War and epic battle sequences have been a staple of Hollywood cinema, really ever since the 1930 release of All Quiet on the Western Front. Since then, there have been a countless number of battles that have been committed to film, but only a select few of those battles have truly stood out.
Here are our opinions (and yours when you VOTE!) of the most iconic battles of all time:
When Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998, the film shocked audiences solely because of its opening depiction of the Invasion of Omaha Beach. The film depicts American infantry swarming in boats across the English Channel to the German defenses. The soldiers vomit and shake horrifically, and the moment the front doors are lowered at the beach machine gun and mortar fire opens up that immediately cuts almost the entire front line of troops down.
In desperation, the American soldiers jump overboard, but several drown under the weight of their weapons and gear or are cut down by bullets in the water. Many of the few that make it to the beach are then further cut down, and the film depicts as several soldiers have limbs blown off or are eviscerated by the hail of fire but continue to fight anyway. The only reason the Americans manage to advance is because they have so many men who continue to land. Eventually, they manage to push forward to underneath the bunkers, and then advance up the beachhead to break out and turn on the German bunkers from the rear. The film showed what real life combat is like to audiences, and was very gory and brutal in contrast to previous films that largely focused on showing cinematic heroism in battles.
Lone Survivor depicts Operation Red Wings, which was fought between the Taliban and United States forces in Afghanistan in 2005. The main focus of the film is on four United States Navy SEAL’s who were supposed to embark on a secret reconnaissance mission, but were instead discovered by a force of over 250 Taliban fighters who also occupied the high ground. The SEAL’s fought heroically against overwhelming odds and gunned down several of the Taliban fighters, but three of the four were killed while the lone survivor, Marcus Luttrell, managed to get away and hide in an Afghan village despite being heavily wounded himself. In addition, an attempt to rescue the four SEAL’s by helicopter was met with disaster when RPG’s shot the helicopters down and killed all of the men inside.
By a stroke of luck, the people of the village Luttrell ended up in had a tradition of protecting guests against outside enemies, and refused to let the Taliban kill or hurt Luttrell. He was eventually rescued by the United States military, but he’s still coping with the physical and emotional effects of the battle to this very day. The entire film Lone Survivor is virtually a big shootout that vividly depicts the whole of the shootout.
More Americans were killed at the Battle of Gettysburg than during the entire Vietnam War. The film Gettysburg is the longest Hollywood film ever made at nearly four and a half hours, and depicts the entire battle from both the Union and Confederate sides. But the real standout of the film is when a force of less than 1,000 Union troops led by Colonel Joshua Chamberlain were forced to hold the flank of the Union line against wave after wave of nearly 6,000 Confederate troops.
The Union took heavy losses but managed to hold the line until they ran of ammunition. Knowing that remaining where they were would be suicidal and falling back would cause the entire Union formations to collapse, they fixed bayonets and charged down the hill. The Confederates were caught completely off guard and were routed. The Battle of Little Round Top arguably won the entire Battle of Gettysburg for the Union, as the Confederate assault upon the Union center the next day (Pickett’s Charge) was a disaster and forced them to retreat.
The Battle of Stirling, depicted in Braveheart, is a real departure from the real life Battle of Stirling Bridge, which occurred in 1297 during William Wallace’s War for Scottish Independence. In real life, the heavily outnumbered Scots were able to fight the numerically superior English army piece mail on a bridge, where they used superior fighting tactics to defeat them.
The battle depicted in the film is admittedly a bit more epic. The Scots are outnumbered nearly five to one, and after taking a barrage of arrows that inflict heavy losses, withstand an English cavalry charge with sharpened poles and then sweep forward to engage the English army. The two armies crash into one another, and while no side initially has the advantage, the Scottish cavalry then outflank the English and attack the archers and commanders from the rear. The English army flees and the survivors are quickly cut down. The Battle of Stirling as shown in the film is well known for the rousing speech Wallace gives, the stunning cinematography, and the close and personal bloody combat.
The 1964 film Zulu depicts the British-Zulu War that was fought in 1879, and specifically focuses on the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, where a force of only around 100 British soldiers, many of them wounded or sick, held off a force of over 4,000 Zulu warriors for more than twenty four hours. In the Zulu War, a British army of 1,200 men was ambushed and slaughtered by an army of 20,000 Zulus following the British Invasion of Zululand.
4,000 of those warriors then broke of and swung north to attack Rorke’s Drift, the only remaining British outpost in Zululand as the rest of the army was in full retreat following the massacre of Isandlwana. The Zulus further attacked the outpost from all sides at once, and sent wave after wave of warriors forward. The British miraculously managed to hold them off by constructing multiple layers of defenses and falling back when the layer in front of them would be breached.
Eventually, the Zulus decided to break off the attack, but not before honoring the surviving British soldiers for their incredibly bravery in the face of overwhelming odds. More Victoria’s Crosses were awarded to British soldiers at Rorke’s Drift than any other battle in history.
The opening scene of Gladiator, depicting a Battle in Germania between Roman soldiers and an army of barbarians remains a favorite among audiences. The film begins with the Roman soldiers and barbarian forces on opposite sides of one another in the dead of winter. The Romans open fire on the barbarians with scorpions and flaming catapults (burning the forests down) before the two armies charge one another. The Romans remain disciplined and form a shield wall, but the tenacity of the barbarians means the latter are on the verge of a breakthrough until Roman General Maximus and his cavalry charge through the flames and attack the barbarians from behind.
Numerous barbarians are cut down and, unable to fight on two sides at once, either surrender or flee. The film also depicts many other battle scenes in the gladiatorial arena, but the opening battle sequence as described above is arguably the most famous in the film.
If there’s one battle that the Star Wars franchise is the most well known for, it’s undoubtedly the Empire’s assault on the Rebellion base at the ice planet of Hoth. The Rebels have their base stationed in secret on Hoth, but the Empire, led by Darth Vader, discover their location and launch an assault on the ground with massive AT-AT walkers. A small force of Rebels in a trench on the ground and with speeders manage to hold off the AT-AT’s long enough and destroy two of them while the rest of the Rebels get away.
The Battle of Helm’s Deep, as written by JRR Tolkien in The Two Towers and then visually depicted on screen in the cinematic adaptation, is without question one of the most iconic battles ever written or filmed. In the battle, roughly 400 Rohan soldiers and 100 elves defend Helm’s Deep under the command of King Theoden and Aragorn against 10,000 Uruk-Hai man-orc hybrids under the command of the evil wizard Saruman. Helm’s Deep is a fortress that lead the way into a cave system known as the Hornburg deep in the mountainside, where unarmed civilians were hiding.
The Uruks sustain enormous losses but eventually succeed in breaching through the walls and flooding the fortress. The surviving defenders are on the verge of being annihilated, and decide to launch a suicidal horse charge in a last ditch attempt to kill as many of the enemy as possible. Just then, Gandalf and Eomer arrive with reinforcements of roughly 3,000 cavalry, who rout the remaining Uruks.
The 1992 film The Last of the Mohicans is one of the few that depicts the French and Indian War in the 1750s. There are numerous battle sequences in the film, but one of the most notable is when a column of a few hundred English infantry in an open field are surrounded and then attacked by thousands of Huron warriors who were hidden in the woods.
The battle begins with the howl of Huron shrieks coming from the woods before they open fire and gun down numerous British soldiers. They then charge forward from both sides and an epic close quarters battle fought with muskets, flintlock pistols, knives, and tomahawks begins. The battle is also incredibly chaotic and well-filmed, and makes you feel as if you were actually there. The scene is also incredibly violent, as many Hurons and British soldiers alike are clubbed, stabbed, shot at point blank range, whacked with tomahawks, or have their throats slit or heads bashed in, and one British officer even has his heart cut out on screen.
Another classic battle in The Lord of the Rings film trilogy is the Siege of Minas Tirith, which takes up a good percentage of the film in The Return of the King. In the film, around 250,000 Orcs under the command of the Witch King of Angmar, working for the Dark Lord Sauron, launch an assault on Gondor’s capital city of Minas Tirith, defended by the wizard Gandalf and less than 10,000 Gondorian soldiers. The two sides bombard each other with catapults, before the Orcs flood forward. Despite taking enormous losses, they use siege towers to scale the walls and break down the front gates with trolls.
Minas Tirith is about to fall when suddenly King Theoden of Rohan arrives with 6,000 Rohan cavalry, who launch an assault on the Orcs sprawled out over the Pelennor Fields. The Orcs are nearly routed before before Olpyhants arrive with 13,000 Easterlings, and the sway of the battle is turned again. Rohan and Gondor are again on the verge of defeat, until Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas arrive with the Army of the Undead to wipe out the orc army.