Audiences love a good battle sequence, but they’re tricky to pull off. Conveying the scale and chaos of a widespread skirmish in sounds and images is easier said than done. Assembling armies of extras is a massive undertaking, but it ultimately results in sequences that feel much more authentic and visceral than the battle scenes with generic CGI armies shuffling into action in tandem.

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Since every Marvel movie ends with a big battle sequence, audiences are slowly becoming desensitized to these kinds of scenes, but a truly well-crafted battle scene will always have the ability to wow a crowd of moviegoers.


Updated on January 22nd, 2022 by Colin McCormick: The sad fact is that the kind of movies that feature incredible and huge-scale battle scenes don’t usually get made anymore. The good news is that there are still plenty of terrific cinematic battles to look back on throughout the history of movies.

From the big historical epics to more modern stories, from the battles that leave audiences on the edge of their seats to the rare ones that can even make people laugh, these truly great battle scenes show the kind of amazing storytelling that can be done with action set pieces. 

The Opening Battle – Gladiator (2000)

Ridley Scott really knows how to stage incredible battle scenes. While most of Gladiator features smaller yet thrilling fights in the coliseum, the movie kicks off in spectacular fashion as Maximus and his army take on the Germanic tribes.

The scene has a quiet build-up until the extreme violence and brutality of the battle unleashes. It is also a terrific way of introducing the character of Maximus as an efficient and skilled military leader which translates into his career as a gladiator.

The Ambush – The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

Daniel Day-Lewis charging into battle in The Last of the Mohicans

Though Michael Mann is largely known for modern crime movies like Heat and Collateral, he showed he was also capable of delivering the historical adventure genre with The Last of the Mohicans.

The most intense scene of the movie comes when a column of British soldiers and their families march through the beautiful landscape native warriors come pouring out of the forest, seeking revenge. It is a haunting and chaotic scene that Mann shoots from afar which adds to its impact.

The Battle of Stirling – Braveheart (1995)

Mel Gibson as William Wallace in battle in Braveheart

The historical epic Braveheart might not be accurate in terms of its details, but it certainly is a thrilling adventure. The massive scale and excitement of the movie can best be seen in this amazing battle sequence.

RELATED: 10 Best Historical Epics To Watch

Following a rousing speech from William Wallace, the Scottish soldiers charge into battle against the much better-equipped British army. As the two sides collide on the battlefield, it turns into a messy, bloody, and relentless brawl that shows the Scottish might not have armor, but they are willing to fight with everything they have.

The Final Gunfight – The Wild Bunch (1969)

The Western action movie The Wild Bunch was a bit of a game-changer in the genre. Sam Peckinpah didn’t hold back on the violence of the story, delivering a bloody and gritty tale of a band of aging outlaws taking one last big score.

The wildness promised in the title is certainly fulfilled in the climactic gun battle. It is a relentless, loud, and gruesome fight as the outlaws take on an army of soldiers. It is the kind of battle that doesn’t give the audience time to breathe until the last shot is fired and the smoke clears.

Attack On Aqaba – Lawrence Of Arabia (1962)

Charging into battle in Lawrence of Arabia

David Lean is a filmmaker known for the sweeping epic feel of his movies. This can best be seen in his masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia. The movie stars Peter O’Toole as the real-life controversial D.H. Lawrence who united various warring Arab tribes to fight against the Turkish army in World War I.

Interestingly, the most famous battle scene in the movie is a fairly tame one with little carnage to speak of, but the way Lean shoots it is exhilarating. From a wide shot, the audience sees as the rebel army stampede into the Turkish stronghold in glorious fashion.

The Battle Of Thermopylae – 300 (2006)

Gerard Butler in 300

After making his feature-length directorial debut with a surprisingly satisfying remake of Dawn of the Dead, Zack Snyder brought Frank Miller’s stylized, brazenly historically inaccurate portrayal of the Battle of Thermopylae to the big screen in 300.

Snyder established all the hallmarks of his action — long takes, stylish bloodshed, intermittent slow-motion — with the battle scenes in 300.

The Civil War Battle – The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly (1966)

Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western epic The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is one of the greatest movies ever made. What makes the adventure even more thrilling is that it takes place during the American Civil War.

During its vast, sprawling narrative, Blondie and Tuco find themselves in the crossfire of a Civil War skirmish. Neither character has a stake in the larger war; they just stumble onto a battlefield. The scale of this battle sequence is staggering.

The Evacuation – Dunkirk (2017)

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is essentially a feature-length battle sequence based on the titular evacuation. It was an unusual concept for a Hollywood war movie because it was a defeat for the Allies and it didn’t involve U.S. troops, but it was the perfect story to capture the hearty spirit of Allied soldiers.

Throughout the movie, Nolan cross-cuts between the land, the air, and the sea, with young soldiers desperately trying to escape the bullet-riddled beach, civilians sailing in to help, and Tom Hardy shooting down fighter planes from above.

The News Team Battle – Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy (2004)

The cast of Ron Burgundy's news team shouting

There are plenty of memorable set pieces in Anchorman, from Ron’s pool party to a biker kicking Baxter off the side of a bridge to the climactic standoff with a pack of angry bears.

RELATED: Anchorman & The 9 Other Best Movies About News Broadcasters

Arguably the most memorable is the rumble between the news teams, which allowed for cameo appearances by such stars as Ben Stiller and Tim Robbins. The sequence is a hysterical non-sequitur, followed by a brilliantly meta scene as Ron and the guys reflect on the fight: “Well, that escalated quickly!”

Ride Of The Valkyries – Apocalypse Now (1979)

The helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now

Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now transplants the basic story of Joseph Campbell’s Heart of Darkness into the Vietnam War. In an early scene, American military helicopters descend upon a Vietnamese village and blow it to kingdom come.

The fact that the soldiers blast “Ride of the Valkyries” from their choppers — a piece composed by Wagner, one of Hitler’s personal favorites — adds a darkly comic edge to the scene.

The Suicide Mission – Paths Of Glory (1957)

Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory

Following the iconic tracking shots through the trenches of World War I, Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war masterpiece Paths of Glory kicks things off with a suicide mission that Kirk Douglas’ Colonel Dax doesn’t want his men to embark on. His commanding officers insist, but Dax ends up calling it off when it becomes clear there won’t be any survivors.

This sequence has no closeups of the lead characters due to the complicated shooting schedule, but using exclusively wide shots ended up working better thematically because it hammers home the movie’s message that all the soldiers’ lives are equally valuable.

The Battle Of Yavin – Star Wars (1977)

Luke uses the Force to blow up the Death Star

There have been plenty of great battle sequences in the Star Wars saga, from Return of the Jedi’s Battle of Endor to Revenge of the Sith’s Battle over Coruscant, but the daddy of them all is the Battle of Yavin — also known as the Death Star trench run — from the original 1977 movie.

From Han and Chewie’s triumphant return in the Falcon to Obi-Wan imparting words of wisdom as a disembodied ghost, this sequence is filled with iconic moments.

The Battle Of Helm’s Deep – The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

Around the midpoint of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the first major battle in the War of the Ring finally takes place. The Battle of Helm’s Deep, known as the Battle of the Hornburg in the original novel, has enjoyed a legacy as one of the most iconic battle scenes ever put on film.

RELATED: 10 Scenes From The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy That Get Better Over Time

The pitch-perfect writing continually raises the stakes throughout the sequence, the razor-sharp editing establishes the scale of the action, and the use of minimal CGI means this fantastical conflict looks a lot more realistic than one would expect.

The Castle Attack – Ran (1985)

The castle attack in Akira Kurosawa's Ran

Although a lot of action-packed medieval epics go for a bleak, gloomy palette, Akira Kurosawa brought bright bursts of color to Ran, his near-perfect movie adaptation of William Shakespeare’s King Lear.

There are a number of classic set pieces in this tale of feuding brothers, but the relentless castle attack is by far the most mind-blowing.

The D-Day Landings – Saving Private Ryan (1998)

The opening D-Day scene in Saving Private Ryan

On the whole, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan is one of the greatest war movies ever made, but its opening re-enactment of the D-Day landings could stand on its own as a fiercely effective short. It was so visceral and historically accurate that it triggered PTSD attacks in real-life veterans who were on the beaches of Normandy.

Spielberg didn’t storyboard the sequence and instead decided to let the action dictate where he would put the camera. The result of this unique process is a more immersive, spontaneous set piece.

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