5 “Apocalypse Now” — Helicopter Attack
Truthfully, this scene only barely counts as a battle—but it is one of the most epic scenes in Hollywood history, and it does take place during a war. The helicopters and their pilots were supplied by Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos, although he had to take them back occasionally as he was fighting a war of his own at the same time. And pretty much anything accompanied by Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” is guaranteed to be epic—try it next time you do the dishes; you’ll see. In the words of Robert Duvall’s Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Although there are probably better ways to secure a surfing spot, they wouldn’t be nearly as, well, epic.
4 “300” — The Battle of Thermopylae
Comic-book sheen and CGI doesn’t take away from the epic brutality of this incredibly fictionalized account of the 300 Spartans who “successfully” held back a Persian army 10,000 strong. Clearly this was due less to the strategic decision to block a small mountain pass, forcing the Persians to trickle through in small numbers, and more to the heavily muscled Spartans, who looked more like body builders than soldiers. The actual battle is honored as one of the greatest final stands in the history of war; the film is honored for selling lots of gym memberships to couch potatoes. Don’t watch “300” looking for a heroic happy ending, though. Spoiler alert: Everybody dies.
3 “Braveheart” — The Battle of Stirling
“They may take our lives, but they will never take our freedom!” With these words, Mel Gibson’s William Wallace led a humble band of Scottish men to victory over the highly trained and well-equipped British. It’s hard to decide which was more epic—the battle or the pep talk. So what if the movie is fraught with historical inaccuracies; it’s a Hollywood movie, not a documentary. The historical battle of Stirling was actually the Battle of Stirling Bridge. One anecdote recounts a local asking why there was no bridge. When Gibson explained, “The bridge got in the way,” the local reportedly retorted, “Aye, that’s what the English found.”
2 “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” — The Battle of Helm’s Deep
Thousands of actors and extras spent four months filming this brutal battle at night, under pouring rain machines. The set alone took seven months to construct. When the dust had settled, actors and stunt doubles alike were nursing very real injuries, including broken bones and at least one chipped tooth. The battle racked up a body count of 468, and the sight of thousands of Orcs storming the walls would strike fear in any heart. Sure, a good deal of it was computer-generated imagery, but it was epic CGI.
1 “Saving Private Ryan” — Omaha Beach
The movie opens with 30 minutes of grisly brutality so excruciatingly vivid and realistic that the Department of Veterans Affairs set up a hotline to assist veterans who were upset or experienced flashbacks as a result of viewing the film. Steven Spielberg’s depiction of the decisive Omaha Beach battle isn’t unbelievable Hollywood special effects and choreographed stunts—it’s gut-wrenchingly brutal carnage. If you want an epic battle scene, watch the one actual World War II veterans couldn’t handle.