I love movie clichés…sometimes. I say sometimes because most of them are not lovable. The gun that never runs out of bullets, the villain eating steak, the antagonist who tells the protagonist with “We are not so different, you and I.”
But some are fun to notice, appreciate, and analyze. One of my favorites comes by way of films set in the pre-gunpowder age: it’s the two armies facing off across a field then charging at each other full bore and slamming into each other at speed.
Directors love this shot. You know the one: It’s a static side-angle camera shot of the battle right where the two armies meet. Open field for a second, then hundreds of fighters sprint into each other all at once—and continuing to run as fast as they can into the enemy ranks.
It’s a thrilling way to depict the fighting. No big surprise that you see it often. But it doesn’t quite work out from a history/logic standpoint.
For one, it’s not like these guys were trained athletes, and running is hard.
Here’s an experiment: consume nothing but meat, potatoes, bread, and beer for every meal during the next two months. Then sprint a hundred yards while screaming and holding 25 pounds of steel in your arms (and probably another 25 on your body), and see how you feel at the end of it.
I once tried sprinting while holding a baseball bat over my head to see if I could swing it down with any kind of accuracy or power while still in full motion. (Newsflash: I’m weird). I could not.
Secondly, running wildly into the enemy ranks gets all your best and strongest and bravest killed almost immediately. In the ancient world, it wouldn’t be the common farmer-turned-foot soldier that goes wild and runs at the enemy. It would be a real fighter, and after an initial dash of glory, this brave soul would find themselves twenty yards deep inside enemy lines. Unless you were dipped in the river Styx, you’re probably not coming out of that.
Yes, charges did sometimes happen. But they were used as a means of sneak attack or surprise. Most historians think that if two ancient armies lined up against each other across a battlefield to size each other up before fighting (generally a bad idea anyway), then the nature of that meeting would be more like the way you swat a wasp than the way you jump into a pool. Edging up, bit by bit, testing your distance, and then finally making contact.
More like a vigorous slap fight than a charge.
Here’s one of the better ones I’ve seen filmed (meaning relatively accurate, not the cliché). One side waits (the impeccably trained Romans), and the other side attacks. Even when the Gauls charge, it’s more like a trot and only over roughly twenty yards.
That’s it for today. I passed out Halloween candy last night and ate a bunch of it, so my brain is not working the way it should. Easier for my mind to visit the ancient past than speculate about the future. Have a great week.
*The presence of cavalry, of course, changes all of this. You can charge with cavalry.
*Bit of trivia/point of order: As far as I can tell through research (and memory), the first time the “we are not so different, you and I” cliché appeared in a movie was in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Belloq says it to Indiana in the Cairo café. But it’s not a cliché if you’re the first to use it in a movie, and this screenplay was written by the incomparable Lawrence Kasdan. Kudos to Kasdan…but if you can think of an earlier use, please let me know.