In Henry V, the Chorus ruefully asks in the opening, given the limitations of early 17th century theatre, ‘can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? or may we cram/ Within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?’
It was not until the 20th century, and the invention of cinema, that recreations of Agincourt, and other great battles – real and imagined – could be depicted with the attention to detail and scale that they deserved. And the rise of CGI has meant that what was once almost unthinkable, save in the largest-scale blockbusters – massed armies of thousands in combat – can now be achieved at a fraction of the cost.
Now, with the new live-action version of Mulan bringing similarly epic scenes of combat to one’s home, thanks to its presence on Disney Plus, here are some of the greatest battles ever filmed. They show some of cinema’s most notable directors in full, epic filmmaking mode. Little wonder that half of them won Oscars for their trouble.
Sam Mendes uses two continuous shots to deliver his war epic in the hope of giving the viewer a sense of the intensity of being on the battlefield for a prolonged period. With a sparse script, much of the film hangs on the strong performances of George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman. They play two young soldiers who are tasked with crossing enemy lines to deliver a message to their superiors to call off a doomed attack. It’s edge-of-your-seat viewing and as close a portrayal of the horrors of the World War I battlefield as you’re likely to see in modern cinema.
Saving Private Ryan
Most of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan is a fairly old-fashioned, slightly plodding war film, with stock characters and didactic debates about the nature of conflict. The opening scene, a visceral recreation of the D-Day landings on Omaha Beach, is why the film has remained such a well-regarded entry in the genre, and remain peerless.
Spielberg brutally and brilliantly recreates the terror and random, horrific violence of war without the sentimentality or over-emphasis that his films are so often synonymous with; the only reason why we know that Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller isn’t going to be met with sudden and brutal death is because he is Tom Hanks and the star of the picture. The scene is shocking, confusing and superbly filmed, making unobtrusive use of special effects. Little wonder that he won Best Director for his efforts.
‘On my signal, unleash hell’. The legendary director Ridley Scott should have won Best Director for his 2000 masterpiece Gladiator, but was beaten to the award by Steven Soderbergh; he had to be content with his picture winning Best Film instead. From the opening scene onwards, it is clear that Scott, after a run of disappointing and sub-par films (GI Jane, anyone?) had recovered his filmmaking mojo with some verve, helped by a ferociously charismatic (and Oscar-winning) performance by Russell Crowe and an iconic Hans Zimmer score, cleverly channelling Holst’s ‘Mars’ to thrilling effect.
Scott depicts an epic battle, pitching the might of Rome’s military defeating the last remnants of the Germanic barbarian opposition, with astonishing flair. The scene reverses the usual expectation that the viewer is on the side of the underdog in these situations by showing the almost fascist brutality and efficiency with which the Roman army moves against their opposition, setting up the central conflict of the film (and so many of Scott’s others): man vs institution. By the end, you feel both breathlessly exhilarated and only too keen to see what happens next.
Although he has been cancelled repeatedly, Mel Gibson keeps on coming back, most recently with his triumphant war film Hacksaw Ridge, which proved he is a rare director of military conflict. He learnt his lessons on his 1995 biopic of the legendary Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace, which has unsurprisingly become something of a set text to the present-day SNP. Yet, dodgy history aside, there is no doubt that Braveheart remains a thrilling and brilliantly executed epic, with a charismatic central performance from Gibson himself as Wallace.
The first battle scene, set at the Battle of Stirling, is an especially remarkable example of visceral and thrilling action filmmaking, mixing extreme and bloody violence with a heroic and stirring account of what happened when a rebellious and much put-upon nation finally faced up to their oppressors, and unexpectedly won the day. Any parallels with present-day Scotland can only be coincidental.
The Two Towers/Return of the King
Peter Jackson’s much-praised Lord of the Rings trilogy features two of the greatest battle scenes in cinema, and it would be unjust to attempt to choose between the two of them for full, spear-shaking effect.
The impact of the great Helm’s Deep battle in The Two Towers is that it represents one of the finest depictions of the heroic last stand against insurmountable odds in cinema, complete with countless stirring moments of honourable behaviour and a thrilling last-minute deus ex machina, with Gandalf and the Rohirrim to the rescue. In Return of the King, by contrast, the Battle of the Pelennor Fields sees the armies of Gondor and the Rohirrim trying desperately to save the citadel of Minas Tirith from the evil forces of Mordor.
What Jackson does so incredibly well is to capture the small moments of trepidation and fear that the characters feel before going into battle, before letting rip with the most astonishing and adrenaline-inducing spectacle imaginable. Both scenes have been much imitated (and themselves owe a debt to many great films before), but never really equalled since.
The only film that Stanley Kubrick directed that was not one that he developed himself is still – despite his subsequent disowning of it – an astonishing epic, imbued with considerably deeper psychological complexity than most of the swords ‘n’ sandals epics of the Fifties and Sixties.
Showing the revolt of the slaves, led by Kirk Douglas’s Spartacus, and the Roman empire’s brutal attempts to crush them, the final battle scene between their two armies shows (just as Gladiator would 40 years later) how the ingenuity and courage of a rag-tag band of freedom fighters was no match for the precision and power of their Roman oppressors.
Kubrick was never able to make his longed-for film of Napoleon, but it is likely, if he had, that its meticulously planned and executed battle scenes would have owed a great deal to what he learnt on Spartacus, where, in an unforgettable shot, the countless thousands of Roman soldiers arrange themselves like a deadly chessboard.
Cy Endfield’s film about the Battle of Rorke’s Drift remains slightly problematic in 2020. On the one hand, it takes a great deal of care and trouble to show the dignity and nobility of the 19th century Zulu civilisation, and how the British encroachment into their country is an act of colonial barbarity.
Unfortunately, its hugely exciting and much-imitated climax essentially asks the audience to find the mass-scale slaughter of the attacking Zulus by the British a thrilling act of military prowess and a testament to backs-against-the-wall heroism in the face of adversity. If one can cope with the moral ambiguities of this, there is no doubt that its powerful climax, as the depleted defenders of Rorke’s Drift first sing the Welsh song ‘Men of Harlech’ in response to the Zulu war cries, and then prepare themselves for the final onslaught by firing volley after volley into their attackers, represents an astonishingly accomplished battle scene, even if we might feel somewhat uneasy about cheering on these particular victors.