Personally, I love Hollywood historical epics no matter how ridiculously inaccurate they are. Anything that gets history out in the world is okay with me. They key to enjoying them and still getting something of historical value from them is to understand what the movies do right and wrong. Just to be clear, this is going for mostly intentional choices rather than “movie mistakes” like the gas canister on the Gladiator Chariot.
You know what would be really entertaining to see? An epic battle over a bridge. The close quarters fighting over a tactically important area could make for suspenseful action scenes. The movie Braveheart had that chance when covering the Battle of Stirling, known by most historians as the Battle of Stirling Bridge.
Braveheart made this battle quite epic, but also took the bridge entirely out of the equation. In history, the Scots waited for a manageable amount of English to cross the narrow bridge before attacking and defeating the isolated English faster than the reinforcements could get across. The intelligent tactics and intense fight for the bridge could have made for a compelling and accurate scene, but other choices won out.
The general feel of Alexander the Great’s fight against the Indian King Porus and his elephants was wonderfully shown in the biopic of the greatest general of all time. The battle was quite a struggle and directly influenced Alexander’s decision to turn back. The only problem was that it wasn’t fought in a lush forest as in the movie. It was actually fought very near a river crossing with flat plains and patches of muddy fields.
King Porus used elephants and war chariots, both weapons that would be difficult to wield in the dense forests shown in the movie. The movie did an impeccable job showing the sweeping views of tactics at Gaugamela and could have done so with the Hydaspes battle. Filming and CGI expenses probably influenced this decision, but the dense forest pictured was far from what the battle was actually like. This sort of moving or restructuring of battles happens a lot, mostly based on filming locations and expenses, and sometimes imprints the wrong picture of historical battles.
3. Epic Speeches, Standing Around, and Matching/Colorful Uniforms
In short, these could be lumped together as things done to make the movie more watchable. Epic speeches before battle were occasionally given, and the ancient historians even give full accounts of these speeches, but the reality was often a bit different. Pre-battle speeches like those seen in Alexander or Braveheart would have likely been given in camp so that more troops could hear.
A typically standard shot of the hero standing in the middle of the battle to take it all in is a classic scene. Battles were rarely fought in such open order as depicted in the movies, but if they were, the stationary target would be far too appealing for skirmishers or other infantry.
Finally, the use of color and matching uniforms in movie battles can be comical at times. The best example of this can be seen in the opening battle of Gladiator. The infantry are all depicted in lorica segmentata, (armour made of linked plates) though the archers in the scene are portrayed more accurately in chainmail. The barbarians are clad in furs and almost no armor. This really divides the sides of the battle for the audience but paints an absurd picture of who ancient “barbarians” actually were.
2. The Absolute Ease of Killing and Dismemberment
What is the point of armor in ancient war movies? It seems like you can stab right through it, cleave off an entire arm clad in chain mail, or pierce a breastplate with a single arrow.
The best scene that embodies this is in Troy where (spoiler alert) Hector kills Menelaus to protect his brother Paris. Hector stabs through the front and back of Menelaus’ armor also going through the rather thick torso of Menelaus.
1. Suicidal Charges
The absolute worst feature of ancient warfare on the big screen is the total lack of regard for personal safety. Sure, the act of being a soldier and marching into battle is risking one’s life, but movie scenes take dying for a cause to a whole new level. Battle lines charge wildly into each other and thoroughly mix the soldiers together five ranks deep. Horses also charge straight into the enemy, often ramming themselves right into spears.
Well, this was hardly ever the case. Ancient warriors were not suicidal, and only the fiercely brave or foolish would jump two ranks into an enemy formation. It was also very difficult to charge horses into what they perceived as a solid wall of people, despite all the military training horses went through.
The reality of combat was actually a lot of timid strikes and sustained defense. The Greek hoplite formations almost always shifted to the right during a battle as soldiers always sought the most protection by huddling behind the shield of the hoplite to their right. Roman combat technique involved a rapid stab with their sword before immediately resuming a defensive position. Gauls and other barbarians often fought with more space and risk, but very few would willingly charge through enemy lines and surround themselves with enemies.
That’s not to say that feats of suicidal bravery didn’t occur. Ancient field battles were often won after a brave soldier was able to wedge his way into enemy lines and crack their formation. A well respected Roman medal was awarded to the first soldier over the walls of an enemy settlement. It was so prized because the act was so very dangerous that no one really wanted to do it. The movie Troy actually did a good job of keeping battle lines somewhat realistic with the first major battle scene at the walls of the city, which is ironic considering the war’s emphasis on heroic one-on-one combat.
By William McGlaughlin for War History Online