It Is Not War #4: Helm’s Deep, Part Two

Part One, for those who aren’t caught up.

And we’re back with Aragorn seeing red.

This assault can’t work. The defenders don’t have the numbers to push the Uruks back at this stage.

The escape route that leads to the Keep, the escape route that the defenders will have to use pretty soon, is off to the left. This means that everyone to the right of the breach is royally screwed. They’re going to get cut off in a second and they won’t have a chance. No prisoners here.

The fight becomes a close-combat mess, and I would say that favours the bigger, better armoured Uruks.

The Pikemen get their sole bit of glory here, skewering a few of the chargers, but after the initial shock, what are they gonna do?

It also seems that Aragorn might have ordered this charge just to save Gimli. If so, it’s an appalling command decision. He’s sacrificing the lives of most of his best troops to save the one moron who divebombed into an idiotic position. Why? They’re friends? Not officer material.

At this point Legolas pulls his infamous move, skating down the steps of the wall using an Uruk shieldarm. A total visual stunt that looks ridiculous. Also, there are still Elves fighting on the walls blondie. Why are you abandoning them?

I say there are still Uruks on the wall because we see them in a second. But in the above cgi shot, they aren’t there. If this is simply a continuity error, it means the Uruks continue to climb the ladders even after the breach has been made. Smart? I wouldn’t have thought so. It’s overkill, a needless danger. More sacrificing.

Anyway, thanks to Aragorn’s charge, the Elves behind the wall are getting massacred. Finally, they seem to think better of it. They never actually show Aragorn ordering a retreat. I like to imagine they suddenly realised what a bloodcrazy leader they have.

But the Elves now have to cut their way to the escape route. Most of them (in fact, it would appear all of them) aren’t going to make it. Surrounded, outnumbered they don’t have a chance. There’s no unity here. If they want to survive they have to form up, some sort of circle or square. But it’s not happening.

With Aragorn failing as a commander, it’s Théoden of all people (who should be focusing on the causeway attack) who has to give the order to retreat. “Get your men out of there!” he screams. About time someone took charge of this catastrophe. But it’s too late. This is when we see the Rohan archers for the last time firing a handful of arrows into the throng of Uruks below. It’s a pitiful support but it’s something. At this distance, and without the Elfish skill, they have little chance of getting a killing strike. They really should be at the gate where they can do far more good.

Remember, as we see (or rather fail to see) later, once the Wall defenders have evacuated to the Keep, the assault from that direction ends. The sole point of attack for the Uruks becomes the gate. No Uruks seem to follow the path up the stairs into the Keep. I can only presume that the sidegate or entrance can be easily blocked or is so small that the bad guys could only attack it in single file (making such an attack pointless).

A brief niggle: the difference between the fighting behind the wall in close up live-action and the wide CGI shots is staggering. With the first, it’s open and free flowing. With the second it’s a charnelhouse of packed bodies. The second is a more accurate representation of what this kind of fight would look like.

Aragorn yells to Haldir, still on the wall, to fall back to the Keep. Why is Haldir still on the wall? It’s over up there. Between the breach and the ladders you’ve lost it. I’ve covered that it’s a little silly for the Uruks to still be attacking it, but they are there. Haldir shouldn’t. The Elves have been hit hard on the wall, and they should have fallen back, at least to behind the wall, a while back. Haldir (and the rest of the Elves) pay the price.

We get some quick shots here of various things. Legolas and some other Elf are dragging Gimli away by force, their ward struggling. He’s seems fine. No wounded they could carry? Real compassionate those Elves.

Next we get a shot of the same Elves fleeing. Backs to the enemy, pelting towards the stairs. Very bad defence. Actually, scratch that, it’s not a defence , it’s a rout. They should be retreating at a slower pace, front to the enemy, making the Uruks pay for every bit of ground. This sort of panicky withdrawal is just what the bad guys would love to see. A few arrows in the back, defenders trampled, it all gets them one step closer to victory.

At this point, I’m not sure that the Uruks have even taken higher casualties once the breach was made. This is not acceptable in such a scenario. You’re outnumbered 10-1. Actually closer to 15-1 at this point. You have to make the Uruks pay.

Instead of controlling the retreat, getting the Elves in line, Aragorn is off doing his own thing again. He runs up the wall on his own to try and save Haldir. I appreciate the bond of brotherhood here, but Haldir’s been pretty cut up. He’s dead before Aragorn gets to him. All this little endeavour accomplishes is to take Aragorn away from where he should be. Not content with surviving one tumble off the wall, our hero decides to take another, this time off one of the ladders at the rear of the wall. Crazy, reckless, pointless. Aragorn, on the basis of this display, isn’t a commander. And he should now be surrounded by Uruks, cut off from the escape route to the Keep.

Back at the Keep, the Uruks are keeping up the assault on the gate. Not a great gate, as it begins to splinter into pieces after only a few hits. The Uruks employ some decent tactics here: They have Crossbowmen in position to clear the defenders next to the gap, allowing the soldiers to enter. Not bad, and the defenders aren’t expecting it. But some of those berserker troops, the ones that were all expended on the wall apparently, would be very useful here. A few strokes with that extra long blade, combined with the suicidal attitude, and the Uruks have the bridgehead inside the Keep. And just like with the wall, once they have the foothold inside, it’s over. It’d just be a question of how many Uruks would die before the fortress fell.

As Aragorn and a few others run up the stairs to the Keep, we get a wide shot of the wall and the area behind. Look at all those dead. Plenty of bad guys, but a criminal number of good guys as well. Man, if Saruman had a second army ready to go, the best the Rohan defenders could hope to get at this stage is a Pyrrhic victory.

Théoden, perhaps thinking that his inspired leadership from the rear hasn’t been enough, heads to the gate with his guard. Now, it’s not uncommon in this medieval style warfare for Kings to take an active part in the fighting. In many cases, it’s to be expected and the world of Middle-Earth is no different apparently.

But Théoden is an old man only recently recovered from the equivalent of a horrible illness. And to be frank, his strategic skills are…lacking. It’s questionable how useful he can be. He could be a rallying figure, but that’s a double edged sword. He dies, and the already frail Rohan morale will snap. At least he’s doing something though, taking out a few Uruks, and keeping them on the other side of the gate. He gets slightly wounded though, and has to pull back. In so doing, he disrupts the defence (Make way for the King!). It’s not good.

Aragorn shows up, fresh from being responsible for hundreds of needless deaths. He dives into the fray at the gate, but this is a bad position. Sortie time.

A sortie made up of two people. Aragorn and Gimli. Wow.

I suppose the argument here is that less is better. It certainly will be a surprise and these two might be the best fighters the good guys have left. Plus, we’ve established that they’re suicidal and reckless, so a good choice for the sortie.

But come on, two people? This might be the crucial operation of the Keep defence and you’re sending two? Why not throw in some of the Kings Guard, maybe an Elf or two (It’s never made clear if they were all killed on the wall).

Anyway, Aragorn and Gimli sneak around the side, and in a brief bit of battlefield hilarity, leap across a chasm into the fray. You just know, in normal physics, Gimpl would bounce off an Uruk and fall to his death, but this is Middle-Earth. The attack certainly comes as a surprise to the attackers. Pitifully outmatched by the fighting skills of the man and dwarf combination, all the Uruks can do is fling themselves, nearly one at a time, at the two.

As an aside, those Uruks standing under the causeway. What exactly are they doing? Lot of troops there, just standing around.

As the sortie attack continues, the Uruks unveil their next master stroke: giant freaking ladders. Using a pully/grappling hook system fired by a ballista, they start pulling those wooden monstrosities up to the walls of the Keep.

Why didn’t they use them earlier? Why wait until the wall was taken? The Uruks certainly have the numbers for a simultaneous assault of that nature.

On the ladders themselves, well, they’re not a good idea. A strong stroke of an axe or sword can gut the pulley wire (after all, a single arrow cuts one here). They narrow at the top, so any Uruks climbing up are forced into a bottleneck. The defenders should be able to handle such an attack. And while throwing them down is out of the question, some pitch and fire can leave them useless to the enemy, collapsing them in time. There is a reason ladders were never made to these heights in the medieval world.

But the defenders can’t handle the attack. Must be the inexperience, but almost immediately the Uruks are able to start swamping the wall. It really shouldn’t take much to throw them back here, but the defenders aren’t up to the job.

Théoden decides to distract the sortie while they’re fighting for their lives, telling them helpfully “Get the hell out of there” just as he seals up the gate. Lovely fellow. Our two brave fighters, having killed an almighty amount of enemy, look temporary lost until Legolas comes to the rescue. It’s only as they swing off the causeway on the rope that the Uruks decide to charge simultaneously, rather than one at a time.

The Crossbowmen of the Uruk army must have gone home, because none of them are around to take a shot at the precariously exposed pair inching up the wall. Seriously, they’re crawling up that wall. Even a well aimed spear would do the trick. Hell, just throw one of your swords, they’re plenty to spare from dead Uruks. Since Aragorn and Gimli are probably the leaders in Uruk deaths, taking them out of the equation would be one big giant step towards victory. But the two make it back inside the Keep without molestation, a big opportunity lost. Not so good with the target acquisition, the Uruks.

Maelstrom up on the Keep battlements now, much like the Deeping Wall just minutes ago. Having failed to keep the Uruks from getting off the ladders, the defenders are getting overrun quite fast. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of co-ordination, from either side, just a free-for-all. Neither Aragorn or Théoden or anyone with authority is giving any useful orders here, getting men into lines, giving specific objectives. In this kind of frantic fighting, it’s the Uruks, who are bred specifically for war, who have the advantage. The young and old defenders of Rohan just won’t be able to take it. Frankly, it’s a miracle they haven’t run off already. If the attackers weren’t so bloodthirsty, and had made it clear they would take prisoners, the defenders may even have surrendered at this point. I would.

The Uruks fire one of the ballista’s and hit one of the Rohan defenders. Firstly, that’s an appalling waste of  ammunition for the siege weapon.

Secondly, that was the greatest shot I’ve ever seen. Kudos. The way the wildly inaccurate siege crossbow was able to hit that one defender dead square in the chest. It’s for sieging, not anti-personnel work.

With things not going well, Théoden decides to put on his ordering about pants: “Pull everybody back. Pull them back!” he says to a disbelieving adjundent.

This is appalling judgment. Rohan’s options have rapidly been reduced here but this is one of worst they could take.

Rohan has to hold the wall. They have to. If the Uruks take it, it is over, just like before. If they pull back, it becomes a numbers game, and the Uruks have way more. They can’t win if they lose that battlement.

“Pull them back!” he says. To where? The Keeps’ Courtyard isn’t defensible. The Hall isn’t much better. All that’s left is the caves, where all the women and children are.

The battlements have to be the Alamo. The situation is bad, but holding them is your only option. Of course, if they’d destroyed those ladders and reinforced the gate better…

Anyway Rohan’s shoddy defences make the decision for them. The gate gets thrown open after a sustained Uruk push. I’m willing to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt here, and assume more time passed between the shoring up and its breach then was presented on screen. Otherwise, the buffed up gate lasted around 90 seconds.

This time, there is no resistance to the breakthrough. Presumably all the defenders are on the battlements. With these numbers, they couldn’t have done more than delay them for a few seconds. Still, none of the built-in defences, like the arrow slits, aren’t being used. There are still enough defenders to make this advance up the steps difficult for the Uruks, but none of them are in place. Instead, they are routing big time. At the slightest hint of a withdrawal, they pelt for the hall. Bad discipline, but it’s to be expected with their commanders. Any chance of setting up a defensive line in the Courtyard vanishes. It’s every man for himself. And most of them don’t make it. The Uruks, unopposed, get into the Courtyard, blocking off the Hall. And just like that, some of the people who were defending the fortress have been surrounded. Thanks for your service boys, and best of luck in your future endeavours.

Again, you’re defending the fortress from an assault. You need to have plans in place, have the lines formed in people’s heads beforehand so they know what to do if things go wrong. You turn your back to the enemy, especially this enemy, and you have lost the battle.

After another break to catch up with Frodo and Sam, we’re back. Sunrise, and as you can see from above, this is a military catastrophe. The Hornburg has never fallen to an enemy but this mass of Uruks, in just a few hours, have breached the Deeping Wall, breached the Hornburg and slaughtered most of the defenders. They’re raising their standard over the battlements. Théoden and co., have messed it up big time. They were outnumbered and outgunned, but it was well within the realm of the possible that they could have held their positions.

Inside the Hall, the last scraps of the defence, which I think it’s fair to say is rapidly reaching single figures, is shoring up the door. Hope they do a better job than last time. Right now, Rohan’s tactical options are…limited. I suppose since surrender isn’t an option, they might as well hole up. But it didn’t have to come to this.

Outside, the Uruks have brought up the ram and are battering the Hall door. But, as we can see, they don’t seem to be getting as much of a run up that they could. Not a terribly impressive amount of momentum being generated. Apparently the rest of the fortress behind the courtyard isn’t made for defence as no-one is shooting out at the attackers.

Aragorn’s concern is with the people in the caves that the defenders were supposed to be protecting. Not much chance of that now. We learn, from Gamling, that one passage exists that leads into the mountains.

Good God. They’ve waited this long to use that option? Gamling looks a little shell-shocked here, so I guess I can forgive him, but the women and children should have been sent that way the second the first breach was made in the wall. Their protection is the whole point. Sure, you might end up holding the Keep anyway, making such a move unnecessary, but why take the risk?

Aragorn, faced with a suicidal looking King, proposes the last gambit: saddling up the horses and charging out the door. There is plenty for me to criticise about such a course of action, but in fairness, little tactical options remain at this point. At least this way the defenders can kill more Uruks than they would in the hall.

But one quick point: it’s been suggested that Aragorn proposes this plan because he knows (or hopes) that Gandalf will be arriving with the reinforcements at any second. We get a little flashback to words of that effect here. But that only happens, along with a very obvious dawning look of realisation on Aragorn’s face, after he proposes the last charge plan to Théoden. I think Aragorn only remembers at that second, after the suicide option has been decided upon.

Théoden is all for this plan anyway (more in a second) and after some stirring words, gets the few horses he has and charges at the Uruks who have just burst through the door. Despite the narrowness of the opening, the horse are able to squeeze through. I should quickly note, the few men who don’t have horses are completely screwed now, but we don’t care enough about them to show that.

The defenders achieve complete surprise. The Uruks are stunned by the sight of cavalry emerging from the hall. I don’t blame them for this, they must have been sure certain they had it in the bag.

Anyway, the cavalry start charging down the steps.

Do me a favour. Actually don’t do this, just imagine it. Run down your stairs. I don’t mean walk down your stairs fast, I mean run. See how far you get before falling over and breaking your face.

Yeah, please don’t do that. That’s stupid. And that’s my point. Running any animal down steps is very, very risky. Especially horses, who have four legs to co-ordinate.

The cavalry do amazingly well, getting down the steps and out to the causeway killing Uruks left and right. No Uruk fights back. They all leap to the side or get cut down. The thing is, the Uruks have long swords. They have numbers. They should take casualties, but one well aimed swing and Théoden or his horse is down and dead. But none of them take the chance. None of them put up a fight. It’s the Rohan rout in reverse.

Out on the causeway, the charging Uruks get mauled, either trampled underfoot or pushed over the side. Just what the causeway was designed for (without rails) and evidence of just what a sortie could have accomplished earlier. And remember, every Uruk who falls over the side takes another bad guy with him when he hits the ground.

But this charge can’t last forever. They get to the end of the causeway and they are surrounded. But things are about to change.

Gandalf and Eomer have arrived with their 2,000 or so horsemen. They arrive on the top of the steep, gravelly rise to the left of the Uruks. Despite the fact that they are surrounded by heavily armoured Uruks, Théoden and Aragorn have time to stop, look up and acknowledge the arrival of the new forces.

And they charge down the slope. Here’s some general points for Hollywood cavalry battles.

1. They are packed way too close in that charge. That close, they’re banging into each other, they have no room to manoeuvre. It’s a grinder. One falls, and everyone behind him will do the same. Real war cavalry charges need more space, otherwise they collapse.

2. It’s way too steep. We’re talking 70 degrees here. And at that speed, that momentum, we should see fallers, riders being flung from their horses.

3. On a similar note, the impact with the Uruks is going to suck.

Anyway, the Uruk pikemen have their chance to shine here. They see the danger and get in position quickly. Pikes down, ready for the charge. Just what they should be doing. Right now, the cavalry is heading for disaster.

But Gandalf has the sun on his side! The light comes over the crest and the Uruks raise their pikes.

Unbelievable. No discipline this lot, no training. A bit of light and the battle turns.

But the Uruks, packed tight and heavily armoured, are still there. The charge, meeting the Uruk line, should still be a meat grinder. The horses are still so close, that the slightest slowing of momentum in the charge (and the meeting with the Uruks should be a big one) will ripple down the line. Horse swill smash into each other, fall, crash, burn.

But no. Like a knife through butter, the cavalry not only break the initial line but start slicing through the rest of them with ease. No more problems for the defenders. The Uruks are apparently lost. They shouldn’t be. Plenty of troops left. The Keep still in their hands. A counter attack can be organised here. It’s a bloody mess in the valley. The cavalry momentum has to stop sometime, and then it’s a numbers game again. The Uruk casualties will be great, too great for anything other pyrrhic success, but they can still win.

But after another break to other plots, we’re back at Helm’s Deep and the Uruks, drastically reduced in number, have broken. I have no idea how Rohan inflicted so many casualties without a ton of their own, but they did it, somehow. They must have retaken the Keep too. The Uruks run, panicked, into a forest of recently arrived Huorns and that’s the end of them. 10,000 Uruk casualties. Quite a turnaround.

Before we go into the final analysis, one last point: a lot of dead, Uruk, Elf, Human, to look after. Over 10,000 bodies in that valley. Some of them in the fortresses water supply. Expect disease to be a problem quite soon, but we get no word on that.

So why?

A lot to cover here. Firstly, from an entertainment standpoint, the audience wants to see a bloody assault, lots of hand-to-hand, explosions, and heroics from the good guys. They want to see battering rams and cavalry charges. Rather, they want to see what they think a cavalry charge looks like.

You don’t want to see a siege. That’s boring and involves a lot of waiting. You don’t want to see a measured assault on the wall with select troops while the rest wait it out. The director, trying to pace the fight, won’t have the Uruks use their explosive trump card at the start.

Secondly, the wall. Probably for pacing and time reasons, we never find out why it’s valuable and I think we’re never supposed to consider it. The projection is that since they are defending it and the other ones are attacking it, it must be important. But it’s not.

Thirdly, on the Rohan defenders. I guess they were deliberately shown up as muppets, but to a degree that was insane. The main problem with their portrayal are that they have no common sense. No archers on the attackers? No staying on the battlements? Rout?

Fourth, we are trying to portray the Uruks as a bloodthirsty, reckless army, with no concept of their own survival. Even in taking the Keep, the unnecessary casualties are astounding. We might think this army can take the fortress, but they won’t take Middle-Earth.

Fifth, on the leaders. They are bad. Théoden is arrogant and impotent in the face of disaster. Now, I actually quite liked how both the book and the movie portray him. As an old man, obsessed with his own legacy. He doesn’t want to be the man who lost Rohan. The problem is that he isn’t the man to save it. He’s a bad commander. Perhaps he’s better suited to the field, but as a defender, he can’t cut it.

And Aragorn is worse. Terrible, terrible, terrible. Awful tactical decisions, misuses his troops at every turn and must take responsibility for most of their deaths. He’s just not officer material, let alone command material. To be honest though, who else was there? Gamling? Seemed quiet and subservient to Théoden. Ditto Haldir for Aragorn. Legolas? Hardly. Gimli? Just as bad as Aragorn.

I guess Aragorn was the best of a bad lot. But that’s not saying much.

Sixth, the cavalry. This battle really hammers home the point that cavalry is king. We see the charge, in all its inaccuracy, and we instantly know that the game is up for the Uruks. But it shouldn’t be.

This battle is about spectacle, about epic heroism, about the darkest hour before the dawn of the day. But we see a nonsensical defence, we see a fortress that has never before fallen to an enemy be captured in a matter of hours, we see our supposed heroes cause the deaths of hundreds of defenders in pointless attack’s.

Helm’s Deep. It’s impressive looking, but it isn’t war.

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3 Responses to It Is Not War #4: Helm’s Deep, Part Two

  1. nathan says:

    the deeping wall was important for the water, most of the Rohirrim on the wall were farmers, they could not hold the wall for long, the 2nd gate for the inner wall was a key defends spot but the gate was gone so no good, and the defends was probably from 8pm to 6am thats a long time, and the kings charge was for death and glory no matter what argorn says. and gandalfs charge worked not because of some light but because of the sun, uruks were up all night they werent used to the light plus there 3 weeks old they dont know what the sun is they dont know what a horse is
    P.S. the giant crossbow didnt just shoot that guy, you can hear a blade cuting the rope and it just hit the dude and the hooks were 4 or 5 feet long so most guys couldnt hit the rope

  2. Pingback: The Lord Of The Rings, Chapter By Chapter: Helm’s Deep | Never Felt Better

  3. Daniel B says:

    “Secondly, that was the greatest shot I’ve ever seen. Kudos. The way the wildly inaccurate siege crossbow was able to hit that one defender dead square in the chest. It’s for sieging, not anti-personnel work.”

    I mean, it’s not like they were deliberately aiming for that specific guy.

    “We see the charge, in all its inaccuracy, and we instantly know that the game is up for the Uruks. But it shouldn’t be.”

    Having a force panic in the face of a cavalry charge such that their sides loses despite having sufficient forces to win is realistic, even if almost every element of *how* it happens is Hollywood exaggeration at best.

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