The Uninspiring Story Behind the Most Inspiring Speech in Movie History

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

“Don’t forget,” Llywelyn Jones, a reader of my story on the original Independence Day, writes, “that President Bill Pullman’s speech is essentially Henry V’s Saint Crispin’s Day speech.”

It’s a very good point: President Whitmore’s iconic “we will survive” speech joined a canon of Inspirational Fictional Speeches that includes ones written not just by Shakespeare, but also by the writers of Braveheart and Gladiator and Invictus and Remember the Titans.

What’s especially notable about the Independence Day version of that genre, though—a version that has been celebrated and meme-ified online in the decades that followed the film’s 1996 release—is that the words of the speech were motivated by more than audience inspiration alone. According to the DVD commentary provided by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day’s director, co-writer, and executive producer) and Dean Devlin (its co-writer and producer), the speech’s language was also inspired by ... legal concerns.

As Emmerich and Devlin note, the last line of President Whitmore’s troops-rouser—“Today we celebrate our Independence Day!”—may have caused, within the film itself, an explosion of enthusiastic salutes among the rag-tag group of fighter pilots who would go on to save the world. And it may have caused a similar reaction among audiences. But it wasn’t in the pair’s original script. They tacked it on at the last minute.

The film we know today as Independence Day was initially going to be titled according to its now-nickname, ID4, because Warner Bros.—not the film’s studio, 20th Century Fox—owned the rights to the title Independence Day. The movie’s writers wanted Independence Day for their name and wanted Fox to fight for it. So they added one more reference to “Independence Day” to their script. It came via President Whitmore’s speech. They hoped the addition would encourage Fox executives to go to bat for the title.

It worked. Two weeks after the line was added to the script, Fox won the rights to the title its creatives wanted. ID4 became Independence Day, and in the shift Emmerich and Devlin provided the world with two things: 1) an inspiring conclusion to an already-inspiring speech, and 2) yet one more example of how the behind-the-scenes workings of the studio industrial complex can contribute, almost in spite of themselves, to enduring cinematic moments.