Sunday, August 13, 2006

Purpose of Battle Speeches

There was a little girl
Who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead
And when she was good
She was very, very good
But when she was bad, she was horrid.

Remember that nursery rhyme? Well, let's change it up a bit.

There was a handsome guy
Who gave a battle cry
Anticipating warfare cruel and torrid
And when the speech was good
it did just what it should
But when it was bad, it was so pitiful I can't finish this poem.

I just watched Alexander. He gave the longest pre-battle pep talk that I've ever seen on film. Even the soldiers were stretching, yawing and checking their sundials. It was weird. It felt like twenty minutes of boring exposition.

So, this got me to wondering -- what is the purpose of the pre-battle speech in film? Does it have a purpose other than exposition or is it just a standard prerequisite of any war story?

BRAVEHEART - In Braveheart, William Wallace gives a pre-battle speech that became a defining moment in the film. What differs it from the same narcoleptic moments in Alexander? Wallace's speech tells us as much about his character as it does the justification for the battle. It gives us another piece of Wallace's motive for being there instead of serving solely as exposition.

"Yes. Fight and you may die. Run and you will live, at least awhile. And dying in your bed many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that, for one chance to come back here as young men, and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but the will never take our freedom?"
GLADIATOR - Maximus gives his troops a similar speech in Gladiator -- similar because it, too, is a look inside the motives of the leader. But because it tells us what the men believe about life and death, Maximus' speech also serves as exposition.

Three weeks from now, I will be harvesting my crops. Imagine where you will be and it will be so. Along the line, stay with me. If you find yourself alone, riding in green fields with the sun on your face, do not be troubled for you are in Allysium and you are already dead. What we do in life echoes in eternity.
TROY - This film has two pre-battle speeches -- Achilles' speech to his Myrmidons and Hector's speech to battalions of Troy. Achilles' speech is about his character. He wants his name to live forever.

Myrmidons, my brothers of the sword. I'd rather fight alongside you than any army of thousands. Let no man forget how menacing we are. We are lions. You know what's there waiting beyond that beach? Immortality! Take it. It's yours!
Hector's speech is also about his character. Hector is a servant of Troy.

Trojans, all my life, I've lived by a code and that code is simple -- honor the gods, love your woman, and defend your country. Troy is mother to us all. Fight for her!
KINGDOM OF HEAVEN - This pre-battle speach is not a speech. As Balian prepares Jerusalem to defend itself, he gives no pep talk. But he believes that no man is a servant to another and makes each man a knight by administering the same oath to them that he took at his father's deathbed. This serves no expository purpose that I can see but solely demonstrates the character of the leader.

Be without fear in the face of your enemies. Be brave and upright that God may love thee. Speak the truth even if it leads to your death. Safeguard the helpless. This is your oath (he slaps a young teen as his father slapped him) and that is so you remember it. Rise, a knight!
I think all of these examples work, but why do they work? The one thing I see in each one is that the battle speech, like other dialogue in the film, also serves to reveal character.

ALEXANDER - So why does the speech in Alexander not work for me? Aside from being entirely too long and boring, it has several long pauses of silence as we watch an eagle or inaudible shots while the opposing army looks at each other. Even if we wanted to care at the beginning of the speech, by the time it's over we're too exhausted to give a rip how the battle turns out.
You've all honored your country and your ancestors and now we come to this most distant place in Asia where across from us Darius has at last gathered an army-- (cut from speech to no audible dialogue and follow long descent of an eagle and then go back to Alexander mid sentence) -- but look again at this war and ask yourselves, who is this great king who pays assasins in gold coins to murder my father, our king in a most despicable and cowardly manner? Who is this great king Darius who enslaves his own men to fight? Who is this king but a king of air? These men do not fight for their homes. They fight because this king tells them they must. When they fight, they will melt away like the air. We are not here today as slaves. We are here as Macedonian free men! Some of you, perhaps myself, will not live to see the sun set over these mountains today but I say to you what every warrior has known since the beginning of time, conquer your fear and I promise you, you will conquer death! When they ask you where you fought so bravely, you will answer, I was here this day at Gaugamela for the freedom and glory of Greece! Zeus be with us!

Conclusion? Well, first of all, I think pre-battle speeches have to serve some purpose other than pure exposition but what I don't know is if it's critical that the speech also reveal character. And second, typing that last speech made me drowsy. I'm going to take a nap now.


Anonymous said...

personally, just before I flip off my jammies and crawl under the blankie, I use the Kingdom of Heaven speech... but she tells me to shut up and turn out the light

Devin B. said...

I remember being very psyched to see Oliver Stone's "ALEXANDER". It came and went through theaters with muted fanfare, and I found myself too busy to catch it then. After reading the critics reviews (mostly vicious pans of it), I decided to wait until it made its way to cable. Then I did the “movies-on-demand” thing. For once, I have to agree with the critics... it stunk. I wish they would have focused on more of the truly “GREAT” things that Alexander did, and less of the patchwork and mismatched sections which ended up on film. I would love to read the actual original screenplay for it sometime... I bet it was good. When Oliver shines, he makes some great movies. But when he doesn’t... P-YEW!

But what do I know? I’m still an aspiring amateur who can’t even write a script worthy of a nod from any of the contests I entered. Oliver Stone has won Oscars and has made millions. He’s a major player... I’m an unknown nobody looking in while drooling and scratching my head.

Those examples you gave are great... and I agree with you; long speeches should serve as more of a window into the character giving them and their surroundings/challenges than just as empty, pointless pontification.

Best Regards,

P.S. No hard feelings about my previous post about "W", OK? I saw "An Inconvenient Truth" over vacation with my wife, and I would love nothing more than to punch him in the mush... and anyone else who supported (or still supports) him and his agenda. Texas is wonderful... GREAT FOOD... INTERESTING CULTURE... and SOME GREAT PEOPLE/CHARACTERS. I hope to visit there again sometime -- just not near Crawford! :-)

m said...

This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

-Bill S.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Ah, but that's Shakespeare and methinks he's crafter with syllables than Oliver Stone.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Devin, first of all, I think an aspiring amateur can sometimes see things that others miss -- like the eyes of a child. That can be a very good thing. And, I don't think Oliver Stone ever won a writing contest so don't let that discourage you.

Meanwhile, no hard feelings at all, but I pretty much avoid discussing politics because I work in government and wouldn't, even in jest, suggest punching somebody who supports a position or person I disagree with no matter how poorly I think that term of office or position has been held.

This is a screenwriting web log and while I take side streets, there's no politics.

Devin B. said...


Let me conclude by replacing 'punch in the mush' with 'repeated kicks to the groin'. And by the way, I'm KIDDING. I never advocate violence, and speak only in jest (and not in the least bit serious about inflicting bodily harm to anyone... even people I cannot stand) -- The End.

I need to dust off the good book of "Bard"... that Elizabethan genius knew how to craft a speech! I’m not too discouraged really (about my screenwriting efforts). There is some mystical, and not-so-mystical, chain of events/factors which must be in alignment whenever a script is considered for optioning/purchase/production. I know this. The thought that my freshman effort will suddenly blaze a new career trail and garner me industry nods and writing accolades was a fantasy; I’m still unknown and apparently not writing well enough to be taken seriously in the industry – YET. The solution is to keep writing... improving... honing... and producing specs. Eventually, I may improve enough to get that ‘nod’ I seek, or perhaps I’m simply out-of-my-gourd. Ohio is one of the most polluted states in the union, and I did spend most of my childhood splashing away in tainted creek beds.

I’ve always been a dreamer, and I plan on continuing to daydream until nature pulls its plug on me. Perhaps one of those dreams might lead to something better... either way it is fun to imagine it.

Best Regards,

Anonymous said...

but how much better soundeth Queen Liz - maybe a womanly plea appealeth? (pardon?):

'I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king - and of a King of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm.. blah blah....'

Devin said...

The lady [or man] doth protest too much, methinks. :-)

chris soth said...

I think Red Right Hand hits it by implying that the famous Henry IV speech is the seminal "pre-battle pep talk" speech ever given and everybody since is doing homage whether they know it or not.

These speeches, all off the top of my head:

Remind us what's at stake and thereby deepen the coming action -- it needn't be character, it shouldn't be exposition, or rather it IS character, perhaps to the extent that character is tied up in theme by the values characters represent --

-- the speech giver is reminding the auditors -- and the audience -- what the coming battle MEANS -- saying "this is what WE'RE about, that's what THEY'RE about...and this is not just a battle of men, but of values. This is what we're fighting for."

Off, the top o' the head as I say...

Brett said...


5) ANIMAL HOUSE -- "Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?..." Genius. Pure unfiltered restaurant-quality genius.

4) RUSHMORE -- "For some of you it doesn't matter. You were born rich, and you're going to stay rich. But here's my advice to the rest of you: take aim on the rich boys. Get them in the crosshairs. And take them down. ..." Bill Murray's early-movie speech to the student body still makes me want to stand and cheer.

3) PATTON -- "Alright, now you sonsabitches know how I feel..." Brilliant both as motivation and as characterization.

2) HENRY V -- "We few... we happy few..." Still my all-time favorite Branaugh moment (though his "we must NEVER lose our sense of humah..." bit in WILD WILD WEST is delicious, all the more so for the absolute horribility of everything which precedes and follows in that steaming pile of monkey-poo)

1) MEATBALLS -- "IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER! IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER!..." Tripper's (Murray) warmup to the Camp Mohawk games remains one of the best and most spot-on bits of motivational speechifying I have ever heard. I use variants of it all the time in little league: if you're not having fun, then--win or lose--what's the point of playing?

MaryAn Batchellor said...

ACCCCKKKK! I almost ended this post with the Meatballs speech as the greatest pre-battle speech of all times. but deleted it at the last minute because I thought it would make me look clueless. Shame on me for giving a rat's butt.

Laurie Hutzler said...

Hi MaryAn-- Great post! I quoted you on battle speeches with a link and also added you to my blogroll. I added a few of my own comments after your post. Give a look. And add me if you think my blog would interest your readers. Laurie

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Thanks Laurie, your site looks great. I've now got a stack of notes on various battle speeches, a stack so thick that you could write a whole book just on character revelations in battle speeches. These speeches are designed to say so much with so little that I believe the speech itself is a lesson in getting-right-to-the-point screenwriting.

mike kirkeberg said...

I always liked this one --

There was a little girl
Who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead
And when she was good
She was very, very good
But when she was bad, she was better.

It's the Mae West version.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Mae West did know how to put a positive spin on being a woman!