Anyone who’s read Blood Song will know my liking for battle scenes, so I thought I’d list my top ten favourites from the movies – as usual in no special order.
Master and Commander – For the Prize! (2003, Dir. Peter Weir)
Patrick O’Brien’s tales of life in Nelson’s navy are brought to vivid life in Peter Weir’s expertly wrought adaptation. Essentially a chase story, as Russell Crowe’s Captain Jack Aubrey pursues a French privateer half way around the world with Ahab-like zeal, paid off in spades in a climactic clash of frigates. The final frenetic confrontation of cannon, pistols and hand-to-hand combat brings home the fact that, for all the romance associated with it, war at sea in the Napoleonic era was still war, and it’s never pretty.
Last of the Mohicans – Huron Ambush (1992, Dir. Michael Mann)
Michael Mann wisely eschews much of Charles Fenimore Cooper’s source novel (it’s frankly unreadable to modern eyes, or at least my modern eyes) to craft a compelling epic of high adventure and romance amid the chaos of the Seven Years War. Mann’s eye for spectacular action is given free reign as Huron warchief Magua (Wes Studi) leads his braves in a brutally effective ambush of an entire British army. War clubs, tomahawks and muskets abound as Hawkeye (Daniel Day Lewis in pre-cobbler days) fights his way towards his imperilled lady love (Madeleine Stowe in pre-collagen days) and woe betide anyone who gets in his way. Simply stunning.
Saving Private Ryan – Omaha Beach (1998, Dir. Steven Spielberg)
The immediate cinematic impact of Spielberg’s recreation of the Omaha beach landings makes it easy to forget that there was a time when filmmakers failed to present the experience of modern battle as anything other than a stark horror story viewed through the lens of an over-cranked camera. But, despite its many imitators, the real-time progress of Tom Hanks’ shell-shocked captain across the blasted and corpse strewn shore-line has never been topped for sheer visceral shock value. If you ever wondered what a burst of machine-gun fire will really do to a human body, look no further.
Henry V – Agincourt (1989, Dir. Kenneth Branagh)
Branagh’s directorial debut proved he’s as able behind the camera as he is in front of it. Naturalistic Shakespeare is a tricky thing to pull off but Branagh and cast manage it with admirable aplomb – even Brian Blessed gets through the whole film without a single shouty moment. Crucial to Branagh’s desire to present events within a a believable medieval context is his depiction of the Battle of Agincourt as a mud-spattered slo-mo slogging match. Men in armour assail each other with swords, maces and daggers in a rain sodden charnel house shorn of any pageantry or chivalrous pretensions. Grimly compelling.
Platoon – NVA Night Assault (1986, Dir Oliver Stone)
Long before such crimes against cinema as Natural Born Killers and Alexander, Oliver Stone was a good director, proven in this semi-autobiographical tale of brutalised grunts in the Vietnam War. Stone’s protagonists are rarely heroic, quick to panic and would probably shoot John Wayne in the back if he pissed them off. The graphic depictions of combat and atrocity make for often harrowing viewing, complete with massacred civilians, gang rapes and murderous intra-grunt enmity, stretching the viewer’s nerves to the point that the climactic NVA night assault is actually something of a relief. The subsequent battle is a frenzied mix of cacophonous gunfire and flashing tracer bringing home the random nature of combat. It seems in modern war, cowardice and heroism make little difference to odds of survival. Luckily, most of us will never have to find out if that’s true.
Zulu – Rorke’s Drift Rumble (1964, Dir. Cy Endfield)
US emigre director Cy Endfield’s retelling of the siege of Rorke’s Drift in the first Zulu war is a carnival of British cinema delights; a soaring score by Bond composer John Barry, a stand-out breakthrough performance by Michael Caine and Jack Hawkins playing against stiff-upper-lip type as a drunken missionary “Can’t you see you’re all going to die!!” But the real star of the show is the cinematography, capturing the beauty of a South African landscape marred by the bloody spectacle of thousands of Zulu warriors charging through massed rifle fire.
300 – “This! Is! Spartaaaaggh!” (2006, Dir. Zach Snyder)
Frank Miller’s stylised comic book version of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BCE is given lavish homage by Snyder as muscular bare chested men in leather pants engage in a mutual admiration fest before embarking on slo-mo Persian slaughter viewed through a series of prolonged tracking shots (for some reason 300 has come to be regarded as having a strong gay subtext, can’t think why). This is an unashamedly non-realist approach to ancient warfare featuring battle-rhinos, giants, grenade throwing alchemists and (if you’ve seen the deleted scenes) midget archers – and all the better for it.
Gladiator – Roma Victa! (2000, Dir. Ridley Scott)
If you know a little about Roman history you’ll be aware that Gladiator belongs more in the ‘inspired by’ rather than ‘based on’ category of historical epic – Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Pheonix) was murdered in his bath-house by a slave nine years after assuming the throne rather than being slain in the Coliseum by a former general (who never actually existed) a few months after killing his father – an event he may well have had no part in. But, despite its factual shortcomings, Gladiator contains probably the most accurate depiction of the Roman army at war as General Maximus (Russell Crowe again) leads his legionaries against the barbarous German tribes. Fire arrows fill the air, ballista bolts pin men to trees and catapults rain down fiery destruction on the uncivilised horde as the legions hack and slash their way to victory. “Roma Victa!” indeed.
The Return of the King – Pelennor Fields (2003, Dir. Peter Jackson)
The Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers was a remarkable achievement in itself but even that is eclipsed by the sheer scale of the spectacle offered in Peter Jackson’s final instalment of The Lord of the Rings. Sauron’s hordes of orcs, easterlings and war elephants bear down on the beleaguered city of Minas Tirith in a screen-filling tide that wouldn’t have been possible even in the days when extras would work for less than a dollar a day. However, thanks to CGI we are treated to an unrestrained and largely faithful depiction of the central clash of armies in Tolkien’s classic. From the Ride of the Rhohirrm to the arrival of the Dead Men this is a wondrous spectacle, made all the more impressive by not allowing the visuals to overwhelm the drama – poor old King Theoden, but it was a good death.
Glory – Assault on Fort Wagner (1989, Dir Edward Zwick)
The 54th Massachusetts Infantry was the first black regiment recruited by the Union Army in the American Civil War and earned a blood-soaked place in history by leading an assault on the Confederate Fort Wagner in South Carolina in July 1863. Zwick – later to conjure some highly impressive set-pieces in The Last Samurai – brings home the scale of the sacrifice as Matthew Broderick’s Colonel Shaw leads his troops in an ultimately hopeless charge against the Confederate ramparts, braving a hail of cannon fire and musketry to fight their way into the fort at bayonet point. Although the film makes no bones about the fact that this was a military defeat for the Union, the final scene of black troops and white officers being tossed into the same mass grave conveys a sense that it was at least a battle worth fighting.