The rise of television has brought epic, cinematic stories to home screens, where episodic series can develop characters and plot steadily over a season and build suspense for the exciting climax in ways only film used to do — especially when it comes to battles.
So, let’s a take look at the 10 most dramatic battles in television history:
(Generation Kill | HBO)
1. Battle of Al Muwaffiqiyah — ‘Generation Kill’ (Episode 5)
Generation Kill tells the true story of 1st Reconnaissance Battalion during the invasion of Iraq in March, 2003. The seven-part miniseries from HBO realistically depicts the Marines, from the heroic moments to the horrifying mistakes. Rudy Reyes, who plays himself in the show, selected this particular ambush as one of the most impactful of the series.
The battle pitted Marines in Humvees against an insurgent attack force that allowed the viewer to perceive combat, through the characters’ eyes, exactly the kind of asymmetrical warfare our service members experience overseas. Dealing with faulty equipment, communication chaos, confusion, unknown enemy numbers or locations, and treating wounds in the field are all common scenarios for deployed troops.
What’s especially eerie is how accustomed they are to this environment. The characters are just as annoyed about trying to get the caravan to back up as they might have been while stuck in traffic back home in the States.
It’s not until the battle is done that the camera reveals how affecting combat truly is.
Inside Game of Thrones: Battling the Silence (HBO)
2. Battling the Silence — ‘Game of Thrones’ (Season 7, Episode 2)
Battling the Silence was not the first groundbreaking naval battle in Game of Thrones, but even without Wildfire, it managed to be the most epic. Euron Greyjoy’s fleet ambushes his niece, Yara’s, in the night and the attack quickly descends into fire and brutality. For the battle, filmmakers cranked up the frame rate and filled the camera with too many people and fights to follow. They were inspired by riots, where the violence is chaotic and encroaching.
Not only are the heroes of this battle captured, killed, or forced to flee, their ships are sunk to the Narrow Sea’s version of Davy Jones Locker in a sound defeat, reminiscent of World War II’s “Ironbottom Sound,” where the Imperial Japanese fleet dealt a crushing blow to American and Australian forces at Savo Island in the Pacific.
The seven-minute scene took weeks to film and was shot with 40 stuntmen, six cast members, and all of the crew on the set, which was slippery from rain and actually burning with real fire and ember guns, spraying flaming ash through the air. Most importantly, “Silence” left fans of the show with a sharp introduction to the depravity that can be expected from the final season’s newest villain.
Battlestar Galactica | Pegasus & Galactica Vs Cylon Resurrection Ship
3. Destruction of the Resurrection Ship— ‘Battlestar Galactica’ (Season 2, Episode 12)
In Battlestar Galactica, the cylons are able to download their consciousness into a new body aboard Resurrection Ships within range. In other words, they’re extremely difficult to kill because they can just jump into a new body when the old one is defeated.
In Season 2, the Colonial Fleet takes down its first Resurrection Ship — a major victory in their war with the Cylons. The destruction of a Resurrection Ship held the tactical weight of the raid at St. Nazaire by Royal Commandos against German drydocks in World War II. The ambush shifted the logistics of German ship repair in the Atlantic, forcing them to deploy their naval ships more cautiously, as they could only be repaired by sending them to the north coast of Europe (and past Royal Air Force and Royal Navy patrols).
Battlestar Galactica has a distinctly unique “signature style” of camera-work, especially during space battles. Cinematographers employed handheld work and zooms, almost as if the cameras were shooting a documentary, which gives the show a realistic feel.
Battlestar Galactica is also filled with subtle details that further heighten the realism. In this battle, you can see some of the Cylon missiles headed for the Pegasus turn or curve around it. Producers have stated that this was to demonstrate the electronic countermeasures employed by the Pegasus, just as modern aircraft scramble the guidance systems of enemy missiles.
Marvel’s The Punisher (S1 Ep. 3): Kandahar Fight Scene
4. Kandahar Flashback — ‘The Punisher’ (Season 1, Episode 3)
The first season of The Punisher reveals a flashback to a visceral battle that Frank Castle fought while deployed as a Marine. The action sequence depicts Castle as a terrified warrior, driven by adrenaline, training, and instinct. His actions are violent, but the expression on his face conveys his horror — and his humanity.
Set to The White Buffalo’s “Wish It Was True,” the scene captures the tragic demands on military service members, who experience terror and violence while trying to do the right thing. As the scene nears its end, Castle snaps, succumbing to pure animalistic aggression. This moment would certainly influence the tortured destiny of the man who later becomes The Punisher.
Game of Thrones: The Loot Train Attack (HBO)
5. The Loot Train Attack — ‘Game of Thrones’ (Season 7, Episode 4)
Whenever Daenerys Targaryen gives the command “Dracarus,” she proves just how dramatically airpower changed war. The sheer and immediate destruction wrought on the Lannister army by dragon fire was enthralling and horrifying. The director, Matt Shakman, likened the destruction to that of napalm or an atom bomb; the magnitude and heat of the flame was enough to turn people to ash in an instant.
The scene took 14 months to plan and 18 days to shoot, shifting from multiple characters’ points of view; but it was the perspective on the ground that was so gripping. Jaime and Bronn had become well-loved characters whose humanity was really revealed when they took in the harrowing aerial assault.
The lines of destruction are reminiscent of the Highway of Death during the Persian Gulf War, when aircraft destroyed hundreds of Iraqi vehicles on Highway 80. The photographs of the carnage after the attack — including bodies that were charred from the bombing — were so violent and disturbing that many media outlets refused to publish them.
Fans of the show await the final season — and inevitable undead dragon damage to come — with dread and morbid anticipation.
BTS Okinawa w/ Tom Hanks and WWII Veterans | The Pacific | HBO
6. Battle of Okinawa — ‘The Pacific’ (Part 9)
Part 9 of The Pacific, HBO’s follow-up to Band of Brothers, portrays an almost post-apocalyptic version of war, where battle-hardened, weary Marines struggle to hold on to their humanity in the face of an enemy willing to fight to the death. Executive Director Steven Spielberg wanted to portray war as the hellacious experience veterans, like his father and uncle, said it was, rather than glorifying it in a traditional Hollywood format — and he succeeded.
In addition to capturing the grim brutality of battle, the Okinawa scenes also push the characters into battles of the soul. When Sledge and Snafu find a crying baby, they react as warfighters: They are suspicious, alert, and nearly desensitized to the child’s pain. The point is driven home by comparison when another Marine walks in and simply picks up the baby, leaving the characters — and the audience — to wonder whether these two young men can ever truly come back from this war.
Vikings: The Siege of Paris (Part 1) [Season 3 Battle Scene] 3×08 (HD 1080p)
7. Siege of Paris — ‘Vikings’ (Season 3, Episode 8)
The Siege of Paris from Vikings expertly depicts the brutality and madness of scaling a wall, a common tactic in ancient or medieval (or Middle-Earthen) warfighting. Trying to overcome an enemy by scaling his walls means attacking from a position of weakness. Defenders would push scaling ladders away from the walls, light them on fire, or pour boiling pitch upon the insurgents. If the attackers did manage to make it to the top of the wall, they would be outnumbered by a well-fortified enemy.
In this episode, Floki straight-up panics at the thought of it and hides, which might not have been such a bad idea, considering what befell heroes like Rollo, Bjorn, and even Ragnar himself.
Lagertha doesn’t fair much better. After her forces are able to successfully break through a door — via reverse battering ram? — they advance into a trap and are torn down by French ballistae.
The vikings were handed a searing defeat, leaving a pile of bodies beneath the walls of Paris.
Band of Brothers (2001) – D-Day Drop Zone Scene
8. D-Day — ‘Band of Brothers’ (Part 2)
Everyone knows about the storming of the beach at Normandy, but fewer people know about the paratroopers who jumped behind enemy lines to support the amphibious insertion.
The second episode of Band of Brothers depicts the men of Easy Company jumping into the midst of an air battle. The military is no stranger to waiting around… but waiting as the enemy lights up your fuselage had to have been terrifying.
Band of Brothers captured the details of human nerves and anticipation, military training coming through under duress, and moments of decision-making in the face of terror. Both the pilot and his passengers watch as AAA strike their companions, but neither can do much more than stay the course and try to make it to the drop zone.
Unfortunately for Easy Company, they jumped out of the fire… and into the war.
True Detective – Six minute single take tracking shot – no edits, no cuts – Who Goes There
9. House Raid — ‘True Detective’ (Season 1, Episode 4)
In its first season, True Detective featured a 6-minute, single-take, tracking shot of a shoot-out when a raid goes bad. This scene made the list because, though it doesn’t feature army versus army, neither does most modern warfare that our troops engage in. America is fighting asymmetrical threats, often in urban environments among civilians — which is exactly what we saw in this shot.
Director Cary Fukunaga deliberately trained the camera tightly with Matthew McConaughey’s character, Rust, to create a feeling of dread, suspense, and imminent danger.
It is perhaps the greatest long tracking shot on television — and for good reason. According to an interview in The Guardian, the scene involved perfect coordination between the actors, grips, gaffer, cinematographer, operators, multiple rooms with fight choreography, a jumped fence, and a freaking helicopter.
Makeup artists dashed out to add blood and injuries to actors. Special-effects teams fired live rounds. And yeah, the helicopter flew in, right on target. Hell, even Woody Harrelson nailed his driving scene.
It was impressive in every department and cemented the notion that television had become every bit as cinematic as feature films.
Game of Thrones Season 6: Anatomy of A Scene: The Battle of Winterfell (HBO)
10. Battle of the Bastards — ‘Game of Thrones’ (Season 6, Episode 9)
The Battle of the Bastards was not only an intensely satisfying showdown between two pivotal characters, Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton, it was one the most riveting battles depicted on television.
When Ned Stark lost his head in the first season, Game of Thrones made it clear that no character is safe on the series; as a result, the stakes are exponentially higher in Game of Thrones than in other shows.
But even beyond the emotional connection to the characters and their respective military forces, the Battle of the Bastards was loosely based on tactics from the Battle of Cannae in 216 CE, where the Carthaginian leader Hannibal Barca surrounded and defeated his enemy.
The Boltons’ tactic of using Romanesque scutums to surround the Stark forces was unnerving, and filmmakers captured the panic it inspired. Even commanding archers to volley their arrows into the fray of battle demonstrated the lengths Ramsay Bolton was willing to go to for victory.
The psychological effect of being trapped by a mountain of dead bodies is one that no healthy person should linger on for long — nor should we consider the slow and painful deaths that would have befallen our heroes had they not been rescued by the Knights of the Vale.
Did we leave something out? Write us a comment and let us know which dramatic television battles are your favorites.