Streaming spotlight: against the odds

Seven cinematic battles that defy expectations

by Jennie Kermode

When the film industry hands out its awards, action films rarely get their due, yet there’s serous craft required to make them well – and never more so than when it comes to battles. This week we’re turning our spotlight on some of cinema’s greatest battle scenes, all available for you to watch from the comfort of your home, looking at the way the brilliance of real tacticians combines with storytelling skill to create moments that thrill and terrify in equal measure even when watched over and over again.

The 13th Warrior
The 13th Warrior

The 13th Warrior - Amazon Prime, Google Play

Twelve Viking warriors and the Arab translator they’re teaching to fight. A village whose inhabitants are ready to defend themselves but lack any skills. A cannibal horde determined to overwhelm them all. John McTiernan’s action-packed take on Beowulf has several great battle sequences and draws on ancient texts describing Norse battle tactics; it was, in its turn, a major source of inspiration for the Battle of Winterfell in Game Of Thrones. McTiernan is at much at home sending shivers down the spine as a group of men stand back to back facing an unknown enemy in the dark, as he is showing us the full force of the enemy smashing up against a hurriedly-erected stockade. Swords and shields are expertly wielded with none of cinema’s all-too-frequent pauses to let less skilled fighters catch up; this is frantic, immersive stuff, and we know what the price will be for any mistake.

Spartacus
Spartacus

Spartacus - NowTV, Sky Go

It’s one thing to escape the gladiatorial arena; one thing to tour the countryside with a growing army of slaves, banners raised in defiance of Rome; quite another to take on the full might of the Roman army with all those untrained men. There isn’t really a point at which Kirk Douglas’ Spartacus expects to win, but what matters is making an impression on the Romans that they’ll never forget, letting slaves everywhere know that it’s possible to fight back. To do this they need to use whatever they can find in their immediate environment, using sticks and stones as a back-up for swords and breaking up phalanxes with rolls of hay. As often in battle, the lie of the land is also a crucial factor, as the motivation of those involved. With a huge cast and breathtaking scope, this was, in its time, the greatest cinematic battle ever staged.

Red Cliff
Red Cliff

Red Cliff - Amazon Prime

During the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history, the powerful prime minister Cao Cao, having finally ended the brutal civil war in the north, set his sights upon the peaceful and prosperous south. To reach it, however, he would have to pass through a narrow strip of land controlled by two warlords, and though neither could have withstood him alone, together they stood a chance – thanks to the foreign diplomat (played here by Takeshi Kaneshiro) who united them. Both sides make some clever moves but it is esoteric knowledge of history and meteorology that ultimately confers an advantage. This gives viewers the chance to see some of the cleverest moves ever designed by China’s great generals – and unlike most military films, this is also notable for its female characters, warrior and politician alike.

Zulu
Zulu

Zulu - Amazon Prime, NowTV

Following the rout of the British army at Isandlwana, a small group of cavalrymen and engineers building a bridge at the missionary station of Rourke’s Drift find themselves pinned down by the Zulu army and forced into a desperate defence. Though a long period as a staple of Sunday afternoon TV stopped people taking it seriously as a piece of art, this film, which was a huge hit on release, still has a lot to recommend it. As it was made in 1964 no effort has been made to sanitise the racist language or attitudes of the time so some viewers may find it a tough watch, but the film is sharper than many of its ilk and shows as much respect for the skills and ability of the Zulus as the white men. The former show a much better grasp of tactics, the latter commendable mostly for their courage, with very little hope of success – but the battle that follows leads to a rare moment of mutual respect.

13 Assassins
13 Assassins

13 Assassins - Amazon Prime

When a brash young Shogun-in-waiting starts romanticising about Japan’s feudal past, testing his strength by slaughtering villagers and torturing women, a small band of samurai – aided by a mysterious wild man – sets out to stop him. With his forces vastly outnumbering them, their best hope lies in setting up an ambush in a village beside an important river crossing point. Restructuring buildings and setting up traps, they transform into what one of them callas “a town of death”, but they will still need all their sword-wielding skill to win the battle. With some amazing set pieces and tactical tricks you won’t see coming, the film includes a 40 minute continuous combat sequence but also manages to do good work on character building and exploring the difference between idealised notions of combat and the bloody reality.

Outlaw King
Outlaw King

Outlaw King - Netflix

Before it even screened, David Mackenzie’s historical epic faced a battle to be taken seriously, between the casting of Chris Pine (who rightly pointed out that Robert the Bruce wouldn’t have sounded like a modern Scot anyway) and the expectation that it would be nothing but crowd—pleasing propaganda. There’s a lot going on it it though, from the complex political picture it paints to its all-too-human characters; and then there are the battles. The Bruce’s outlaw army only stands a chance if it’s smart, and depends on a knowledge of the land and an innovative approach to using it. Mackenzie plunges us into the thick of the action, delivering battle scenes that are raw and horrific, let us follow crucial aspects of the action whilst experiencing the disorientation felt by those caught up in this kind of struggle directly.

The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King
The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King

The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King - - Amazon Prime

There are a number of amazing combat sequences in Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy, but the final film includes the best of them, from the brutal Stalingrad-inspired struggle for Osgiliath to the final epic battle in and around Tiras Minath. Out heroes have all but given up hope when they reach this point, and each time they start to make progress it’s snatched away from them. The defenders on the walls hold up well until attacked from the air. The cavalry slice through enemy infantry only to be mown down as easily themselves upon the arrival of the oliphants, like a potted history of the development of warfare in Europe. Jackson even finds time to make reference to the way battles have been recorded in tapestry. Though the undead army is a bit of a disappointment, stealing the thunder of properly developed characters, overall this is one of the greatest battle scenes in cinema.

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