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Why Are Tactics in Fantasy and Sci-Fi Shows So Bad?

By: Peter Suciu

Warning! spoilers ahead about this season of Game of Thrones

The recent final season of HBO's hit series Game of Thrones featured not one, but two episodes in which armies lined up outside fortified walls to face an enemy. The first time was in the third episode, "The Long Night," in which the forces that included the Northern Armies, Unsullied, and Dothraki massed outside the northern stronghold of Winterfell.

While attempts were made to add defense barriers, so much of these battle scenes was just wrong that Wired magazine actually asked the opinion of military experts who thought it was badly directed.

You simply don't put your light cavalry at the front of the lines and charge at an unknown enemy at night – especially one, in this case, made up of the army of the dead! Worse still, in this scenario, the main heavy missile weapons were trebuchets, which were positioned in front of the infantry. In other words, it looked good, but it wasn't militarily sound in the least.

The same was true two episodes later in the fifth and penultimate episode of the series titled "The Bells." In this case, the famed Golden Company, which in the show's world are among the best sell swords (mercenaries) in the world, don't man the walls of King's Landing or even try to raid and disrupt the approaching armies, but instead once again line up outside the walls.

The results are spectacular – at least visually. Militarily, the results are spectacularly bad, and most of the Golden Company is burnt to a crisp!

Game of Thrones is just the latest fictional story to offer such awful military tactics. Since the release of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, it has been common for opposing armies in fantasy movies to line up to face off against one another. This was the case between the droid army and the Gungans, and was seen again in the Lord of the Rings films, King Arthur, 300, Kingdom of Heaven, and even in the recent wave of Marvel superheroes films.

In many ways, this trend can be blamed on one person: Mel Gibson, who starred in and directed the 1995 epic Braveheart. Try watching The Phantom Menace again, and you're likely to notice the big battle at the end resembles the Battle of Stirling Bridge from Braveheart.

In fairness, that sequence from Gibson's film looks brilliant. But here is the problem: that's not how the battle went down. Notice the name of that engagement includes "bridge," something not seen in the film.

So where is the bridge?

Apparently, Gibson didn't want to include the bridge, as he felt it "got in the way" – to which critics, including military historians, have responded that it certainly got in the way for the English who lost the battle. The truth is that Gibson based that battle on the later engagement known as the “Battle of Bannockburn,” which is only seen in the closing moments of the film.

As Gibson's character of William Wallace was dead by that point in his movie, he might have felt as if he'd be left out. So instead, he based all the major engagements in Braveheart on that latter battle. What this did was convince the audience that armies tended to line up against one another, and other filmmakers took notice!

Since then, too often we've seen slightly rolling hills where armies line up.

Now, of course, throughout the era of muskets and even early rifles, including the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, all the way the American Civil War, armies did, in fact, line up and march out to face one another. There were reasons for it, including the fact that the weapons weren't particularly accurate, so you needed to mass your fire to have any effect.

Rarely, however, whether it was a battle fought with swords, bows, or rifles, did the armies scream at the top of their lungs and run at full sprint toward one another and engage in a wild melee – the sort of thing that is seen in too many films. That would only tire everyone out and leave most soldiers unable to swing a sword, let alone fight an extended battle. Gibson apparently didn't get the memo, because his subsequent film, The Patriot, of course features such a scene, when in reality, the fighting hardly resembled such a method of fighting.

Cinematically, this type of action and fighting looks good, which is why directors continue to feature it in movies and TV shows, but it is not only historically inaccurate, it is tactically unsound. As noted, sending soldiers in a wild sprint would tire them out, but such rabble wouldn't be effective against an enemy that stands its ground; filmmakers get around this little detail by making both sides stupidly rush towards one another.

Filmmakers, such as those who produced the 1964 film Zulu, one understood this concept. While it has some historical errors, this masterly done movie highlights how a small force, using fortification, can hold back a superior force.

Moreover, no military force would ever want to leave a fortified position to face an enemy on open ground. The exception might be the light cavalry, such as the Dothraki, which could harass the enemy's lines only to retreat, and do it again and again. Instead, we see a pointless charge against an unknown enemy in the dark, which would be the worst thing you could do.

Most of the time the audience might not know or care how tactically bad this is, but clearly from the viewer responses with Game of Thrones, many are noticing and calling it out. The other thing that audiences are noticing is how unoriginal this is starting to look. What we are now seeing is CGI armies charging against other CGI armies, and it is easy to see why "battle fatigue" is setting in with viewers.

Peter Suciu is a freelance writer based in Michigan. Contact him at petersuciu@gmail.com.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Gunpowder Magazine.