Back when I was a wee lad in the early 2000s, I absolutely loved the Lord of the Rings. To be clear, I still do, but back then, I was obsessed in what I could only assume was an unhealthy way. I had a Middle-Earth atlas, a Tolkien encyclopedia, an Elvish dictionary, and I even had a sterling silver replica of the One Ring itself, complete with Black Speech engraving, which I (sadly) wore around my neck for a time.
For these reasons, I feel more than qualified to write this post.
In an effort to dispell your Friday boredom, or perhaps to lead you to throw away a promising weekend just to rewatch all of Peter Jackson’s 13-point-something hour masterpiece in one heart-stopping sitting, I’m going to pit two of the films’ greatest battle sequences (The Battle of the Hornburg and the Battle of Pelennor Fields) against one another and decide which one I deem more entertaining and/or pleasing. To be clear: I’ll be doing so based almost completely on the movie renditions, so if you’re a purist who lives by the books, there’s the door (*points to the nearest door*). By comparing certain elements of each battle (determined by the patented Illeagle scale to indicate which battle is the truly superior one) I’ll be passing down a verdict that you can live by for the remainder of your days. Let’s get this party started.
Ding ding ding!
Most Intense Sense of Desperation: Given the title of this contest, most people would probably give the win to Pelennor Fields, given that it’s occuring later in the trilogy and that there’s arguably more at stake. However, having watched these battles countless times, the buildup to Helm’s Deep portrays a much more bleak outlook. The plight of the community of rural folk and horse lords being tossed into battle is well-heard in The Two Towers; after all, there’s nothing more upsetting than watching Haleth (son of Hama) learn how to wield a sword. Advantage Helm’s Deep.
Best Charge: Nothing gets my blood flowing more than Gandalf showing up at first light on the fifth day and boldly sallying Eomer’s loyal faction of the Rohirrim down what appears to be a 89.9 degree incline…nothing but the charge at Pelennor fields by Eowyn, Merry, Theoden, Eomer and company. Theoden’s battle speech is in this writer’s humble opinion the best in the trilogy (rivaled only by Aragorn’s epic “it is not this day” speech at the Black Gate). The sheer brutality of Rohan’s charge outside of Minas Tirith was well-depicted and is probably the high point of the entire Pelennor Fields sequence. Advantage Pelennor Fields.
Admittedly, going down a hill that steep is a good way to reach terminal velocity and do some damage.
Best Legolas Moment: This is possibly the closest of all the calls I’m making here. Growing up and watching these movies, Legolas was always my favorite member of the Fellowship of the Ring, because he was nimble and he could walk on snow and he was good with a bow and he had two swords and he kind of looked like that swashbuckler from Pirates of the Caribbean. Plus, occasionally he would do something incredibly ridiculous, like use an Uruk’s shield to slide down a staircase while dispatching like 973846 enemies, or taking down an entire Mumakil without batting an eyelash. For the sheer spectacle of it, I’m going to go with the elf from Mirkwood surfing on the trunk of an elephant for funsies (even though it still only counts as one). Furthermore, he gets points off at Helm’s Deep for not being able to hit the Berserker in the eyeball and keep everything from blowing up. Advantage Pelennor Fields.
Try taking down one of those puppies and then tell me how lame Legolas is.
Badass Weather Factor: The ominous rainfall that begins as the Uruk-Hai approach adds a pretty great dimension to the battle thematically, and it also theoretically makes the battle itself more interesting with visibility and traction significantly lower. Advantage Helm’s Deep.
The rain definitely upped the coolness factor of the Battle of the Hornburg.
Best “Hellbringer”: Well, Helm’s Deep won the badass weather contest pretty much by default, and so Pelennor Fields wins this one just as easily. The sole notable baddie at Helm’s Deep (who admittedly did quite a bit of damage) was the Beserker, who is decidedly second to none when it comes to taking an arrow to the torso, but we all knew the Witch-King of Angmar was going to win this one hands down. That being said, he did lose to a girl in close-quarters combat. Advantage Pelennor Fields.
General rule of thumb: anyone who can light their sword on fire is a guy you want on your team.
Best Jump: Don’t get me wrong: Aragorn leaping into a pile of Uruks is pretty awesome, as is Gimli being tossed onto the causeway. However, nothing tops Denethor running straight off the peak of Minas Tirith while burning alive. It was funny, it wrapped up the subplot nicely, and it provided a pretty great transition shot. Advantage Pelennor Fields.
Humor: While each battle has its moments, thanks almost completely to the classic Legolas-Gimli combat banter that we fans know and love, the “Shall I get you a box?” line is probably my favorite. Additionally, we can’t forget the funny way that the battle itself started. Advantage Helm’s Deep.
Most Dramatic Death/Most Feels: The most notable and dwelled-upon death at Helm’s Deep was that of Haldir, and it’s well-done in both camera work and soundtrack. Haldir and his force arrive in the nick of time to gracefully uphold an often-forgotten bond between men and elves, and he is repaid with a sword in the back. Throughout the trilogy, elves are often portrayed as magical creatures (which they admittedly are) who are physically infallible; they are immortal and seem to be pretty darn good at combat, and that’s one of the things that made Haldir’s death so jarring. It’s also worth noting that the elves don’t show up at Helm’s Deep in the novels: this is an element that Jackson added for effect. However, Theoden’s death speech was almost as good as his battle speech, and he died quite honorably at the hands of the Witch-King’s winged steed. Getting manhandled by what looks like a miniature dragon is the way I want to go. Advantage Pelennor Fields.
Haldir realizing he forgot to put suntan lotion on his face.
Best Endgame: Now, to be clear, I’m not deciding here whether the Army of the Dead or the Huorns were more effective in the cleanup effort, because frankly, they both did a bang up job. The thing is, to me, the Army of the Dead feels a lot more like a cheat code. They can’t be stopped, and they can’t be killed. Their swarming of Minas Tirith to close out the Battle of the Pelennor Fields was arguably a little anticlimactic. Furthermore, purists who have read this far will know that in the book, Aragorn actually releases the hosts of the dead after they help him claim the fleet (at Pelennor Fields, he instead shows up with an army of fellow Rangers of the North, which probably would have been more badass), and in the books, their ability to actual inflict physical damage is left vague. Peter Jackson trusted that his viewers wouldn’t care much to consider this, and he was right, but I have to give the advantage to the trees here. Saruman and the Uruks had done their damage to the forest, and it was about time they paid for it. Advantage Helm’s Deep.
The Army of the Dead seemed a bit like an excuse to use impressive CGI and win a billion Academy Awards…it worked.
Best Soundtrack: As much as I love pretty much everything Howard Shore contributed to the trilogy, I’m going to have to give Helm’s Deep the win on this one. Forth Eorlingas is one of my favorite tracks from the complete OST. Advantage Helm’s Deep.
Best Battleground: As much as a wide, expansive flatland like Pelennor Fields is an optimal battleground, and although Minas Tirith is a pretty formidable fortress that looks dang cool with the blackness of Mordor looming close by, I’m going with the Hornburg here. It’s smaller, and it’s obviously not as impenetrable as it’s billed to be, but it has a pretty sweet horn at the top and is conveniently situated in a nice bloodgulch of a valley. It’s a traditionally medieval castle-like structure, looks weathered and beaten up, and serves as an excellent backdrop for the battle. Additionally, the Glittering Caves made for a nice waiting room for Rohan’s women and children too young to hold a shield. Advantage Helm’s Deep.
Shooting for the Battle of Helm’s Deep took 4 months!
Given all the points above, and in my seemingly infinite Lord of the Rings fan knowledge and love, I pass down the following verdict: Helm’s Deep is in my mind the superior battle. Note, too, that something I didn’t mention above is that Helm’s Deep came first, at least in terms of release: as you may know, the trilogy itself was filmed in a nonlinear fashion. In fact, among the first scenes Ian McKellen filmed were his arrival to Hobbiton and his farewell at the Grey Havens.
How do you feel about the way I called this one? I fully expect some dissent, and I look forward to hearing what you think in the comments!