Thursday 30 March 2023

When swords and axes ruled the battlefield

For the next few weeks, we – as in Canelo Books and me – will be moving full tilt towards publication of my first ever serious historical novel, USURPER, published on April 27. I don’t want to give too much away, though by now, if you’ve been reading any of the advance material, it’ll be plain that the story is set during the autumn of 1066, against the backdrop of the dual invasion of England by both a Viking army and a Norman army at the same time.

If you’ve been checking things out online, you may have noted that the book has already accrued a number of glowing endorsements by some very respectable authors of historical action-fiction. Several comments I’ve received from these august wordsmiths have mentioned the battle scenes, which they appear to have appreciated greatly.

In honour of that, this week I thought I’d cast an eye over the ten best pre-industrial age battle scenes that Hollywood has thus far attempted. Please feel free to agree with my choices, or disagree, as you see fit, in the comments section or on Facebook, Twitter or wherever. In addition, on the subject of war, and bringing things forward somewhat worryingly close to our modern era, I’ll be reviewing Steve Alten’s sci-fi military epic, GOLIATH.

If you’re only here for the Alten review, that’s no problem. You’ll find it as always at the lower end of today’s column in the Thrillers, Chillers section. Just shoot on down there straight away. For the rest of you though, assuming you’ve got a spare moment or two, why not check out some of …


Again, just a bit of fun, this item. Something we can chat idly about over a brew. Basically, I’ve picked ten pre-gunpowder era battle scenes from movies I admire. But there are certain criteria I’ve imposed on myself. 

To start with, they can only be recreations of named battles that really happened in history. So, that rules out the likes of Lord of the Rings (2001/3), Game of Thrones (2011/19), Excalibur (1981), The Warlord (1966) and even the amazing opening sequence in Gladiator (2000), which was basically an amalgam of many battles and skirmishes fought by Rome’s frontier legions in the Danube region during the 170s AD rather than one single individual action.

I’ve also stipulated for myself that I can only call on battle scenes that made at least an attempt to be realistic. So unfortunately, that also discounts the battle of Thermopylae as portrayed in Zack Snyder’s 300 (2006), because artistically brilliant though it was, it owed far more to Frank Miller’s original graphic novel than actual history. 

Likewise, it sidelines Anthony Mann’s colossal epic of the Reconquista, El Cid (1961), as the real battle that drove the Berber horde back from the city of Valencia in 1094 was on the inland plains, not the coast, and even Mel Gibson’s multi Oscar-winning Braveheart (1995), which, while it recreated two major historical battles – Stirling Bridge (1297) and Falkirk (1298) – is infamous the world over for its lack of historical correctness (the Stirling Bridge sequence is stupendously blood-soaked, but it doesn’t even include a bridge).

As a final rule, the movies I choose should also have been made in the English language. Please don’t get on my case about that. Though in polite company I always discuss classic motion pictures like Alexander Nevsky (1938), Kagemusha (1980) and Red Cliff (2008) as if I know what I’m talking about, the truth is that I’m no expert on foreign films and it won’t pay to pretend that I am.

Okay … them’s the rules, as they say. In order of preference, let’s get cracking.

Chimes at Midnight, 1965

One of the greatest battles ever committed to celluloid, and all the more impressive because of its shoestring budget. Director/star Orson Welles condensed several of Shakespeare’s plays into this single account of the Northern Earls’ Rebellion, which threatened the stability of the entirety of mainland Britain. Shrewsbury was a bloody affair indeed, an estimated 12,000 dying on the field, Welles recreating it with incredible ingenuity, using swirling mist, flying mud, blood and splintered shields to mask his relatively limited numbers, yet it remains eye-poppingly intense.

Spartacus, 1960

Everyone remembers the ‘I am Spartacus’ moment, but it wouldn’t have been as effective if it hadn’t come directly after the Battle of the River Sele, which in real life was fought upland and saw the heroic leader of the slave army confronted by three of Rome’s most proficient generals, Pompey, Lucullus and Crassus (with Julius Caesar in attendance as a junior officer). Hollywood legend Stanley Kubrick (still only 32) gave us one of cinema’s most realistic ever portrayals of Roman legionary tactics, and got up close and personal with burnings and hackings galore.

Kingdom of Heaven, 2005

Though as a prelude to this massive engagement, the Christian army of Outremer suffered the greatest defeat in its history at the hands of Islam’s ablest general, Sultan Saladin of Egypt, at Hattin, it was the follow-up action at Jerusalem that caught the eye of regular epic film-maker, Ridley Scott. Though much maligned thanks to the incomprehensible truncated version of this movie released by the studio, the director’s cut remains a visual feast, and culminates in one of the most impressively mounted battles against a bastion that Hollywood has ever given us.

Alexander, 2004

Though poorly received overall, Oliver Stone’s Alexander rises to some memorable battles, and it’s fitting that one of the most important in the Ancient World is given such prominence. Briefly at least, the unending tussle between Greece and Persia was settled when Alexander pitted his numerically inferior but better trained army against the vast but mostly indentured forces of Darius III. The outcome was in doubt to the end, and Stone sticks to that narrative, emphasising the Macedonian king’s ability to make key strategic changes even in the midst of mayhem.

Henry V, 1988

The scale of England’s victory over France in this most famous battle of the Hundred Years War is staggering even now. Henry’s hungry, dysentery-ridden 8,000 overcame the flower of French chivalry, who were closer to 30,000, laying 10,000 of them dead in the mud of that bitter October day, losing only a few hundred in return. It was a triumph for discipline over enthusiasm, for the longbow over plate armour. But Ken Branagh’s version doesn’t glorify any of it, those left alive on the corpse-strewn field at the end shattered husks of the men they’d been.

The Last Kingdom, 2015

Though much of The Last Kingdom owes mainly to Bernard Cornwell’s imagination, in which most of the early English state’s best wins over the Vikings are attributed to his semi-fictional hero, Uhtred, rather than the real leaders, at least this TV adaptation’s version of Alfred the Great’s mightiest victory is as close as damn it to the true event. The hideous meat-grinder of two hefty shield-walls clashing repeatedly over piles of butchered corpses, so characteristic of Saxon and Viking age warfare, is captured perfectly in this brutal bloodbath of attrition.

The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, 1999

Some may argue that Joan of Arc’s greatest triumph lay in her personal martyrdom for what she considered a holy cause, but in purely tactical terms, it was her defeat of the English forces entrenched in the fortified city of Orleans, which turned the tide of the Hundred Years War, so it’s perhaps no surprise that it took a French director, Luc Besson, to give us a committed and realistically workmanlike portrayal of this crucial military enterprise, in which all manner of medieval artillery is used, the English defences falling section by section as a direct result.

Exodus: Gods and Kings, 2014

One of the earliest battles we have a written record of, Kadesh saw the celebrated pharaoh, Ramesses II, strike a heavy blow against Egypt’s great rivals of that era, the Hittites. Whether it belongs in a movie about Moses is another matter, but both Ramesses and Kadesh are referred to repeatedly in non-Biblical texts, and it seems entirely fair that Ridley Scott should have featured this epic struggle in his most religious movie. To add authenticity, he gives the Egyptian chariot force a leading role, for it was this mobile arm that swung the battle in Ramesses’ favour.

Outlaw King, 2018

Often overlooked for its bigger, noisier cousin, Braveheart, Outlaw King shows us the early days of Robert the Bruce, focussing on one of his first successes. Director David Mackenzie makes much more effort than Mel Gibson did to depict the era as it was, dispensing with any notion of Bronze Age face-paint and 16th century tartan, to tell a more emotionally and factually complex story, the whole thing culminating at Loudoun Hill, where the fighting, while it borrows some detail from the later victory at Bannockburn, is tactically accurate and appropriately grim and desperate.

Alfred the Great, 1969

The first major victory for an English army over the seemingly unstoppable Viking horde that invaded Britain in the mid-9th century. Alfred the Great, then only a prince, won the day by luring the overconfident Danes into an ambush, which was very neatly depicted in Clive Donner’s ‘warts and all’ 1969 account. And while the presence on the battle site of the Uffington White Horse is ahistorical – no one knows for sure whether the colossal figure was cut into the hillside before or after this war – it makes for a truly atmospheric location.


An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed (I’ll outline the plot first, and follow it with my opinions) … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

GOLIATH by Steve Alten (2002)

Tough and efficient female naval officer, Commander Rochelle ‘Rocky’ Jackson, is participating in ocean manoeuvres on board the USS Ronald Reagan when something unprecedented happens. Without warning, the US fleet, one of the most well-equipped and professionally managed fighting forces in the world, is attacked from below by Goliath, a US-developed, manta ray-shaped super-sub, a gigantic, futuristic undersea battle-platform armed with every kind of missile and torpedo, including multiple nuclear warheads.

It is a remarkably one-sided fight. The US fleet is totally destroyed, with Rocky Jackson one of the few survivors. Some 8,000 men go to watery graves.

Naturally, the world convulses in shock. Initially, the US military think the Chinese responsible, as it was the Chinese who acquired the blueprint for Goliath at an early stage due to the actions of senior engineer and former spec ops hero, Gunnar Wolfe. Wolfe, fearing an imbalance of power in the world, committed treason by handing over state secrets, and was subsequently sent to Leavenworth. But it actually isn’t the Chinese. They went ahead and built the Goliath prototype, at phenomenal cost, even installing ‘Sorceress’, a highly advanced biomechanical nano-brain – only for the vehicle then to get stolen from right under their noses by Simon Covah, a former Soviet sub-commander and a military and mechanical genius.

Driven mad by the murder of his family at the hands of Kosovan terrorists, and the general state of a world riven apart by tyranny and fear, Covah, now aided by a cohort of physically and emotionally disfigured partisans, is in possession of the deadliest weapon on Earth, and takes refuge with it at the bottom of the ocean. A stealth-craft, Goliath is undetectable even near the surface and so is completely invisible down in the abyss, from where its new controller attempts to blackmail humanity, threatening nuclear devastation if his long list of terms is not met.

As these terms include the public executions of known despots, the dismantling of various police states and the disassembly of everyone else’s nuclear arsenals, the US realises that it can’t bargain with Covah. But neither can it defeat him in a straight fight. The US also knows that he’s as good as his word; it isn’t long before atomic destruction is raining down on certain selected targets.

A team of experts is swiftly put together to try and countermand the madman. Rocky Jackson, who worked on Goliath during its early stages, is one of them. Another is her ex-boyfriend now turned reviled traitor, Gunnar Wolfe, as he too was involved in the development programme. Naturally, they are antagonistic to each other, though for the time-being at least they must put their differences aside.

It still seems like the tallest order imaginable, and things are only going to get worse. Because the real problem on board Goliath is not the deranged Covah, but Sorceress. The hi-tech computer has finally developed AI and is quietly hatching its own coldly logical and vastly more terrifying strategy …

At best, Goliath is a high-octane techno-thriller with some lightweight political stuff woven in, a few warnings about the dangers of state-of-the-art computer science, and numerous of Steve Alten’s trademark gripping action sequences. It’s basically a load of fun. The reason you’ve probably not heard about it though is because, with almost indecent speed after publication, it was overtaken by real-life world events.

It first hit the shelves in 2002, a time when, though there was constant trouble in the world, particularly in the Middle East, it hadn’t reached anything like the catastrophic state of affairs that exists today. This doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy the book, especially if you view it as a kind of alternate history, though the unfolding events of the 2000s in Goliath take a very different direction from those in our own experience, so it jars quite hard on first reading. That said, in some ways, the book is worryingly prophetic. Both Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gaddafi die violently during the course of it (though probably less horribly than they did in reality in 2003 and 2011 respectively).

Another slight problem – and this perhaps is being picky – is that in Goliath the US is once again the hero nation, the team of good guys that sets out to save the planet and ultimately succeeds in bringing down this most monstrous manmade threat with minimal help from anyone else. Okay, it’s not quite as simplistic as that. For the most part, Alten adopts a mature approach, and incorporates lots of Machiavellian intrigue, with various senior politicians and military men putting their own interests first, failing to see the bigger picture – all that kind of thing. But ultimately in this day and age, whether rightly or wrongly, not everyone on Earth views the US as their inevitable friend and saviour.

That’s hardly Steve Alten’s fault, of course. He’s an American writer and he writes about his own people first. No quibbles there. But this may be one other reason why the book is not widely regarded as a classic action romp. Because I’ll be absolutely honest … Alten has a prodigious talent for writing about modern-day technology, weaponry, military uniforms, military procedures and the like, and I don’t think he’s ever done it as well as he does it here. It’s all incredibly vivid and accessible. On top of that, it’s a lightning read. You can see and hear everything that’s happening easily and coherently, and yet Alten sacrifices none of his narrative’s pace or energy to achieve this. It’s almost like a well-written movie script, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Goliath had perhaps commenced its life in that format. It’s got ‘blockbuster action film’ written all over it, though as I say, real historic events suddenly ran way ahead.

On the downside, the characters are perhaps a little clichéd. Rocky Jackson, an archetypical GI Jane, and Gunnar Wolfe, the tough guy with a conscience, are made-to-measure heroes: handsome, athletic, highly qualified, unfeasibly skilled in a massive range of disciplines. The back-story about Wolfe’s betrayal is interesting in terms of setting up their fire-and-water relationship, but it starts to intrude after a while, and, being frank, he did commit treason. It’s difficult not to empathise a little bit with those former colleagues who don’t trust him enough to bring him back on board, and I couldn’t help wondering why certain others, including Rocky’s dad, General ‘Bear’ Jackson, who at one time nearly became Gunnar’s father-in-law, would.

It would also be wrong not to mention that a sentient but crazed computer is not a new concept. Just off the top of my head, I can think of two earlier examples: Colossus by DF Jones (1966) and of course 2001 by Arthur C. Clarke (1968); so, while Alten gets plaudits for exploring our increasing paranoia about advanced AI, it isn’t monumentally original.

But hey … this is sci-fi fantasy, and it’s tackled by the author with an immense, contagious gusto. I freely admit that I found myself devouring Goliath, racing through the pages as we progressed from one high point to the next, a succession of huge, thunder-flashing, hull-crunching, metal-splintering action sequences, not a single one of which disappointed me.

Just treat it as the rip-roaring undersea (and oversea) yarn that it is, and it should keep your attention until the very last page.

As always – purely for the fun of it – here are my picks for who should play the leads if Goliath is ever adapted for film or TV (though it would need some significant rewriting in terms of its plot first – and that never happens in Hollywood, does it!):

Rocky Jackson – Zoe Saldana
Gunnar Wolfe – Jensen Ackles
Simon Corvah – Mark Rylance
General ‘Bear’ Jackson – Ving Rhames


  1. Another great insight Paul. Have seen most of these but will look out for the ones I haven't. Agreed on Outlaw King, as a Scot it was a bit grittier than Braveheart though not as heart thumping.

    1. I get ribbed by my kids for 'demanding' realism of my historical movies, when in truth they nearly all default in one way or another. I understand why you, as a Scot, would enjoy Braveheart so much. It was a thunderous experience, viewing it at the cinema.