Cinema and combat: Is filming a great battle scene a lost art?

Alexander Nevsky (1938) battleIs filming a great battle scene a lost art?

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.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) battle

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

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.

Chimes at Midnight (1965) battle

Chimes at Midnight (1965)

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.

Alexander Nevsky (1938) battle

Alexander Nevsky (1938)

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.

Kwaidan (1964) battle

Kwaidan (1964)

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.

Ran (1985) battle

Ran (1985)

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.

 

 

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse (criticalmousse.com) that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

17 thoughts on “Cinema and combat: Is filming a great battle scene a lost art?

  1. On the DVD extras of Return Of The King Jackson says that the horses on the battlefield in the defense of Gondor were his main focus. In the book Tolkien said that there were 600 horses going against the orcs. He mentions that there is no place in the world you will ever be able to go to in the modern world where there are 600 real horses. He’s right, and that’s why this art is dead. CGI is at a peak. We are more impressed by real sets than green screens. Christopher Nolan is one director who consistently refuses to use CG when he can avoid it, and it makes scenes like the airplane opening in Dark Knight Rises much more impressive. You are totally right, the battle scene is dead. Computers did kill it. But now we can watch things that are that much more intimate. That plane scene from DKR isn’t as epic as the defense of Gondor, but it is more satisfying in a lot of ways. We can see the blood sweat and tears that go into those planes, and it brings a real-life connection. We feel like Bane is that much more plausible because Nolan chose not to use computers when he had one plane mount another mid-air. I don’t mourn the death of the battle scene, because I think it will give birth to more compelling action in movies. Film is a fast moving medium and some things get left behind. The epic battle scene is probably one of them. I think movies will only get better. If the battle for Gondor was the last great battle scene, I’m going to accept that and look for the new great thing that great movies will be able to offer.

  2. Intriguing post, Simon. I certainly think a lot of the artistry of battle sequences has suffered from the convenience of CGI. A lot of my favourite fight sequences come from Tarantino’s ‘Kill Bill’ epic. It’s all stunts and live action bliss. Even some of the battle sequences from the original Star Wars trilogy (ie. the Battle of Yavin and the battle of Hoth) are stand outs because of the PHYSICAL effort that’s gone into constructing them. CGI has made the impossible possible but it causes LAZINESS.

    • That’s a good point! I wonder if it’s also a cost-oriented move as well–that CGI may be more economical than hiring numerous extras. But you’re right; CGI battle scenes today, with some exceptions, often feel lazy, as if the relative ease with which animators may create a sequence results in less-inspired choices (though there are plenty of badly done non-CGI battle scenes in film history as well).

    • Totally agree, Tim–filled with memorable images. I will never forget the shot of Tatsuya Nakadai walking away, traumatized, from his son after the destruction of his castle. Tremendously moving.

  3. Sorry for a long -and possibly controversial- comment, but here goes.
    I cannot take the LOTR films seriously. I read the Hobbit when I was 11 years old, so I have always seen it as a book for younger people, perhaps into their teens. I have never really bought into the Peter Jackson films, for much the same reason. I also find it hard to grasp the fascination for Doctor Who, so perhaps the fan base that admires all this stuff so much must surely be of another generation.
    Battle scenes are unlikely to ever be the same, since the widespread adoption of CGI. There can surely be no substitute for lots of extras, filmed from various angles, in sweeping vistas. You are right to cite ‘Nevsky’ and ‘Ran’ as great examples. I would add ‘Zulu’ (1964) to this list (avoiding the Imperialist overtones) as well as other Kurosawa films, ‘Throne of Blood’ (1957) and ‘Kagemusha’ (1980). ‘Chimes at Midnight’ (1965) depicts old-style conflict in the raw, and is one of my all-time favourite films, that I am pleased to be able to mention almost daily on this site.
    For more modern battles, I would suggest Kubrick’s ‘Paths of Glory’ (1957) to show the futility of trench warfare in WW1, and the overlooked German epic ‘Stalingrad’ (1993), where close-quarter fighting in the industrial ruins is frighteningly claustrophobic, and feels realistic.

    I will end this ramble with what I humbly suggest is the best battle scene of all time in a film, as almost the whole film is a battle; Waterloo (1970). Sergei Bondarchuck used almost as many men in the cast, as took part in the battle. Filmed from numerous angles, including personal viewpoints, and massed cavalry charges; who could ever forget the aerial shots of the British squares, repulsing French cavalry? Put aside the sometimes caricature performances by some of the leading actors, and you have a film that shows battle scenes as you actually believe they might have happened.

    I could go on all day about other war films, and more great battle scenes, but I will leave it there, or it will be a post, not a comment!
    Great article Simon, hugely enjoyable. Regards from Norfolk, and a Happy New Year. Pete.

    • Hi, Pete–many thanks for the astute comment! Though my tolerance for the LOTR films approaches idolatry, I agree with many of your other points. I thought about including Kagemusha–though I substituted Ran instead; the final, great battle in the former film isn’t shown until the aftermath, which, admittedly, is one of the most powerful anti-war statements in cinema, as the entire Takeda force has been destroyed by Oda Nobunaga’s guns … suggesting the futility of the conflict. And although I like Zulu as a film, the battle, to me, is, like much of the film, not insightful; I feel it doesn’t have an outlook other than showing what actually happened when the British defended their outpost. And Throne of Blood–also one of my favorites (yes, I’m a Kurosawa fan)–doesn’t have a battle scene per se, though it does show the army marching in the trees to take the castle … and, of course, Toshiro Mifune’s Washizu getting riddled with arrows (an incredible scene). I’m definitely going to have to check out Waterloo–it’s one I’m not familiar with, so thanks for the suggestion! Appreciation of battle scenes, like every other cinematic component, may well be a matter of taste … though I do like to think some, like Nevsky, go without saying. 🙂

      Best wishes for a Happy New Year!

      Simon

  4. I just watched “The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug” a few days ago and would argue that the difference between the battle scenes in this film (compared to LoTR) stems from the fact that the tone of the franchises are completely different. “The Hobbit” doesn’t have the same level of intensity as LoTR–since it’s a prequel, it suffers from the same problem as the Star Wars prequels: we already know the outcome. We know the story is being told in flashback by old Bilbo, so we already know he will survive everything that comes his way. The stakes feel lower because there is no chance he will die. The fights in Lord of the Rings *felt* like life or death ordeals because the mood of that trilogy was pretty grim and serious throughout. A great example of this is the fighting style of Legolas in this film compared to LoTR. “The Hobbit” fights use more slapstick/comedy elements to amuse and delight the audience. The outcome of the fight is not in doubt, so suspense comes from the “way” an enemy will be defeated, not “whether” the enemy will be defeated. Personally, I think this is what killed “The Lone Ranger”. I was telling my family that it might have been much stronger as a film without the “old Tonto” framing device, which killed the suspense for all the fights. “Pirates of the Carribean” didn’t have an “Old Jack Sparrow” telling some young pirate about his youth.

    • I completely agree with you on this, Dawn–the immediacy just wasn’t there, and that was definitely part of the reason why Smaug wasn’t as exciting. And you’re right about the tone, too. Thanks!

  5. I shouldn’t even mention this movie in the same sentence as Ran and Alexander Nevsky, but I’m sci-fi oriented, so it comes to mind– the battle scenes in Revenge of the Sith are some of the lamest ever filmed. They are all meeting engagements– people are just running at each other, no sense of tactics or formation. Of course, the prequels in general lacked essential storytelling punch, so this might not be surprising.

    I think you’re on to something about battle scenes being a lost art, but they’ve never been easy.

    • That’s true, Doug–and I agree with you about Revenge of the Sith. I thought that film was just horribly, horribly done. It’s interesting that you mention tactics; Nevsky definitely showcased the strategy, and I think that’s part of what made it so compelling. But you’re right–a battle scene is a difficult thing to film, and I can’t imagine the logistics that go into it!

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