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Search for one factor that inspired children to grow up and become wargamers and movies must have a case to answer. This author was superbly indoctrinated with visions of knights battling to glory, Roman legions marching to victory or Greek heroes going down in defeat. How does Hollywood measure up historically? We shall see…….

The History

The real beginning of Ancient warfare in Hollywood was Griffiths monumental movie Intolerance (1916). Nobody since has been able to top the sheer size of the set built to depict Ancient Babylon and certainly we shall not see such extravagance again. For all the fantastic spectacle the film is surprisingly unimpressive when compared to the Griffiths battle scenes for Birth of a Nation. It is ironic that the later had a deal more to say about intolerance. Look for the belly on the champion of champions. This did provide two generations with a visual conception of an ancient world full of muscled heroes and vampish women.

The other great picture in this period is the Ten Commandments (1923) which featured some very impressive chariot scenes with the Egyptian army and incidentally resulted in a lot of injury and even death for the horses and stuntmen (mostly ex-cowboys).

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) was a bravura film and not really bettered. By the legion of copyists who followed. Who ever topped Errol Flynn in this role? There isn't much for the history fan in this piece of pure Hollywood, but there is a rousing sword fight at the end. This is interesting in that it pitted two Olympic class fencers in Flynn and Basil Rathbone against each other, setting the standard for others and providing a real demonstration of the film sword fight, different in many degrees to the real thing. The script was terrific.

Sheriff: "After tonight you will never come to Nottingham again."

Robin "After tonight, I will have no need to come to Nottingham again."

As war engulfed the world in the early forties, the standard of film battle began to rise. Outstanding in all periods is Alexander Nevsky (1938) by director Eisenstein and with a classic musical score that has become famous in its own right. Done as a political propaganda piece for the Stalinist government, the film utilised the Russian army to stage the battle of Lake Pepius -1242, between Russians and Prussians. The battle is truly epic, with massed cavalry charges, infantry shield walls. A definite classic if you ignore the rest of the movie

The end of the war ushered in the age of the epic and provided audiences with some truly exciting ancient films and some not so exciting.

Ivanhoe (1952) starred Robert Taylor and a young Elizabeth Taylor. While not overly concerned with history the production values were good with some excellent outfits being provided . The centrepiece of the film is the assault on a Norman held castle by Saxons led by Robin Hood. A counter attacking shieldwall of Normans is swamped by literal showers of arrows, followed up by a grinding assault upon the castle by hordes of Saxons. All done at a rousing pace .

During the same period Ingrid Bergmann starred in the film Joan of Arc (1948). The Joan films almost always come out as boring affairs, but this is redeemed by the savage French assault on the Tyrell at Orleans. For pulse pounding slaughter this fight is terrific. Wave after wave of French breaking against the castle and its garrison. The military gear is straight out of 19th century prints.

Robert Taylor filmed another epic in England, Knights of the Round Table (1952). This rendition is pure Mallory. All soldiers being attired as High Middle Ages warriors and talking of chivalry. Though stilted in direction the film does feature a good battle, an ambush and a fierce fight between 5 knights and Lancelot, how to escape in showers of blood after being discovered with the kings wife.

This habit of taking the story out of period in films was continued in Lancelot and Guinevere (1963) which had some very brutal battles, complete with sword splitting of a skull and slicing a man from shoulder to waist with a broadsword.

Spartacus (1960) contained perhaps the best remembered ancient screen battle utilising extras at a level that cannot be considered in these more costly days.

The 60's were the Golden age of screen battles and the pre gunpowder period did well too. Foremost among the films offered came El Cid (1961) being the biggest and the best

The films star, Charlton Heston went on to star in a very disjointed tale of Medieval times redeemed by a siege that is irresistible watching for a wargamer- The Warlord (1965).

By this time the type of film was dying back and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and its subsequent failure to recoup its cost, which included a life size forum of Rome, afterwards destroyed, so other filmmakers could not use it. With the use of 6,000 members of the Spanish Army.

Some European efforts proved outstanding. The Knights of the Teutonic Order being the best (Poland) with a 20 minute battle of Grunwald.

Sheer cost has forced the battle film off the big screen until recent years, where the advent of Computer generated graphics (CGI) is ushering in a new age at the cinema.

Two honourable exception are the splendid Braveheart and the not so memorable but noteworthy Gladiator. The CGI spectacles of The Mummy returns and Lord of the Rings promise much for the future. 

In part two this article will concentrate on the more memorable battle scenes in films.



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