American football was once described as a cross between chess and medieval warfare. Given that we can now easily acquaint ourselves with the sport of football if, by some quirk, we don’t grow up knowing what it is, we might instead wonder what medieval warfare was like. The answer is now simple: it was like the battle for Winterfell in Game of Thrones Season Six, Episode Nine, which was presented last Sunday. (The episode’s title, “Battle of the Bastards,” I’ll avoid using so as not to have to explain it.)
To be sure, battles have been photographically depicted countless times, as has their aftermath. Photography was still young when Mathew Brady and his assistants captured almost every aspect of the American Civil War except the battles themselves, including many images of the dead. Motion pictures were still new when Georges Méliès included a lunar battle scene in A Trip to the Moon. It’s worth noting that photographers and filmmakers explored almost immediately the twin poles of their media, pursuing the urge to record on the one hand and the urge to invent on the other; documents such as Brady’s were soon countered by fairy pictures, just as the Lumière Brothers’ filmed record of workers leaving their factory soon met its reply in the fabrications of Méliès. All that has changed is the level of sophistication, but that’s a great deal.
On the continuum between the real and the imagined, the battle for Winterfell leans heavily toward the real in many ways. Elements of it were modeled on more than one historical battle: the initial plan for the forces of House Stark parallels that of the English in the Battle of Agincourt, the piling up of bodies to the point where they become an obstacle is drawn from some battles in the American Civil War, and the encirclement of one group by another goes all the way back to the Battle of Cannae. If warfare was ever simple, that time has been left behind. This clash employs many different combatants: men on foot equipped mainly with swords, cavalry riders likewise armed with swords, spearmen outfitted with tall, seemingly impenetrable shields, and archers, who are, it seems, privileged to stand back and rain down arrows from a distance. (As I discussed previously, archers are part of the neglected history of standoff warfare.) It’s visceral—you see, hear, feel the thud of blows being landed, the pounding of horses’ hooves, the crush of men in the melee. It’s brutal, dirty, unpredictable from the very outset, and protracted. It’s both immense and intimate.
But in some respects it’s not real at all. Although a few punches accidentally hit their target in a fistfight (reported here and here), one assumes that neither the men nor the horses suffered any genuine damage, though it looks as if they must have. Some of the people we see weren’t there; the 500 extras used in the sequence were supplemented by CGI warriors, and, needless to say, the giant didn’t exist. These things are worth mentioning for the sake of a related point. If we ask what medieval warfare was like, the question arises whether we mean what it was like to participate in a battle or what it was like to witness one. We get a little of each here. The battle suggests much about the experience of Jon Snow, the leader of one side, and of other figures as well; we grasp, for instance, the perplexity followed by terror of a young man sent running across the battlefield early on, and we grasp the reckless but irresistible impulse to save him that sends Jon toward him. Whether this is enough to let us say we know how it would feel to be there depends, I suppose, on whether you’re interested in similarities or differences. It’s true to a warrior’s encounter with war in some ways; in others, not. In any case, we get more than vivid impressions of personal experience. We also get, despite momentary confusions, a remarkably clear sense, from long shots, high-angle shots, and overhead shots, of how everything unfolds, which no participant and few if any observers could have had in an actual battle of this kind. But that’s not all. While it tells us something about medieval warfare, the battle of Winterfell in fact gives us something we couldn’t otherwise have, because it doesn’t otherwise exist, which is one crucial and highly dramatic part of a grand story. Is it the best battle sequence yet filmed? I see no way of judging the question and no point in trying. It’s certainly a great one.