5 Great Historical Battles in Movies

I love a good war movie. Hate them when they are ill-made, but a good one… well, it really makes my day. Over the years the excitement, the terror, the gut-wrenching feeling of being in a battle has been conveyed in a dramatic and impressive way in many different movies. But there’s a lot to a battle, from the general’s perspective to the private’s. As I write war stories and try to impress the same type of feeling onto my readers, and even though I research a lot, good battles seen in movies are many times the inspiration or the resource I invoke to help me imagine and enlarge those scenes. In this post I’m going to reference 5 battles in movies I really enjoy. Today I’m going to focus on battles with a historical setting – forgetting fantasy or Sci-Fi ones. Some are good moments in movies I didn’t really like overall, but in one way or another got the battle right – we feel it happening. They are not the best battles in film, as I didn’t really make a thorough selection. And I didn’t select them for their accuracy or their historical reference. They are just battles I enjoyed and which for a few moments really captured that feeling of ‘being there’, as well as showing something somewhat different than average. So here are 5 great battles in movies in a historical setting.

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– BATTLE AGAINST THE GERMANS – GLADIATOR

Ridley Scott’s GLADIATOR is, in my view, a somewhat overvalued film. It has many plot and writing flaws and one or two directorial ones. Still, it is our current benchmark on Roman-theme movies: the settings and costumes are incredible, the acting is very good and the characters inspiring. And, of course, it features a couple of battle scenes that are quite impressive. The battle against the Germans in the first few minutes of the movie is a very good sequence. We get the feeling of a Roman disciplined war-machine pitched against a rabble of barbarians. The scene is grey and heavy, the events are powerful and it’s an excellent introduction to the character of General Maximus, the MC, played by the strong Russell Crowe. It’s a scene I always like to watch.

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– BATTLE OF GAUGAMELA – ALEXANDER

Oliver Stone’s ALEXANDER is a movie that I have watched only once and for some reason am not that keen to watch again. I haven’t analyzed the film trying to understand why – it’s an unsatisfying movie to me, most likely because of the difficulty to understand and empathize with Alexander’s character. Still, Stone’s Battle of Gaugamela is a scene that I’ve watched isolated a number of times and always enjoy. It’s just very well built. And the way the aerial, birds-eye, view of the battle is constantly used to make us understand what’s happening is particularly happy. We feel the massive size of the forces in the fight and we can also feel the terrifying plights of the individual soldiers. Love it.

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– ASSAULT OF OUISTREHAM – THE LONGEST DAY

Daryl F. Zanuck’s THE LONGEST DAY is a wonderful movie. I’ve watched it many times and the sheer size of it still baffles me. It shows the Allied Invasion of Normandy in a way that really makes us believe in how heroic and amazing feat that battle must really have been. Many of the scenes and parts of Operation Overlord are well captured and accurate, even if many others are pure fiction. Still, the scene that always blows me out of my mind is the French commandos’ assault of the casino in Ouistreham.  The whole first wave of assault is filmed in one shot only, with a crane that travels through the whole village following the commandos running over a bridge and taking refuge in a battered building. The shot is simply amazing – see it here. I’m not really sure who directed it, as this 1962 movie had several directors working on it. It could have been Zanuck himself, who directed several scenes, but most likely was Ken Annakin who was in charge of British and French exteriors. Either way, it’s brilliant filmmaking and a breathtaking scene – if you like Stone’s Gaugamela’s aerial shots you will love this one.

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– BATTLE IN THE FOG – MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD

I’m not the biggest fan of Patrick O’Brian’s writings – I believe that Alexander Kent or C.S. Lewis are better novelists in many ways – still, I absolutely love Peter Weir’s  MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD, a delicious Napoleonic-war movie with very sound performances from Russell Crowe and Paul Bethany.  And I also absolutely love the first battle of the movie right at the outset. Weir is brilliant at this. The first few moments, as the British frigate quietly travels in calm waters, there’s a bit of confusion and suspicion as the officers try to decide if there is really an enemy waiting in the fog. The editing is excellent and we are put in a state of constant suspicion as if we were the characters themselves – maybe we see the enemy ship maybe not. And then there are the lights in the clouds and Captain ‘Lucky’ Jack (Russell Crowe) shouts ‘Get down!!’ and the whole first enemy broadside seems to destroy every piece of wood in the frigate – and then the whole mess really begins. The movie is very good and this first battle is better still – see it here. Kudos to Weir, I think this is the best directing he ever did.

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– BATTLE OF OMAHA BEACH – SAVING PRIVATE RYAN

Spielberg’s Omaha Beach sequence in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is probably the best battle sequence ever made. The sheer terror and realism of the sequence of the Rangers arriving at the beach, with Tom Hanks at the center of things, until the attacks on the bunkers, is absolutely amazing. We are never given a moment’s rest from the second the shooting starts and we are baffled that this kind of thing ever happened – and doubly baffled by the ability of these heroes to make coherent decisions in the midst of all the mayhem. Spielberg is a great director with a unique talent for making extras into real characters and Tom Hanks is one of the best actors that ever lived. The sound, the camera movements, the editing, everything is top-notch and we can’t really take a breath until it’s all over. Omaha Beach was one of the bloodiest battles on D-Day, and after we watch this sequence we seem to understand why. Well done!

So these are five moments in movie battles that I wanted to reference to you. As usual with my lists, they are not in any particular order. They are just great moviemaking. Hope you liked it. See you around the next campfire, fellow warriors.

 

 

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