Everybody loves a good action scene, but they're especially difficult to pull off on television. Smaller budgets combined with sometimes restrictive network censoring can make it hard for action sequences to seem realistic. But there are some TV military battles that execute that balance of real-world inspiration and fantastical imagery perfectly. These scenes are usually the culmination of a season (or seasons) of drama and character development, and examining military history and theory helps us understand and appreciate accurate battles in TV even more.
From historically accurate battles in Game of Thrones to military theory in Battlestar Galactica, this list examines moments when TV action scenes were influenced by real military strategies. And, of course, here's your obligatory spoiler alert: this list discusses major plot points on Game of Thrones, Battlestar Galactica, The 100, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The Walking Dead.
Sun-Tzu, one of ancient China's most influential and famous military strategists, wrote in The Art of War, to gain the upper hand over an opposing army, "...a commander-in-chief may be robbed of his presence of mind." And on Game of Thrones, that's exactly what Ramsay Bolton did to Jon Snow by killing Jon's brother, Rickon, right in front of him during the show's sixth season. The anger over his brother’s death clouded Jon’s judgment and he engaged in a foolish battle even after his sister, Sansa, warned him not to.
Ramsay's forces greatly outnumbered Jon's, but fueled by anger, he and his troops unwisely charged across a muddy battlefield. Their attack stalled; they kept getting struck by arrows, and the bodies piled up quickly.
At the Battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Years' War, the English and French armies faced off across a narrow field. The land had recently been ploughed and the loose soil combined with recent rain meant the French quickly got stuck in the mud. They were shot by English archers and soon they started trampling each other and dying despite outnumbering their English opponents.
During the Battle of Cannae in 216 BCE, Carthaginian general Hannibal led his comparatively few troops in battle against the Romans. But the number of troops he had made no difference, because Hannibal had something more important: a brilliant strategy. The Carthaginian army enveloped the Romans in a semi-circle, surrounding them from three sides. The Romans were trapped, and with no quick way to retreat, were hacked to death.
Hannibal and his army had fewer troops than the Romans and still managed to come out on top, so it's not much of a surprise that when Ramsay - who, again, had a lot more men than Jon - pulled a nearly identical stunt, it seemed like all hope was lost. Luckily for Jon, his sister had contacted Littlefinger and the Knights of the Vale, who released them from the trap. Their real-life counterparts at the Battles of Agincourt and Cannae were not as fortunate.
The Chinese military theorist Sun Tzu wrote about orthodox and unorthodox attacks in The Art of War. The orthodox was a normal attack meant to hold the enemy in place. This was designed to expose the enemy to an unexpected, and unorthodox, flank attack. But if an enemy is expecting a flank attack, the unorthodox attack can be orthodox.
These are fluid terms that can change meaning several times in the course of even a single battle depending on the relative surprise of a maneuver. This turned warfare into a battle of wits, where the attacker trying to launch a surprise attack might, in turn, be ambushed, or an attacker that expects a surprise assault could be shocked by a “normal” frontal strike.
All of this comes into play in Buffy the Vampire Slayer's two-part Season 3 finale, where the evil mayor of Sunnydale allied with the vampires. At Buffy's graduation, the vampires appeared under the cover of a solar eclipse. They held the victims (the graduating students) in the kill zone, which would have allowed a giant snake to swoop in and destroy them. Buffy had other plans. She secretly armed her classmates, and using the weapons under their robes, they fought back and pulled off a surprise attack, countering the vampires' initial surprise attack against the students.
Early in the third season of The Walking Dead, the members of Rick’s group find a prison and decide to make it their new home. There's only one problem: it's overrun with walkers. As they move forward against hordes of walkers on every side, they assume a diamond formation and Rick growls at them to maintain formation. Through their disciplined effort and teamwork, they managed to clear what the Governor’s group had concluded was impossible.
Historian Victor David Hanson and others describe a "Western way of war" largely based on the discipline formations of heavy infantry. Starting with part-time farmers in ancient Greece that would don their armor, assume their formations on the battlefield, and then charge the enemy with their long spears, this would form the basis of Western dominance over much larger groups of seasoned warriors.
Groups like the Aztecs, Zulus, and Iroquois had wildly ferocious warriors and often larger numbers than Western settlers and armies, but using discipline to maintain formation, average people without any martial skills or even hunting experience could defeat larger numbers of scary warriors to the point that 100 second-rate British soldiers and supply cooks defeated thousands Zulus at the Battle of Rorke’s Drift. Father Gabriel doesn’t seem quite as useless now, huh?
In the two-part Season 2 finale of The 100, Clarke cobbles together an army of Sky People and Grounders to storm Mount Weather. Forty-seven of the 100, along with many Grounders, are being held inside the mountain and are about to be killed. With time running out until the captured 100 and Grounders are drained of their bone marrow, Clarke and her coalition army charge Mount Weather. When they reach the gate, the Grounders stop in almost comical Monty Python style. The leader of the Grounders made a deal with the Mountain Men behind Clarke's back: all the Grounders would retreat if the Grounder prisoners were released. The prisoners are handed over, the Grounders stand down, and Clark is left without a large portion of her army.
The strategy used by the Mountain Men actually dates all the way back to the 6th century. The Byzantine Empire occupied a rather central position in Eastern Europe, which meant they were often beset by enemies. They didn’t have the manpower and transportation to have large armies on every front from the North coast of the Black sea, to what is now Syria in the Middle East and what is now central Europe. Instead of always trying to fight enemies on every side, they relied on very subtle diplomacy to ease their military obligations. Like the Mountain Men, the military theory in the Strategikon (a sort of training manual for the Byzantine Army) suggested dividing their enemies by offering concessions to one member of the alliance. This would break up the coalition against them and stall many offensives.