From the walls of Jerusalem to the beaches of Normandy, to the Mongolian plains and the waves of the Atlantic. Whether its spears and shields or bullets and bayonets, these are twenty of the greatest battle scenes in film history...
From the early efforts of D.W. Griffith, Enrico Guazzoni and Abel Gance, the historical film has long been a cornerstone of great epic cinema. And, seeing how the fate of nations has so often been decided on the battlefield, it's logical that some of greatest moments have come from the same. The style may have changed over the decades, but the fact remains: a battle will always give directors the perfect canvas for dramatic action, rousing speeches and bloody effects. Going in chronological order and sticking only with real historical conflicts (sorry Lord of the Rings fans), we've picked twenty of the best battle scenes from film history...
No more than Earth has two suns will Asia bear two kings
Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Colin Farrell, Anthony Hopkins, Val Kilmer
No matter how many times he tries to salvage it, Oliver Stone’s much-maligned Alexander biopic will always be (harshly, in my opinion) considered a flop. But the sense of scale, attention to detail and ferocity of his portrayal of the pivotal Battle of Guagamela more than makes up for the listless dialogue and over-the-top performances found elsewhere in the film. From the pre-battle disagreements with his generals to the rousing speech to his men, the genius of Alexander’s success at Guagamela lies in the fact that only he appeared to see the possibility of victory. It’s this fixated, relentless drive that Stone frequently pushes to the forefront of the scene at every opportunity. The director revels in the chaos of the occasion, accurately depicting the confusion that would have dominated most battlefields of Antiquity.
While Alexander and his cavalry feign right before turning to strike at the heart of the Persian army and King Darius himself, his left flank are being butchered in the sun and bloodsoaked dust. Considering the battle lost and overrun by the sheer number of enemy soldiers, they swear vengeance of the young Macedonian King that led them to disaster. While the film may never have gone down as a classic, Stone should be widely applauded for creating an accurate and captivating portrayal of Macedonian tactics, formations and unit structures in one of the most defining battles in human history.
Did you know? Oliver Stone used Robin Lane Fox’s biography of Alexander as the historical basis for his script and invited the Oxford University professor to act as a historical advisor on set. Rather than taking an on-screen credit, Fox asked Stone if he could fulfil a lifetime ambition of dressing as a Macedonian cavalry officer and leading a charge for Alexander. Stone agreed, and Fox can be seen during this scene, leading one of the largest cavalry charges ever filmed.
People should know when they are conquered
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Oliver Reed
In terms of historical accuracy, director Ridley Scott loses himself in a fixation with the American war machine. The Roman army is a behemoth of technological superiority, armed with an array of artillery ready to rain fiery hell down on to a disorganised barbarian horde. But it’s easy to forgive the director, because the reality – a slow, steadily advancing line of well-drilled legionaries fighting as a single unit to wear down their enemies on a terrain that would render any artillery effectively useless - provides no chance for cinematic panache.
And Scott wisely chose style over accuracy, presenting one of the greatest opening scenes in the history of sword-and-sandal cinema. A desolate, muddied wasteland. A panicked horse carrying the beheaded body of its envoy rider. The first sounds of the massed Germanic hoard chanting and taunting the occupying Roman army. It’s a relentless build up of anticipation that, when finally unleashed with a two-pronged stream of hell-fire and charging cavalry, delivers a cacophony of violence that delivers on Scott’s impeccably patient build-up. Two decades later, the scene remains as iconic and engrossing as it ever was.
Did you know? The wounds on Russell Crowe’s face after the opening battle scene are real, caused when his horse startled and backed him into tree branches. The stitches in his cheek are clearly visible when he is telling Commodus he intends to return home.
Before I lose it, I will burn it to the ground. Your holy places - ours. Every last thing in Jerusalem that drives men mad
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Orlando Bloom, Liam Neeson, Penny Reeve
It will always be a shame that the powers-that-be pushed the panic button on Ridley Scott’s Crusades epic, butchering over an hour of important plot out of the film for a more audience-friendly, but ultimately lacklustre, film that helped destroy any momentum the director had created in the historical epic genre with Gladiator. But in Scott’s director’s cut, we see the true extent and execution of his vision, which is never better realised than in the visually-striking Siege of Jerusalem.
The dichotomy between Christian soldiers and the land they fight for is visited constantly throughout the film, underpinned by the arrogance of wearing enormous suits of armour in the sweltering desert heat. The cinematography is often awe-inspiring, and Scott’s sense of scale is second-to-none. As Jerusalem’s walls - which have already been decimated under relentless trebuchet fire - are approached at first with ladders and then by mighty siege towers, the battle becomes a game of tug-of-war between the defending Balian (a horribly miscast Orlando Bloom) and the attacking Salah ad-Din. As the Christian flag is replaced by a Muslim banner, only to be cut down again, you realise that thousands of lives are being lost for an arbitrary piece of land and a God that, the longer soldiers fight for, the less they believe in.
While Scott’s obsession with the American war machine model might still be present, his abandonment of the civilised vs. barbarians motif drew plaudits from Muslim commentators who praised his presentation of Salah ad-Din and his army.
Did you know? The filming of the siege of Jerusalem took twenty-one days, whereas the real-life siege lasted only thirteen.
The time came for our final battle to decide who would rule Mongolia
Director: Sergei Bodrov
Starring: Tadanobu Asano, Honglei Sun, Khulan Chuluun
No film could ever do justice to the impact that Genghis Khan had on world history, but Sergei Bodrov’s first in a planned, but later abandoned, trilogy of films about the Mongol warlord was a mesmerising, admirable attempt. Firstly, the contrasting heads of the opposing armies (who are battling for ultimate control of Mongolia) provide the perfect backstory for the conflict. The dry, stoic genius of Tadanobu Asano’s Temudjin (Genghis Khan’s original name) pits himself against the charismatic, cunning Jamukha, a childhood friend turned enemy.
Despite the obvious respect and long history shared between the two men, each knows that Mongolia can only have one Khan, and so this epic battle becomes something of a reluctant necessity. But Genghis was nothing if not a military genius, so historical hindsight tells us there was only ever going to be one winner. Feigning a cavalry charge with a small number of elite riders, he lures Jamukha into sending a wave of his own cavalry into an ambush, who are annihilated by hidden archers. The terrain is barren and unforgiving, the score is pulsating, underlayed with the haunting sound of traditional Mongolian throat singing, and the pace is relentless. It’s truly a shame that Bodrov’s trilogy was never completed.
Did you know? The final battle scene required 1500 horses and riders, which had to be imported from Kazakhstan to Inner Mongolia in China (where the scene was shot).
The Almighty says this must be a fashionable fight. It's drawn the finest people
Director: Mel Gibson
Starring: Mel Gibson, Brendan Gleeson, Patrick McGoohan
William Wallace’s Australian/American/Scottish accent, extras play-fighting and an attention to historical accuracy that left most historians clawing their own eyes out. Yes, there was much to dislike about Mel Gibson’s blockbuster story of the 13th century Scottish hero’s fight for independence from the English, but the five-time Oscar winning epic is rightly remembered for showcasing some of the most brutal, bloody and exhilarating battle scenes in cinema history, and none more so than the Battle of Stirling.
Let’s deal with the elephant in the room first: Gibson’s portrayal of the Battle of Stirling Bridge left out one major thing: the bridge. In his defence, an accurate portrayal of the battle would have been far less heroic and cinematic. Lured across a bridge wide enough to fit only two horses at a time, the English knights were surrounded and butchered by the awaiting Scottish army in a humiliating defeat for King Edward I. But Gibson was not interested in making a documentary, and justifiably moved the battle into an open plain to showcase the inferiority of the Scottish soldiers in armour and weaponry, but superiority in guile and guts. I mean, who can forget that “Freedom” speech?
As the arrogant English lead a full cavalry charge into the massed ranks of Scottish soldiers, Wallace devastates them with a mass of previously concealed spears and, as his cavalry - which had earlier feigned retreat - circle around to attack the English from the back, he leads his men forward to take the field. He even personally beheads Hugh de Cressingham, one of the English army’s commanding officers. Fun fact: in real life, the much-despised de Cressingham was killed at Stirling, and subsequently flayed so that soldiers could take a piece of his skin as a memento from the battle. Wallace himself reportedly took a broad strip, taken from the head to the heel, to a make a belt for his sword.
Did you know? When asked by a local why the Battle of Stirling Bridge was filmed on an open plain, Gibson answered, "the bridge got in the way". "Aye," the local answered. "That's what the English found."
Man is born crying. When he has cried enough, he dies
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu
The final epic in the career of one of cinema’s true masters, Akira Kurosawa’s Ran provided audiences with one of the most visually spectacular battle scenes in history. Although it’s based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, Kurosawa’s story is also heavily influenced by the life of 16th century daimyō Mōri Motonari, which just about renders it historical enough for this list. In fairness, The Siege of the Third Castle is such a magnificent piece of filmmaking that discovering it was an avant-garde adaptation of Where’s Wally? wouldn’t stop me from including it.
Besieged by an enormous force, the ageing warlord Hidetora watches in horror as men and horses stream in from all directions, quickly and mercilessly killing his entire army. As his castle is set ablaze, he slips into a state of catatonic shock, and flaming arrows embed themselves unnoticed all around him.
For all of his grace of composition and vibrant use of reds and yellows, the primary strength of the scene comes with the complete lack of diegetic sound. Instead, we hear only a lurching, melancholic orchestral dirge, and the violence unfolds in front of us like the blood-soaked final act of a ballet. That is until a bullet kills his son, Taro, and the soundtrack abruptly switches, throwing us head-first into the full din of the desperate battle. There are few scenes in the history of epic cinema as powerful as the battle’s conclusion, as Hidetora succumbs to the insanity surrounding him and aimlessly wanders away, leaving his castle afire behind him.
Did you know? The film used approximately 1400 extras and 200 horses. 1400 suits of armor (designed by Kurosawa himself) were fabricated and a number of the horses had to be imported from the United States.
How can you own land? This earth was made for such that shall improve it!
Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Colin Farrell, Q’orianka Kilcher, Christian Bale
Rightly heralded as one of the greatest pieces of cinema from the 2000s, The New World provided director Terrence Malick with the ideal canvas to craft his poetic, magisterial brand of cinema once more. But the power of this scene comes from the way it so harshly contradicts the patient editing style found through the rest of the film, instead employing a manic, machine-gun series of jump cuts that invite the viewer to experience the ferocity and confusion of battle for themselves.
Few other scenes in this list better display the disparity between two opposing forces as this, as it seems far more than a single ocean separates the Native Americans and the English settlers that appeared suddenly on their land. The English settle into their familiar terrico formation which, while useful on the battlefields of Europe, proves useless against a fast-moving, fluid Native enemy that knows the land far better than them. Bows and clubs are met with steel, pikes and rudimentary muskets as the battle between speed and strength soon falls into a series of intense bouts of one-on-one combat.
Intercut scenes of a bereft Pocahontas frantically pacing alone in a field only adds to the misery of an already emotionally wrought scene. The contrast of innocence and experience is a theme Malick visits regularly and with more finesse than any other filmmaker, and never is it more painfully felt than here.
Did you know? All actors were required to lose 20lbs in a month and then went to boot camp where they learned to use artillery weapons and live like the settlers.
Kiss me, me boy, for we'll never meet again
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee
Amongst the first films to demonstrate the ludicrous (yet bizarrely effective) 18th century British battle tactic of politely marching infantry in an orderly manner toward the enemy, Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece features several examples of brilliant battlefield cinematography. Less concerned with the glory and scale of the massed armies, he instead focuses on the idiosyncrasies of the individual in battle, as the matter-of-fact narration lets us know that the details of the Seven Years War are too complex to explain, and that the battle we’re witnessing was not even significant enough to record in the history books. Regardless, this is Barry Lyndon’s first taste of battle.
With his camera lingering at hip-height, we’re amidst the British redcoats as they march steadily toward a French rear guard force protecting an orchard. As the defending muskets fire volley after volley into the British line, the soldiers begin to drop. Still, they march on, until Barry’s beloved Captain Grogan is hit, dropping to his knees. Breaking free from the mechanical marching line, Barry struggles to lift his dying friend, who is comfortably three times his size, and carries him to a nearby hedgerow. There, they share an emotional goodbye, sealed with a final kiss, and Barry is left alone.
As brilliant as each and every scene in Kubrick’s carefully crafted masterpiece is, the overwhelming viewing experience is overshadowed at a lingering pang of regret that he never got to make his planned Napoleon biopic. Now that would have been something.
Did you know? Production was moved from Ireland to England after Stanley Kubrick received word that his name was on an I.R.A hit list.
Before he dies, Magua will put his children under the knife, so the Grey Hair will know his seed is wiped out forever
Director: Michael Mann
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Russell Means, Wes Studi
The score might be as eighties as a pair of red braces and a line of coke, but Michael Mann’s adaptation of James Fennimore Cooper’s historical novel still holds up. Another film blessed with several great battle scenes, the highlight doubtlessly comes when Magua (a brilliantly malevolent Wes Studi), ambushes the column of British soldiers led by Colonel Munro.
With forests pinning them to their chosen path, the British seem blissfully unaware of the impending danger until one Native warrior suddenly breaks from the trees to count coup – the tradition of gaining prestige by getting as close to the enemy as possible. This is followed by the chilling sound of a cacophony of whoops and screams, as Magua continues to stalk and intimidate his prey from the shadows of the forest. Suddenly, his men pour forward from both sides, trapping and butchering the British soldiers who, though without equal when fighting as a unit, were far inferior to their Native counterparts when it came to single combat.
As Daniel Day-Lewis’ Hawkeye strives to keep his beloved Cora Munro alive amidst the chaos, Cora’s father, the Colonel, is shot and trapped under his horse. The profound fear in his eyes is palpable as he realises what comes next. Standing over him is Magua who, protected by a ring of soldiers, delivers one of the most brutal ‘I’m about to kill you’ speeches ever written, before cutting Monro’s heart out of his still breathing body. Not one for those with a weak stomach.
Did you know? The real Colonel Munro actually survived the ambush, only to die suddenly three months later
For England, for home, and for the prize!
Director: Peter Weir
Starring: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Billy Boyd
Despite widespread critical success, Peter Weir’s Master and Commander was criminally under seen upon its release in 2003, putting the kibosh on what would have been a brilliant epic franchise of films. Alas, we got one great film, and I guess we should be grateful for that.
After a game of cat-and-mouse that has seen the charismatic Captain Jack Aubrey (Crowe) chase the French ship Acheron halfway around the world, only to finally get his chance to attack after luring the enemy frigate close by disguising his crew and ship as a whaling vessel. The explosive battle is being fought on two levels, as the cramped, suffocating carnage of the ships gunners below deck is matched by the frenetic, fierce hand-to-hand combat of those boarding the French ship.
Aubrey’s trick is soon repaid with interest, however, when the French soldiers launch a surprise counter-attack of their own. But, the English captain prevails, seizing the ship but losing the captain who, escaping in disguise, set up a sequel that was never to be. The battle stands out as a nautical microcosm of the Napoleonic wars that were wreaking havoc across Europe, fuelled by an unprecedented level of patriotism, sense of duty and possibility of glory. Who knows, maybe they’ll get round to making a sequel one day…
Did you know? The miniatures of the Surprise and the Acheron were built by WETA workshops in New Zealand who then spent five weeks filming them in action.
What is Ney doing? How can a man go forward with the cavalry without infantry support?
Director: Sergey Bondarchuk
Starring: Rod Steiger, Christopher Plummer, Orson Welles
When it comes to sheer scale, few historical epics can match Sergey Bondarchuk’s bombastic portrayal of one of the most significant battles in European history. It might have aged a bit more like a glass of milk than a bottle of French red, but there is still an enormous amount to enjoy in his epic depiction of Napoleon’s desperate last attempt at conquering Europe.
It’s hard to pick out a specific battle scene from a film that is ostensibly comprised of nothing but, and while Napoleon’s committing of the previously undefeated Old Guard – his frantic final roll of the dice – is incredible, it is just pipped to the post by Marshall Ney’s disastrously decisive cavalry charge.
With Steiger’s Napoleon temporarily retired from the field (the battle had raged for almost ten hours at this point), Ney, Bonaparte’s fiery-tempered officer, decides to act on what he thought was Wellington retreating. Leading an enormous cavalry charge, in all its awful grandeur, over the crest, he instead finds the entire British infantry massed in squares – the formation perfectly suited to repel horses who were too afraid to charge at a wall of soldiers bristling with steel bayonets.
The cut from Ney’s close-up face as he eagerly lurches forward to a stunning aerial shot of thousands of red-coated soldiers perfectly awaiting his attack is aesthetically spectacular and, as the action cuts back to the manic action on the ground, we see the spirit of one British soldier break. Screaming, “How can we kill each other?” he runs from the safety of his square, only to be cut down. The face of Plummer’s Wellington who, up until that point, had been the picture of stoic reserve, is fraught with worry as to whether his men will hold, knowing that the fate of Europe hangs on a knife-edge.
But hold they do, and in what the real-life Wellington later described as, “the nearest run thing you ever saw,” Ney’s failed attack was consigned to history as the moment where the impetus of the battle changed for good. What he lacked in tactical nous, however, Ney more than made up for with bravery, having no less than four horses shot from underneath him during the charge.
Did you know? When the British offered surrender to the Old Guard, Vicomte De Cambronne supposedly said, "The Old Guard dies and does not surrender." A rumour surfaced that after British General Colville insisted they surrender, Cambronne simply replied: "Merde."
Leave the furs! Get to the boat!
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson
After three minutes of Malick-esque lingering shots of ethereal, natural beauty, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s story of survival and revenge takes a sharp right as a group of 19th century fur trappers are ambushed by an Arikara war party. As with many of the scenes on this list, the battle itself is made infinitely more impactful by the patient nature of its build-up. A single arrow strikes a member of the party, sewing an equal amount of dread and panic through their number. Taking what shelter they can amidst the scattered tree line, Iñárritu shows us their terrified, anxious faces as they wait for what they know is to follow. Another arrow is fired, followed by several flaming arrows searing across the sky, as more and more members of the group are picked off before the scene descends into the carnage of hand-to-hand, frantic combat.
There’s no unnecessary exposition, no overbearing music, no chest-pumping speeches and no incessant jump cuts. Instead, Iñárritu, through a combination of beautiful cinematography, a remarkable attention to detail, a painstaking rehearsal process and an immersive sound design, envelops us into a scene of naked confusion, primal fear and a brutal fight for survival. It’s an utterly immersive, visceral scene, the backbone of which is provided by a stunning tracking shot that seems to last an eternity. Not only did the scene rightly gain plaudits for director Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, it also raised the bar for action scenes to a whole new level.
Did you know? The cast and crew rehearsed for an entire month for the Arikara war party attack scene
Is this it, Priest? The Pope's new army? A few crusty bitches and a handful of rag tags?
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Liam Neeson
Who said a battle has to be between two countries? Martin Scorsese’s lavish historical telling of the fight for supremacy of 19th century New York opens like being fired out of a canon. The sounds of Otha Turner’s fist-pumping Shimmy She Wobble launches us into the dark caves, as we’re amongst the Dead Rabbits, an Irish gang preparing for the battle to come. Sharpening an array of fierce-looking weapons, strapping on ad-hoc armour and having their final word with the Almighty, they slowly begin to swell in rank as they snake their way towards a yet unseen battleground, led by the bruising organiser, the towering ‘Priest’ Vallon (Neeson). A rickety door is kicked almost off its hinges, and Scorsese’s lingering camera edges forward, revealing the disputed Five Points in all its squalid, miserable glory.
Assembling across from them are the Natives, bedecked in long coats, tall hats and an array of facial hair that wouldn’t look out of place in most Hockley barbers. Led by the equally impressive Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Day-Lewis), the two gangs trade a final set of insults before all Hell breaks loose.
Never one to shy away from on-screen violence, Scorsese almost manages to outdo himself in the unruly chaos that follows. In as disorderly a manner as possible, the two gangs hack mercilessly at one another with bricks, bats, knives and clubs. No two weapons seem to be the same as chunks of flesh; teeth and blood scatter across the snowy cobbled streets. Considering how immortal he appears throughout the rest of the film, Bill seems dwarfed by Priest Vallon when the two gang-leaders inevitably square off in the battle’s definitive moment. But, smaller though he may be, Bill sinks a knife into the stomach of his sworn enemy, before dispatching another into his side. As the bagpipe soundtrack screeches to a crescendo, Priest Vallon hits the ground, and the barbarous skirmish is over.
Did you know? The woman seen fighting on the side of the Irish is based on a real person named Hell-Cat Maggie. She filed her front teeth down to points so that she could seriously injure her opponents and wore long, artificial nails made from brass that she used as claws.
If this man should fall, who will lift the flag and carry on?
Director: Edward Zwick
Starring: Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman
In a film packed full of poignant scenes, the sight of the Massachusetts 54th charging headlong into almost certain death stands above all others in Edward Zwick’s story of the first black infantry regiment in the American Civil War. As the forlorn hope of a Union attack against the heavily defended Confederate Fort Wagner, there’s an element of inevitability about their fate, but their ambition is less to win, or even to survive, it is to set an example to the watching eyes of a splintered America. Seriously, if the sound of the white Union soldier screaming “Give ‘em hell 54th!” as they march forward doesn’t put a lump in your throat, I’m sorry to tell you that you’re dead inside.
A star-studded cast, including Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Matthew Broderick and Cary Elwes, all turn in career-best performances that climax with the fateful charge. As shells explode all around them, a searing string soundtrack is replaced by an anxious percussive quick march and, with trumpets blaring and bayonets fixed, they are roared forward to the banks of the fort by their Colonel, Robert Gould Shaw (Broderick). The setting sun casts the action into darkness, broken only by violent red streams of flare and gunfire as the men press on, but with every metre they move forward, their number reduces more and more. Pinned to the banks under a barrage of relentless gunfire, they are fuelled into a frenzy of frustrated rage when Gould is shot and killed while pressing forward, alone, with the regiment’s standard. With a newfound impetus, the men of the 54th break through the initial line of defence, only for the scene to end with an explosion of cannon fire, as the attack is finally brought to its bloody, inevitable conclusion. They knew they were all going to die, but they charged anyway. Not out of patriotism or duty, but because they were free men.
Did you know? Matthew Broderick claimed that the battle scenes did not require much acting since he was genuinely fearful of the extremely loud explosions on-set.
They’re trapped in their own damn crater! The whole plan backfired on ‘em
Director: Anthony Minghella
Starring: Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renée Zellweger
Of all the battle scenes on this list, The Battle of the Crater stuck with me the longest after first viewing. Director Anthony Minghella tasked himself with portraying one of the most tragic battles in one of the bloodiest wars in human history, and absolutely nailed a tone of desperation, tragedy and absolute misery.
In the midst of the American Civil War, the Union army is besieging Petersberg, which is in the hands of the Confederates. Executing a plan to explode a mine under their defences, the plan quickly turns into a military disaster of incredible proportions as the charging Union army become stuck in a crater of their own making, trapped on one side by their own charging men, and pinned down on the other three by a Confederate Army free to pick them off one by one.
It’s hard to know where to start with praising the perfection of Minghella’s direction of this scene. Drained of all colour and life, the initial explosion is visually breathtaking. The power of the mine literally strips the clothes off one man’s back, and the entire world is turned upside down for an instant. But the initial shock is soon replaced by the confused joy of seeing an entire enemy army trapped beneath them, trampling over themselves in the mud and the blood and the panic. It’s claustrophobic in the extreme, and reduces humanity to its most base instincts of survival. There’s no glory, no honour, just an atavistic fight for survival. A black Union soldier locks eyes with a Native American Confederate soldier, and the sheer lunacy of the entire conflict is writ large. Faces are crushed into the mud by the panicked boots of their own army, churning the mire into a bloody red mush. As Inman (Jude Law) is forced to join the fighting, the space is so tight that soldiers can’t even raise their weapons to fight; it’s just a cluster of limbs, blades, gun smoke and death, scored perfectly by haunting religious choral singing. The very depiction of Hell on Earth.
Did you know? Ulysses S. Grant, the Commanding General of the Union Army, said of The Battle of the Crater, “it was the saddest affair I have ever witnessed in this war.”
You're all going to die! Don't you realize? Can't you see? You're all going to die! Death awaits you all!
Director: Cy Endfield
Starring: Michael Caine, Stanley Baker, Jack Hawkins
Despite portraying one of the most iniquitous periods from the dark history of the British Empire, Cy Endfield’s Zulu has an admirably balanced approach to The Battle of Rourke’s Drift. Naturally, the inherent elitist, racist jingoism that defined much of that era is present in Bromhead (a superb Michael Caine in his first major role), but it’s a reminder that the politics of Britain were not the politics of its everyday, working class soldiers (two of whom were from Nottingham), who are seen questioning why they are there, and why they have to fight against such overwhelming odds. Their heroism and bravery is not the heroism of a nation, but rather a group of individuals desperate to stay alive.
Respect is also shown to their foe (unlike in real life, where captured prisoners were reportedly mutilated and executed) – as the threat of underestimating the military prowess of the Zulu Nation is constantly reiterated. The battle itself is, statistically at least, something of a Victorian Thermopylae, as around 150 British troops held off a force of 3,000 to 4,000 Zulu warriors, who were fresh from taking part in the destruction of a larger British force of 1,350 troops at Isandlwana the day before.
Endfield brilliantly builds an atmosphere of terror amidst the British contingent, as the small number find themselves completely surrounded, aided by the intimidating, terrifying sound of thousands of chanting voices endlessly echoing around the surrounding hills. Preparing for a final stand, the exhausted troops stand shoulder to shoulder as the Zulus prepare to close in on the kill. Falling back to their final line of defence, they form three ranks and start to fire volley after volley of bullets into their attackers. The kinetic editing is matched by the pulsating, rhythmic shouting of orders as body after body drops. Finally, the order to stop firing is given and, as the smoke clears, a mountain of dead and dying men is revealed, and the Zulus finally retreat.
Did you know? The seven hundred Zulu extras were mostly descendants of the actual warriors who fought in the battle.Chief Mangosuthu, then-chief of the Zulu Nation, played his great-grandfather, Cetawayo.
We fight. We try not to be killed, but sometimes we are. That's all
Director: Lewis Milestone
Starring: Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres, John Wray
It’s remarkable to think that All Quiet on the Western Front was created just over a decade after the conclusion of World War One, with a number of the cast and crew having experienced first-hand the horrors of trench warfare. It certainly transfers to the screen in a film that, while created in the relative infancy of the genre and medium, feels decades ahead of its time in scale, brutality and message.
The whistling of artillery fire is interrupted by the screams of charging French soldiers who are running across a muddied, crater-filled plain of utter carnage. Nameless and faceless, we see them from a wide angle, contrasted by the German soldiers, whose every emotion we can see etched into their faces in close up. As the attacking soldiers start to fall, first from artillery fire and then, as they draw closer to the defending trench, by barbed wire and machine gun fire, we start to see that these aren’t just statistics on a piece of paper, but real men, desperately fighting to stay alive. Much like the rest of Lewis Milestone’s stunning anti-war film, there isn’t a drop of heroism or glory to be found anywhere. All Quiet on the Western Front shows World War One as the senseless, barbaric butcher’s yard that it was - something that, ninety years after it first premiered, has never been replicated quite as accurately.
Did you know? The scene where a soldier grabs a strand of barbed wire and then is blown up by an artillery shell, leaving only his hands still grabbing the barbed wire, was told to director Lewis Milestone by a former German soldier working as an extra, who saw that happen during a French attack on his position during the war.
We'll finally be able to get rid of these beauties! They're all ready for blast-off!
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Starring: Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer, Klaus Wennemann
Something of an anomaly in this list, not only because it’s the only example of submarine warfare to appear, but also because it’s the only battle in which the enemy is never actually seen. Well, unless you count through the lens of a periscope.
Wolfgang Petersen’s revered portrayal German U-boat crew in World War II rightly garnered praise for its innovative cinematography, historical accuracy and nerve-shredding level of tension, and is still considered one of the best films about the conflict ever made (The Thin Red Line or Come and See for me, but that’s probably another article…).
A lengthy spell of inactivity for the crew is interrupted by a golden opportunity to attack a vulnerable-looking British convoy. Launching four torpedoes and sinking two ships, they are soon spotted by a destroyer and pounded with depth charges, forcing them to dive below the test depth of the craft. The already oppressively claustrophobic nature of the boat is ramped up several more notches as they dive further and further still, desperate to escape the danger reigning down on them from above.
As we cut from face to sweating face, from depth levels to pressure meters, its impossible not to find yourself holding your breath, waiting for the boat’s hull to buckle under the pressure. But, while the boat holds, Johann, the chief machinist, does not, exploding into a hysterical outbreak of panic. The entire scene is a masterclass in portraying tension.
Did you know? Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock, the actual captain of the real life U-96 and Hans-Joachim Krug, former first officer on U-219, served as consultants for the production of the film.
I wanna see plenty of beach between men. Five men is a juicy opportunity, one man is a waste of ammo
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Matt Damon
It’s not an exaggeration that Saving Private Ryan redefined the way World War II and the Normandy Landings were depicted in mainstream cinema. The scores of men being mown down by German bullets before they’d even left their landing craft; men drowning under the weight of their own kit; a soldier casually picking up the arm that had just been torn from his body; a flame thrower, strapped to a back, exploding in a ball of fire; a captain lost in a daze at the sheer horror of the whole situation. From the discombobulating, gritty camera work to the innovative sound design, it all felt like a ground-breaking, authentic representation of one of the most definitive and costly days in the European Theatre.
The way we’re introduced to Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller and his gruff Sergeant Horvath, played by a perfectly cast Tom Sizemore, as they get within thirty seconds of the beach leaves us with no time to settle with either the characters or the situation. It’s just a relentless conveyor belt of horrifying imagery, hitting viewers with the notion that these might be trained soldiers, but first and foremost, they’re men. Men that were once innocent young boys. Men with families, wives, girlfriends, mothers, dreams, aspirations and fears. They’re men who have been thrust into facing the absolute extremes of the human condition, witnessing the depths to which humanity can sink. It was a sobering reappraisal of the notion that bravery wasn’t John Wayne taking out a German machine gun nest with one hand while flying the stars and stripes in the other; it was simply a case of being there and, against seemingly impossible odds, surviving long enough to be called brave.
Did you know? The Omaha Beach scene cost £10 million to shoot, and involved up to 1,000 extras, some of whom were members of the Irish Army Reserve. Of those extras, twenty to thirty of them were amputees, issued with prosthetic limbs, to simulate soldiers having their limbs blown off.
Unless he drowns himself in a shit-filled ditch, he’s our problem. Hit that son of a bitch
Director: David Ayer
Starring: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman
History is written by the winner. This is, perhaps, why we’re all too familiar with the air superiority of the British Spitfire plane, but less aware of how dominant the German Tiger was in World War II tank warfare. That is rectified in part in David Ayer’s ferocious depiction of the closing stages of the war, shown through the eyes of an American Sherman tank crew. While they can barely function as civilized human beings outside of the war machine, once inside, they are a fluid, coherent unit that has overcome countless battles.
Led by their enigmatic commander Don “Wardaddy” (Pitt), the crew of the titular ‘Fury’ Sherman are part of a four-tank convoy making their way to a rendezvous point when, seemingly out of nowhere, a shell destroys one of their number. The faces of the three surviving tank commanders, as they realise it came from a German Tiger tank, tells the entire story. As one of the most feared weapons of the entire war, the Tiger had an air of invincibility; outmatching it’s American counterpart in armour, weaponry and size. Reluctantly engaging the Tiger, the three remaining Shermans hit the enemy tank with shell after shell, all of which harmlessly bounce off its armour. As the number are reduced to two, and then just one, it’s down to the crew of the Fury to outmaneuvre the larger German tank and, barely, fire two shells into its exposed rear armour.
From the despairing, battle-hardened faces of the grizzled US tank commanders, the unseen, enigmatic German foe and the palpable sense of relief amongst the crew at the battle’s conclusion, the scene is masterfully crafted, demonstrating the desperation of tank combat in World War Two. Patton might have been the best film about the Allied tank warfare for almost fifty years, but Ayer’s film definitely stole that crown upon its release in 2014.
Did you know? Fury was only the second WWII film to feature a genuine Tiger tank. The first was They Were Not Divided(1950)