February 12, 2011

An Unexamined Battle Scene Is not Worth Viewing

The biggest problem with cinematic battle scenes today is that they don't have a perspective.

Gladiator is the film that most comes to mind. Also Braveheart, and the abysmal Troy and Alexander. In these movies, the primary purpose of the staged conflicts seems to be a Peckinpah-esque revelry in blood and guts, as well as an "isn't it cool how that guy killed the other guy" sensibility catering to the Grand Guignol set.

In other words, a lot of posing and yelling, but little substance. That contrasts greatly with the best cinematic battle scenes, which always have something to say.

Mind you, such commentary doesn't have to be anti-war. In fact, oftentimes, it isn't. Alexander Nevsky's frozen fight is exhilarating. So is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King's massive (and beautifully directed) orc-a-thon, which incites viewers to cheer against the forces of evil. And Kwaidan's otherworldly boat contest in which the Heike clan meets its doom is like some gorgeous scene from a Kuniyoshi print.

All of these movie battles provide superb direction, varying camera angles and beautiful cinematography. That's not to say that they encourage viewers to enjoy the splattering of blood; instead, they make you care, involving you in the decisions and the developments leading up to them.

Here is my list of the greatest battle scenes in film, in no particular order:

Alexander Nevsky: Still the top, owing to a combination of logistics and sheer cinematic skill
Ran: perhaps the greatest anti-war battle scenes ever depicted on film; confusing, sad and powerful
Chimes at Midnight: brutal, anti-war banging of maces in the mud--terrific Wellesian comment
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: CGI used in the best possible way
Kwaidan: like a painting, both gorgeous and disturbing
Kagemusha: you don't really see the fighting in the climactic battle, but you do see the results. Brilliantly anti-war; an assault on the waste of life
Red Cliff: nicely handled direction of a popular tale, with a bit of preternatural powers thrown in to support the good-versus-evil thrust

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