I pondered this question recently after watching The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) in all its lengthy, kill-the-orcs-in-creative-ways glory. Director Peter Jackson certainly knows how to helm an epic contest—the thrilling defense of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) is up there with the best ever made—but for some reason, the endless fights and escapes in this LOTR prequel became exhausting rather than hair-raising. After the thirtieth orc dispatching, I was more than ready for the next scene.
So why didn’t that movie capture the excitement of King? It had the same director and many of the same ingredients. What was it missing?
Smaug offers further proof that creating a perfect battle scene is one of the hardest things to do in cinema. In this age of computer-generated imagery, it’s easy to throw some animated figures into the mix, give them swords and shields, and smash them into each other. But it’s not easy to make that interesting. A judicious mix of music, cinematography, editing and perspective is required for success, as well as a range of shots and camera subjects. Just showing people hacking away at each other to bombastic music isn’t enough (sorry, Spartacus). Variety plus quality is the spice of fights.
When I watch a flick with a subpar battle scene, I think of the definitive one and how it got everything right. It has become trendy these days to dismiss Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) as hackneyed Soviet propaganda, but the truth of the matter is, it’s an enthralling film with the best army clash ever to rock the silver screen. The contest between the mail-clad Russians and the sinister Teutonic knights climaxes with the celebrated Battle on the Ice, set to Sergei Prokofiev’s rousing score and brimming with Red Army soldiers used as extras. It’s one of the few movies in history to capture the anxious anticipation of waiting for the opponent, a superb shot in which Eisenstein’s camera gradually shows the expanse of spear-wielding Russians as they shift back and forth while trying to get a view of the invaders. Nevsky also provides a personalised view of war, interspersing images of large-scale combat with intimate close-ups of individual characters fighting. There’s even a bit of comedy, where one of the burly Russian protagonists unveils his disguise as a Teutonic knight—one he has been using to attack his enemy from behind.
The idea in Nevsky, as Soviet anti-Nazi propaganda, was to make the battle as thrilling as possible while portraying the Germans as frightening villains. It succeeds brilliantly and still holds up to this day. Yet not every classic battle scene need be so rah-rah-rah. In Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985) and Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (1965), you get the bleak, unglamorous side of war and its devastating impact on human beings. The former film, Kurosawa’s feudal-Japan adaptation of King Lear, features one of the most disturbing combat sequences in film history: a bloody, confusing attack on a castle where soldiers get run over pitilessly by cavalrymen, people get dismembered and women commit suicide together rather than get captured. Kurosawa’s picture-perfect images during much of this scene run silently, with only Toru Takemitsu’s melancholy score commenting on the gore. It’s an amazing choice and shows the idiocy of war without resorting to sentimentality.
In that vein, the black-and-white Chimes at Midnight, another Shakespearean foray, is Ran’s comrade-at-disarms, supplying a fearsome, mud-filled contest in which armored knights and footsoldiers basically hit each other brutally with maces and other weapons while providing no indication that anything productive is being done. You wouldn’t know the movie was low budget after watching this sequence, but like Ran, it shows the horrific reality of battle and the confusion it incites.
Nope. Steve Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) doesn’t even come close … no matter how realistic it aspired to be. Neither does Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995), which, despite all the gore, seemed to play some violent moments (particularly one in which a combatant mooning the enemy gets shot with an arrow) for laughs, a poor decision that undermined the seriousness of the fray. I feel that even Ryan did that too, notably in the case of a soldier who dodges death via his helmet, takes it off to inspect it, and is then killed by a bullet.
Sorry, I don’t find that ironic or amusing—just dismaying. And it’s not the kind of perspective that sheds any light on war, unlike the siege of Gondor in Jackson’s King, which shows that there can be value in coming to people’s defense. One of the only films to use CGI soldiers appropriately (that’s right; I’m not counting the tedious hack-a-thons in Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004) or Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004)), King showcases slinging catapults, flying Ringwraiths, the despair accompanying a possible loss and a cavalry charge coming to the rescue that rivals only Nevsky in its scope and breathlessness. Of course, there’s Howard Shore’s captivating score, filled with leitmotifs for the various factions, and sharp editing that seamlessly juxtaposes various storylines and planes of action.
See, Alexander? You can’t just show a historic strategy involving thousands of men and deem it palatable for the screen.
You can, however, take a legendary contest and create an otherworldly effect. That’s what Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964) did, featuring the famous Battle of Dan-no-ura in a ghostly context, resulting in an eerie, unique sequence. The sea foray is set against a vibrantly colored sky and pits two noble families against each other. It’s a stylised fight, interspersed with period paintings of the clash and ending with the tragic mass suicide of the losing Heike family, who jump into the water to drown with their infant emperor. But it’s the music that makes this scene, a jangling, mournful piece for the biwa (the great Takemitsu composed the score to this movie as well) and solo voice that describes the battle and fits the onscreen action perfectly. There’s no other flick like it.
I realise that I didn’t answer my question about whether filming such scenes is a lost art. My concern is that it is—that even those who have crafted great, massive-scale combat sequences, such as Jackson, have put aside their recipes for new, less-successful ones. Maybe the Battle of Five Armies in Smaug’s successor-to-come, The Hobbit: There and Back Again, will approach the quality Jackson attained in King. If not, I wonder if we won’t again achieve the brilliance of the clashes in the latter film, Nevsky, Ran, Midnight and Kwaidan without an examination of those movies and their techniques.
I have to remain optimistic, however, and believe that the best directors know how to make even the most innocuous subjects exciting. As Edgar in King Lear says: “The worst is not. So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’” Hopefully, the best of cinematic battle scenes will follow suit.