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Swords, Arrows, and Lots of Yelling: Breaking Down Ten Great Medieval Battle Scenes

Photo: HBO, New Line Cinema, Paramount Pictures

You could probably direct one of these scenes yourself, so ingrained have the tropes of the medieval battle become in the mind of the moviegoer. These days, any film even vaguely set in a medieval time period must include long, dirty hair and at least one bloody battle scene. It’s the law — and within the span of a week, both the cinematic Game of Thrones episode “Blackwater” and Snow White and the Huntsman abided. We’ll talk hair another day; today it’s about the battles — the rousing pre-fight speeches, the two sides charging into each other, the last-second rescue of important characters. We watched a bunch and found that those packed with the most recognizable tropes also tend to be the very best. After all, who wants a twelfth-century battle without the flaming arrows?

Battle speech: Atop his steed, covered in anachronistic face paint, William Wallace delivers his rant against English tyranny, which culminates in what is now only the second most famous thing Mel Gibson has ever said: “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freeeeeedom!”   Chaaarge!: It’s about as primitive as it gets at the Battle of Stirling — the Scots run from one direction and the English from the other. There are swords, there are shields, and once their ranks smash into each other, there’s so much blood.   Creative kill: It’s hard to revolutionize murder with blades and bludgeoning instruments, but using a sword between the legs like a piece of crotch floss is particularly memorable.   Hero vs. villain moment: The only people our hero Wallace meets on the battlefield are extras meant to die.
Battle speech: On the back of his white horse Snowmane, King Théoden delivers a rousing but rather hurried speech with lines such as, “Spears shall be shaken, shields shall be splintered — a sword day. A red day. And the sun rises.” It’s not clear what the hell that means, but it sounds inspiring.   Chaaarge!: Amped up by Théoden’s oratory, an army of Rohirrim men ride straight ahead into an oncoming sea of orcs, who unleash a storm of arrows. Some horses fall but not nearly enough to prevent the frontline of orcs from getting flattened. Then all hell breaks loose.    Hero vs. villain moment: In the context of this battle, it’s Théoden vs. the Witch King, who gets the better of the old man by using his hell-hawk to fling him and Snowmane into the air. Once Snowmane lands on top of the king, it’s lights out for his majesty.   Last-second rescue: With the hands of the Witch King around her throat, Éowyn is saved by the hobbit Merry, who reaches as high as he can to stab the dark lord in the back of his knee. The Witch King falls; Éowyn rises and stabs him in the face. Photo: Copyright ? ?New Line Cinema/courtesy Everett / Everett Collection
Battle speech: The King walks among his men and climbs into a wagon as he delivers his stirring pep talk, probably the best pre-battle speech ever written. It includes lines like, “For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother” and is accompanied by an orchestra that must be hiding in the trees.   Chaaarge!: The King’s forces wait for the French, who charge through the mud with faces that have a magnetic attraction to arrows.     Creative kill: In what might be the only non-sword kill of this battle, an Englishman drowns a Frenchman in a muddy puddle.   Hero vs. villain moment: King Henry and Constable Charles d’Albret, the commander of the French forces, don’t come face-to-face. Instead, the constable dies after uttering the words, “Shame, and eternal shame, nothing but shame,” as Henry mashes like a medieval Schwarzenegger. Photo: The Kobal Collection
Battle speech: Short, effective, and in Elvish, Aragon’s battle speech is a simple command: “Show them no mercy, for you shall receive none.” An Orc delivers an even shorter one, for which no translation is provided. In Orcish it goes like, “Arrrrrgggg.”   Chaaarge!: With the human and Elvin forces waiting behind the walls of the fortress of Hornburg, some 10,000 Orcs march with spears raised. They stop for a minute, pound their spears like hungry kids with forks, then run forward into (as always!) a hailstorm of arrows.   Creative kill: Legolas easily delivers the best one as he surfs down a set of stairs on a shield, depositing arrows in Orcs on the way down.   Last-second rescue: When Gimli is knocked into a puddle with a burly orc lording over him, it looks like the dwarf is a goner — until Aragon arrives with arrows and saves the little bastard.
Battle speech: Tyrion Lannister gives the most Tyrion Lannister–y speech possible in an attempt to rouse a bunch of troops who have lost the will to fight. “Don’t fight for your king. Don’t fight for his kingdom. Don’t fight for honor. Don’t fight for glory, don’t fight for riches, because you won’t get any. This is your city Stannis means to sack. That’s your gate he’s ramming. If he gets in, it will be your houses he burns, your gold he steals, your women he will rape. Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let’s go kill them!”   Chaaarge!: When Stannis’s men storm the beach, they are met with a hail of flaming arrows. People scream; ladders are raised. Later, after Tyrion’s men destroy the battering ram and he believes the castle to be safe, a horde of men circle around a corner and charge like hell.   Creative kill: There are many that are creatively (and bloodily) portrayed: A man’s head explodes in a burst of blood when a heavy stone is dropped on it; the Hound cuts one man plum in half, intestines aspllin’; Stannis cleanly slices the top quarter of a man’s skull off.   Last-second rescue: The Hound gets saved at the last minute by Bronn — the man he had been feuding with earlier in the episode; Tyrion is kept from certain death by the spear of his squire.
Battle speech: Task a man in eyeliner with delivering a pre-battle call to arms and you get a lackluster effort that doesn’t elicit a single cheer from the crowd. “None of us took this city from Muslims. No Muslim of the great army now coming against us was born when this city was lost. We fight over an offense we did not give, against those who were not alive to be offended.” Come on, Balian of Ibelin, this is a battle speech not a dissertation.   Chaaarge!: Rather than run head first into the swords of the Muslim warriors, the Crusaders, led by Balian, take shelter behind Jerusalem’s walls and launch fire bombs at the advancing forces. Then, as always, the arrows begin to fly.  Eventually the Muslims break down a wall and storm the city.   Creative kill: As a group of Muslim forces attempts to break down a wall to enter Jerusalem, the Crusaders inside douse them in oil and light them on fire.   Hero vs. villain: Balian and Muslim leader Saladin meet under uncommon circumstances — in the battlefield, under a tent, with all fighting paused. There Balian concedes Jerusalem in exchange for the safe passage of the Christians within its walls. A couple of civilized warriors they were. Photo: TM and ? 2005 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.
Battle speech: With his human friends terrified of the approaching Deadites, Ash Williams takes the ridicule approach to his pre-fight speech, mocking the soldiers’ talk of fleeing by telling them to “Run home and cry to mama.” Ash, on the other hand, says he’s “tired of running.” And that works. When he asks “Who’s with me?” he gets a bunch of yes”s.    Chaaarge!: The Deadites approach the castle playing their bone flutes and bone bagpipes, then charge forward into exploding arrows and catapulting bombs. Some die (again) and some make it through, breaking down the castle door for some old-fashioned man-on-skeleton sword fighting.   Creative kill: With the Deadites within the walls of the castle, Ash breaks out his 88 Oldsmobile, tricked out with extra armor and a propeller, which he uses to hack Deadites into bits as he drives through them.    Hero vs. villain: Ash and Evil Ash come face-to-face just as the ugly one is about to steal the Necronomicon book from the castle. Instead, he gets a spear through the back and, after some back-and-forth, a bomb on his ass.   Screaming: The Deadites are both expert screamers (when they die) and laughers (when they kill), but no one lets loose like the great Bruce Campbell.
Battle speech: Arthur addresses only a few knights as they sit atop a hill waiting to fight. But the size of his crowd doesn’t diminish the effect of his speech. Solid lines like “The gift of freedom is yours by right” and “Rawwwwwwr” constitute a hell of a pep talk. The spittle flying from his mouth helps too.   Chaaarge!: After decimating a group of Saxon soldiers with arrows, the Woads, who are fighting alongside King Arthur, ignite the rest of the Saxon Army with flaming arrows, then those left living on both sides scream and run at each other.   Hero vs. villain moment: Arthur and Cerdic clank around blades for a few minutes, before the King thrusts his into Cerdic’s guts just as the longhaired Saxon is about to decapitate him.   Last-second rescue: With super Saxon bad guy Cynric just seconds from turning Guinevere into two Guineveres, Lancelot intervenes by blocking Cynric’s blade. He’s killed for his trouble.
Battle speech: Robin Hood’s battle sermon comes a bit before the fighting commences and is part political speech, part “win one for the Gipper.” It comes as King John is addressing his subjects. Robin interrupts and tells the King that the men before him would fight for him, and love him, if he promises “liberty by law.” And so the King does.   Chaaarge!: As the French storm Dover Beach, the English hang back and rain arrows upon their heads. Dead frogs float in the sea and Robin Hood leads a cavalry to clang swords in the sand.     Hero vs. villain moment: After rescuing Marian, Robin and Godfrey sword-fight in waist-deep water until Mr. Hood is trapped under a boat and, Godfrey thinks, drowns. As Godfrey attempts to flee on horseback, Robin Hood emerges wet, but alive, and shoots an arrow through Godfrey’s cowardly throat.   Last-second rescue: Sir Robert Loxley’s widow Lady Marian, who snuck onto the battlefield, is on the ground, her neck just beyond Sir Godfrey’s sword, when Robin Hood dives from the back of his horse and tackles the would-be throat cutter. Photo: Photo Credit: David Appleby/2010 Universal Studios
Chaaarge!: This movie is all “chaaarge” and little else, and each time it looks about the same. A group of rebel barons are holed up inside a castle with King John’s army and Danish mercenaries trying to get them out. There are the requisite arrow showers, ladders up the castle wall, and buckets of oil.    Creative kill: Though the kill creativity is somewhat lacking, the gore is not. Among the outstandingly gruesome kills are the king’s scout, who gets an eye bitten out, another scout who gets a sword stuck through his mouth, the royal soldier whose arm is hacked off, and the other whose head is halved.   Hero vs. villain moment: Hero Thomas Marshall never gets to go toe-to-toe will the evil King John, but he does get a climactic fight to the death with the mercenary Danish leader Tiberius. The shirtless Tiberius has a battle ax, Thomas has a sword, and, at fight’s end, Tiberius has a hole in his gut.
Breaking Down Ten Great Medieval Battle Scenes