War movies are some of the best movies made, and may inspire those of use who have never fought, and likely never will, by the examples of those who set their bodies between us and war’s desolation.
Many excellent portrayals of that desolation exist, but many others are unrealistic or downright odd, and sometimes they are both at once. War movies tend to change according to the times, so that the same battle or period will be depicted very differently depending on the attitudes common in the time they were made.
The movies below are all fairly good movies, but fall prey to specific and common errors made in military movies all too often.
10. The 300 Spartans – Gymnastics Wins Battles
One thing that has yet to ever be portrayed in movies is a real Greek phalanx. Oh, the formation appears from time to time, but the fighting method never does. The Spartans in this somewhat dated movie do line up several times, but when the fighting comes it’s all leaping about, individual fighting, lying down while horses jump over you, and clever-looking uses of fire.
The Spartan phalanx was all about cooperation. The men depended on each other and combined their strengths to literally push back their enemies. The spear was the main man-killer…not a throwing spear, not a javelin, but a war-spear.
Missile weapons have their place, and today hand-to-hand fighting is a last resort, but through most of history it was the hand-held spear that did most of the killing. Greek shields were large and made of laminated layers of wood, so could stop almost any arrow of the time, which rendered the massive bow- and javelin-armed warriors of the eastern world fairly ineffective.
The tactics used in The 300 Spartans are a mixture of ancient and modern, with a bit of Hollywood tomfoolery thrown into for the fun of it. The problem is that modern tactics, without modern weapons, aren’t effective. The Marine Corps doctrine of massing firepower doesn’t work if there’s no such thing as firepower. Lighting the end of an arrow doesn’t make it more deadly, but less. It adds to the weight and shortens the range. It’s not an increase in firepower.
It would be something to see a phalanx in action in a movie, but so far, no joy.
Hollywood seems to believe that staying in line never happens; the moment the two fronts meet, it’s all a bunch of individual combats scattered all over. The 300 Spartans actually keeps the Spartans in line once or twice, but too spread out to be effective.
For the most part, however, it still devolves into a confused melee. The effectiveness of the Spartan army was a mixture of individual strength and iron discipline. A Spartan stayed in line! He guarded the man on his left with part of his shield, and the man on his right guarded him in the same way. Individual glory-hunting was anathema in Sparta, because keeping in place to the death was valued far more.
True of the Spartans, it is also true of most other armies all through time. Some Chinese movies recently have shown the sort of unit cohesion that should appear in any movie about the Spartans at Thermopylae, and it is to be hoped that someday we’ll see a more realistic depiction of European military formations too…in some other form than the fantasy version in the other Thermopylae movie, 300.
9. Gladiator – Field Artillery is Always Around
While not technically a war movie, Gladiator begins with a scene from a battle between the Romans and Germanic barbarians. It has excellent costumes, appropriate attitudes, and a LOT of extras. As the Roman infantry prepares to fight the Germans, who are just inside a forest, a barrage of firebombs is loosed upon them from the Roman field artillery.
Romans didn’t really use field artillery. There are a few examples where smaller ballistae were used in the field, but the great mangonels used in the movie simply would NEVER have been used. Artillery, before the 30 Years War, tended to be slow, heavy, and used only in sieges. There were small and light guns and ballistae used in some engagements, but all of the heavy artillery simply couldn’t be moved
. It was normally built on site and dismantled afterwards, if not burnt. No doubt any general before Gustavus Adolphus would’ve given his soul for field artillery, but it just didn’t exist except in small and fairly insignificant ways. A pair of small bombards were used without any effects at Bosworth, for example, and had no recorded impact on the outcome of the battle other than scaring quite a few men.
This is a common error in many war movies. It seems that Hollywood can’t conceive of a battle without field artillery, possibly because it makes a greater spectacle on the screen, and that trumps accuracy.
8. Kingdom of Heaven – Magic Catapults
In common with field artillery appearing anachronistically in so many movies, the great siege engines are shown as having destructive capabilities superior to the cannon of later times. In Kingdom of Heaven the trebuchets used by Salaadin’s army break the walls in record time, but in fact such siege engines were almost useless against walls.
Trebuchets were used to hurl firebombs and other things over the walls. They were the mortars of their time. Mangonels were used to slowly batter away at a wall, and it took many repetitions to break even a fairly weak castle wall. Against the massive walls of Jerusalem, it would’ve taken dozens of engines many days to even weaken the wall. In history, the breach came not from the siege engines, but from a mine that collapsed the wall.
If catapults were as effective historically as they are in Hollywood, nobody would’ve ever bothered building city walls or castles. What would be the point if a single catapult could pound down the wall in a few hours? Even early cannon took many days to pound down a wall, which did finally put an end to masonry walls as defenses.
The preceding history, however goes back thousands of years, and stone walls worked for a very long time. Sieges were more likely to last a long time while the defenders ran out of food, because direct assaults were hard and costly in lives. Catapults, even the most powerful ever made, just didn’t have the ability to knock down walls.
And then there are the defensive trebuchets within the walls. What use are they, really? A big pot of greek fire could kill a few soldiers, and a very smooth stone sphere might lop off a few legs like a cannon-ball, but the amount of damage to the enemy compared to the work and resources required to construct such engines would be a bad bargain.
While there may be a few exceptions from history, the larger siege engines (hence the name) were simply not used defensively. The ballista was used defensively by the Romans, but even this doesn’t appear to have been used with much frequency in the Middle Ages.
It’s not like the defenders needed to batter down a stone wall, they were inside the walls.
7. Starship Troopers – The Future Forgets Military Science
This movie, Starship Troopers, is by far the worst movie on this list, if not the worst movie ever made in the history of the multiverse. Yet the error is commonplace in science fiction war movies: future militaries have no memory of the past, and no understanding of military science.
The training program in Starship Troopers warns of what’s to come; it is senseless and brutal, and would not produce effective soldiers. But then the first encounter with the Pseudo-arachnids demonstrates that it’s par for the course. In the book cap troopers are armed and equipped with the first ‘mecha’ suits to appear in fiction, and they use gravity parachutes to drop onto enemy planets from space. In the movie, they jump out of a landing craft, line up and start shooting…from the hip.
So the American Revolution, the Civil War, WWI & WWII, Vietnam, and all the colonial wars of the European powers are forgotten. They just stand there in a row, like musketeers armed with assault rifles. Small wonder they die in job lots.
The question is: how is all of military history forgotten? Was there an era of peace that made war unnecessary for so long that all military knowledge vanished? No such luck; only military veterans can vote, and have held power over the future polity for a couple of centuries. Military traditions are their cultural traditions, therefore they could not have forgotten everything that came before.
And please, assault rifles? Couldn’t they have at least brought along a few serious machine guns? 50 caliber at least when up against big, naturally armored bugs? They would’ve been better off with WWII era Garand rifles; at least they’re .30-06.
6. Heartbreak Ridge – Military Training Vanishes Once the Shooting Starts
This movie is schizophrenic. One the one hand it has the old war horse Gunny Highway, played by Clint Eastwood, instructing his kindergarten of a platoon in military doctrine. On the other hand they all forget everything and start spraying bullets from the hip like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando. One moment its all about training, the next it’s just another action movie with infinity magazines.
Since the Marine Corps signed off on this movie, it was done on purpose; we could even consider this propaganda, making war seem like…a movie. The parade of misfits in Gunny Highway’s platoon, including the lieutenant, are seemingly intended to demonstrate that anybody can be a Marine, and that once the shooting starts they’ll become true ‘fire-pissers.’ In addition, the lack of respect shown to superior officers would not actually be tolerated by the non-movie Marine Corps. Anybody who joined the Corps expecting to be able to talk back to the officers would soon get a rude awakening.
So many moments in this movie seem entirely authentic, but a lot of the fighting looks like it came from the 18th century, line up and shoot…from the hip. They’re not the only ones! The Cubans too shoot from the hip. Everybody runs into the open, shooting the while, from the hip, and not surprisingly hit little or nothing. If one has only thirty rounds in his magazine, spraying them all away while running seems like a really bad idea. One can only carry so many magazines!
The whole point of training in the military is to diminish the effects of adrenaline and fear once the shooting starts. When hands are shaking and heart is hammering, routines drilled into a soldier (or Marine) over time become somewhat automatic, so-called muscle memory. It works in sports too, and indeed any field of endeavor.
We all tend to revert to type when the chips are down, and if a particular type has been hammered into the brain, it tends to stick. This is true of members of the military as it is everyone else, even though they face dangers worse than a boss yelling at them. Actually, a boss yelling at them is kinda normal, it’s the shooting that might get a little worrisome.