As proof that Shakespeare continues to inspire, one need look no further than a beer commercial that aired this past Fourth of July.
Budweiser hired actor Bill Pullman to give a presidential speech declaring our freedom from COVID isolation, part of a promotional push to encourage people to get vaccinated by offering them free beer. Wearing a bomber jacket like he did in his role as America’s president in the 1996 film Independence Day, Pullman says in the ad, “We’re fighting for freedom for all, not from alien invaders [but] from separation, from being cooped up while baking bread and ignoring basic hygiene,” while music swells in the background.
It’s a homage to the moment in the movie in which, after aliens from outer space have attacked Earth and destroyed most of our cities, the president gives an inspirational speech to a ragtag band of pilots from around the world that invokes both Shakespeare and Dylan Thomas:
“And should we win the day, the 4th of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day when the world declared in one voice we will not go quietly into the night, we will not vanish without a fight, we’re going to live on. We’re going to survive. Today we celebrate our Independence Day!”
And that speech (by screenwriters Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich) is in both tone and dramaturgical function a clear homage to Shakespeare’s “St. Crispin’s Day” speech from Henry V.
All the touches are there: an acknowledgment that our forces are outnumbered; that glory and honor will be had; that our accomplishments will be remembered; and that the meaning of this specific day, be it St. Crispin’s or Independence, will be forever changed. Shakespeare’s original also emphasizes themes of, not just community, but family bonds, that “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers” are forever joined, that all men engaged in battle at Agincourt, even the “so vile” (lowly born), will be brothers to the king. This is picked up on in Independence Day, as the president observes that, when faced with an extraterrestrial invasion, the word “mankind…should have new meaning for all of us…we can’t be consumed by our petty differences anymore.” In the beer commercial, these differences are identified more comically and simplistically as being “whether you drive a pickup or a hybrid, you live in the heartland or on the coasts, or whether you pronounce it “America” or “Amurrica.”
Shakespeare’s St. Crispin’s Day speech lives on today in any movie where the troops must be rallied before a huge battle or important game. Al Pacino’s locker room monologue in 1999’s Any Given Sunday (screenplay by Oliver Stone) strikes similar notes of brotherhood and community: “Either we heal, now, as a team, or we will die as individuals.” Matthew McConaughey telling his players, “How you play today, from this moment on, is how you’ll be remembered” in 2006’s We Are Marshall (screenplay by Jamie Linden) emphasizes the legacy and potential — nay, the inevitability — for future glory for those fighting/playing in today’s battle/game.
Shakespeare wasn’t afraid to mock this grandiosity. Just two scenes before the St. Crispin’s Day speech, Henry wanders in disguise amongst his men on the eve of battle to gauge their mood, and one of them, Williams, dismisses the king’s promises and pretty speeches as just something “he said so to make us fight cheerfully.” In other words, it’s just done for effect — and in Kenneth Branagh’s version of the speech it works, as Williams can be seen cheering and responding positively to the king’s words.
Shakespeare’s legacy of stirring oratory also works in a humorous key. In 1979’s Meatballs (screenplay by Len Blum, Daniel Goldberg, Janis Allen, and Harold Ramis) Bill Murray unites his underdog campers into a force to be reckoned with by leading them in a chant of “It just doesn’t matter! It just doesn’t matter!” Murray did it again two years later in 1981’s Stripes (also written by Blum, Goldberg, and Ramis) by speaking to the jingoism implied in Shakespeare’s original and appealing to his army squad’s different definition of patriotism: “We’re Americans! You know what that means? That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world!”
Perhaps the most powerful recent example of a pre-battle exhortation was in 1995’s Braveheart (Oscar-nominated screenplay by Randall Wallace), where William Wallace (no relation) harangues hundreds of tribal Scots in much the same way Shakespeare’s Henry V did:
“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!”
Every inspirational speech in the last 400 years lives in Shakespeare’s shadow, and this includes the recent beer commercial, the results of which, it must be said, were mostly mixed. Did Bill Pullman’s scripted words inspire me to rewatch both Independence Day and Branagh’s Henry V? They did, indeed! Did they inspire me to drink Budweiser? They…did not.