Friday, December 19, 2014

Story Combat Realism EXTRA--battlefield errors from The Battle of the Five Armies


I promised my next post on combat realism would be on long-term effects of combat. But coming off watching The Hobbit: the Battle of the Five Armies last night, please allow me to insert some comments on ways the movie botched showing combat realistically.

Someone could easily answer that in the genre of fantasy, combat doesn't have to be realistic. That may be true, but I think writers should at least know what is realistic in order to be able to use realism if they so choose. Unrealistic combat scenes in movies muddy the waters of what really is and is not possible, so writer may genuinely think something is realistic, when it it isn't. I hope to offer a bit of clarity.

By the way, these comments will reference some specific events in the story, but won't commit any real story spoilers, nor comment on the overall story. So, listed from the worst on down:

1. War mounts plow through ranks of infantry. Look, a horse or war elk or whatever can knock a man in armor standing firm on his duff, but the mount loses a bit of inertia in so doing. In multiple ranks of standing men, the mount would come to a halt relatively fast and its rider would be in very serious trouble. In the movie, the beasts plow right through crowds of enemies, no problem.

Someone who knows medieval history may object that horsemen did indeed race through infantry at times as if they were a standing field of grain. Yes, they in fact did. Especially when the rider was heavily armored and the infantry wasn't...but what was really happening is most of the infantry were breaking ranks away from the incoming horse in fear. Some brave souls would step forward to attempt to fight the rider, but riders were very skilled at blows aimed at key vulnerable points of such people, especially strikes to the head and neck, to drive them back. The look would be very different from what the movie showed but still quite interesting.

I found it especially annoying when lightly armored mounts plowed through heavily armored infantry...that isn't something you can find hardly any examples of happening in history...leading to the next point:

2. Armor has no effect. Armor both slows down running speed and provides protection against weapons, especially arrows but also other types of blows. The movie varied in its portrayal of armor a bit, but in general nobody was slowed by it very much and especially if you were an orc, it seemed to offer no protection at all. A blow in the middle of the chest plate was as good as any place else. When in reality, you'd aim for vulnerable points where the armor is thinner like the neck, up under the arms, or at the back of the knees when fighting someone in armor. 

3. One blow = instant kill--OR--only main characters can be mortally wounded. Short of a head being struck clean off, most wounds don't kill immediately. Some wounds that will lead to death in 2 minutes from severe bleeding don't necessarily incapacitate in the first 30 seconds or so. Yet hordes of fighters, especially the orcs, drop dead after one blow. Unless we're talking about main characters. A main character usually would die more slowly, allowing some time for a few last words. This is a very old storytelling convention and this movie applied it inconsistently, so perhaps it wasn't all that bad in that context. But it was not realistic in a way I felt egregious.

4. Massive battles turned into individual duels. Does it sometimes happen on a realistic battlefield that main opponents face off against each other? Sure, but not often. A battlefield is a chaotic place and lots of times major warriors have been taken out by relatively unimportant foes (for example, how many people remember who shot down the Red Baron?). Maybe some main warriors facing each other made the story more interesting--but at times it seemed to me the bulk of the fighting got more or less ignored in order to highlight individuals dueling to the death. 

5. Morale shown inconsistently. The human characters especially seem to have morale, that is, they retreat in fear, then look to a leader to help them recover courage. At least a bit. But the non-human characters fight like perfect robots in the film. Mostly. I found it a shame because there is a scene that is supposed to show Thorin rallying the dwarves--but it failed to first show that they had lost morale, that they needed to be rallied. (The Lord of the Rings movies, while not perfect, actually did better when showing the siege of Gondor.)

6. Armies lacked individuality. The elf and dwarf armies especially showed every single person dressed the same clothing, the same armor--with the exception of leaders. I suppose identical troops makes the task of performing CGI battles easier for the filmmakers, but in an era before industrialism, that is, when things are hand-made, people should look less alike. In other words, Dain's troops should have looked like a larger body of the dwarves Bilbo travelled with, even if they maintained the same shield shapes to make an effective shield wall.

7. The amusement park ride. You know--the scene where a wheeled device or sliding object provides a highly improbable "amusmentparkesque" ride for someone during a fight. The kind of thing I can't think of a single example of having happened in the real world. This movie actually minimized that sort of thing compared to previous Hobbit movies. But it was still there.

8. Battlefield conversations. The clash of metal hitting metal is loud. There were points in the story where individuals could hear each other far too easily. OK, it's a minor point, really. But one movie moment was especially egregious, earning it a spot on my list.

9. Limited battle maneuvers. Some of the battlefield tactics you saw a lot of in the movie were frontal attacks and there were also some retreats. But only a few other things. Maneuvering to split foes or to entrap them (other than individual fighters) or deceive them or outflank them or any of the other things armies can do was largely missing. The actual conduct of the battle focused on individuals and ignored maneuvers. Clearly that was a storytelling choice rather than a error, but I felt it was a missed opportunity. I would have liked to see more action from the armies in a movie entitled "The Battle of the Five Armies." I could have lived with less face time from the main characters. Though perhaps that's just me...

10. Not enough blood and guts. You don't have to study warfare to realize that while some blood was shown, it was nowhere near enough to be realistic. And you don't have to be a writer or filmmaker to be able to guess why. Children watch the movie, after all. Nobody wants to traumatize them. I agree--still, maybe a hint of blood when a head is lopped off would be in order...? Or perhaps some bit of red in a few other situations? Maybe...?

That's my list from what I thought was the worst to not as bad. Does anybody disagree with anything I pointed out? Or have anything to add of your own? Please let me know in the comments. :)

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