We’re in the big time now. Before I start, I’d like to say that I’m quite pleased with the reaction to my first two posts, and thanks to all commentators and well-wishers.
Right then. Troy was based off source material that was fantastical, but the movie wasn’t fantasy. Sharpe’s Eagle is based off historical reality. What we’re covering today is most definitely fantasy. It’s a long battle, so I’ll be posting this in two parts.
Sidebar: I love Tolkien, and I love Peter Jackson’s adaptation of his most famous work, and I love the depiction of Helm’s Deep as an exciting and engaging action sequence. This series is about analysing battle scenes in terms of accuracy, but it’s perfectly possible to do so and still think Helm’s Deep is an awesome set-piece.
The Assault on Helm’s Deep, Part One: The Wall
Apparently, there is a dispute over what this fight is called. The fortress is actually called ‘the Hornburg’, ‘Helm’s Deep’ being the name of the cave system it protects. It’s not really a siege, so much as a mass assault. I’ve borne witness to the fanboy fury of LotR faithful before, so I’ll clarify in the off chance someone picky reads this: It’s clearly an assault and the end goal for the bad guys is the cave system. So, ‘Assault on Helm’s Deep’. I liked Lord of the Rings before it was cool, so I understand how critically important this stuff is.
Also, no video this time, New Line having some sort of legal objection to people putting the movie up for free on Youtube. So, with the exception of the very end, we’re relying on photos and your own memories. Also, for anyone wondering, I’m using the extended edition of The Two Towers.
The set-up: The assault takes place in a valley cut into a mountain range. The land outside the fortress is a straight plain of dusty ground. The rock to the sides is steep and impossible to climb. The exception is a very steep stretch of ground to the Fortresses’ right. Its night and its pouring rain from the start, though it breaks as the sun rises.
The fortress, the Hornburg, is split into two stages. The Keep is an immensely high structure, accessible from the outside only through a long stone causeway with no railings. Thick wooden gate, high battlements, designed for defence. In-between the outer and inner walls is a little stepped road that curves into the courtyard. This leads to the main hall, the last defensible part of the fortress. This also leads to the caves. The whole thing is set up so an attacker has to face a gauntlet of defenders, with space and holes for archers on all sides.
The second stage is the wall. This emerges from the bottom of the Hornburg and curves backward on the way into the opposite mountainside. This allows full enfilade fire on any enemy. The wall is high and thick. How high, I can’t really tell, but we’ll say that eight Uruk Hai stacked on top of each other might be able to reach the top. Behind it is rectangular open area that contains stairs going to the wall and the Hornburg.
The forces: The ‘good guys’ consist of 300 men at arms/cavalrymen of the Kingdom of Rohan. The majority are commoners only recently conscripted for defence ranging vastly in age and experience. The minority are members of the Kings Guard. They include swordsmen, spearmen and archers. Cavalry has been put in the main hall, and it’s not many. The Rohan defenders are all situated in the Keep.
The rest of the defence consists of an unstated number Elven warriors. I’m guessing around two to three hundred. Filling both an infantry and archer role, the Elves are set up on the top of the wall and behind it. We can assume they are experienced and capable fighters.
Also on the way are 2,000 Rohan Cavalry, approaching from the east. The Huorns, tree-like creatures, are also on the way to tighten the noose.
The ‘bad guys’ consist of circa 10,000 Uruk-hai troops of Isengard all in one gigantic pile filling the valley. I know from the behind the scenes documentaries that they consist of four types of soldiers:
- Bog standard Uruk-hai soldier. Big, bred for war, heavily armoured with a long, slightly curved sword. The majority of the army.
- Pikemen, armed with a long, nastily bladed pike. Similarly armoured as the soldiers, but their helmets are designed so they have to look upwards.
- Berserkers, the shock troops, armoured only with a helmet. With slightly modified swords, they are the suicide squad of the Uruk-hai.
The Uruks also have ladders (they come in two sizes. Normal and freaking huge), and some ballista arrow launchers.
The good guys are led, on paper anyway, by King Théoden, a veteran of many wars, though only recently returned to land of the living. He is a tad arrogant, and somewhat obsessed with his own glory, though a decent commander.
A number of others fill up the officer role. Aragorn, the great hero of the story, commands the defence of the wall along with friends Legolas and Gimli, very capable warriors. Haldir commands the Elves but takes orders from Aragorn. The Rohan veteran Gamling appears to be the right hand man of Théoden. The oncoming Rohan cavalry are led by Eomer, the battle hardened nephew of the King and Gandalf, the powerful wizard. The Huorns have no leader.
The bad guys seem to be led by some random Uruk-hai standing on a rock. His orders consist of little more than roars. Really, it’s the will of Saruman, the lord of Isengard, that’s in charge of the Uruk-hai here.
The good guys aim: to survive the night and find some way to defeat the enemy.
The bad guys aim: ‘to destroy the world of men’ starting with Rohan, much of its civilian population hiding in the caves.
Alright, let’s get started.
First things first, and I’m sure you already know what I’m going to say. Earlier on in the movie, Grima Wormtongue has this, now legendary, bit of dialogue describing the fortress:
“Helm’s Deep has but one weakness. Its outer wall is solid rock but for a small culvert at its base which is little more than a drain.”
Yep. Rohan, when building the mighty fortress, decided to save their future enemies some time and undermine it themselves.
This is a structure, designed exclusively for defence, something that would resist an attack made by thousands. But the wall has a gaping hole in it, the thick stone replaced by some bars. Why? Because they need a drain.
Couldn’t redirect the water? Couldn’t build some kind of underground outlet? (They built the Hornburg after all). Couldn’t make the culvert a tad smaller?
The wall is gutted. Any attacking force has a natural point of attack, something that’s easier to break then the stone. Get some men in there and they can’t be hit from above. The metal bars would make shooting from either side difficult.
Metal can be bent, hammered and weakened. This metal here is rusted too so it must be weaker. In a prolonged siege, it’s a game ender. Get some sledgehammers in there during an assault to weaken the borders, then some battering ram action, and you have an entrance.
Attackers could also undertake the traditional siege breaking method of digging a tunnel under it, then collapsing it themselves. The water might be an obstacle there, but it can be filled fast enough. In a traditional siege, when the attacker is willing to spend time on it, the culvert is a truly amazing flaw.
The argument can be made that the defenders aren’t expecting explosives. It’s a new thing to Middle-Earth apparently. But, there’s no excuse for this. This world has trolls and giant living trees, beings that can easily tear walls apart, especially with a weakness like this. Rohan has shot itself in the foot here, planning for an attack made only by men.
Moreover, and this is another important point, it isn’t shown why the wall exists in the first place. In the book, an entrance to the caves is in the rear area behind the wall, but that doesn’t seem to exist here (certainly they make no mention of it when the Uruks break through and the defence of the caves is the whole point). No one in the wall garrison retreats into the caves. I think it is fair to say that no entrance is there.
So why is the wall there? As seen in the above pictures, the space appears to be a living area during peacetime, but all those people are in the caves now. The caves that (this film implies heavily) can only be accessed through the Keep. Why is Rohan defending this patch of worthless ground? You have over half your troops defending a backyard. Get them in the Keep, and it’s impregnable. The Uruks can only attack that from the causeway, and 300 extra sets of arrows would, ahem, severely reduce their manoeuvre capacity in that regard. Seal up the entrances to the Keep from the wall section and concentrate your force there.
It might be that Théoden is insistent on defending the whole thing out of honour, but since he has previously recognized the limits of his defence force, it’s an idiotic move. At best, only a small force, enough to hold the top of the wall for a time, should have been left in place. It would have been enough to make the Uruks expend useless force on a pointless objective.
Just so we’re clear: the Uruks take the Wall and the space behind it with significant loss, but then the focus goes purely to the causeway attack. Taking the wall did nothing to take the Keep, the primary part of the whole fortress.
So, as the Uruks approach the fortress, we see that the wall is manned by a fairly substantial force of Elves.
And they are aligned in ranks, three deep. This might not seem important now, but it will in a second. Suffice to say, there are too many men on the wall. It’s packed tight; there is no room to move there. And it’ll cost the defenders in just a second.
The Uruks continue their slow walking pace to the fortress, milking the terror. This is when the viewer really gets a sense of just how many pikemen are in the force. It’s a lot. Like every tenth Uruk maybe? The long sticks point out of the assault force, making it a look like a thin forest has sprouted up above the bad guys.
Why are there so many pikemen? Saruman is aware that Rohan’s cavalry force is extremely limited, so they’re not needed for that. They might be for subsequent operations where pikes are required, but that doesn’t explain why they’re at Helms Deep, pushing up to the front where they are not needed, taking up space, being useless generally. Pikes that size are not going to be helpful here. If it gets to close combat, what are they going to do? Nearly the whole front rank is pikemen for no good reason. They can’t reach the top of the walls, and barring a lucky skewer, they won’t kill many defenders.
Leave your pikemen at the back, where any cavalry charge is most likely to occur.
The Uruk advance halts. As we find out a moment or two later, once the display of power is over, they are within bowshot of the walls. One of the Rohan defenders, his bow aimed at the Uruk line down the sight (that is, not arced for extra range) hits one of the front guys.
So the Uruks have stopped dead, within bowshot of the walls. No shields up, no ready defence. The defenders can seriously mess up the Uruks here, get substantial first blood, screw up this big intimidating display the bad guys are putting on here.
But they don’t. Even when they discover they have the enemy in range, the defenders still choose to hold back. Not smart. They had a chance to kill a number of the enemy for no loss and settled for one.
Moreover, everyone in the Keep has their bows taut and ready to fire for way too long. It’s a hell of an effort to pull the string back on a bow and keep it there. It takes strength. If Théoden had no intention of letting his men fire for several minutes, why did he order them to draw their strings? They chances of a misfire, of the string snapping, increases every second it’s pulled back without a deliberate firing. Aragorn, on the wall, wisely decides to wait until he intends to fire before his archers are ordered to draw. Sure, it comes too late to hit the motionless Uruks, but its smarter than what the guys in the Keep were doing.
It’s also raining. As anyone with archery experience will tell you, this is bad for bows. It weakens the string, makes them stretch and snap. It makes some arrows useless. But we see no malfunctions here, no snapping, just a whole bunch of arrow working flawlessly in the middle of a thunderstorm. It’s not how they work.
The Uruks now employ the old reliable Hollywood battle strategy: the mass charge. All 10,000 surge forward towards the wall in a big pile of normal soldiers, pikemen and ‘other.’ It’s visually impressive, but very dumb. Why are the pikemen going? What are the guys closer to the Keep hoping to accomplish? What are the guys nowhere near a ladder going to do? They’re gonna reach the wall (if they reach the wall) and have nowhere to go and nothing productive to contribute to the attack.
And of course, they start getting slaughtered on the approach. The Elves are expert archers and find their mark more often than not. The Uruks start falling all along the line. It’s a pointless sacrifice, demonstrating a complete lack of tactical ability. 10,000 troops is not an invincible force. In taking this fortress, Saruman must know that losses will be entailed, but this kind of thing only increases the tally needlessly. The Uruks, at this point, are in real danger of winning the battle and losing the war.
If some discipline could have been bred into the Uruks, a slow methodical advance would have been better. Shields up at the front and above. If you’re attacking by ladder, you create channels leading up to them, sufficiently protected with a tortoise defence, while your crossbowmen harry the defenders with incessant fire. As we’ll see in a minute the Uruks have no problem getting troops to the top of the wall alive (thanks to the Berserkers) so all of this charging and death is unnecessary. That’s doubly so, since, as I’ve said, the Wall is worthless.
Théoden decides to join in as the Uruks charge. “Give them a volley” he orders and the Keep defenders finally get to loose their arrows after holding them in place for at least two minutes. A number of Uruks are hit, rather lucky considering the distance and (compared to the Elves anyway) lack of skill. After that, Théoden judges that his boys have done enough to help the guys on the wall and they don’t fire again for some reason. I would venture that Théoden is saving his arrows for any assault up the causeway but the pitiful few that whizz by ineffectually when this occurs is evidence of this not being the case.
So, either the defenders on the Keep don’t have more than one or two arrows each, or Théoden won’t let them fire for some reason. Either option is crazy. If the first, why? Where are the arrows for these men? Why wasn’t the armoury stocked, isn’t this a military fortress? You had time to make them before the battle, why didn’t you?
If the second, it’s a bafflingly decision with no logic behind it. You wanna kill Uruks? You need to use arrows. They’re out there and you’re in here. Stones and spears don’t have the range Théoden. You have to get your archers firing.
But he doesn’t and only a handful of the Keep defenders will be seen with bows in their hands for the remainder of the battle.
The Elves that are assembled behind the wall open up and send a rain or arrows pouring down. But, jeez, it’s a good thing they are masters of their art. Look how close they are sending arrows by their own men on the wall. We’re talking inches here. They can’t shoot a little higher? They’re not targeting specific Uruks from where they are, so does it matter if they aim higher? For safety’s sake? Blue on blue would be quite bad here, considering how outnumbered the defender are.
The Uruk crossbowmen start firing, taking down a few targets, appropriate use of them as harassment. They won’t take the wall, but every shot weakens the defence. I mention them because one of the guys they hit falls over the wall and into the mass of Uruks. From what we’ve seen this is actually physically impossible. The wall is chest high, so unless the elf was 10 foot tall, he didn’t have the weight to propel himself over it through the momentum of falling forward.
And the Pikemen miss out on being useful, since he misses the skewers. Darn.
The Crossbowmen have one other advantage. Remember how I said that the wall was packed too tight with people? Well, the Crossbowmen hit an elf in the front through the eye, he falls back, hits the guy behind him, and before you can say ‘domino effect’, the guy at the back has been pushed off the wall to fall to his death. Happens to a few of them.
Now that’s what I call a pointless waste of men, soldiers who probably didn’t even get to fire their weapons. And it only gets worse.
The Uruks bring the ladders up (only after they’ve lost how many men?) and present their master stroke: the berserkers. As the ladders are raised up, they lie in a seated position on the top, allowing them the chance to fling themselves onto the defenders without having to climb the ladders. Excellent idea, though again, the Uruks are making sacrifices that will be harmful in the long run (these beserkers aren’t making it out alive).
But because the walls are so packed with troops, they’re going to make an impression just arriving on the wall. Aside from pushing yet more Elves off the back of the structure just through momentum, they have plenty of targets for their long, double-edged swords. Combined with a death-wish and they have a chance of ending the wall battle as a contest. All they have to do is give their brethren time to climb the ladders unmolested and the Uruks have one hand on the ‘taking the wall’ trophy.
The Uruks climb up the ladders and its mayhem. The close quarters combat is bloody and the last thing the defenders should be engaging in. They don’t have the men to spare and now the archers on the wall aren’t firing. The Uruk tactics appear to simply be to kill everyone on the wall. There certainly are no signs of anything else, of trying to enter the Keep from the side of the wall or rushing down the steps to engage the rest of the archers.
Speaking of them, they’ve stopped firing. No more arrows are flying over the wall. What are they doing? They are a sizable number, and they appear to just be standing there, waiting for something to happen or to receive orders. Quite odd, considering they make up a force larger than the Elves on the wall. Who are getting slaughtered.
Up on the wall, Legolas decides it’d be productive to use his bow at near point-blank range, killing Uruks getting to the top of the ladders. It’s a waste of arrows, which are a precious commodity around Helm’s Deep. They’re climbing up the ladder, unable to defend themselves. Get the knifes out and get cutting. Don’t waste the arrows when you don’t need to fire them.
We get a long panning shot now, of the fighting along the wall. Ladders are thrown down and raised again. The Uruks, apparently thinking that they’re making it too hard for the defenders, conveniently stand right in the path of the ladders as they fall, losing at least a dozen soldiers every time it happens. I could buy it happening once, since the Uruks don’t know any better, but it happens again and again. You’d think after the first time they’d learn to file in from the side, or move faster when it is thrown down.
Of course, this is another flaw of the mass charge. The Uruks just might not have the space to get out of the way when the ladders fall. Channels of troops are needed here.
Also, from the size, probable weight (especially with those Uruks on ‘em) and angle of those ladders, they should be impossible to thrown down. It just wouldn’t be possible, unless you were of a super human strength. The only defence would be to burn them from above or keep up the arrow fire, but the defenders don’t have the time or space for that.
After an intermission seeing how the rest of the movie is getting on, we come back and the attack is still progressing as it was before. Our first sight is Gimli, standing on the battlements, killing Uruks climbing ladders on either side. The Uruk Crossbowmen appear to have given up and gone home at this point, as none of them are taking shots at the dangerously exposed dwarf. But that’s nothing compared to the insanity that Gimli will be pulling in a minute.
Over at the Keep, the Uruks have started the second part of the assault. And they’re doing it the way the whole attack should have been made. Crawling pace, shields raised at the front and above. The Rohan defenders throws rocks and spears but those are useless gestures against a very well done advance. If the Rohan defenders were a little braver, now might be the time for a quick sortie. As we’ll see later, Cavalry would be just deadly for this specific situation. A quick charge down the ramp, scatter some Uruks, retreat quickly. They’d just advance again, but you’d have delayed it for a while. But Théoden seems utterly impotent in the face of the attack.
Aragorn to the rescue. He gets some of his (remaining) archers, to fire a volley towards the causeway. Remember, the defenders on the wall are fighting for their lives. Uruks are flooding the area. How these archers get the time and space to loose this stream of arrows goes unexplained. As it is, the attack is fairly ineffective. Some Uruks at the side fall, but the advance continues. Sorry, but at this stage of the fight, the causeway attack should be the focus of the Keep defenders only. The wall crowd is doing its job and barely holding on. Rohan has to do some fighting too.
As it is, Théoden seems to think he’s doing just fine. “Is this all you can conjure Saruman?” he queries to himself.
Yeah that’s it. By the way, the Elves are this close to being overrun just to your right and your Keep is about to be assaulted directly. Some orders, leadership maybe? Nah.
The Uruks are ready to unleash their trump card. Taking advantage of THAT GIGANTIC HOLE IN THE WALL, they pile up a few cauldrons of black powder. Along comes Mr Berserker with his sparkler of doom.
The Uruks have made a very noticeable berth for this guy, so it’s no surprise when Aragorn (despite being surrounded by Uruks) spots him. He tells Legolas to bring him down. Uncharacteristically, Legolas fails to do so. Having brought down Uruks in heavy armour just minutes ago, and having spent the intervening time wasting his arrows at close range, blondie can’t do it when it counts. Two shoulder hits, when the chest is unarmoured and boom goes the dynamite.
So, the explosion. Firstly, it happens in a weird way. Rather than a circular blast, the powder seems almost to be directed outward by the direction of the rubble. Strange.
The Uruks have continued their sacrificial strategy here, for no good reason. No one pulls back from the wall, so it’s reasonable to assume that more Uruks were killed in the blast than defenders.
As it is, the wall has been rendered useless. A gigantic breach has been opened up. No rubble as an obstacle either, just some water.
This should be a real “shock and awe” moment. This has never happened in Middle-Earth. A gigantic gunpowder explosion has just occurred. So:
- The nearest defenders to have survived should be deafened.
- Most of the defenders on the wall and behind should be stunned, for a moment anyway. They have just seen something wholly new in the field of war, and a wall that has stood for centuries be blasted open in a heartbeat. The flash, the bang…we should be seeing some shell-shocked defenders. Some of them should be catatonic. The same goes for the Uruks on the wall and those far away enough to not be killed by the initial explosion.
Considering what the Uruks planned anyway, that is the blowing of the wall, this assault makes even less sense. Even though the Uruks could take the wall eventually through what they are doing, the casualties will be high. And it’s clear that they were always going to blow the wall anyway, making the breach the primary point of attack. So why not just attack using the breach plan? Keep the dynamiters protected using a shieldwall and crossbowmen, and once the breach is made, rush in while the defenders are stunned. But, that’s not the Uruk way. At least they can show some intelligence at this point.
Instead, having lost another pile of soldier’s unnecessarily, the Uruks do what they know best and charge in without a plan. Weird drain by the way. After the explosion, the water seems to shoot out of…somewhere, causing a sudden deluge. This slows up the Uruks advance momentarily and creates a little lake. It’s just odd. It was a drain, not a river.
Over on the causeway, the Uruk’s initiate the next part of the ‘sacrifice everyone’ plan. With the advancing shieldwall too paced to allow easy movement, the Uruks end up shoving a load of their troops over the side in order to get their battering ram through the middle. They could have just left a gap in the middle, made some bigger shields to make up the numbers. Instead, they lose more troops, and even more when the heavy, armoured soldiers fall on those below. But they have got the battering ram into position.
It starts crashing into the gate. The response from the Rohan defence is to throw a few spears, and some rocks. For some reason, a lot of the rocks are quite small and hardly able to even blunt the Uruks armour. A handful of Uruks fall. The ram keeps up the battering. Where are the archers? The shieldwall isn’t up anymore and the distance isn’t great. Why aren’t they firing? The argument can be made that the mass of Uruks just a few metres away mean that it doesn’t matter how many of the bad guys Rohan kill – they’ll always have replacements to carry the ram.
But there is a very effective tactic that Rohan can employ here. One that the extended edition of The Return of the King outlines very well. In the final part of the trilogy, when Mordor first assails the walls of Minis Tirith, they use a ram like the one above (in fact, it was the same prop.) The gate holds firm. And Gondor fires back with archers. The Ork dead keep piling up and up and after a while, there is an actual hill in front of the gate, a hill of dead that the Orks can’t clear. The result is that the ram becomes useless. The hill of dead means that any momentum the ram builds up on the approach is cancelled out by the sudden change in angle. The Orks can’t keep up the assault uphill and are forced to call off the attack.
Rohan can do the same here. Get the archers firing, bring down some Uruks, do the same for anyone else who takes over. Make that hill. Make obstacles on the ground. Make the approach to the gate a gauntlet. Even if the Uruks are able to clear the causeway they’ll be killing their comrades below. Rohan can’t lose.
But no archers. Bad stones. A few spears. It’s not enough. What the hell is Théoden doing?
Giving really obvious orders, that’s what. After telling his troops to ‘brace the gate’ he adds ‘Hold them, stand fast!’. Cheers for that your majesty. Sure enough, a load of defenders rush behind the gate to brace it. Again, I argue that they would have been more useful as archers. Moreover, the gate should have been braced already using wood and other stuff roundabout. Why have the defenders left it so late to do this? Did Théoden not expect to Uruks to assault the gate? Why not? Why kind of a defence is this?
Over at the wall, the Uruks are swarming through the breach. Gimli, feeling that his previous bit of martial insanity wasn’t good enough, dive-bombs into the breach from the top of the wall. Avoiding the pikes and the hard fall that an armoured Uruk would have been, he lands in the water, survives somehow, and starts taking on bad guys.
Aragorn meanwhile, has been flung from the wall to the ground below, falling face first. He’s probably dead, at the least suffering from broken bones, concussion and serious brain dam…oh wait, he’s fine. Interesting. That Isengard gunpowder isn’t so effective against people apparently.
Seeing Gimli in danger Aragorn gives the order for the Elves behind to open fire, taking down some Uruks. I ask again, why weren’t they firing before?
Anyway, the situation is quite bad. The wall is breached. The Uruks have established a little bridgehead on the other side. Outnumbered, it’s obvious that the wall is lost. The defenders don’t have the troops to repulse the Uruks now, the only chance was to hold them at the breach, something they weren’t prepared for (the Elves at the back just watched them charge forward apparently).
Right now, the best thing to do would be to take what troops you have, on the wall and behind it, and start the withdrawal, a fighting retreat. Inflict what casualties you can, make a screen around the stairs heading to the Keep. Fall back. It’s over here. The wall is lost. Time to go.
Instead, Aragorn orders his troops to charge into the Uruks.
To be continued.