It’s Debate Day on Trope and Dagger! This week we’re debating the greatest rousing speech in movie history. If you feel like punishing your brain with Aaron’s nonsensical arguments, you can do so here.
Sometimes we all get a little sad. Maybe life isn’t going quite your way. Your boss is a dick, your family’s driving you nuts, and bills are mounting up. Life’s full of problems and annoying bullshit, and at times it feels like you just can’t take it anymore. Maybe it’s time to cut your losses and cash it in. I mean, what the hell’s the point, right?
When things look so bleak that you just can go on, the only thing to cure your malaise is one goddamn hell of a pep talk. Movies are just chock full of inspirational monologues, so you have your pick if you’re looking to be cheered up by a parasocial surrogate parent. But when you get right down to it, who is the greatest film speechmaker? Who can get us pumped to swim the Atlantic and punch out a dinosaur? In short, which speech arouses us the most?
That didn’t come out right. Point is, there’s a lot of choices to consider. You could easily pick Bill Pullman’s speech from Independance Day, unless you’re any nationality besides American. And for sheer, frothing insanity, Bluto’s barnstormer for Animal House can’t be topped. If you happen to be a bleeding heart liberal and think everyone else should be too, Michael Douglas’ speech in The American President is pretty great too. But for me the best movie speech can only be one thing: the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V, specifically the Sir Kenneth Branagh version. Let’s take a look, shall we?
So how do you feel now? Ready to go murder the hell out of some French guys? Me too, friends, me too. I should note that there is another well known movie adaptation of this speech, delivered by Sir Laurence Olivier in 1944. I prefer the Branagh one, but if you’re a really stiff old fogey, pretend I’m just talking about the Olivier one instead.
To start with, a bit of background on the plot of Henry V. It’s a really loose adaptation of the life of King Henry V of England and his military conquest of France, culminating in the Battle of Agincourt, one of the most important battles of the Hundred Years War. In reality, Henry V was a zealous warmonger who continuously attacked France throughout his life, doing horrific damage to their society. His total conquest of France was stopped short by his sudden death in 1422 from what historians think might have been something called toxic megacolon. I’m not making that up.
William Shakespeare was notorious for whitewashing history so the English monarchs looked better. His popularity as a playwright, and his life, depending on not pissing off the Queen, and Shakespeare wasn’t a dummy. So when it came time to chronicle the life of Henry V, Willy made sure to present it in the most favorable, heroic light possible. It’s a credit to the bard’s immortal talent that his heavily fictionalized version of Henry V is a rousing story of heroism, duty to God and country, and the fraternal bonds between men. Henry’s speech to the his men at the end is the inspirational rhetoric of a just king rather than the insane ravings of a despicable conqueror.
We also have to consider the context of the speech in history, and by extension in the play. Henry’s conquest of France had been successful thus far, but his men were exhausted from the months of campaigning abroad and longed to return home. In the play, Henry has already urged them past their limits at the Siege of Harfleur, giving the famous “once more unto the breach, dear friends” speech. By this point the audience is emotionally exhausted as well. We’re all kind of thinking that Hal should just cut his losses and peace out back to England. But Henry, convinced of the righteousness of his cause, is having none of it.
To spur his men to one last glorious victory, Henry doesn’t try to appeal to their thirst for the spoils of war, or even their desire to just stay alive for another day. Instead, he describes to them a future where they can walk into any bar in London and announce themselves as a veteran of the coming battle and inspire awe and envy in any person within earshot. The battle took place on St. Crispin’s Day, a sort of well-known feast day that was presumably fairly important in Middle Ages England. Henry used the import of the holiday to impress upon his men the idea that fate had brought them together here, and that they were truly a happy few, a band of brothers.
It works, of course, and his men rally together to completely crush the French. The real life Battle of Agicourt is one of the most amazing battles in military history, but it also shows how crude warfare was in the Middle Ages. The French vastly outnumbered the English, by margins as much as 6-1 depending on the estimate you go by. But rather than use any kind of strategy, the French knights charged the English, running through a few hundred yards of thick mud while the English used an amazing invention called “longbows” to rain a hail of destruction on them. The French got completely fucked up, with the Constable of France, the Admiral of France, three dukes, and a bunch of other important nobles getting killed. The British lost barely a hundred men.
In the play, the English losses are much fewer, and Henry is appropriately mournful for the mountain of Frenchmen he killed. His speech inspired his men to one of the greatest victories any army has ever achieved. He brought his men together in their time of greatest despair, and they joined as one, a happy few destined to either perish in a blaze of glory or be celebrated for the rest of their lives as brothers to the king. Somehow, Henry remains modest even in victory: he insists that all Englishmen give their thanks to God for the victory. But in reality it is humanistic kinship, inspired by the most charismatic movie speech of all time, that won the day.