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100 Great Movie Action Scenes: Battles & Combat

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Great Movie Action Scenes: Battles & Combat

100 Essential Action Scenes, Part Nine: Battles & Combat

Whether storming a beach or a besieging castle, marching on foot or charging on horseback, in a historical epic or a fantasy extravaganza, battles scenes are some of the most complex and intricately choreographed of all action scenes. Capable of zooming in to a one-on-one fight between two foes or zooming out to show a big picture look at the action–and featuring anywhere from dozens to hundreds to thousands of extras, either flesh and blood or digital–these are the scenes in which wars are fought, tides are turned, and glory is won.

81. Children of Men (2006)
The revolution begins

In recent years, long takes seem to have become somewhat blase. This summer alone, Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron and Brad Peyton’s San Andreas have all featured elaborate long take sequences, ones that have almost been entirely ignored in discussions surrounding each film. Blame advanced computer graphics that allow such scenes to be crafted with greater ease than ever before, or perhaps blame films like Gravity or Birdman with their staggeringly staged long take sequences for raising the bar perhaps too high. But in the long-ago days of 2006, no one had seen anything quite like the stunning six-minute long take that caps off Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men. The sequence sees Clive Owen’s protagonist navigate a raging uprising in a dystopian future England beset by the effects of global infertility, narrowly escaping violent insurrectionists and equally violent police and army troops. It’s an incredibly complex sequence involving vehicles, pyrotechnics, and hundreds of extras and stunt performers. The use of long take in the sequence, rather than just an attention-grabbing formal affectation, heightens the tension and leaves the viewer exhausted and battered, which makes the resulting “ceasefire” that follows seem like an island of calm in a raging sea of violence and tension. It’s this ability to take us, as viewers, from one end of the response scale to another, ratcheting our tension to almost unbearable levels before taking us to a moment of incredible awe, serenity, and humanity, that makes this scene from Children of Men one of the most remarkable and effecting large-scale battle sequences in film. (Thomas O’Connor)

82. Ran (1986)
Storming the castle

All of the battle scenes on this list are incredible and deserve to be here, but none are more surreal than the castle siege halfway through Akira Kurosawa’s Ran. The scene finds two of Hidetora’s (Tatsuya Nakadai) sons joining forces to attack him in his castle, where Hidetora’s forces are grossly outnumbered and overrun. What follows is like a nightmare come to life. Each aspect feels just off of reality: the omnipresent smoke, the endless hordes of enemies, the abandonment of all sound save for the eerie score. No present-day studio (foreign or domestic) would let a battle scene play out with just the score playing; the sounds of tearing flesh or thunderous explosions are much too valued over something more impactful. Where most battle scenes are titillating, this one is mystifying and horrifying like a fever dream come to life in the most cinematically haunting way possible. The slaughter of Hidetora’s men is intercut with Hidetora losing his sanity, culminating in a spectacular shot of the deposed Lord walking down the steps of his castle as it burns behind him. Each army is comprised of hundreds of extras all distinguished by the color of their armor, so the audience never loses track of who’s who in the battle. It’s a sequence that would be 70% CGI today. But in the bygone era of ’80s excess, they actually had to burn a building down and use hundreds of live horses–images far more lasting than anything a computer could conjure. Ran encapsulates what cinema can achieve at its grandest. (Dylan Griffin)

83. The Thin Red Line (1998)
Taking the hill

Expert coordinator of action is not the first moniker you would bestow on esoteric movie maven Terrence Malick. But the bunker sequence in his adaptation of The Thin Red Line is a near faultless presentation of small scale strategic combat. Hoping to gain new ground in the Guadalcanal campaign, Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) orders a team of six to expose and capture a hidden bunker on a steep hillside. Covered only by swaying reeds of grass and a few rock formations, the team, led by Captain Gaff (John Cusack), flanks the bunker from the right, effectively goading their enemy and its giant machine gun turret. With cinematographer John Toll’s help, Malick digs his audience into the dirt with these six men as the enemy goes from sniping at them to popping out of the brush in full attack. It’s a frightening scene obscured by smoke, gunfire, and the unforgiving terrain. Frightening, that is until it isn’t. There isn’t an exact pivot point. No grand deductions on weakening the enemy’s defenses. No mighty kill shots to shift the tide. There’s the adrenaline of fear then the adrenaline of killing, and before the soldiers know it, they’ve taken their prisoners and gained new ground. Malick takes a beat after the victory to absorb the scene. Private Dale mocks his captured enemy. Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) graciously offers a piece of gum to one prisoner. Private Bell (Ben Chaplin) has a moment of startling clarity. “I shot a man,” he whispers to his friend Doll (Dash Mihok). In most war films, the next cut washes away the sin of battle. For Malick, the battle will always linger. Its casualties are many. (Shane Ramirez)

84. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Ride of the Valkyries

It’s become Hollywood’s defining image of the Vietnam War: a flight of helicopters descending on a Vietnamese village, reigning hellfire as Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries blares on the loudspeaker. There are no grand speeches or sweeping buildups, just everyday destruction that lasts only as long as its black plumes can burn into the air. Director Francis Ford Coppola adds an unsettling turn: our heroes kill soldiers and civilians alike. There’s also Robert Duvall’s Colonel Killgore, who relishes “the smell of napalm in the morning” and offers beers to his buddies for each enemy killed. It’s the indiscriminate killing that makes for a bracing set piece, as horrifying and viscerally thrilling as war itself. (Chris Saunders)

85. 13 Assassins (2010)
Welcome to the town of death

Traditionally, an action movie will sparse out its set pieces, using them as connective tissue so that the audience has something to string them along during the quieter, less explosive moments. With the exception of two incredibly brief fight scenes, Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins is one long march to inevitable, glorious carnage. The titular killers have been hired to kill the evil and sadistic lord before he becomes too powerful and sends a peaceful, feudal Japan back into a time of war. The majority of Assassins finds its band of mercenaries moving, contemplating their suicide mission until the final 40 minutes, when the evil lord and his guard have made their way to a town that the assassins have converted into one giant murder weapon, complete with spiked booby-traps and giant, charging, flaming bulls. Miike stages this Spartan-like battle claustrophobically, never letting the viewer forget just how insurmountable the odds are of the protagonists succeeding in their mission. Just as the death toll rises, so too does the death-town begin to feel more open, which only increases the sense of destruction, as the ground and the characters become drenched in equal parts mud and blood. Miike’s crowning achievement is that he is able to whittle away a massive siege into an introspective one-on-one sword fight without ever losing clarity or tone, making for a viewing experience as revelatory as it is brutal. (JJ Perkins)

86. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
The Battle of Pelennor Fields

In what might be the greatest pre-battle speech offered on celluloid (“DEATH!”), Theoden (Bernard Hill) leads the forces of Gondor against an army that dwarfs his by thousands. Defeat seems imminent but unencumbered by fear as they rush forward to meet the Witch-king’s army, facing a massive challenge from Oliphaunts, Nazgul, and orcs. Each charge into certain death inspires awe based on the sheer level of technical difficulty alone. The attention to detail from the special-effect geniuses at WETA (the melding of CGI with practical actors and horses in particular) to achieve a battle of such breadth and scope is mind-boggling. The Battle of Pelennor Fields is the largest—if not the greatest—battle of The Lord of the Rings trilogy because director Peter Jackson has spent nearly ten hours building up to it. Such dedication makes the eventual battle all the more satisfying for the time spent developing characters (the valiant Eowyn, the plucky Merry, the noble Gandalf) so that when they realize their destinies in the heat of battle, it’s earned. (Colin Biggs)

87. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
“No prisoners!”

Lawrence of Arabia features five major turning points in the larger-than-life exploits of T.E. Lawrence, but the scene that best displays the scope and ambition of David Lean’s masterpiece comes after Lawrence is captured and tortured by a sadistic Turkish Bey. What follows is an account of how Lawrence became a central figure in the Arab revolt against the Turks. In the heat of battle, an obsessed Lawrence screams “No prisoners!” and fights like it’s his last day on earth. When it is all over, he is drenched in blood and emotionally destroyed. Much has been written about Freddie Young’s Super Panavision, 70-millimeter cinematography, Peter O’Toole’s performance, David Lean’s flawless direction and the superb score from Maurice Jarre–but put all that aside, what makes Lawrence so great, is that the battles (as visually impressive as they are) are simply a backdrop for what is 100 percent a character study. (Ricky D)

88. Seven Samurai (1954)
Seven no more

To define a singular filmmaker as a genius in editing and camera work is to define Akira Kurosawa. His Seven Samurai is the pinnacle of cinematic perfection with the final battle being its symphonic crescendo. The use of multiple cameras intertwines emotions of both rage and fear, as we see our samurai clan rush in to save the helpless farmers from wild bandits. Short cut-away shots allow the viewer to see just the right amount of action, enraptured by high energy and chaos. Wide shots, however, balance the mood by bringing into perspective the utter confusion and death that lingers around our heroes. Notice the lack of music. Pouring rain, outcries from helpless victims, and neighs from frantic horses are the only backdrop to this climactic ending. Helplessness is present among our heroes, even at the bitter end. Sure it is a victory for the farmers, but at what cost and exactly for whose cause are our heroic seven fighting for? Not only is this one of the best action scenes in cinematic history, but by far one of the best scenes ever captured on film. (Christopher Clemente)

89. The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers (2002
The Battle of Helm’s Deep

Also known as the Battle of the Hornburg, the union between Elves and Man against a 10,000 army of Uruk-Ha serves as a teaser of what is to come in the series. As King Théoden (Bernard Hill) retreats to Helm’s Deep for safety, his former adviser Wormtongue (Brad Dourif) anticipates this move and enables his master, Saruman (Christopher Lee), to plan ahead, leading to the end siege of the film. As the battle gets underway, Aragon (Viggo Mortensen) begins to show the key leadership skills that will guide him towards his destiny as the King of Gondor, while Elvin Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) sends his forces as back-up, showing the hopeful re-alliance between Man and Elf. Taking place during a dark, rainy night, there is impending doom as the Rohirrim, the Three Hunters (Aragon, Legolas, and Gimli), and Elvish forces are heavily outnumbered.  However, director Peter Jackson interweaves little bouts of humor that effectively break up the action such as a panicked archer, the contest between Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), and the latter’s willingness to be tossed by Aragorn–an element that highlights his development from one of the prouder characters in the ensemble to one with some humility in battle. As the scene reaches its victorious climax, represented by the arrival of Gandalf, Théoden’s banished nephew Éomer (Karl Urban) and his men, the battle comes to an almost abrupt end. Not only is the Battle for Middle-Earth around the corner, but Man is regaining the strength and respect that was lost when Isildur failed to destroy the One Ring. (Katie Wong)

90. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
D-Day assault

Steven Spielberg’s depiction of D-Day in Saving Private Ryan–the most epic, realistic, and intense depiction of war ever put to film–starts off small. It’s Tom Hanks’s shaky hand as he swigs from his canteen, followed by close-up looks at the soldiers aboard the breaching boats. Without even a glance over the edge out onto the beach, Spielberg allows nothing to prepare us for the mayhem to come, just as the soldiers couldn’t have begun to imagine what they were about to face. Bodies tumble over into the ocean and are quietly killed before we even hit the surface. Soldiers wander the beach with missing limbs or wallow bleeding in agony, while unseen bullets rapidly dispose of others. One takes a bullet to the helmet and lives to see how lucky he is, if only for a second. So much death is on display, immersive and close to the chest without any music or cinematic flourishes, that as we approach Hanks again, the sound itself dips out for just a moment. In fact, Spielberg never gives us a good, long look at the beach, and for a battle that we won, it certainly doesn’t seem triumphant. It takes roughly 12 minutes before we witness even the first German soldier killed. World War II films with even greater scopes have been filmed before and after Saving Private Ryan, yet none have matched this opening scene’s power. For as sprawling and chaotic as this moment is, Spielberg makes this battle personal and intimate. (Brian Welk)

PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3 | PART 4 | PART 5  
PART 6 | PART 7 | PART 8 | PART 9 | PART 10

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