Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Villain Speech

By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 7, 2011

Shakespeare, Milton and Dante all understood villains. They loved villains. Their villains are their greatest creations.

Cianelli

Eduardo Cianelli, a villain for all seasons

Directors savor villains because villains light up the screen. Actors love to play bad guys. What could be more memorable onscreen than crushing a half-grapefruit into your wife’s face, as James Cagney did to Mae Clarke in Public Enemy, or, as Richard Widmark did in Kiss of Death, push an old lady in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs?

But what every bad guy needs most of all is a great Villain Speech. From our own era, it’s tough to top the “Greed is Good” monologue that Oliver Stone gives to Michael Douglas in Wall Street. My own favorite comes from a slightly earlier epoch—1939’s Gunga Din.

Din

Sam Jaffe rescues Cary Grant in "Gunga Din"

Have you seen this movie? It stars Cary Grant and Victor McLaglen, Joan Fontaine and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., with Sam Jaffe as Gunga Din, directed by George Stevens from a screenplay by among others William Faulkner, Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht—and the whole thing from Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem. I love this flick. I remember watching it seven nights in a row on Million Dollar Movie when I was a kid. The movie was shot in Lone Pine, California, but it looks totally convincing, with the Eastern Sierra standing in very credibly for the Himalayas. There’s a motel in Lone Pine today where you can stay in the Cary Grant Suite.

The villain in Gunga Din is played by Eduardo Cianelli, the distinguished Italian actor. He’s identified simply as “the Guru.” He plays the charismatic leader of a movement reviving the murderous cult of thuggee—stranglers. In other words, an early terrorist. The movie is totally in sympathy with the English, but the script loads up Cianelli with a fistful of juicy lines. (“Preserve your courage, gentlemen; you are not forgotten.” “Take him to the tower and teach him the error of false pride.”

Anyway the moment comes when the Guru gets his Villain Speech. Cianelli has outmaneuvered our three sergeants–Grant, Fairbanks and MacLaglen–and holds them in essence captive in the tower ring atop the golden temple of Kali. In the distance below, a regiment of Brits and Scots is advancing to the sound of bagpipes to rescue our three captives. But first Cianelli shows off the diabolically clever ambush he has set for the regiment. He’s got a whole army hidden. (In the film, Cianelli’s skull is shaven; his skin has been darkened so his eyes glitter; he wears only a dhoti—and a white cloth over his head.) The Brits will be slaughtered to the last man! At this, the faces of Grant, McLaglen and Fairbanks darken with horror—and the Guru’s Villain Speech shifts into high gear.

EDUARDO CIANELLI

I see it in your faces. Who is this ugly little savage, to snarl so boldly at the British lion? Fine generals, friends, are not made of jeweled swords and mustache wax. They are made of what is there [points to his heart] and what is here [his head.]

CARY GRANT

You’re mad!

EDUARDO CIANELLI

Mad?! Mad? Hannibal was mad. Caesar was mad. And Napoleon surely was the maddest of the lot. Ever since time began, they have called mad all the great soldiers in this world. Mad? We shall see what wisdom lies within my madness. For this is but the spring freshet that precedes the flood. From here we roll on, from village to town, from town to mighty city, every-mounting, ever-widening, until at last my wave engulfs all India!

The thing about a great villain speech is it shouldn’t be “villainous.” Passionate, yes, and keen—but it must also make perfect sense. What Eduardo Cianelli says here in an action adventure film from 1939 cannot be far from what Gandhi was thinking in real-life (though a tad more non-violently) at that very moment as he (in fact attired in a dhoti, just like the Guru) was out-generaling the British politically and laying the foundation that would compel the empire’s withdrawal just a few years later.

Gunga Din even gives the Guru a noble death. Cianelli sacrifices himself by leaping into a pit of poisonous vipers. Grant and McLaglen try to stop him …

CARY GRANT

No, you don’t!  We need you.

But our villain stays the sergeants with a raised hand.

EDUARDO CIANELLI

You have sworn as soldiers, if need be, to die for your faith, which is your country, for England. Well, India is my country and my faith, and I can die for my faith and my country as readily as you for yours! Go, children. India, farewell.

And he leaps.

A great Villain Speech should ring true. It should masterfully articulate a valid point of view. When we hear Gordon Gekko make his case for greed, we can’t help but say to ourselves, “Hey! The dude has a point.”

It’s great fun to write a Villain Speech. It must be even greater fun to play one. Remember, even the ebola virus has a point of view. In Shane (another George Stevens film), the great character actor Emile Meyer plays”Ryker,” the Bad Guy Cattle Rancher who’s been tormenting the sweet, innocent farmers for the entire movie. Here’s his Villain Speech, delivered to Van Heflin as Joe Starrett with Starrett’s 8-year-old son, played by Brandon deWilde, looking on (I’m paraphrasing from memory):

RYKER

When I first came to this country, Starrett, you weren’t no bigger than your boy is now. We fought Injuns and rustlers. Good men died. Now you sodbusters come in, fencing my cattle off from water, fencing me off from my own land. I made this country!

The villain does have a point. (“I’m your father, Luke.”) He’s the antagonist. He carries the counter-theme. The more convincing his case, the better the story.

This is a deep subject. There’s a lot of great stuff to be learned from villains. More to come.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

18 Responses to “The Villain Speech”

  1. Sonja
    December 7, 2011 at 6:25 am

    Oh, this is good stuff!

    I used the Gecko speech in a class once, (“Greed is good. It clarifies, cuts through…”) I even remember some of it. :)

    Douglas is so captivating because he delivers it in such a persuasive way. This post gives me new fodder for my WIP.

    As always, thank you, Steven!

  2. December 7, 2011 at 6:54 am

    “The villain does have a point…. He carries the counter-theme. The more convincing his case, the better the story.”

    That right there peels away a layer for me in understanding the role of the antagonist (beyond opposition and conflict–good things, but lets go deeper!).

    I know of script writers who call this the Evil Speech of Evil, when the antagonist gets the opportunity to explain why he’s right and everyone else is wrong. I’ve found those moments to be some of the more powerful in the works I’ve tackled.

    • gs
      December 7, 2011 at 7:53 am

      Shylock, in The Merchant of Venice:

      …He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

      • December 7, 2011 at 1:33 pm

        I had forgotten how great that speech is. Wow. Thanks, GS, for quoting it in its entirety. Who was that writer again?

        • Tricia
          December 8, 2011 at 8:52 am

          Some would argue, Francis Bacon!

  3. Wiz
    December 7, 2011 at 10:54 am

    This is a great topic. Once you get past all the visual stuff on the screen, the Joker is the ultimate villian. His speach to Harvey Dent/Two-Face about schemers is one of the best truely psychopathic lines written.
    “You know what, you know what I noticed? Nobody panics when things go according to plan. Even if the plan is horrifying. If tomorrow I tell the press that like a gang banger, will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all, part of the plan. But when I say that one, little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds! …
    Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. Oh and you know the thing about chaos, it’s fair.”

    • Wiz
      December 7, 2011 at 11:04 am

      Clint Eastwood’s movie THE UNFORGIVEN also does a great job of opening the debate of villainy. Maybe not so many great quotes but definately good discussion: Who is the villain? The ranch hand that cut up the prostitute? The prostitute for hiring a killer? The outlaws that show up to kill for money (Clint et al.)? The sheriff (Gene Hackman)who deals harshly with the situation and shows little to no compassion?
      In doing the right thing for the wrong reason make you a villain?

      • Paul C
        December 7, 2011 at 2:31 pm

        I loved Unforgiven and thought of it when reading this post.

        Will Munny (Clint Eastwood): Hell of a thing, killin’ a man. You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.
        The Schofield Kid: Yeah, well, I guess he had it comin’.
        Will Munny: We all got it comin’, kid.

  4. Jordan
    December 7, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    This was great Steven! Whenever I think of the real great villains my mind always go back to Iago; while his motivation is suspect (Really – Othello slept with your wife?), I’ve always loved how venomous and smooth he is, how everything he does is done with accuracy, finesse, and, until the end, composure.

    Also worth noting Satan’s lines from “South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut.” He sings the idea that “without evil there can be no good so it must be good to be evil sometimes.” Even then there’s clear method and passion (he longs for a life on earth), not to mention a really good question about defining good and evil.

    Again, loved this post, thanks for the always spot-on insights!

  5. Scott Mitchell
    December 7, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    *****SPOILER ALERT ON “The Profession”******

    I believe General Salter in Steven Pressfield’s “The Profession” turns out to be a villain, although a very compelling one. The protoganist sees that even though the general is thrusting himself into power as the only competent leader around to save the country (like General Bonaparte did on the 18th of Brumaire when the French Directory imploded, the General is really destroying what he is posturing to save. And what clinches it is the final dramatic meeting of the two, when the protagonist declares to Salter[from my memory, so this may be paraphrased]: “What I did out of love, you did out of cunning.” So the general’s actions were not just a bad decision by a leader living by his own code — they were based on a flawed moral character. I thought that realization elevated the story to tragedy, not just another action-packed futuristic political thriller.

  6. Ronald Sieber
    December 7, 2011 at 1:51 pm

    Many great villains carry the aura of pathos in their role; it helps us to sympathize, even if their cause is considered ‘wrong’ or unworthy. There is a little unworthiness in all of us.

    • Wiz
      December 7, 2011 at 2:20 pm

      Ahh, the pathos is what makes the villain. In quoting Paul Simon..”Still a man hears what he wants to hear And disregards the rest..” The not-self aware villain is your regular run of the mill bad guy.
      The arch villain, the memorable/scarey villain is the self-aware villain. The one who recognizes his/her pathology and embraces it, turns themselves over to it, cultivates it. Yet, appears like you and me on the outside.
      Steven may have a different opinion, however.

  7. tolladay
    December 8, 2011 at 6:54 am

    I’m reminded of a bit of writing advice I picked up a few years back, “Every villain is the hero in his own play.” I find this describes not only antagonists, but also politicians, criminals, pretty much everybody, including ourselves.

    Nice post Steve.

    • December 8, 2011 at 11:54 am

      I like that a lot. Never heard it before. It’s exactly true, in my opinion. That’s why a great Villain Speech is never “villainous.” It should make perfect sense from the villain’s POV — and be totally convincing.

      • Paul wolfe
        January 11, 2012 at 1:16 pm

        I think I first came across that concept in Chris Vogler’s book the writer’s journey.

  8. Steven
    December 8, 2011 at 10:57 am

    Great topic. I have to bring up I what I think is on my favorite “villains” in a long time and so well done by Heath Ledger. Talk about a captivating performance.

    And this line so true on so many levels:

    “Don’t talk like one of them. You’re not! Even if you’d like to be. To them, you’re just a freak, like me! They need you right now, but when they don’t, they’ll cast you out, like a leper! You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.”

  9. John Graham
    December 15, 2011 at 12:27 am

    Best real-life example: the Unabomber Manifesto. In What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly has a chapter entitled “The Unabomber was right”. Right to the point of madness.