UPDATE: After viewing all of the comments pointing out my numerous factual errors, I went back and fixed them. I won’t apologize for my list, especially the exclusion of 300, a film that is garnering massive attention now, but in two years will only be remembered as the perfect theme for Thursday night at a male strip joint. Sorry, I just didn’t think it had it. Enjoy, again.
And before you jump down my throat because I excluded every movie from before 1960 – I did so knowingly. The battles of classic cinema are a different breed from modern day blood-fests and they deserve a list all their own.
Fire up your DVD player, because here we go:
The Alamo (John Wayne, 1960) – The Whole Damn Thing
John Wayne, Richard Widmark and Lawrence Harvey done up in cowboy costumes, beating, smashing, mangling, and killing an army of blood-thirsty Mexicans for three and half hours. Do I need say more? Didn’t think so.
Zulu (Cy Endfield, 1964) – The Battle of Rorke’s Drift
I guess it was cool in the ‘60s to make war films glorifying the terrible acts of colonization by land-hungry European powers. But, lack of political correctness aside, Zulu is pretty much two hours of balls-to-wall, native-killing glee, tied together by outstanding performances by both Stanley Baker (he’s kind of like a more grizzled, less popular Sean Connery) and Michael Caine (the best performance in the film going to the brillo-pad that is Caine’s hair). You can’t help but root for the 139 Redcoats as they fight off a sea of spear-hefting, half-naked Zulu warriors. From start to finish you’re pretty sure the Brits are fucked, but somehow the wily bastards keep comin’ up with new, exciting ways to hold off the loin-clothed warriors and their pokey spears. At the end of the film, the Zulu tribe is so impressed with the Brit’s giant balls, that even they’re singing honorific chants. Veer off the beaten path with this one, it’s well, well worth it.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (George Lucas, 1980) – Battle of Hoth
I’m sure geeks across the world will have their nipples in a Jedi twist because I’m choosing the Battle of Hoth over say, the destruction of the Death Star, but for your money it’s the best battle in the whole damn Star Wars canon. Mix a besieged rebel force, with a frigid landscape, PLUS a legion of snowtroopers (the coolest stormtroopers of all) backed by the clanking metal monstrosities that are the AT-AT walkers and you have a recipe for ass-kicking sci-fi warfare. Sure, at the end the Rebel home team is sent packing by Vader’s overwhelming forces, but to this day, every time I see Wedge Antilles (Dennis Lawson) hog-tie the AT-AT, and pull that steel son-of-a-bitch to the ground, my chest wells up with childish glee and I can’t help but cheer out loud.
Gallipoli (Peter Weir, 1981) – The Running of the Mel
This battle could’ve been called Run Melly, Run! .and it would’ve been just as accurate. Gibson, one of two appearances on the list, plays Frank Dunne, an Olympic-caliber runner who signs up with the Australian army as they enter World War One. As he’s so good at running, he gets the duty of being a battlefield, er, runner, dodging bombs and bullets to deliver the goods. This panicky final battle finds Melly Mel hoofin’ it amongst whizzing steel and hammering artillery, running for his life and the defending Aussie cavalry. The final moments jump back and forth between Dunne attempting to make it in time to stop his superiors, and Dunne’s pal Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) charging over the hill. The final moment finds Dunne not having the speed to make it in time, and Archy marches over the hill to his death. Anguished with his failure, Dunne crumples, a man defeated. It is a touching, impressive performance, and gee whiz can that Gibson boy run.
Glory (1989, Edward Zwick) Charge on Fort Wager
Sure, the battle scenes in Glory don’t have much in say, strategy or outcome. The Civil War wasn’t about tricky feints, or a surprise flank. Nope, those Union boys liked to just march their men like ducks into a shootin’ gallery and hope their sheer number would win the war of bloody attrition. But the all-black Volunteer 54th regiments grisly swan song has the weight of sheer emotion in spades. Under Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) the 54th has come together, regardless of race, to fight for the freedoms they believe. In the final moments of this war classic, the 54th - under a grim red, white, and blue firework display of Confederate artillery - leads the charge against Fort Wagner. And as each soldier falls, we as an audience know they die knowing that no matter how they’ve been thought of throughout their life, they have sacrificed themselves for a better cause. The cause of America! God bless you America, God bless you! Oh shit, someone get me a tissue, I’m getting teary again.
Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998) Storming Omaha Beach
Everybody knows Spielberg is huge ooey-gooey ball of sentimental shmuck. The man can’t make it out of movie without bleeding sap all over everything, throwing credits on the screen and calling it an ending. That’s why the Omaha Beach landing in Saving Private Ryan is so utterly shocking. A seemingly endless array of U.S. soldiers charge on to the Normandy beach, not a lick of experience, and all of sudden all hell breaks lose. German machine gun nests open fire, men are losing legs and arms and heads and lord knows what else, and NO ONE knows what’s going on. With the sounds of whizzing bullets and deafening explosions pounding the speakers, Spielberg draws you in, masterfully placing you in the thick of the charge. Somehow old Stevie-poo manages to trade his patented schlock for intensity, stomach-turning realism and epic scope, and the ensuing battle scene is amazing, atrocious, and down right awesome.
The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998) – The Battle for the Line
I love a gore-dripping, explosion-ripping, ass-kicking battle scene as much as the last guy. I love faceless, nameless combatants being blown to smithereens and heroic feats being performed by rock-jawed supermen. But at the end of the day, I like a little intelligentence with my violence and The Thin Red Line is just the poetic masterpiece to sooth my weepy little heart. A squad of WWII soldiers storm through a Japanese encampment, routing the unprepared soldiers. What gets the scene a spot on this list (alongside Terrence Malick’s always stunning visuals) is the wake of the battle. Surrounded by screaming Japanese prisoners, Malick masterfully exposes the emotional aftermath, as each soldier dumbly stares out at the carnage they’ve wrought, broken down to the scared, armed little boys they actually are.
Gladiator (Ridley Scott, 2000) – Arena Battle One
Picture yourself in The Coliseum, all decked-out in misshapen armor, wielding some castoff sword, with a blood-thirsty crowd chanting for your death. You’re scared, sweaty, surrounded by hardened criminals all waiting to meet their makers, and all of you are staring at a huge set of gates, wondering what the hell is going to barge through it and slaughter you. You’re scared right? Like, pee running down your leg scared, because this is it, you and this little group of beefcake murderers are about to die. Then you look over and realize that the ultimate bad-ass of Rome, Maximus (Russell Crowe) is bellowing commands and suddenly the butterflies stop fluttering, you tighten you’re grip on your chipped sword, and you are ready to kill some fools. And that’s just how the first arena fight in Gladiator makes everyone feel. When that chariot, manned by the freakiest bow-wielding black chick in Rome, pours out of the gates, Maximus draws the troops together in to a tight ball of death and the upheaval commences. With jerky, handheld camera-work and a flowing river of gushing blood, director Ridley Scott perfectly captures the brutal, barbarianism of gladiatorial combat and it is a joy to watch. By the way, when Maximus up-ends the chariot and the aforementioned screaming woman is sawn in half by the spiked wheels – best thing ever.
Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Peter Jackson, 2002) – The Battle for Helm’s Deep
I’ll be honest, this is kind of an obligatory entry on to the list. I’m not a huge fan, of what I consider to be, these overrated, over-computerized adaptations, but, hell, the battle scenes do kick some ass. Especially the rain-soaked siege on Helm’s Deep by a seemingly endless wave of hideous orc-monsters. It’s all the little things Peter Jackson gets right that finds this scene a spot on the list. The fear in the eyes of the young boys and old farts who have to strap on dented, dingy armor to protect their families; Legolas’ (Orlando Bloom) fantastic arrow-shooting, shield slide; the camaraderie of battle; the desperation of the trapped peasants; the monstrous siege towers – Jackson pretty much hammers the geek nail deep, and this pristine battle washes away the sour taste of all the homo-hobbit love that comes before it. Seriously, in that final moment, when all seems lost, and Gandalf the White comes over the hill, you just want to turn to your neighbor and lay a sloppy, wet kiss of victory on there chapped, nasty lips.
I know this is an unranked list, but after countless rewatchings of all these battles, I can’t help but give a special little bit of recognition to my fav film on the whole list.
Braveheart (Mel Gibson, 1995) – The Battle of Stirling
If there is anything crazy ole’ Mel Gibson loves more than hating Jews and loving Jesus, it has got to be big, expansive battle scenes, chock full of misplaced limbs and blood sprays. It’s why Braveheart needs to be on the list but why it makes it so damn hard to chose just one from the many – their all amazing. Do you go with the first skirmish, where Wallace storms the fort near single-handedly, tossing soldiers on to spikes and cutting throats with all the rage of the Scottish? Or do you go with the final Battle of Falkirk, as Wallace and his motley crew of Scots, are betrayed by Robert the Bruce and the Scottish lords and fall under a hail of arrows? No, if you’re choosing from Braveheart, you always, ALWAYS go with the Battle of Stirling, because it has everything you need in a perfect cinematic battle scene. The daunting English army; the overmatched rag-tag Scottish; Wallace’s “FREEDOM” speech to rally the frightened troops; “The lord says I’m okay, but he’s pretty sure you’re fucked!; James Horner’s serenely inspiring score; the Scots kilt-lifting ass flashage; “Hoooooooooooooooold”; the gruesome kills; the first clash; Wallace’s brief head-chopping face-off with the battalion leader; and on and on and on. This is easily the best battle in the film and probably the best clash on this list. Hell, this is one of the best battles of all time. Period.