When we watch war, sci-fi or action films, one of the biggest draws for the viewer is a big fight or battle scene. Such scenes provide massive visual stimulation and raise the suspense or tension as we wait to see how the battle will turn out and whether the good guys will live to fight another day. Just like cheese on a sandwich, adding an epic battle scene can make a good film great. After all, how much better would Silver Linings Playbook have been if an army of samurai warriors had attacked during the final scene only to be repulsed by Jennifer Lawrence leading an army of Ewoks? Pretty good, right?
In all seriousness, over the last several decades there have been a number of amazing and memorable movies which have featured some pretty spectacular battle scenes. Some are based on true or real-life events while others are purely fictional. Battle scenes are not just the property of historical drama either. Action, fantasy and sci-fi all have battle scenes at their core. Whether The Avengers or X-Men, werewolves or vampires, soldiers or space marines – the big on-screen battle can be like the Super Bowl of the movie world.
The following list looks at 10 of the most epic movie battle scenes. Sorry Band of Brothers and The Pacific – both are chock full of great battle scenes but they are not movies and, therefore, do not make the list. There are way more than 10 epic movie battles, but the editors at The Richest warned me that if I went over they would lock me in a room and force me to watch Glitter. Each of these 10 are on here for a different reason. Their battle scenes are epic because of their size, the technology used, the amount of suspense raised or because they were groundbreaking in some way.
11 Honorable Mention: Yamato (2005)
The battleship Yamato was the largest battleship ever built. Throughout the Second World War it took part in many of Japan’s biggest naval engagements, including Midway, the Battle of the Philippines Sea and the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
The 2005 film, Yamato, focuses on the final months of the ship’s (and crew’s) existence. While history buffs will know the outcome of this film before they even see it, if you don’t mind subtitles it has a couple of good battle scenes. The climactic scene of the movie centers on Yamato’s final battle with US forces in early April 1945. The crew of the ship man their stations against a massive aerial assault and we watch as the anti-aircraft crew put up a valiant, yet futile resistance – think the final battle of the Matrix trilogy, only these people actually existed and these events actually occurred.
10 Apocalypse Now (1979)
Most people you talk to either think this movie is brilliant or too slow and drawn out. Whatever your take is on this 1979 Francis Ford Coppola film, there is no doubt that the scene involving the assault on the beach is one of best battle scenes on film. Despite the fact there are two sides battling it out with gunfire and explosions all around, this isn’t a ‘traditional’ battle scene. While Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” plays away, helicopters swoop in everywhere firing rockets and machine guns. Amidst the chaos, the American commander and napalm aficionado, Lt. Colonel Bill Kilgore – played by Robert Duvall – divides his attention between organizing the battle and examining how appropriate the area is for surfing. In a film which is surreal throughout, this battle scene takes the cake.
9 We Were Soldiers (2002)
While on the topic of the Vietnam War, let’s move ahead in time to Mel Gibson’s 2002 film about the first major engagement between North Vietnamese and American forces. The Battle of the Ia Drang Valley took place in mid-November 1965 and resulted in thousands of dead and wounded on both sides. For the most part, this film is one continuous battle once the Americans land with the climax coming when the US commander Hal Moore (played by Gibson) calls in airstrikes on his own positions. Any history buffs will know the general result of the battle, but that still doesn’t lessen the visual entertainment or dramatic effect. Whether you think this film may be a bit too pro-war or not, We Were Soldiers’ depiction of the chaos, fear and death on the battlefield hand it a place on this list.
8 The Battle of Britain (1969)
Hard to believe, but there was a time when films had to be made without CGI. Some will say that even though older films lacked the polished visual effects found today, they had a more ‘real’ feel because nothing was made on a computer. Enter The Battle of Britain. This 1969 film is all about the battles which raged in the skies over England between the British and Germans during the summer of 1940. Starring the likes of Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, The Battle of Britain has numerous combat scenes, but like most war films, the best comes near the end in one final climactic duel. Utilizing dozens of real locations, aircraft and models, the enormity and chaos of the aerial battlefield is clearly portrayed.
7 The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Set in the mid-18th century, Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans is centered on the siege of British Fort William Henry by French and native forces. In return for surrendering the fort, the French agree to allow the British troops and civilians, which included Daniel Day-Lewis, to leave unharmed. Native forces on the side of the French are unhappy about this development and decide to attack the retreating column some distance from the fort. What ensues is a fantastic battle scene showing British red-coats fighting a futile and chaotic battle with a swarm of native warriors. You just know Day-Lewis manages to get through the whole thing. After all, he still has to lead a New York gang, prospect for oil in western America and lead the North during the Civil War.
6 Return of the Jedi (1983)
The final of the original trilogy has one of the biggest and most entertaining battles to satiate even the biggest sci-fi geeks among us. The Battle of Endor sees the rebellion take on the Empire on three levels at once. Luke Skywalker confronts the Emperor and Darth Vader in the Death Star, Lando Calrissian and Admiral Ackbar lead the rebel fleet against impossible odds in space and Han Solo leads a band of commandos – helped by an army of Ewoks – in an effort to destroy the Death Star’s shield generator on the moon of Endor. While you may have problems accepting the fact a bunch of teddy bears helped overthrow the largest and most powerful military force in the galaxy, the overall final battle is entertaining and epic in nature.
5 Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
We were going to include the final battle of The Return of the King but decided not to. You can’t doubt it’s epic in size but the arrival of the Army of the Dead at the end just kind of makes the whole thing seem cheap and unnecessary. So, we looked at the other movies instead. The second in the LOTR trilogy, The Two Towers contains two major battle scenes. By far the biggest is the battle which takes place at Helm’s Deep. Here, viewers get to see Orlando Bloom and Viggo Mortensen lead several hundred defenders against an army of around 10,000 Uruk-hai. Yes, there is substantial CGI help but that doesn’t detract from the epic scale of the battle we see on-screen. The odds are severely stacked against the defenders of the fortress and things look especially bleak when the Uruk-hai manage to breach the walls and pour through into the fort faster than a crowd of angry shoppers on Black Friday. The day is saved when Gandalf arrives with an army and proceeds to trample the remaining Uruk-hai.
4 Zulu (1964)
Not into epic battles which are fantasy based and supported with CGI? You only need to watch the 1964 classic Zulu to see a ‘real’ battle where a small force holds out against impossible odds. Zulu follows the true story of 150 British and Colonial soldiers who held Rorke’s Drift, a mission station, in present-day South Africa against a force of 4000 Zulu warriors in 1879. The film contains several battle scenes so you can take your pick of which you like the most even though most feel the final ‘backs-to-the-wall’ last-stand is the most dramatic scene. With no CGI, massive armies of extras make the Zulu force look the part and have you wondering if poor Michael Caine and his soldiers will survive each subsequent charge.
3 Gettysburg (1993)
The Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 was the turning point of the American Civil War and witnessed the highest casualty rate of that conflict. A number of films have tried to capture the essence of the historic battle with Ronald Maxwell’s 1993 production being the most recent. As you’d expect from any film about Gettysburg, the battle scenes are massive, graphic and suspenseful. From the initial skirmishes to the Battle of the Little Round Top to the final assault of the Southern forces – including Pickett’s charge – Gettysburg has some epic battle scenes to go with the epically bad beards the cast were forced to wear. In terms of size and scope, the final doomed attack by Robert Lee’s force is the climactic scene where thousands of extras fight it out on the fields to recreate one of America’s most important events.
2 Braveheart (1995)
Say what you will about Mel Gibson, but the guy knows how to make a film with very good battle scenes. Braveheart was groundbreaking in terms of epic battle scenes. Yes, it used thousands of extras and had a lot of hand-to-hand combat but it went a step further. This film took the graphic nature of battle on the big screen to the next level with the inclusion of a lot of blood, decapitations, hacked off limbs and crushed bodies. Such additions to already massive battle scenes added a level of realism and shock which other films had left out. The film’s portrayal of the Battle of Stirling Bridge is considered one of the greatest battle scenes in film. From the intimidating charge of the English cavalry to the chaotic mosh-pit atmosphere during hand-to-hand combat, the battle is one of the best Hollywood has made.
1 Saving Private Ryan (1998)
When Saving Private Ryan hit theatres in 1998 it gave audiences a view of the D-Day landings which had never been seen before. Steven Spielberg took every other World War Two movie that came before and gave it a massive dose of realism which caught many viewers off guard. In the landing scenes, as soon as the assault craft ramp drops, movie-goers quickly figured out this was not going to be anything like The Longest Day starring John Wayne. Before, on-screen death was usually ‘clean’ with a soldier clutching themselves, spinning around or falling down. Saving Private Ryan did away with the old formula and showed soldiers drowning, burning, crying, throwing up, laying with their guts hanging out or being dismembered. Some critics have argued that the violence glorifies war but anyone who has ever read a memoir of an American soldier who landed at Omaha beach knows the images shown during the landing scene in Saving Private Ryan are very accurate. It remains the best depiction of what the Normandy landings were like and deserves a place on this list.