Rhetoric Analysis of the speech from Braveheart

Mel Gibson’s speech, as William Wallace in the 1995 film Braveheart, became instant cinematic history. For whatever reason, it resonated with critics and viewers alike, cementing itself in the zeitgeist and has since has been imitated by countless films and T.V. shows, with varying success.

But how good a speech was it? Not from the perspective of someone watching the film, but as a genuine piece of persuasion, how well does it hold up? Let’s take a look.

Kairos: The timing of the speech is pretty straightforward, given that a battle is imminent. I find it strange that Wallace would not only introduce himself moments before the battle, but also leave it until the last minute to ensure his people were willing to fight. While you could argue that it comes down to a variety of things, it’s probably more of a strategic move, than anything else. This all may have been after the fact, not necessarily a conscious choice. Assuming that this was his first chance to talk to his men en masse, then we can only look at it in terms of preparing his men for battle, in which case it’s pretty solid timing, barring an early onslaught from the enemy, it seems pretty reasonable to try and get his men in the mood to fight at this time.

Ethos: He makes extensive use of ethos, he instantly introduces himself, making use of reputation his name carries. A man quickly calls him out, claiming that Wallace is actually “7 feet tall”, so, presumably implying he is not in fact Wallace.  He uses this opportunity to do something very useful, he downplays himself. Makes fun of the rumours – “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” not only does this give credibility to his claim, but he manages to humanise himself, which allows his men to realise that since he is just a man, they too can fight like he has.

Pathos: I would argue that he is mostly using pathos, which is understandable. He needs the men to be in a frenzy. He repeats words such as “free” and “freedom”, which is contextually very effective – it implies that the “enemy”, as he calls them, would seek to rob them of that freedom. He also mentions that men who did not fight would greatly regret it (borrowing heavily from Shakespeare’s Henry V). This seemingly appeals to pride, however, it has the duality of an accusation of cowardice directed at those not willing to fight. Either way, it’s a reasonably effective technique.

Logos: He makes very little use of logic in his argument, there’re hints of it in his sarcastic deflection near the start – poking holes in the rumours about William Wallace to help prove himself – and noting that people “may” die if they fight. However they are both fairly minor, and bi-products of other modes.

All in all the speech is very successful in the film, however he does very little to persuade the men of their need to fight, nor address their concerns about being outnumbered by the English – which, in part, is what causes him to launch into the speech in the first place. The question is whether he chose to ignore logic, as statistically they were likely to lose or if he was opposed to lying to his men – he was morally opposed to giving them false hope. I think the latter is more likely, given that he acknowledges that death is a possibility.

I think that while the modes of persuasion he uses are sound, but perhaps lacking in substance. I think that a greater reliance on (false) logic would have a greater effect although perhaps weakening his character slightly.

I give this speech a B –

I don’t buy that it would be successful in the real world. But it’s fairly endearing, and despite it’s shortcomings it’s reasonably well crafted

 

Check out the speech here:

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