scorecardAncient warfare expert rates 10 battle tactics in movies and TV shows
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Ancient warfare expert rates 10 battle tactics in movies and TV shows

Carter Thallon,Siddharth Gandhi   

  • Historian Roel Konijnendijk rates 10 ancient-warfare scenes in movies and shows for realism.
  • He breaks down tactical formations in movies such as "300," "Gladiator," and "Braveheart."

Following is a transcript of the video.

[boiling oil is poured on attackers]

Roel Konijnendijk: So, boiling oil, it didn't happen. Sorry. I mean, you can just throw boiling water.

Hi, my name is Roel Konijnendijk. I'm a lecturer in ancient history at the University of Oxford. I'm an expert in ancient warfare, and I'm here to talk to you today about premodern warfare in modern movies.

"300" (2006)

[two armies collide with each other]

So, this is the supposed Greek concept of othismos, which literally means pushing. And about 100 years ago, a scholar in Oxford who clearly had rugby on his mind decided that this should be conceived as a literal mass shoving. We have no evidence of that. Nobody ever says that that's the case, but for some reason, this really caught on. And so for the last 100 years, it's been controversial. But generally speaking, I mean, people didn't want to fight like that. Spears are right in your face. So there's a lot of reasons to want to avoid this.

[Leonidas stabs an enemy with a spear]

So, this moment, where they switch from fighting in formation to going after individuals who are still resisting, that seemed very realistic for most of these fights. Make sure you can kill as many of them as possible, because that's when they're vulnerable. That's when they're not fighting back. So that's when you can just spear them in the back. And that's exactly what happens in this scene. It's only very much later in Spartan history where they say, "We don't chase the fleeing enemy," because if you chase the enemy, then you're caught out of formation. You become vulnerable. But at this time, the time of the Persian War, so the Spartans had no rules against this, and, indeed, it's a true story. You can't really dispute that, but in sense of the tactics and the weapons, it feels like a fantasy movie. Maybe three or four out of 10.

Rating: 4/10

"The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" (2002)

[an old man accidentally releases and arrow and hits an orc in the neck]

If the old man's in range, why isn't everybody shooting? They're making all these people on the walls hold their arrow for a really long time. And these are really heavy bows, so it's exhausting and pointless. Plate armor is intended to keep arrows out. Bows aren't guns. They are meant as a suppressive weapon. You use it to keep their heads down. And so of course you would still use it, even against people wearing plate armor, because even the feel of arrows sort of pinging off your armor or falling around you is going to make you much more cautious and hesitant.

[orcs climb siege ladders]

Obviously, attacking walls with ladders is just a really, really risky proposition. And usually it doesn't work. If you believe they don't have either the courage or the strength to resist you, then you might try this. You just put a lot of ladders against the walls, swarm up, take the place. If you expect it to be defended, it puts you in such a position of vulnerability, approaching the walls one at a time, and that's just not going to go well. But obviously it is a very common tactic. I mean, you can go to the British Museum right now and see depictions of people assaulting walls with ladders.

Yeah. So, I mean, the problem when you see these kind of siege scenes in movies, that they always seem to make it really easy for the attacker. If they want to go right up to the wall, they can just do that. If they want to bring siege engines, if they want to bring catapults or rams or towers up to the walls, they can just do that. It's like they're trying to make it possible for this place to fall.

Whereas in reality, I mean, one of the most common forms of fortification is, very simply, if you have the ground like this, you dig a ditch, and you pile up the sand behind it, then you build your wall on top of that. And now what do you have? The enemy wants to approach you from the front. They end up in the ditch. Suddenly the wall they're facing is much higher. If they want to bring siege towers or battering rams, they fall into the ditch. They would have to fill up the ditch first, before they can get to you. All that time, they're right under your walls. In movies, they never do this because that would slow things down. They want to keep the assault engaging. That's why a lot of the tactics that they show you are actually too simple, and they're missing a lot of the points that would actually be used.

[Gandalf and the Riders of Rohan charge their horses into the orc army]

Well, firstly, that hill is much too steep, so everybody would die. But these horses would just slide to their deaths, unfortunately. But if we take that out of the equation, I always thought it was validated by the fact that he uses the light of the sun to blind the orcs, which means they lower their pikes at the last moment. So the idea is that he creates those openings that the horses need to see in order to push their charge. So you see them sort of wavering and breaking just before the charge hits, which is exactly the point. That makes it conceivable that this could have worked. I mean, it is still a fantasy, and they're doing many things wrong. On the other hand, it certainly hits a number of points where you're like, well, this is realistic, using sort of layered initiative in order to overcome the defenses. Yeah. I mean, four out of 10, five out of 10.

"Braveheart" (1995)

This is just wrong. I mean, what are they doing here? Like, this is, where are they getting the idea that the Scots in this period were wearing, like, leather and war paint? Like, these are just ordinary, medieval infantry. They would be wearing chain mail and helmets like this. They just deliberately made them into savages. Why would you make them into savages? They were sophisticated people. They had disciplined pike formations. It's so bizarre.

[archers shoot fire arrows]

So, fire arrows are not entirely unhistorical. They did exist, but usually you would use them during a siege assault, for instance, like you could use them to set things on fire, which is what they are for. So, buildings and stocks and supplies would -- straw-thatched roofs. Because it would create chaos and distractions. This idea of involving fire in battle scenes is just something that Hollywood loves. I mean, you just want to have fire because it's a nice spectacle.

[fire arrows ignite oil on the battlefield]

Also, how would they have done this without the English noticing that there was a field of oil or something on the ground? Like, they wouldn't have been like, "Oh, that's probably there for no reason. I'm just gonna stand in front of it."

[soldiers charging]

They just do this, all these movies, they just sort of charge into each other, like horses' lancers. They just sort of mash into each other, like, no regard for anything. And then when people ask me, like, "So, in a battle like this, how would you know which one is on which side? Like, how would you know who to stab, basically?" Like, yeah, you wouldn't, obviously, if it went down like this, you would have no idea, which is why it didn't. As soon as your formation gets so messed up and so disorderly that the enemy are in your ranks, you know you've lost.

Now, you would, infantry would often charge into battle in the sense of that it would run the last distance to meet the enemy, because everybody's afraid. Nobody wants to be there, really, because they know they're about to be in mortal danger. So you run and you scream to get yourself through that point and to psych yourself up and to know that there's a lot of you who are all in it together. But then you'd probably, by the best modern theories, you'd probably slow down when you get to the enemy, and then you would start stabbing at each other in more or less even lines, because otherwise everything would just, you would just lose control.

This is a joke. I mean, like... from the equipment to the tactics, like, none of this has any bearing on what actually happened except that William Wallace was defeated. That's basically it. [laughs] Two out of 10 or one out of 10.

Rating: 2/10

"Gladiator" (2000)

[the Roman army shoots a metal bolt]

That's one of the most common forms of ancient artillery, is these bolt shooters. They would shoot these big rods. These sort of metal bolts. They're very effective. They shoot further and more accurately than arrows. There's an account of somebody getting blown off his feet and pinned to a tree by one of these things. They are very useful in a siege because, again, they clear the walls. You don't want to stand there.

[the Roman army shoots a flaming ball into the forest]

I mean, what is the point here? This forest is clearly very wet. It's not going to burn. It just looks cinematic.

[the Roman army creates a shield formation]

And they form a testudo! Of course they do. I mean, it's not ridiculous. I mean, the Romans did have a formation like that, it was called testudo, and they did use it in a few occasions when you knew you had to pass through a bunch of arrow fire and you didn't want to lose any casualties, but it's a desperate measure. So then you're stuck waiting, essentially, for the enemy to stop shooting at you. So, in a battle situation you wouldn't want to waste your time trying to get into that formation and then waste your time trying to get out of it again when the enemy's right there. Instead, you would just try to get through that zone and get into the thick of it.

Maximus: Do not be troubled. For you are in Elysium, and you're already dead!

Roel: It's an endless debate whether those speeches actually happened, because it's hard to speak to an entire army for the people, especially without a microphone. But it is something that is very, very common in descriptions of battles. So the best we can do is assume that they did happen and that they were a very important part of it.

[soldiers charge through the forest on horses]

So, the cavalry here bizarrely charges through a forest. This is a really bad idea. Your horses are going to break their legs. Like, you'd try to find open ground. I mean, it uses a lot of actual Roman tactics and equipment, so I guess six out of 10, but it's a mishmash.

Rating: 6/10

"Troy" (2004)

The whole point is just that they're just doing "Saving Private Ryan." This is just made up because they wanted to have a scene like "Saving Private Ryan."

[Greek warships arrive on the beaches of Troy]

Resisted landings are not common in ancient warfare, because they're very kind of a modern warfare thing. Most of the time, they would just find a suitable beach somewhere a reasonable distance away from their target and land there. And then they would advance on their target.

[soldiers run by wooden stakes in the sand]

These are just stakes for show. Who are they gonna stop? Like, they're not trying to land tanks here or anything. People can just walk through them. Like, if you want to fortify anything, in antiquity, in the Middle Ages, in the modern day, ditch and a palisade. It's that simple. It's easy, all you need is a bit of wood and some shovels, and they haven't done it. They just put some stakes up here and there for no reason. Just kind of sprinkled some stakes.

[the Greek soldiers form a shield wall]

This kind of shield formation is total rubbish. I mean, come on. There's nothing like that in Greek history. They're not going to be like this overlapping sort of turtle thing.

[a Trojan soldier is knocked off of his horse]

In the period where this poem is set, there was no mounted cavalry. And even in later periods, you rarely have people actually fighting on horseback. It's hard to work out how to use cavalry tactically. It's difficult to use it if you don't have very many of them, and horses are just very precious. It costs an enormous amount of money to maintain a horse, so you don't want to waste your horse on something like this guy and his hammer.

[the Greek army charges at the Trojans]

Charging all together. They have no sense of order. And, in fact, if you look closely in one of these scenes, just to the left of Paris, after the next shot of Paris running away, I think.

[one of the soldiers in the scene trips]

The extra falls down on his face. I mean, I love that, because it just shows exactly why you wouldn't want to be doing this, right? Because if everybody's running all together, you're just going to trip over yourself. Like, everybody gets in each other's way.

Like, they're doing a beach landing, which is obviously inspired by an earlier movie. It has nothing to do with history except that they have swords and arrows. Yeah, I mean, what do you want? Two out of 10?

Rating: 2/10

"Kingdom of Heaven" (2005)

[an army approaches the walls of Jerusalem]

So, again, where is your ditch? Where is your ditch?! You've got to have a ditch! Otherwise they're going to run those siege towers right up to your wall. You know this! And obviously Jerusalem at the time did have a ditch, and it had a pre-wall and another ditch, so that you can't just put your siege engines right up to the wall.

[fireballs fly through the air]

Of course they start throwing fireballs. [sighs] Stop it with the fireballs!

[soldiers throw fire at a siege engine]

Admittedly, it is realistic here that they are very concerned about trying to keep their siege weapon from catching fire. The defenders would try to set them on fire, and so it's very important to protect them from that, usually by covering them with wet hides.

[soldiers pour boiling oil on the enemy]

So, boiling oil is a big trope, right? You see it in a lot of movies. It's not a thing. Didn't happen. Sorry. So, there's no evidence of it ever happening. There's no description of people being smothered in boiling oil. Certainly not oil that's already been set on fire. I mean, you can just throw boiling water and it does the same thing, which is hurt people, or you can just throw rocks. But they cost you nothing, they take no preparation, and you just throw them at people. They get hurt. It's great. So boiling oil is just needlessly elaborate, and you're burning fuel. You don't want to be burning things for no good reason.

In the account that we have of this siege, it says there was constant fighting outside the walls, and there were also assaults on the walls. This one's better than the other one, actually. Better than Helm's Deep.

Rating: 6/10

"Game of Thrones" Season 8 Episode 3

[soldiers practice with spears]

Again, they should have been digging ditches. Literally all they do is just stand around carrying, like, spears from one point to another. You should be digging ditches. Many ditches. Once your first ditch is ready, build another one.

[women hide in the crypt]

The female characters, other than the ones who have been trained to fight, are basically just sort of hiding in the dungeon and not doing anything. In actual sieges, especially when it was this desperate, I mean, they would just be expected to contribute. Women, children, old men, everybody does something, because there's always things that people can do even when they don't fight. You know, go and carry arrows and stones up to the people on the walls, go put out fires, help with water and food, help with clothing and the wounded. There is no way you would just stick them away in a corner somewhere.

[catapults line the battlefield]

These catapults are obviously in the wrong place. They should be on top of the wall. Like, why would you put them outside of the walls? They're going to be overrun. You can't move them out of the way quickly enough, so put them on top of the wall. That's where you put your artillery.

[cavalry stand at the front of the army]

So, you can put your cavalry in front, and it totally works, if you don't expect your enemy to stand their ground. So, putting your cavalry in front is a time-tested, very common strategy, totally works, unless you're fighting ice zombies, who are not going to break, and they're not scared of you. You're just wasting your cavalry. So it's the right tactic for the wrong moment. There are probably several battles, other battles in "Game of Thrones" where this could have worked really well.

Should you find yourself fighting an army of ice zombies, so, put your artillery on the wall, dig many ditches, just lots and lots of ditches. You can put, of course, your infantry in front, if you want to confront them there, because that means that you will have several stages to fall back on. After that, you won't sort of blow everything all in one go. But put your cavalry away from the main line so that once the enemy is engaged, once your ice zombies are stuck against your line, you can then swoop in from the side, where they are not expecting you, and overrun them. I mean, it's not going to really necessarily win your fight against an army of ice zombies, but at least it means that you are fighting them in a way that they don't expect. At least you will have done something with your cavalry that made sense.

But otherwise, I mean, obviously it's all a bit silly. So, what should we say, five out of 10?

Rating: 5/10

"Alexander" (2004)

I mean, this movie had an Oxford professor advising on the movie. You can see all the little details that they got in terms of their dress, in terms of their tactics and maneuvers. Like, all of this is as good as we can get it, almost. It's really, really precise, except for the fact that, for the Persian Army, they still went with this kind of slightly racist depiction of, you know, flimsy warriors wearing eyeliner and things like that. It doesn't really reflect reality at this point. They would have been much more organized and much more heavily equipped, but this is just the way that people like to depict Persia in general and the East. It's leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

[charging Persian soldiers yell]

In fact, throughout this period, the Greeks were the ones who fought like that, whereas the Persians were known to be much more organized and to advance silently into battle, which was something that the Greeks were really impressed by.

[Persian soldiers ride on camels]

Camels, always useful, because they scare horses. It's kind of a theme throughout Persian history. They would use camels to scare off enemy cavalry.

[a phalanx stands in formation]

With this movie, like, all the equipment is just right. Like, these guys, you know these are the Companions. You know, later on, there are going to be some Thracians. Like, you can pinpoint very exactly who they are. The whole pike phalanx is exactly depicted accurately, with all of the weaponry, the spacing between the men, and the kind of blocks in which they maneuver and things like that.

[a soldier charges into a spear and is impaled]

Now, this is obviously a bit silly. People wouldn't deliberately impale themselves on a giant stick. It's much more likely that they would just sort of stop in front of that and start falling back. And you don't actually expect a big pike formation to actually kill all those people, because people don't, you know, they try not to die. They're going to run away from it.

[a bird's-eye view of the battle]

I mean, this is exactly as it says in the sources. This is our best reconstruction of how this battle happened. This is, in terms of ancient warfare, this is the most accurate depiction that you'll find anywhere, and I would give this nine out of 10.

Rating: 9/10

"The Last Kingdom" (2015) Season 1 Episode 1

[soldiers charging at a viking shield wall]

Stop! No! Where are your missiles? Now, this is where -- [sighs] These battles, they would be about trying to disrupt the formation, not trying to slam into it and hope it goes away. I mean, you'd be throwing, you'd be shooting arrows at it and throwing javelins at it to try and see if you can create some gaps in it. And then eventually, once you saw a weak spot, you might sort of rush forward. And so you could use your swords and your spears to try and create a hole in the shield walls. It doesn't do any, it doesn't achieve anything.

Yeah, no, Vikings would definitely use shield walls. I mean, that aspect of it is realistic, except the fact that it's a three-layered shield wall seems a bit excessive. That's a Roman formation. But you do have, obviously Viking shield walls are the way they would fight pitched battles when they did. So they would try to avoid pitched battles and mostly would fight in surprise attacks, ambushes, and sieges. So this is a rare occasion where, according to this scene, apparently they actually had numerical superiority, so then they could risk it.

So, this one, I would probably give, like, six or seven out of 10.

Rating: 7/10

"Red Cliff" (2008)

And so, this movie is entirely based on the romance. So, not on the historical record. It's essentially just a fantasy story.

[an army gets into an extremely complex formation]

This formation, in the historical record, there is something called the eight-gates formation, which isn't described. It means a really elaborate infantry formation that has these sort of changing, shifting shield walls, which is intended to trap enemy cavalry. And so that's what you're seeing happening here, is that they are using shifting shield walls to trap enemy cavalry. There are a couple of descriptions of it happening in a sort of competitive maneuvering, where two armies are sort of trying to show that they have more control and more discipline by competitively moving troops around. But actually there is no evidence that it was ever used in a battle to defeat anyone. It's much too complex. The amount of control that you would need over every individual detachment, the amount of coordination of each single man, everybody has to know exactly where he has to stand for this to work. And none of them can, you know, even a stray arrow killing one of them would disrupt this entire formation because it would create a gap. So it's just not feasible. That seems sort of wildly optimistic as to the abilities of any infantry force.

[soldiers use ropes to drag the enemy off of their horses]

In real life, if you could get that close to cavalry, why not just stab them?

It's another one of those things that is based on a story, so how can you judge it? Like, it's cool, it's evocative, but it's not historical. It's got the equipment right, so maybe four.

Rating: 4/10