Epic is overused. Heavily, heavily overused. The internet has corrupted a perfectly good word, and now it’s used almost as badly as lol. Anything that’s vaguely humorous gets slapped with the label without any appreciation for what it truly is. You know what’s epic? Hundreds of armed and trained men, slaughtering each other ruthlessly on the field of battle. Blood and death up to your knees, under the chaos of war. That is epic, and these 14 scenes all exemplify the word, as the 14 most epic battles in cinema history.
14. Gladiator, the Germania Battle
The opening battle of Gladiator is perhaps the purest distillation of the epic battle scene that you can imagine. It has all the crucial ingredients, leading to an almost Platonic ideal of a war. You have the general, who is a brilliant tactician and a born leader. You have a clear, and easily identifiable enemy. Interesting military equipment. A rousing speech, and most importantly, a memorable line. “At my signal, unleash hell.” And, of course, blood. Lots and lots of blood, cleaving of people, horrible wounds, and everything else. A fine way to begin our list.
13. Last Samurai, the Final Charge
I had…issues…with the Last Samurai. Mostly just because of the incredibly boring trope of the outsider Westerner suddenly arriving out of nowhere, and becoming the best at something everyone else has trained their entire life for. Plus Tom Cruise’s oddly hairless chest. Even unoriginal plotting can’t take away from the immense power that the final battle had, beautiful in its futility. It’s such an absolutely heart-rending way to show the head-on collision of modernism and tradition, and the forced reforms of Meji era japan. Those chainguns, just cutting through the charging warriors, damn. Plus, Ken Watanabe is amazing in everything.
12. The Patriot, The Battle of Camden
I get it, this battle is meant to show the futility of war, especially 18th Century tactics. Everyone just kind of lines up, and takes turns shooting at each other, and someone loses. A crop of young men, barely teenagers, are cruelly snatched away. Blah, blah, blah. Watching this scene, it’s hard to see it as anything but comedic, and let’s face it, Mel Gibson only signed up for this project because he hates the British. This battle makes this list for one reason, and one reason only. A dude gets decapitated by a cannonball. Enough said.
11. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, The Final Battle
Again with the Russel Crowe. This time, we’re dealing with the ferocity of a sea battle during the Napoleonic Wars. The entire film plays as an elaborate cat and mouse game between the British and the French, as the Surprise and the Acheron chase one another. Naval battles are always a great excuse to show insane amounts of violence in a movie theater. After all, you have archaic weapons, more likely to wound than kill; hundreds of people packed into a small space, more likely to get hit by shrapnel; explosive everywhere; add the constant fear of drowning, and you’ve got yourself a perfect recipe for a bloody, brutal, and above all memorable battle scene.
10. Return of the Jedi, Battle for Endor
Okay, ignore the Ewoks, their side of things was stupid, but everything else? Absolutely fucking amazing! The perfect trap laid by the Emperor (and Ackbar’s famous line), the huge battle between the Rebels and the Imperials, the landside attempts to disable the shields around the Death Star, the rallying of the Rebels at the last minute, absolutely everything is pitch perfect. This also marks the first and only time an A-Wing was actually useful in a fight. While Jedi wasn’t the best of the original trilogy (that honor goes to Empire), the Battle of Endor really was the best of the space battles across any of the films.
9. Curse of the Golden Flower, The Final Battle
Chinese film Curse of the Golden Flower arrived late in West’s period of fascination with psuedo-historical Wushu epics that was triggered by Crouching Tiger. Curse of the Golden Flower was a sumptuous story of repression and intrigue in the Imperial Court, set in a semi-mythical Chinese past. It was stunningly beautiful, and absolutely filled with cleavage. One of the final scenes of the film was the bloody rebellion between the second son of the Emperor against his father. Hundreds of elaborately outfitted warriors clash in a bloody battle among a field of Chrysanthemums, using tactics pulled straight from a 13-year old boy’s imagination. Black clad assassins fly through the sky, impromptu stairways are made from spears, and human powered walls crush the rebellion. It’s beautiful, artfully choreographed, and utterly pointless.
8. A Bridge Too Far, the Parachute Drop
Back in the day, before computers were powerful enough to allow for CGI stand-ins in battle scenes, you actually had to get enough people to represent the armies properly. For the famous parachute scene in A Bridge Too Far, real people threw themselves from real military planes, just in the name of verisimilitude. Thousands of soldiers rain down on the enemy troops, doomed to die in an overextended assault on Axis forces occupying the Netherlands. This film also had one of the finest ensemble casts ever, with Dirk Bogarde, James Caan, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Edward Fox, Anthony Hopkins, Gene Hackman, Hardy KrÃ¼ger, Laurence Olivier, Robert Redford, and Maximilian Schell.
7. The Lord of the Rings, Helm’s Deep and Pelennor Fields
The two major battles from The Two Towers and Return of the King share the seventh spot, as do a number of other battles from the trilogy. While #8 on this list showed that sometimes people create the most convincing battles, Lord of the Rings showed just what CGI can do, and for something set in the archetype of fantasy, there’s really no other choice. The siege at Helm’s Deep, with its thousands of orcs, shattering themselves against those walls, and then Pelennor Fields, with rampaging ouliphants, the death of the Witch King, and the Dead of Dunharrow. Both define the term epic, and both kept us rapt watching our screens, having us believe that these incredible events might actually be possible.
6. Apocalypse Now, the Helicopter Attack
The rousing strains of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries play as helicopters drop napalm on a small Vietnamese village. Not so much a battle as a massacre, the intensely one sided fight between the VietCong and American troops came to perfectly symbolise American hubris over Vietnam, and the belief that pure strength of arms would be enough. And who can forget that infamous line “I love the smell of napalm in the morning… The smell, you know that gasoline smell… Smells like, victory.” All to secure a beach for a bit of surfing.
5. Braveheart, the Battle of Stirling
Mel Gibson, again fighting the British. One might even think he holds a bit of a grudge. When I was in High School, we had the Army show up one day, and show us a clip from Braveheart, and the famous speech at the Battle of Stirling by William Wallace, as an example of a “great leader”. The ensuing battle is brutal, bloody, and the stuff of cinema legend. A rag tag bunch of filthy Scots take on the well trained English, and through sheer force of will, manage to win. Sure, the historical accuracy may be a bit on the slim side, but if I wanted, that I’d be watching documentaries. Wallace’s speech, and ensuing victory, are magnificently done, even if it is one of the most wildly inaccurate historical films ever conceived.
4. Spartacus, The Final Battle
Look, here’s the basic rule for classical epics. Don’t fuck with the Romans. Sure, they may be decadent and oppressive, but they will fuck you up on the battle field. They’re excellent tacticians, better armed, better trained, and just generally better than you. You can heavily outnumber them, and they will still stomp you into the mud. Even if you lead an army of the righteous, slaves rebelling against their masters, you will die horribly. Even if you win a couple of battles along the way, eventually they’ll get you. I don’t think there’s ever been a movie about battles with Rome in which the main character does not die horribly at the end. You have to hand it to Kubrick, the final battle of Spartacus defined the word epic, with hundreds and hundreds of extras gleefully participating in choreographed destruction.
The whole thing, okay? Apart from the parts of the film taking place in Sparta, all of 300 is a bloody tribute to the art of the epic battle scene, with glorious beautiful death raining down on everyone. I think attempting to point out a single scene which is particularly of note would be foolhardy, as the entire flick is glorious.
2. Zulu, Battle of Rorke’s Drift
To modern watchers, Zulu is a problematic film. Noble English defending themselves using better technology and tactics against a massive force of “inferior” black dudes? Yeah, there’s a whole bunch of nasty interpretation going on there. That said, the final battle from Zulu is so riveting and amazing, it’s impossible to ignore its power. The Zulu chants at the beginning, which the Welsh battalion tries to counter with a company song. The massive number of attackers charging a small number of defenders, desperately trying to defend makeshift barricades, and the final rally which leads to victory. Peter Jackson has specifically said that Helm’s Deep was patterned on this classic, and Ridley Scott borrowed the Zulu war chant for Gladiator. That’s how influential this scene was.
1. Saving Private Ryan, Omaha Beach
27 minutes long. Half a freaking hour. That’s how long the opening assault is on Omaha beach. A full 1/6 of Saving Private Ryan is devoted to one of the most harrowing, terrifying, inspiring battles ever put on screen. No other movie has ever captured the gut churning terror and chaos of a beach assault the way Private Ryan did, and the death that came with it. More than any other entry on this list, it also showed that it was possible to have historical accuracy at the same time as memorable cinematography and amazing action, without descending into cartoon villains and anachronistic heroes. The D-Day Invasion depicted in Saving Private Ryan is harsh, brutal, and and amazing piece of cinema. It rightly deserves to be at the top of this list.