[On July 30th, 1945, the USS Indianapolis was sunk by a Japanese submarine on its way back from delivering the components of the atomic bombs. That wartime tragedy became the basis for one of the great speeches in American film history, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy that monologue and four other knockout cinematic orations!]
On the over-the-top scene and speech that really shouldn’t work, but somehow do.
About midway through Remember the Titans (2000), Denzel Washington’s Coach Herman Boone takes the players on his newly integrated Virginia high school football team (who have gone to Pennsylvania for training camp) on a midnight jog. The team ends up, to their and the audience’s surprise, on the grounds of Gettsyburg National Military Park, where Boone gives a speech on the Civil War battle and both its continuing resonances in and potential lessons for the team’s and its community’s struggles with racial discord and division. The speech and scene ends with Boone’s fervent hope that perhaps, if the players and team can learn the lessons that the battle’s dead soldiers have to offer, they can “learn to play this game like men.”
For anybody who has any sense of the horrific awfulness that was Gettysburg, or just the horrific awfulness that was the Civil War in general (and I’m not necessarily disagreeing with Ta-Nehisi Coates when he argues that the war wasn’t tragic, but it sure was bloody and awful in any case, and never more so that on days like Gettysburg’s), this evocation of the battle’s dead for a football team’s lessons feels a bit ridiculous. For that matter, if we think about the most famous speech delivered at the battlefield, in tribute to those honored dead and in an effort to hallow that ground (a phrase that Boone overtly echoes in his own closing thoughts), the filmmakers’ choice to put Boone’s speech in the same spot (and I don’t know whether the Gettysburg speech took place in the real-life histories on which the film is based, but it seems from this article as if it didn’t and it’s a choice in the film in any case) feels even more slight and silly in comparison to that transcendent historical moment.
So the scene and speech really shouldn’t work, not for this AmericanStudier at least—but I have to admit that they did when I saw the movie, and did again when I watched the scene to write this post. Partly that’s due to the performances—Denzel is always Denzel, and the main kids are uniformly great as well (including a young Wood Harris, later Avon Barksdale on The Wire). Partly it’s because great sports films are particularly good at taking what is by definition cliché and making it feel new and powerful in spite of that familiarity. And partly, ironically given those Gettysburg contrasts, it’s because of the history—because this football team and its story does connect to America’s tortured and far too often tragic legacy of racial division and discrimination, and because the story and thus the film represents one of those moments when we transcended that legacy and reached a more perfect union. When sports, sports films, and sports film inspiring speeches are at their best, they have that potential, which is one main reason why we keep going back to them.
Next movie speech tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other movie speeches you’d highlight?
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