NOTE: Colonel Allard is the author of Command, Control and the Common Defense, winner of the 1991 National Security Book Award. After leaving active duty, he became an on-air military analyst for the networks of NBC News
Queen Elizabeth was everything that exemplified the best of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, a rarefied sense of human decency that already seems like an archetype from an earlier age. Was it really possible that her extraordinary reign extended from the 1950’s until…just yesterday?
Was it also possible that her first Prime Minister was Winston Churchill, already an Arthurian legend when she first learned to wear the crown? Even her youth became a rallying-point as Britain soldiered on through the grim years of postwar austerity. When a new Cold War demanded the creation and development of NATO, she seemed to embody the ideal that free people might stand together to preserve the peace. Setting aside antiquated imperial legacies while building new institutions was a bold move that seems even more timely given current events. After all, those bold initiatives succeeded in preserving Central European peace for a half-century – until Vladimir Putin unleashed the old demons of Soviet imperialism by pillaging proudly independent Ukraine.
Her Elizabethan Era also included the toughest days of the Cold War, when the counsels of appeasement were heard once again, the peace signs and “no-nukes” siren-songs calling for Western disarmament despite Soviet military might. As Queen, she knew better than to interfere with strategic and military decisions best left to her ministers. But consider carefully the extraordinary assemblage of Western intellectual and moral authority represented by Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Pope John-Paul. How can any impartial observer fail to add Queen Elizabeth to that august group? In light of Putin’s latest challenges, how can the Queen be seen as anything less than a seven-decade linchpin in the collective defense of western civilization?
Now approaching my 75th year, I was only a small boy in 1953 when the first tapes of Elizabeth’s coronation were flown across the Atlantic, hurriedly re-broadcast from Boston to a national audience with fresh memories of wartime allies. All my cousins were gathered around a large television set with a tiny back-and-white screen, listening carefully as our parents, uncles and grand-parents explained this strange English ceremony. More often than not, they included personal stories of neighbors, friends and relatives for whom England was a combat zone from which they never returned.
Such was my introduction to that mystical relationship between the British people, their political and social systems together with the monarchy that somehow seems to unite that entire remarkable family. Make no mistake: because it is a family, somehow enlivened and diversified during Elizabeth’s reign into an even larger commonwealth of nations, sharing languages, customs and traditions, if not DNA. In coming days, I expect to revisit three favorite movies that best depict those intriguing relationships: The Queen, starring the marvelous Helen Mirren; The King’s Speech, in which Colin Firth channels King George VI; and, best of all, Chariots of Fire, the inspiring true story of British athletes in the 1924 Olympics.
All are true stories, the portraits of Queen Elizabeth and King George VI rising to the level of big-screen magic. Helen Mirren and Colin Firth provide unforgettable portraits of people – important people but people nonetheless – forced to confront circumstances and challenges for which royal privilege provided only partial answers. How could they (or any one of us) reach deep into their souls at life’s most critical moments - what Germans call the Schwerpunkt? How much of King George’s DNA, especially his toughness and determination, was passed intact to his daughter Elizabeth, sustainment throughout her phenomenal seventy-year reign?
Chariots of Fire is my favorite all-time movie because it asks the toughest questions about our most critical relationships. What do we owe each other as brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, leaders and led, countrymen and citizens? Most important, what do we owe to God, whether we walk the earth as kings, queens or commoners? The heart of the story focuses on Eric Liddell, a world-class sprinter forced to choose between an Olympic Gold Medal and the God who reserves the Sabbath for worship, not athletic competition. I first heard his story during my junior year abroad at the University of Edinburgh, which still reveres the Scottish hero who faithfully served his God as a humble missionary to China long after Olympic glories had faded.
Eric Liddell never returned from his wartime combat mission either, a shared tradition of service and self-sacrifice that will forever illuminate the extraordinary life of Queen Elizabeth II.
From the movie Chariots of Fire, this is Eric Liddell after winning the Gold Medal.