Remember when news broke that the battle scene in the final Hobbit movie would be 45 minutes long? That is a long battle scene. Sure, the one in Return of the King spanned maybe 50-plus minutes, but that was broken up by more scenes away from the field of battle. What also differentiates the two battle sequences is this: while they both start around halfway through each movie, the one in Return of the King was not the actual climax of the movie or the series. So, this post is about climactic battles in movies, and things that I have noticed in them.

I have never been in battle, nor have I seen any first hand. I do however, feel as if there are certain ways to end a battle. Maybe one side retreats. Maybe one side surrenders. Maybe part of one side retreats and another part surrenders. Maybe it ends in a stalemate and both sides retreat. Maybe one side completely annihilates the other side. Or maybe the battle just ends with a peace negotiation. In any case, battles sometimes end with a bang, sometimes with a whimper.

In war movies, it is okay for battles to peter out and end with a whimper…as long as that battle is not the climax of the movie. It is easy for a battle to end with one side retreating or surrendering after a drawn out conflict, as long as that battle is in the first or second act. It can even be that way towards the end of the movie as long as it is not the final big event in the movie.  If it is the final big number, then movie often requires either something bigger…or something smaller. Either way, it needs to be clear what happened; you can’t just have some leader suddenly yell victory or retreat when it seems like there still might be some fight left, but you also cannot draw out the inevitability of victory. The climactic battle needs a climax. Here are five scenarios along with some movies that fit them.

  • Something blows up, or is at least destroyed. This often either kills all of the bad guys or renders them utterly incapable of fighting. Examples: A New Hope, Return of the Jedi, Saving Private Ryan, The Two Towers, The Return of the King, The Bridge on the River Kwai. And doesn’t Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor end with the characters participating in the carpet bombing of Tokyo?
  • The cavalry shows up late in the game, giving the outnumbered good guys (maybe most of them dead already) a sudden advantage and overwhelming the bad guys. Sometimes, the small band of protagonists were there to hold off the larger enemy until said cavalry arrived, but sometimes the cavalry is a surprise. Examples: Saving Private Ryan, The Two Towers, The Battle of Five Armies, Lone Survivor.
  • The fight comes down to individuals on each side duking it out. This can be either due to the two sides allowing the individuals to determine the fight or because the individuals end up isolated from the larger groups of combatants (who are often rendered narratively irrelevant) or because the sides really have somehow whittled each other down to small group. That last one is rather difficult to pull off unless the two armies were simply small groups to begin with. Examples: The Return of the Jedi, The Battle of Five Armies.
  • The main bad guy is killed and the bad guy army either surrenders or just dies, due to maybe some hive mind condition. Examples…well, I cannot think of any right now, but they are there.
  • The good guys are epically slaughtered or have to retreat while one person is epically slaughtered. This may a bit rarer, since who wants to see the good guys lose, but it does not need to rely on some last minute tricks like the other scenarios. Also, the loss of this battle could merely be a precursor to a later victory, unless their deaths actually allow for immediate victory through sacrifice. Since the loss is of the protagonists, it is easier to feel the weight of inevitable as opposed to if victory was always assured. Examples: 300, Gallipoli, Ran, Fury, Das Boot sort of, Glory to an extent, and Platoon maybe.

There are probably other ways to end a movie with a battle, but just think of how many war movies ended with one or more of these. Now, there are movies that do manage to steer clear of this by having the real final centerpiece be something else or by subverting the three act structure. Movies such as Patton, Spartacus, Braveheart, and Letters from Iwo Jima can have something else be the last memorable event. If the war movie does not actually dwell on the big battles themselves, such as Apocalypse Now, then it is easier to avoid using a battle as a climax. But if you want big, then you have to end epically. And what is bigger than a climactic battle?

So, those movies were off the top of my head. Can you think of any other examples or counter-examples?

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