Saint Crispin's Day, Patton, and Hollywood: The Power and Ethics of War Speeches
From the Youtube channel, Watchmojo.com
One of the tropes of a good war film is hearing the epic speech before the fight. The leader stands before his men and delivers some rousing dialogue about glory or honor or to keep faith with him or something like that. I see this more often in ‘sword and sandals’ war films than shooting ones, but the idea is still the same, and makes just as little sense. Sometimes it seems over dramatic or too predictable.
Call to Arms
Arguably the movie that turned it into a standard trope was Braveheart in 1995. A heavily stylized retelling of real life, Scottish hero and martyr, William Wallace and played by Mel Gibson, it also takes great artistic license. During the first major battle sequence where the Scots are about to engage a more heavily armed and better trained English army, the natives are initially terrified and about to surrender. That is until William Wallace rides in and delvers one of the most memorable and quotable speeches in recent, movie history.
“…that they may take our lives, but they will never take our freedom!”
I saw that movie when it came out and I can tell you that everyone in that theater was as psyched up for the battle as the Scots were on the screen after hearing Mel Gibson deliver that speech.
Since then the war speech has become the staple of just about every war movie to come after, to the point where it often times loses its power or distorts the reality of battle. We have become too trained by Hollywood to expect it, so unless the situation is portrayed as extremely dire or the speech or delivery is extremely good, they all look the same. Some examples of these exceptions however include Theoden’s speech in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King before his charge and 300 where Leonidas makes several of these speeches and they’re all damn good.
Many movies about modern warfare, as well as the real veterans who fought them, often chastise Hollywood’s tendency to glorify war. The movies that often meet their approval are the ones showing the nasty realities of war, not the ones making war sound like the Superbowl. No inspiring war speech is going to erase those images from your mind. The lesson in these kinds of war movies is not to inspire going to war, but staying the hell away from it. Indeed in the video posted above, the commentator of Watchmojo.com caps off her list of top ten war speeches with,
“Which movie battle speech makes you want to a fight a war?”
I think most vets would reply,” Are you fucking crazy?!”. Though I wonder what they would have thought of General Patton, whose speech to the Third Army in 1944, resonated the old perception of war as duty, bloody, and glorious.
So then why the appeal?
One Man’s Avoidance is Another Man’s Calling
There are a couple of aspects to factor into this question. First is that the idea of war being something to be avoided is relatively new. Many cultures, fully aware of the grotesqueness of conflict, still preferred it to peace. The Greeks, Samurai, and Vikings were some of the most famous, violent, and notorious for this warmongering mentality. And again it persisted even as late as World War Two with generals like Patton.
These weren’t actors reading a script, but real people who had seen battle and still thought it was good thing! The Hollywood trope isn’t entirely bullshit.
The horrors of war were often times viewed as a right of manhood. The ultimate trial to be overcome and what literally separated the men from the boys. Alexander the Great conquered the known by leading on the battlefield in search of glory. When Shakespeare wrote in his play, Henry V, the Saint Crispin’s Day war speech boasts about the joy of brotherhood that is created. It is proud to encourage men to fight and tells those with no heart for it to leave, though they will miss out on the brotherhood that will be formed.
It does not mention what “great feats” actually entails. Stabbing men through whatever opening is available in their armor: dead men and horses shitting themselves out of fear as well as death. And what it does to a person’s mind killing someone up close and personal, literally looking into their eyes as they die. Other times, war is seen as a natural part of life like birth and death, and a leader’s charisma was expected by his/her warriors on the battlefield.
I have often wandered in fact if there were cases of PTSD in ancient times. And though the speech the has been around for since people started war, and Shakespeare wrote the Henry V speech centuries ago, it is easy to think by now that war speeches are now an overdone trope done by movie studios. And that those studios have no real investment in the depth and meaning behind those words and situations that call for them.
Natural Born Drama
Yet the realities of war maybe why such speeches are still so powerful, whether delivered in the past or on the movie screen. War itself is the most extreme of human experiences. It is also the equalizer in its own fucked up way. Anyone who partakes in it is never safe and has no promises of coming out pretty, either inside or out. It takes no consideration of the type of people who are caught up in it: men, women, children, race, nationality, religion, etc. It is because of this level of intensity that bonds are formed, and this maybe the one point that ancient and modern soldiers could agree on.
The brotherhood of war is literally a case of ‘you had to be there’. The fires that forge it are the most uncommon in life and the most extreme. Because of this rarity, it can even supersede family bonds, without the participants meaning to do so. An example of this brotherhood and equality through combat are the news portrayals of the Vietnam War.
Vietnam was the first conflict that showed war in real time and gave the American populace, who were not veterans, its first real taste of what actually goes on. In many of the footage, it showed American soldiers-Black and White, fighting, suffering, and dying together. Americans were already not use to seeing races really interact with each other in the most peaceful of circumstances. To see it in the extremity of war and it being real, arguably went along way to softening up America’s views on race.
Such dramatic human experiences can’t be made up and by nature of itself makes great drama. How could a movie director not take that bone?
Tyrion's speech before the Battle of Black Water in Game of Thrones. From Youtube channel, OfJehutyV2
On the movie screen as well as in Shakespeare, the war speech can give a glimpse into this mentality. Yes, it probably won’t mention hacking someone’s guts out, but it will mention what that experience produced among the survivors. Shakespeare uses a term that ironically a HBO series uses later to perfectly sum up this experience: a band of brothers.
The rousing war speech does more than just try to psyche up the warriors and not fear death. As fucked up as it is, it also pushes the human spirit to rise to new levels albeit out of circumstances, adrenaline, or conscious choice. On film, it usually tries to elevate war beyond the killing and give it purpose and substance. Honor sounds silly, but its virtues do mean something to many audiences and speeches invoke that spirit. There is a sub-conscious appeal to it that we can be better than what we are, even if we decide not to pursue it.
Like I said, it’s a fucked up thing. There’s no real cut and dry explanation for why battle speeches causes people to want to kill when knowing what’s involved. And there’s no rhyme or reason as to why war speeches still gets the adrenaline going for a civilian audience watching it, despite it being a standard trope.
Maybe it is as Patton says in his speech in the same, self-titled movie, Patton:
“Americans traditionally love to fight. All real Americans love the sting of battle.”