contributed by Melissa Lucas, senior staff writer
Military dramas often include some of the best battle scenes in movies, and many of these scenes become standouts in their own right. The perfect combination of direction, cinematography, sound, and acting can create some seriously powerful moments. For our money, here are the top ten battle scenes in movies about war, American or otherwise.
Perhaps one of the most impactful scenes in military movie history, Saving Private Ryan’s D-day Landing scene tops our list. For 20 minutes, viewers watch as drama plays out on the beaches of France.
It is said that with this huge war scene, Spielberg “demanded [the audience] be participants with the kids who had never seen combat before in real life, and get to the top of Omaha Beach, together.” This single scene cost nearly 20% of the film’s budget, used close to 1500 extras, and involved ten days of bootcamp for the actors. While nothing depicted in Saving Private Ryan is for the faint of heart, this epic battle scene tends to elicit very specific, visceral reactions from the film’s audience – a sign that Spielberg hit his intended mark.
While not the bloodiest or most epic battle scene in movies of its time, this terrifyingly bizarre portion of Apocalypse Now portrays a dreadful period in U.S. military history. Richard Wagner’s classical piece, The Ride of the Valkyries, plays as American soldiers decimate a Vietnamese village suspected of harboring members of the Vietcong.
The music is what makes this military battle scene. It lends itself to an air of joyful, yet almost evil, anticipation as U.S. flyboys prepare their weapons and take aim. The soldiers remind us of a group of sadistic children, restlessly staring at their gifts under the Christmas tree, anxious to see what darkness lies beneath the wrapping. It’s a tragic scene on so many levels, and it’s certainly earned its spot on our list!
An early examination of trench life during WWI, All Quiet on the Western Front is a classic war film on all accounts, and still maintains some of the best movie combat scenes of all time. This particular scene illustrates a horrifying French charge across No Man’s Land into the German trenches. It features several wide shots broken up by close ups of weaponry and troops as they fight for their lives.
This scene isn’t set to music, rather the score is the relentless sound of explosions, machine gun fire, and soldiers’ screams. While the violence portrayed in this film may be par for the course by today’s standards, let’s not forget it was made in the early 1930’s. This type of graphic violence in Hollywood was not common at the time, making the film and this battle scene stand out all the more.
Master and Commander didn’t make it into our Greatest War Movie Series because it doesn’t portray a major U.S. military conflict. It is, however, an epic film depicting a period of the Napoleonic wars. And it is certainly among military movies with the best battle scenes.
Throughout the film Jack Aubrey and his crew upon the HMS Surprise attempt to outrun the Napoleonic French vessel, the Acheron. With defeat looming, a ferocious final battle ensues as Aubrey and his crew ambush, board, and capture the larger vessel. It’s a fascinating take on Naval warfare and a beautifully directed military battle scene, to boot.
Set during the French and Indian War, the Last of the Mohicans is another film we’ve yet to touch on in our Greatest War Movie Series. While it’s new to our top ten lists, it does include one of the most famous movie battle scenes in Hollywood history.
The Ambush is an illustration of the savagery of the time, as well as a perfect example of the term “primal rage.” An epic, six-minute scene shows an Indian ambush of British troops as they march in formation through the forest. A combination of wide-angle shots, sprawling panoramas, and close-up views of this fiery battle combine with a stirring score which adds to the sense of drama as the scene builds to a cloudy, loud, chaotic, climax.
Dunkirk is a non-linear narrative of the weeklong struggle of Allied soldiers stranded and awaiting rescue, the daylong journey of a civilian assisting in their rescue, and the hourlong experiences of a Royal Navy fighter pilot struggling to protect the skies from German Luftwaffe.
Dunkirk has been compared to Saving Private Ryan, for its unrelenting intensity, commitment to accurately portraying poignant WWII events, and some of the best war fight scenes, to date. Technically, Dunkirk could be considered a single, extended battle scene, so it’s tough to choose just one scene for our list. But the First Bombing, while not particularly violent or bloody compared to other scenes, has earned a spot on our list. It illustrates the devastation and vulnerability experienced by the soldiers stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk in a uniquely moving way.
While the Longest Day might not be a historian’s favorite war movie – it is known for taking certain liberties relating to historical facts – it does boast one of the best movie battle scenes depicting events of WWII. The Omaha Beach scene uses impressive cinematography to accurately and soberly represent the events of D-day.
The film received a large budget (for the time) because producers and directors wanted to ensure battle scenes were as authentic as possible. They even filmed parts of this scene on actual D-day battlefields. So, while The Longest Day isn’t praised for its historical accuracy, this particular battle scene has been recognized for its monumental scope and impressive realism.
The Civil War’s Battle of the Crater is recreated in Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain. What started as a Union ambush of the Confederate Army turns into a slaughter of Union soldiers who find themselves caught in their own trap.
Part of what makes this one of the best war movie scenes is that it literally starts with a bang and doesn’t let up from there. A mix of close ups and wide shots viewed through a haze of red-brown dust, combined with a haunting musical backdrop, will leave viewers feeling lost, fearful, and destitute. Likely similar to the feelings experienced by soldiers who actually participated in this legendary nightmare of a battle
With a frenetic energy running through the entire film, some may argue Black Hawk Down is also one continuous battle scene. However, if we had to pick just one scene to add to our list, it would be the Evening Raid by the Little Bird gunships. The darkness, smoke, and flashing lights add to the air of chaos and confusion as choppers provide cover for the relief attempting to reach stranded soldiers in Mogadishu.
The serene start of this scene plays out in stark contrast, not just to the ensuing battle itself, but to the knowledge of the Massachusetts 54th that they are about to embark upon what is essentially a suicide mission.
The pace picks up quickly as violence unfolds with stunning intensity. Unlike most of the battle scenes on our list, this one only includes a few wide shots, leaving the viewer feeling as though they are right in the middle of the charge and succeeding battle. And the score to which the latter half of the scene is set plays a major role in making it one of the best military battle scenes in film history.
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