‘Tis the season for emotional death scenes and warfaring set pieces it seems! Between Endgame’s arrival last month and Game of Thrones’ final season, war is everywhere on our screens at the moment. Pulling off a battle set piece with the required heroism, yet realistic sense of scale is no easy feat! How do you make something that has a thousand things happening at once coherent enough to be entertaining and not just a mess of extras and swords/lasers? With this query in mind, I think it’s high time to don the buttresses and speak my mind on cinema’s Top 10 best movie battles!
Disclaimer: In this countdown, we are defining battle scenes to be those between two or more sets of opposing (large) armies. Scenes of one on one combat or gang street fights merit their own lists!
#10: Enemy at the Gates – The Battle of Stalingrad
“When the one with the rifle gets killed, the one who is following picks up the rifle and shoots.” The Battle of Stalingrad in Enemy at the Gates follows the tradition of movie battles in gritty, visceral contemporary WW2 war films. That early scene in which Vasily (Jude Law) enters the city and is thrust into immediate hell on earth is spellbinding. Chaos reigns everywhere as the Germans move in. Blood splatters the lens amid mortar shells and point blank friendly fire. Playing dead among a hellfire of bullets and bodies is the only option in an unforgettable opening scene that establishes Stalingrad 1942 as an apocalyptic nightmare.
#9: Braveheart – Battle of Sterling
Say what you will about Mr. Gibson (and there is a lot to say) but Braveheart is one fine, fine war film. With a budget upwards of 65 million, Braveheart chronicles the First Scottish War of Independence and sees Gibson direct and star as Scottish rebel William Wallace leading a ruthless and bloody fight against the English yoke of oppression. Is it any wonder the film was a smash hit in the States? There’s plenty in the film to choose from but the films first proper pitched confrontation, The Battle of Sterling, is a particularly tasty affair. A stellar cavalry charge and Gibson decapitating someone without so much as a blink, make it a classic on-screen battle and a must-see for any Medieval Europe buff.
#8: Edge of Tomorrow – Beach Invasion
While reimaging historical warfare is not easy, but there’s also something to be said for visualizing battles of the future. This Tom Cruise-driven sci-fi war epic is a feast of robotic battle suits, explosions, and alien foes. Edge of Tomorrow finds Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) battling against an alien race in control of continental Europe. In the film Cage is part of an invasion force of where? Yep, Normandy, France. Only this one goes 10x worse than the original. Because he can loop time, Groundhog style, most of the film is the same invasion over and over again. And it’s one of epic proportions. There is so much happening at once, it’s difficult to take it all in with one viewing. A breathtaking aerial shot reveals the extent of the miles-long beach battle. It’d D-Day 3000 and the aliens are coming.
#7: Spartacus – Final Battle
For my money, Spartacus is one of the greatest Ancient Rome movies of all time. Featuring gorgeous scenery, costume opulence, gladiator heroics, and above all, bombastic movie battles. From arena battles to field battles, the Kubrick-Douglas classic is a war in every sense of the word. The climactic battle of the film is a true great in itself. As with everything Kubrick movie, the scene is a true set-piece of precision. Inch perfect legion formations block out the screen facing off against thousands of trapped escaped gladiators and slaves. To thwart a Roman advance, bales of fire are rolled down the hill by slaves. Kubrick’s camera watches from within the battle itself, obscured slightly by flailing swords and arms. The slow, steady sword action is very much of its time, yet for the battle’s immense scale alone, it remains a landmark piece of cinema, as well as of movie battles.
#6: Last of the Mohicans – Column Ambush
Not all battles are pitched. In fact, the most ferocious aren’t. The ambush of an English column in Last of the Mohicans is a perfect example. Daniel Day-Lewis’ plays Englishman turned native, Hawkeye. He joins a group guiding a British colonel’s daughters through hostile terrain during the French & Indian War. Out of nowhere, their party is ambushed mercilessly in a gritty and violently intense sequence. The colonialists’ tactic of standing in a straight line and firing is rendered useless. Taken completely by surprise, they are thrown into disarray. The enemy’s distant shrieks before engagement are terrifying. We do not follow the Indians emerging but are granted a wide shot that detaches the spectator from the ensuing carnage. Welcome to the new world, boys.
#5: The Longest Day – Attack on Ouistreham
The Longest Day is a sweeping piece of war cinema, not just for the time, but even now. Its resolve to depict the perspectives of the operation from both the Allied and German sides is commendable, to say the least. The movie features a star-packed cast involving John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Sean Connery in the thick of the action. Filmed as a Docu-Drama, the movie’s legacy can be seen throughout contemporary war films. Perhaps its best scene is the harbor attack from Free French soldiers on German positions in Ouistreham, Normandy. Filmed largely in one continuous aerial tracking shot, it simply captivates the viewer. It’s a microcosm for the film’s unrelenting grand scale. We see everything, the plight of every soldier, every explosion; a scene light years ahead of others depiction of the battle from that period, and many since.
#4: Apocalypse Now – Ride of the Valkyries
Arguably, in American war films, movies about Vietnam are their own genre. And the king of said genre? Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. It’s an iconic film that sees the madness of both war and cinema overlap for a three-hour period, seeing as Coppola almost lost his mind making it. In the movie, a soldier is sent on a secret mission to assassinate a mercurial US Colonel who’s gone rogue admits the chaos of the war. As we’ve already seen, a huge element of an iconic battle scene is scale and that is something the whole movie but particularly the Helicopter scene has in unadulterated abundance. To Wargnier’s Ride of the Valkyries, a helicopter squadron slaloms their way up Nung River wreaking havoc with napalms. In an explosion of bravado and color, the horror of war is illuminated in video game-like irreverence. It’s incredible, it’s horrible, it’s unmissable.
#3: The Two Towers – The Battle of Helms Deep
For a fantasy, Helms Deep is an irrepressibly gritty and absorbing battle. Outnumbered sorely, a collection of Elvish warriors and Rohan swordsmen are under siege by a giant Urkai-Ork army. A sprawling set piece, it’s not hard to see why The Long Night’s director admitted Helm’s Deep provided a huge inspiration. There is something happening, everywhere. Siege equipment, castle wall melees, explosions, in-citadel cavalry charges. Amazingly for its desperate tone, the battle like the best LOTR conflicts even mixes humor into the chaos. Gimli emerging between a Urkai’s legs like Chaplin with an axe is a classic moment. For many, the Rohirim’s (First) charge is the battle’s standout moment. However, for me, Aragon and Gimli’s courageous two-man final stand on the bridge is right up there with some of the greatest shots in the entire trilogy. For my money, it’s the most fun of the movie battles.
#2: Saving Private Ryan – Omaha Beach
Spielberg really can do anything, can’t he? In favorite war film discussions, Saving Private Ryan is never far from people’s lips. And that’s largely due to the fact that it includes one of the most memorable battle scenes on film. No music accompanies the soldier’s landing, as spots of blood litter the camera. Spielberg’s unrestricted lens shows us everything — war, unchecked. For a moment the camera descends underwater and the audience is graced with a tranquil escape from the madness. But even here, the peace is shattered by the flying of bullets through the water and the inescapability of death. Even worse is the gruesome dismembering of limbs that greets the soldiers on land. At times the scene feels never-ending, and in a way, it isn’t. The chaos of those infamous opening 27 minutes echoes relentlessly throughout what is perhaps Spielberg’s greatest achievement.
#1: Gladiator – Battle in Germania
To my mind, it is no exaggeration to call Gladiator one of the greatest Hollywood films of all time. Giant set pieces, an all-star cast, and merciless escapism. The film, as is to be expected, is remembered for its spectacular arena moments. However, the opening battle in Germania is incredible. The logistics are mesmerizing. Thousands of Roman and Barbarian extras were used, along with fireball artillery and flaming arrows. The steady march of the Roman infantry descends into shaky cam war-is-hell chaos by the time they engage with their enemies. Russel Crowe’s protagonist Maximus endures the undying respect of his troops as he leads a cavalry charge right into the thick of the action. Hans Zimmer’s score and Ridley Scott’s direction combine emphatically, emphasizing the raw emotions of war. In Gladiator, the evolution of the Roman Battle scene in the 40 years since Spartacus remains fascinating. Roma Victor.
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