, Bertie takes off the earphones and the music ceases. Bertie reaches for the coins, but Logue snatches them.

Bertie

Hopeless. Hopeless!

Lionel

You were sublime. Would I lie to a prince of the realm to win twelve-pence?

Bertie

I’ve no idea what an Australian might do for that sort of money.

Lionel

Shall I play it?

Bertie

No.

Lionel

If you prefer, we’ll just get on to the questions.

Bertie

Thank you Doctor, I don’t feel this is for me.

He heads for the door. Logue puts the record in a brown paper dust jacket and hands it to Bertie.

Lionel

Sir? The recording is free. Please keep it as a souvenir?

Lionel opens the door for Bertie and closes it behind him.

Even though Bertie cannot hear the results and Lionel describes his speech as “sublime”, Bertie still assumes he has failed and moments later, he quits. It’s clear to us that Lionel didn’t fail Bertie; instead, it is Bertie who failed himself due to his own insecurities.

 

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