Expert on Medieval Scotland Sharon L. Krossa PhD isn’t a big fan of Mel Gibson’s epic Braveheart (1995). In the box-office smash, Gibson plays William Wallace, leader of the Scottish rebellion against King Edward I of England during the First War of Scottish Independence. So, the Scotts didn’t wear kilts during this period, or braids, or blue warpaint, but that doesn’t stop the movie’s climactic Battle of Stirling Bridge (there’s no bridge in the film either, just FYI), which contains all those elements, from lodging itself in cinematic consciousness like an axe to the head. As Roger Ebert notes in his review, “Gibson is not filming history here, but myth”.
In 1995, audiences likely weren’t aware how historically inaccurate the film was but it’s doubtful they cared. Braveheart is swords and sandals on steroids and its battle scenes were some of the most frenetic, bloody and bold captured on celluloid. But louder than even the din of clashing metal and torn limbs was the rousing speech Wallace gives his troops before that final battle, which has become one of the most memorable scenes in cinema.
With the Scots outnumbered and outsworded on the battlefield, many are reluctant to charge towards their death. A lot of them haven’t even seen the Scottish hero William Wallace. When he identifies himself, one soldiers cries “William Wallace is 7 feet tall!” and then the following exchange takes place.
Wallace: Yes, I've heard. Kills men by the hundreds, and if he were here he'd consume the English with fireballs from his eyes and bolts of lightning from his arse. I AM William Wallace. And I see a whole army of my countrymen here in defiance of tyranny. You have come to fight as free men, and free men you are. What would you do with that freedom? Will you fight?
Soldier: Fight? Against that? No, we will run; and we will live.
Wallace: Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you'll live -- at least a while. And dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they'll never take our freedom!
It seemed like everywhere you went in the mid-90s, you’d hear that final part of the speech recited and cried, anytime and anywhere. It’s grim acceptance that evolves into white-hot defiance, which is why it lends itself so well to being quoted and adapted. Asked to do an arduous task? Fine, but you’ll never take my freedom! Etcetera, ad naseum.
After playing in cinemas for over a year, winning five Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director) and making over $222,000,000 at the box office (remember it’s 1995 and there’s no MCU), Braveheart was well and truly part of the cultural zeitgeist, evidenced in all its parodies and homages. It was parodied to promote Wrestlemania, remixed with Trainspotting (NSFW), performed by chimps, parodied on Cougar Town, and even a since-removed IKEA advertisement. People have even imagined what it would be like if Arnold Schwarzenegger had given the speech, via deepfake technology.
It turns up on countless websites promoting it as an inspirational speech to use in locker rooms or boardrooms (I guess), but this one deconstructing it to use as a template for your own rousing speech is one of the best.
And of course, its malleability makes it perfect for memes, which flood the internet and often turn the inspirational speech into an ironic way to point out lack of freedoms and freedoms to be thankful for. Some have even been made addressing the shortage of toilet paper in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.