The use of epic battle scenes in fantasy stories is as old as the genre itself, and as far back as Arthurian legend and Beowulf before it, forces of good and evil faced off in combat to decide the future of their realms.
Oftentimes these battles are inspired by historical conflicts, and when they’re filmed, they take their visual cues and derive emotional beats from our understanding of ‘war’ as a visual concept. This is especially pertinent to the last century when war was first caught on film and those of us who aren’t soldiers saw what it looked like to the passive eye. The problem this creates is hundreds of battle scenes in fantasy film and television that look like the opening of Saving Private Ryan.
It’s true that Steven Spielberg created what some see as a benchmark for battle scenes with his take on the invasion of Normandy, but ‘war is hell’ and the chaos of battle can only pull so much emotional resonance out of its subjects before the audience is numbed to the spectacle of the dead. This, above all else, is why ‘The Watchers On The Wall’, the Game Of Thrones season 4 episode that pits the Wildlings against The Night’s Watch for the fate of Castle Black, deserves to be held up in the pantheon of epic battles. It doesn’t just hammer us with bodies and blood, it gives us the answer to the question ‘why do we fight?’. The answer is a familiar one: we fight for love.
Many of Game Of Thrones‘ battle episodes buck the series’ convention of multiple locations for multiple narratives, and ‘The Watchers On The Wall’ stays true to this by centralizing all of its action at Castle Black, The Wall, and the surrounding terrain. Battles are only as effective as their prelude, and the prelude to the ‘Watchers’ battle is all shadows. Specifically, the looming shadow of lost love.
Samwell Tarley breathlessly begs for details about Jon Snow’s Wilding love, Ygritte, a task Jon finds himself falling short of. Ygritte denies her love of Jon Snow to her Wildling and Thenn companions. Maester Aemon speaks of a love long forgotten from his youth, and councils Sam not to deny his love for Gilly, the Wildling girl he saved from Craster’s Keep, who Sam fears is dead.
These conversations in the quiet, dark moments of the night, before the battle has broken, build tension, yes, but the tension is built on what the fighters stand to lose. Not only in the coming battle, but through the choices they’ve made and the vows they keep. Ygritte’s allegiance to Mance Rayder and the Free Folk mirrors Jon Snow’s vow to his brothers in the Night’s Watch, and as counterpoints to the coming battle, their need to protect their family supersedes their love for one another until almost the very end. Likewise, Sam’s love for Gilly overcomes his instincts for cowardice, the change in this none more evident than when Pyp refuses to let a returning Gilly into Castle Black, leading Sam to finally show some spine, hollering “Pyp, OPEN THE FUCKING GATE” in an uncharacteristic act of authority. And this all before the first arrow is fired.
When the swords are finally unsheathed, director Neil Marshall brings all the scope and grandeur of the best battle films, giving a visceral feeling to the size of the Wildling army, the height of the wall, and when close combat begins, the inescapable smallness of Castle Black and the yard. He’s rightly thought of as one of the best directors the series has, and his combination of grandiose CGI set-pieces and tightly shot swordplay makes his action scenes move with the pace of a great book that you can’t put down, much like the source material. It’s his moments of quiet, however, that mark his direction the most in the time between carnage. Lingering on a face, sitting with the fear in the character’s eyes, we feel the impossible task ahead of them, one that many won’t come out of alive.
In a battle with several character deaths, it’s difficult to decide which is the most moving, the most heartbreaking, the most dramatic. Shot through the heart with an arrow from young Olly while she hesitated with her own bow, Ygritte dies in Jon Snow’s arms telling him they never should have left the cave they first made love in. A brother saved by a brother, a love spared by a love. As one of the major characters lost in this episode, she’s probably most associated with the battle’s casualties. It’s Grenn, however, cut down in the tunnel during a heroic last stand with a giant, whose death echoes with the kind of operatic tragedy that the bards in his world would sing songs about. The few men he took with him, the giant barreling down the tunnel, Grenn telling one of the men to stop praying, as there were no gods down there, only them. And finally, Grenn rousing his brothers with the Night’s Watch oath, finding the strength in himself to face down certain death, shoulder to shoulder with his Night’s Watch family, fighting for the love he feels for Jon Snow and Westeros, his final promise to be the shield that guards the realms of men, from this day, until his last.
When we’ve got such a violent world of our own, it can feel somewhat tawdry to watch constantly violent depictions of war for entertainment. Oftentimes it can get tiresome or even depressing. When productions do it well, though, it can feel uplifting in a strange way. That one would lay down their life for another out of loyalty is one of the fundamental elements of fantasy literature, so when characters on screen live, breathe, and die fighting for that loyalty and love, it can be moving in a way that few other genres can be. Game Of Thrones knows that to be the sword in the darkness, to be the watchers on the wall, even to be the Free Folk fighting from beyond the Wall, these characters needed to be brothers and family first.