By Todd Neikirk and Clare Fitzgerald
A number of incredible war films are released each year. Covering both fictional and real-life historical conflicts, many go on to achieve critical acclaim and success. While theater buffs have their own opinions regarding what makes a great release, we can all agree that the best war movies include intense fighting sequences and accurate weapon displays. The following list of movies includes some of the best battle scenes to ever appear on the big screen.
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
While it didn’t occur in real life, the epic battle scene(s) between the Balrog of Moira and Gandalf the Grey during the first two Lord of the Rings movies, The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and The Two Towers (2002), is among the best to ever feature in cinema.
While crossing a bridge in their escape from the Mines of Moira, Frodo Baggins and his troupe encounter the Balrog. Gandalf places himself between the creature and his friends, and ends up breaking the bridge, causing the Balrog to fall into the chasm below – but not before its whip wraps around the Istari wizard and pulls him down, as well. The pair continue to fight during their descent, before landing in the lake.
At the start of The Two Towers, the audience sees Gandalf and the Balrog fighting on a mountaintop, before Gandalf defeats the creature and, himself, dies. He’s then reincarnated into Gandalf the White. Along with the entire sequence, what makes this battle scene one of the best is the amazing special effects and heart-pounding soundtrack that accompany it.
Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell, the miniseries-turned-film Gettysburg (1993) can only be described as an American Civil War epic, albeit a low-budget one. Clocking in at over four hours in length, it features the talents of Martin Sheen, Tom Berenger and Jeff Daniels, and centers around the intense fighting that occurred during the Battle of Gettysburg between July 1-3, 1863.
For those unaware, the Battle of Gettysburg produced the most casualties out of any engagement of the Civil War and is viewed as the turning point in the Union Army‘s fight against the Confederates. While Gettysburg doesn’t show how bloody the actual battle was, the movie presents well-produced battle scenes, complete with thousands of actors marching to their deaths during Pickett’s Charge.
Outside of the movie’s battle scenes, viewers are given a look at the planning done by both sides prior to the history-changing encounter, before bearing witness to an untold amount of soldiers coming together against an epic soundtrack.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Easily the most jarring movie battle scene on this list, the helicopter raid toward the beginning of Apocalypse Now (1979) immediately brings to mind the horrors of the Mỹ Lai Massacre in March 1968. The incident, which the US Army tried to cover up, involved two companies entering the South Vietnamese hamlet, which was believed to be harboring members of the Viet Cong – it wasn’t. What followed was the massacre of between 347-504 innocent civilians at the hands of American soldiers.
The scene in Apocalypse Now brings to the big screen a similarly horrific event. While Richard Wagner’s “The Ride of Valkyries” plays in the background, American soldiers serving in Vietnam begin murdering innocent civilians in a village where the Viet Cong are said to be hiding out. Audiences witness the helicopter crews preparing their weapons and taking aim at those below, causing complete and utter carnage.
If you’re like us, it’s a scene that’ll stay with you long after you’ve finished watching the film.
Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)
One of the most fantastical movie battles on this list, the church scene in Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) was certainly a wild ride. If we’re being honest, after watching it, we had to pause the film and try to comprehend what we’d just witnessed. For those unaware, the first Kingsman movie centers around main character Gary “Eggsy” Unwin being recruited by one of Britain’s most secret spy organizations and having to take on the global threat posed by Samuel L. Jackson’s Richmond Valentine.
Occurring in just under four minutes, this particular scene sees Colin Firth’s character, Harry Hart, kill up to 40 people. What starts out as a seemingly normal religious service turns into absolute chaos when a signal to transmitted to everyone’s cellphones, causing them to start attacking Hart – and each other. Guns, fists and even church pews are used as weapons, and when all is said and done, Firth’s character is the only one still standing.
Despite our best efforts, we don’t feel like we’ve done the scene justice. As such, we suggest you give it a watch for yourself.
Rough Riders (1997)
For many military buffs, the exploits of future President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt and his Rough Riders (officially known as the 1st US Volunteer Cavalry Regiment) during the Spanish-American War are among the bravest in American history. Given this, it’s no surprise a television miniseries would be made about them.
Airing over two consecutive nights in July 1997, Rough Riders focused on the fighting that occurred during the Battle of San Juan Hill. Among the most decisive engagements of the Spanish-American War, it’s considered the “greatest victory” for the Rough Riders, given the resistance they faced from the Spanish forces.
The miniseries’ battle scenes show the difficulties the Rough Riders faced when they arrived in Cuba, including intense enemy fire and an unexpected ambush by a force that greatly outnumbered them. For his efforts in Cuba during the conflict, Roosevelt was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2001.
There’s no way we could present a list of the best movie battle scenes without including 2000’s Gladiator. The Ridley Scott film, which stars Russell Crowe as Maximus Decimus Meridius, features a number of battles, but the most impactful is definitely the opening scene. Before viewers are even aware of what they’ve tuned into, the screen shows soldiers with the Roman Empire completely decimating tribes of Germania.
For those questioning how old-school horseback charges can be enthralling, one need only watch this scene to find the answer. That’s not to say, however, that the film (and this scene, in particular) aren’t without their inaccuracies, including the use of weapons from an entirely different time period – heck, the Roman Empire even makes use of weapons (catapults and dart launchers) that would have been deployed in a completely different manner to how they’re depicted.
All that being said, no one can deny the epic-ness of this opening scene, especially when paired with Russell Crowe’s memorable speech. The only complaint we have is that there’s still no news on how production of the second film is progressing!
Between May 26 and June 4, 1940, over 338,000 French and British troops were evacuated from the port of Dunkirk, in France. Following the German Army’s invasion of the country, Allied troops found themselves cornered along the French coast. This was followed by a mass evacuation, which aimed to return as many troops as possible to Britain.
In 2017, Christopher Nolan’s film about the evacuation, simply titled Dunkirk, premiered in theaters. Starring musician Harry Styles and newcomer Fionn Whitehead, the movie brings to the big screen the terror the Allied troops felt during the evacuation.
While not necessarily a battle scene, per say, one of the film’s most memorable moments is when the British are positioned on the beach. While awaiting evacuation, they hear the sirens of Luftwaffe-flown Junkers Ju 87Bs. What ensues accurately shows just how much fear the eerie sound produced by the aircraft’s trumpets could instil upon those on the ground.
Black Hawk Down (2001)
While there are a number of notable moments throughout the duration of Black Hawk Down (2001), the battle scene that stands out the most in the movie is the air strike the helicopter crew participates in during the evening hours. While it might look like something out of a video game, with the first-person view of the chopper shooting at its ground targets, we feel it’s a realistic representation of what soldiers faced in Somalia in 1993.
Black Hawk Down takes place during the Battle of Mogadishu, which occurred while the American forces were participating in Operation Gothic Serpent. This particular scene caught our attention because it not only allows the audience to hear the fear in the voices of those fighting on the ground, but also provides a glimpse into the difficulties faced by soldiers conducting combat under the cover of night.
Pair all that with the chaos caused by the rising smoke from fires and flashing lights produced by both gunfire and other weapons, and you can see why those who participated in the mission were so revered by those back home.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
One of the most realistic depictions of the Allied landings on D-Day, 1998’s Saving Private Ryan follows Cpt. John H. Miller, portrayed by Tom Hanks, as he undertakes the task of rescuing Matt Damon’s Pvt. James Francis Ryan. The film saw critical success, with Steven Spielberg winning the Academy Award for Best Director.
The particular battle scene we’re thinking of from the movie is when the Allies land in Normandy. Upwards of 1,500 extras were hired to make the scene look realistic, with the majority of them running across Omaha Beach, just to be mowed down by German gunfire. Pair the bloodshed and death with the scene’s intense soundtrack and the sounds of the battlefield, and you can understand why it had such an impact on viewers.
The reason for the scene’s effectiveness? Reportedly, Spielberg “demanded [the audience] be participants with the kids who had never seen combat in real life, and get to the top of Omaha Beach together.”
All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)
Closing out our list is the most recent adaption of All Quiet on the Western Front. Released on Netflix in October 2022, the film offers the most realistic and brutal depiction of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1928 novel. While we opted to pick a single battle scene from the movies we mentioned earlier, we’re taking a different approach with this one, since the majority of the film takes place on the battlefield and realistically shows the brutal conditions soldiers faced during the trench warfare of World War I.
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The anti-war film shows the emotions and change in mindset main character Paul Bäumer, portrayed by Felix Kammerer, goes through upon being deployed to the Western Front. Not only do viewers witness the dangers and combat faced by those who fought in WWI, they also bear witness to the mental and physical toll of the warfare, with Bäumer’s fellow servicemen suffering from gruesome injuries and shell shock over what they witnessed and experienced.
We don’t want to give away too much, so we’ll leave you with this: if there’s one film on this list to watch, it’s All Quiet on the Western Front. We’ve been waiting for a German language version of the movie and this one certainly didn’t disappoint.