Military Tactics in the LOTR Films

webmouse

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Well, at the risk of opening a giant can of shelobs, I've studied a fair bit of military history and would like to discuss the military tactics displayed in the battles in Peter Jackson's films.

I don't want to compare the books with the films, or how Tolkien was influenced by WW1 and WW2. I'm interested in the films' internal logic in the battles -- tactics, weapons, defenses -- and what sacrifices in logic had to be made for cinematic reasons.

For instance: a medieval Welsh longbowman could strike at 300-500 yards; Samurai archers could shoot up to half a mile. If Elven archers are at least the equivalent -- if not perfectly superior -- then why not allow the archers to let fly at the Uruk-hai approaching Helm's Deep as soon as they are within range? (The term "fire" is incorrect for archers before the age of firearms for obvious reasons) The most obvious cinematic reason for Peter Jackson's choice was a desire to close the lines quickly and get on with the more dramatic hacking and slashing.

So, if you have thoughts on Moria, Helm's Deep, Isengard, Pelennor Fields, the Black Gate, from the smallest ambush to the biggest battle -- I'm interested.
 

ray gower

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Ooh, I think I could enjoy this! Where would you like to start? :)

In LOTR we are looking at Medeival tactics, which largely involved having lots of chaps hacking at each other. Whoever had most left when exhaustion sets in is deemed the winner. It is close quarters hand fighting with no rules, so there is no room for subtlety.
A skilled warrior is not the one that can kill most of the enemy, it is the one that can avoid being killed for longest.
The only quibble I would have with the films here is the activities of Legolas and his bow. You need space, time and stability to use a longbow. It looks good, snowboarding down steps, but in reality you aren't going to hit much so comes firmly into the Rambo class of warfare.

You have commented about the activities of the archers, correctly observing that a longbow's arrows could reach 800 yards. What they aren't is effective at that range. A good British Archer could kill an armoured knight at 300 yards. But they were physically deformed, they had to be to be able to apply 300lbs upon the string. They were fast too, able to have 5 arrows in flight at a time.
More practically your more average string puller is only going to manage perhaps 150 yards, which was about right for what happened at Helms Deep. Trying to pick individuals off at any longer range is not tactically going to achieve much apart from consume large quantities of arrows.
In the minute or so it takes for 15,000 armoured men to charge the distance the only thing an archer can do is thin the ranks a little and perhaps offer a little hinderance.
 

webmouse

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Oh, goody. Someone to natter with :)

Excellent points about the balance between an archer's range and his accuracy. However, with a mass of 10,000 closely packed infantry, lit by lanterns and within bowshot (as proved by that first "accidental" shot), there isn't much chance that elven archers would miss too often.

Peter Jackson (PJ) has stated that he wanted to capture the feel of the film "Zulu" -- 4000 warriors vs 200 British soldiers at Rourke's Drift. But the problem with this logic in LOTR is that the British didn't win Rourke's Drift. The Zulus, being warriors with a code of honor, broke off the attack when all had been blooded in battle and the little garrison had valiantly held on. There was no honor in over-running such a small force.

Mordor's forces wouldn't do that, of course, so the vast numerical differences between attackers and defenders needed to be addressed in some other fashion. More effective use of the archers would have accomplished that.

Another point where the archers were not well-used was in the breaching of the wall. The question is usually how many arrows can the archers fly before the lines close. With orcs pouring in through the narrow opening, each flight of arrows further blocks the breach with dead orcs. Aragorn should not have yelled "Charge" until it was clear that the enemy could not be stopped by the archers (usually when the arrow supply is depleted).

And a depletion of arrows would have made the retreat from the outer defenses more plausible and Haldir's death more poignant.

Then, of course, we have the scaling ladder problem. The attackers put the ladders too close to the wall which should have made them easy to push over. Conversely, the defenders should have expected ladders and been supplied with (a) pots of hot sand or boiling water to pour down, and (b) long poles with a forked end for pushing ladders over.
 

ray gower

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There are practical problems in the breach.

First:
The invaders are faced with a bottleneck where only perhaps a dozen or so can pass in the width of the breach. This sounds great for the defenders- Nice and easy to bump off a dozen of the enemy. Unfortunately it only works before they pass through the hole.
Once the enemy have passed through they are able to spread out, so the archers now have to widen their field of fire.

Second:
When somebody is shot, by arrow or bullet, it takes time for their bodies to decide to stop. If you have ever seen an animal of some sort run into the path of a moving car, provided it isn't physically squished by the wheels, it will finish running across the road before it collapses, dead.
Humans are the same, so it will take a few seconds for them to drop so that the next in line can be hit. By which time the enemy has advanced a few more feet.
As you brought Rorkes Drift in here, I could point out that this was the basic philosophy behind Napolean's battle plan. A massive column of men pushing forward over the fallen to break an enemy line. The ones at the front providing protection for the men behind. ;)

Third:
Is the ability of controlling the amount of arrows. Again in a perfect world, if a dozen men can pass through a gap, then one only needs a dozen arrows to stop them.
The problem is how many of your over keyed and scared archers do you allow to fire and how do you stop the others. The initial shot was from a terrified archer who could no longer control the power he had built into his bow.
The natural tendency is that all 200 hundred archers will let loose, then there is nothing for another five seconds as they reload. By which time the enemy is beyond the breach.
Even if you can control the archers, there is the problem of how many will actually manage to kill the enemy. In my time in the RAF, it was commonly regarded that less than 10% of rounds used would kill anybody. It is unlikely that the score rate will be anybetter with arrows. The target for a clean kill is small, well protected by armour, limbs and bones and is moving fast.
This would apply if they had tried to thin the ranks at the extremes of range as well, only more so.

Compare this to what they actually did.
Archers provided a single volley. This will cause the enemy to falter, might even kill a few and with a little luck they might get a second round in.
Then, as the enemy breast the breach, one hits them with a mass of men. With luck and desperation, the influx can be contained, overwhelmed and pushed out again. In this case the invaders where more desperate and numerous.
A chap weilding an axe or knife is far quicker and more flexible in his actions than an arrow. Even if they don't kill they can maime far more effectively than an arrow. A severed arm slows people more than a little hole.


Scaling Ladders
All I can offer regarding sand, oil and the like is perhaps they were not available at the time. Takes time to heat sand and appreciable amounts of water.
As for pushing the ladders themselves, that would also be difficult.
They had retaining hooks which would have to be disengaged before dislodging. Means at least 3 people.
Using a push stick would be awkward in the confined space. You are looking at handling a pole maybe 12 feet long. Where would you put it to be able to use it without interferring with the poor sap trying to shoot an orc standing beside you?
With an orc on top of the ladder as well you couldn't realistically push it away as it rested on the parapet either. It would be too heavy and the orc would have other ideas about the subject.
That they may be too close to the wall for security is of little relevance when the enemy has started to come over the top. The parapet is too narrow to take on more than one or two at a time. Ultimately they are coming up faster than you can deal with the ones already at the top.
 

pkgrl

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Regarding the film's archers: remember that not all were Elves. Those "men" who were on the wall and armed with bows didn't necessarily have the training required to do any real damage. Luck played a HUGE role in their ability to stop ANY of the Urukhai. On the other hand, the Elves were held back as a surprise. Saruman had no idea that a company of Elves would show up to help out at Helm's Deep, so his army didn't either. They were Aragorn's ace in the hole, so to speak. I don't think he ever expected them to be all that accurate, either, since they were behind the wall in incapable of actually seeing their targets.

As for Legolas' extraordinary exploits, remember that, as an Elf, he has awesome eyesight and probably the ability to sight much faster than any human archer. He also has a couple THOUSAND years of experience with archery AND killing orcs. I'm sure that helps. ;)

I'm willing to suspend my disbelief in certain aspects of war (as portrayed in film) as long as the filmmakers don't go too far. However, in a fantasy film, with superhuman characters, I'm willing to let them go a bit further than I normally would. Legolas surfing down stairs on a shield is totally within those boundaries. Remember, these are boundaries that are in my own dimented mind. :reyes:

And I think that the ladders WERE placed too close to the wall and would have been top heavy, but then, these guys were born yesterday... or near to it. Besides, I don't think Legolas' shot at the rope would have been as effective if they'd actually studied the "art of war" before the attack. I agree with Ray that logistically, the humans might not have had the time or the materials necessary to go the boiling pitch route, and that the forked poles would probably have been more of a hinderance than a help. These were desperate people who'd fled there trying to AVOID war.
 

webmouse

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Excellent points all. Here's another Helm's Deep question --

Edoras can't be defended despite being on a mountain. I'm guessing that the only water source was far below, making the city unsafe in a seige. But how much sense does it make to have the kingdom's primo fortress miles away -- that long vulnerable walk through the mountains.

And how many men were already garrisoned in Helm's Deep before Theoden & co. arrived? It looked rather like no one was there -- at least no mention was made of a standing garrison. Would have been a very tough break for Rohan if Theoden had arrived to find that Saruman's forces had got there first and were happily encounced behind the deeping wall. :D

If HD is the prime fortress, then like any medieval stronghold it would be setup in advance for defence -- large pots for hot sand and water (oil was too expensive for dumping) with a fire ready to go (like the beacons across the mountains). Methods for repelling scaling ladders would be deployed and I just can't see the defensive value of having a wide stone ramp that goes right up to the gate. Usually a defensive design puts a very large hole there -- covered by a drawbridge for our friends on horses.

Guess I've been watching the History Channel too much, huh?
 

pkgrl

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Yeah, you've obviously been watching Top 10 Castles in Europe again. ;) You do raise some obvious flaws in the design of Helm's Deep as a garrison, but that wasn't it's original intent. It is generally thought of as the place for a last stand, but the Rohirrim have been counting on mobility and speed for generations. They don't like the idea of hiding behind a wall, unless the absolutely have no other choice. I don't know how well kept it's provisions would be, by Theoden's time as king, but when Eowyn arrived with the refugees from Edoras the only people already there were refugees from the East Fold. It isn't like Rohan has a standing army either.
 

webmouse

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Having gone to the trouble to design and build a fortress -- even if meant as a last stand -- it makes no sense not to build the best, most defensible structure possible. And it should be garrisoned at all times. Even Gondor has left a few guys sitting on hills beside unlit beacon fires -- part of standard medieval defense. So the guys at HD gripe a lot about being stuck there for a season at a time. Better that than have it turn into an orc hide-out.

Word is that the original design for HD, based on artwork, was to have the outer wall curving outwards. This changed when some wise one pointed out that such a wall could not be defended and should be built curving inwards. Good thinking that.

Back to archers for a moment: Best use was by Faramir's company just before they captured Frodo and Sam. Sort of a Swiss approach -- be up high where the bad guys can't see you, then shoot them down at long range.

Faramir was so resourceful in the hills and then left at a complete loss (strategically) in Osgilliath. What was THE PLAN? Both for the defense if attacked from the river and in that crazed sacrificial ride to retake the untakeable.

Seems to me that after telling Denethor that he was going to ride to his death just to make Daddy happy, once outside of Minas Tirith, Faramir should have turned to his companions and said -- HERE'S THE PLAN. Something that had at least a remote chance of success instead of riding head-long into certain death.

Rant on, my friends, rant on. :D
 

Darth Simpson

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Not sure where to start. There's so much in this thread.

I think the thing to remember with any elf is that you cannot predict how far or acurate they were with bows or compare them to humans. As someone said, Legolas was hundreds of years older and wiser. Haldir and the others were from Lorien and most likely descendants of the high Elves like Galadiel. Basically they were superhuman beings who existed in the real world and the spirit realm at the same time. In fact Legolas has a magical bow that he gets from Lorien (or is that just in the book)

Anyway, when the orcs pile through that breech in the wall and Aragorn eventually yells charge: One thing you all forgot was that Gimley is lying in a puddle about to be drowned and trampled by the Uruk-Hai right in front of Aragorn. I dont think Aragorn was thinking of tactics at the time.

The Archers not being able to see behind the wall, well who knows what they can see in the spirit realm.

Helms Deep was not their best and most grand fortress. But it was the easiest to defend as it was built into the mountainside. Even if it was delapidated and hundreds of years older than Edoras, it would still be easier to defend from one side, rather than Edoras which would be all round. There's no reason they would keep it manned though. Remember they were not at war until half way through the Two Towers when Gandalf tells them they are. Not only is Theoden being controlled by the enemy but he rejects the advice of Eomer about Sarumans rampaging orcs. There is no one else that could order a garrison to prepare Helms Deep. Not only that they had a deal with Mordor to supply horses (thats what the ring wraiths are riding) They had no reason to think they were in any danger. Not to mention there had not been any great skirmish or war for nearly a thousand years.
 

webmouse

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Medieval Castle 101: Never leave a fortress unmanned unless it is of absolutely no value (ie, you're fine with the locals carting off the stones for fences, etc.) Most abandoned castles were deliberately destroyed so they could not be used by an invading force.

I agree, though, that Helm's Deep might not be manned, but not because Rohan was "not at war." Orcs were roaming freely. The king's son had been killed. Surely he was not the first to fall. If Helm's Deep was left undefended prior to the battle, it was because of Wormtongue/Saruman's influence.

Which makes perfect sense, although I would hazard a guess that the more prudent Rohirrim might hear an order to leave Helm's Deep empty and decide to leave "a few lads" behind -- just in case. It is always easier to beg for forgiveness than to ask permission. :D

Another bit of "horse sense" -- it wouldn't have been as stirring, of course, but militarily more sensible if upon arriving at Pellennor Fields for Theoden to give his rousing speech one hill back, then upon cresting the hill of the battlefield let the Rohirrim charge down. As depicted, the pause at the crest gave the orcs time to turn and make ready to defend their rear.

The orcs correctly placed their pikemen in front, but then at some point their archers were shown in front. It is wonderful for the good guys that orcs are dumb. One thing I'd never want to be is an archer in the front line with 3000 horses closing the distance far faster than I can knock arrows and let fly.

As for the thread -- wander where you will. There's lots to discuss and no reason to get stuck hammering on one point or another. I'm interested in what others saw and how they thought it worked within the internal structure of the story.
 

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