“I want you to remember, that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it…by making the other poor, dumb bastard die for his country.”
Just that line alone is great. Now imagine an entire speech given with that tone and magnitude.
The opening scene to the 1970 film Patton, written by Francis Ford Coppola (Godfather, Apocalypse Now), is a stirring tribute not just to the title character General George S. Patton, but also to America. It’s inspirational to listen to, and it sets the tone for the entire film. While there are many great written pieces of monologue in film, I have to side with Patton’s opening speech.
First, you have to consider the setting. It’s some type of military gathering, maybe a giant mess hall or a barracks, but all you see is an American flag. An enormous American flag that takes up the entire screen, until General Patton (played by George C. Scott) walks up onto the stage. It’s an image that big that obviously invokes a sort of patriotic pride that you cannot ignore. It’s almost a character itself, looming over Patton. Speaking of whom, the General himself is a larger than life character. It is a role that Scott was born to play, a fierce commanding officer who accepts only success. Patton’s first lines, aforementioned above, are so direct and blunt, it’s almost shocking. And yet, in a way, I find myself practically laughing at the irony of it, since the quote is so true about dying for your country. Patton turns the idea of patriotism into a literal defeat.
As the speech goes on, Patton goes further in breaking down the idea of the army, as a team, calling individuality a “bunch of crap”. Perhaps the most patriotic moment of the entire scene, he refutes the notion that America will lose a war, since it is blasphemy for Americans to lose anything. Our passion for winning is what sets us apart from other countries, he claims. Without sounding all high and mighty, I don’t think I’ve ever felt more like an American while listening to this speech. He gives a shout out to everyone, not just soldiers. Later on, he fuels the fires of his men as he reminds them not only are the Germans the enemy, but also they shouldn’t worry about hesitating to fight:
“When you stick your hand into a bunch of goo that was a moment before your best friend’s face…well, you’ll know what to do.”
In what I call the climax of the speech, Patton reinforces the duty of his soldiers to keep fighting, hinting at his strategy (and potential conflicts with his superiors) by claiming they should never hold onto a position, and that the only thing they will be holding onto is the enemy.
“We’re going to hold onto him by the nose and we’re going to kick him in the ass. We’re going to kick the hell out of him all the time and we’re going to go through him like crap through a goose!”
As the speech concludes, despite his rough and tough barking and his hardlined attitude, he finishes up by saying:
“I will be proud to lead you wonderful guys into battle anytime and anywhere.”
In my humble and professional opinion, what sets apart good writing from bad is the ability to evoke emotion out of the audience. Great dialogue is catchy and is fun to listen to, while monologues are more idea-driven; they are designed to carry a message or a theme, since it’s only one person speaking, that speech must have enough momentum and weight to stay sturdy. Patton’s opening speech has all of that and more. Try listening to it without getting motivated. It’s unfeasible. Look, I’m a film-aholic, and there are several monologues that I could quote endlessly (“Truth” speech from A Few Good Men, Alec Baldwin’s entire scene from Glengarry Glen Ross, and even General Zod’s threat in the opening of Superman: The Movie), but Patton stands above the rest. It’s clear cut in its message and it wields some serious gravitas. For a 1970s film set during World War II, Patton’s speech nevertheless delivers an honest look at life and brotherhood that rises up from the backdrop of war. It’s an unflinching and opinionated viewpoint doesn’t feel like generic patriotism. It’s real, and you feel it.