In honor of this week's release of Robin Hood, I'm finally getting to compile what I think may be the great unheralded cinematic trend of the last two decades: films in which soldiers or full armies fire waves of arrows at an opposing army or target. The truth is that even though older films may have created a scene or sequence like the ones in the movies below, there simply were not the resources be they technical or just budgetary to create an authentic – or maybe more accurate, authentically cinematic – portrait of this process. All of which is why the chosen films pretty much all come from the last two decades and feature these waves of arrows as defining moments either visually or narratively. (Of course, we welcome your suggestions as well, so let us know what your favorite "waves of arrows" scene is in the comments below!)
1. 300 (2006, dir. Zack Snyder) Of the many stunning moments in Zack Snyder's muscular, over-cranked adaptation of Frank Miller's muscular, over-cranked source material, there are none as classic or operatic than the film's finale. King Leonidas, increasingly decimated by Persian invaders, finally faces down an army that stretches from one end of the horizon to the other – many of whose soldiers, it turns out, are wielding bows and arrows. And though his eventual demise at the tip of several dozen arrows certainly serves as tragic punctuation to Leonidas otherwise indefatigable fortitude, it also serves as fuel for the surviving warriors who fight to honor his memory – if we're lucky, in a sequel.
2. Army of Darkness (1993, dir. Sam Raimi) Whether you think this film is a comedy, a horror film, a period epic or something else entirely, there is plenty of awesome and ridiculous action to behold in Sam Raimi's final chapter in his Evil Dead trilogy. But as Ash – himself awesome and ridiculous – empowers the beleaguered humans to fight back against the would-be oppression of the Deadites, he teaches them (courtesy a high school science book) how to make gunpowder which he subsequently affixes to the ends of archers' arrows. Waiting until it seems impossible for the arrows not to blow up in the archers' faces, he ushers them to fire, offering the first great act of retaliation in what becomes and epic battle for the fate of humanity.
3. Braveheart (1995, dir. Mel Gibson) Although David Lean certainly had chronicled cross-continental battles in epics like Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia, Mel Gibson was one of the first filmmakers of the modern era to combine Lean's epic sense of storytelling with a clearer and more methodical sense of protocol and battle strategy. In the Battle of Stirling, each side lines up to show their numbers and organize themselves according to their respective soldiers' skills – be they horseback riding, spear-wielding, or yes, archery. As a not-insignificant rejoinder to Wallace and his men's animalistic bellowing, which certainly must have been intimidating, the French instruct their men to draw back their bows and launch the first of several attacks from the sky, which, although fascinating, ultimately fail to make the same visual impact as some of the later entries, when the number of arrows could be augmented by CGI or other special effects.
4. Gladiator (2000, dir. Ridley Scott) To my memory, this was the first film in the modern era that really conceived of a scene like this: as Maximus' soldiers stand firm on the precipice of a battlefield, rows of archers prepare to launch their volleys into the advancing phalanx of opponents. Awesomely, they light their arrows in order, then hold until the moment is right before letting go of that bow; Ridley Scott uses a glorious pan as the waves of arrows soar into air and towards their designated targets, creating breathtaking expansiveness and inspiring all bow-and-arrow intensive films which follow.
5. Hero (2002, dir. Zhang Yimou) As a possible candidate for the best martial arts movie of all time – in my humble opinion – there are few movies in any genre that match the visual splendor, romantic melancholy, and overall dramatic weight of this film. But in one of its many, many showcase sequences, Jet Li and Maggie Cheung nobly venture outside to square off against a literal army of soldiers who are fortified hundreds of times over by bows, crossbows, and other weapons that shoot arrows whose names I don't know. This quite frankly is the best of all of the sequences listed here, because it provides the sense of physical reality that a wave of arrows would produce, along with a lyricism and a mesmerizing magic realism that is as poetic as it is thrilling.
6. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002, dir. Peter Jackson) Although with Legolas in so many scenes in all three films it's almost like the trilogy has its own one-man wave of arrows, there was in fact a specific scene in which an entire army of archers straps into their quivers and attempts to turn away thousands upon thousands of Orcs. Helm's Deep is on the of the great set pieces in any of the films, but it's in the shooting of this particular wave of arrows that spectacle and storytelling come together, as former rivals bond, a young warrior discovers his potential to become a leader of men, and a wizard helps save humankind from unspeakable evil.
7. Timeline (2003, dir. Richard Donner) An unlikely candidate, but a worthy one for sure: It's entirely possible that this article is the first time that anyone, including director Richard Donner, has mentioned or referenced this film since it was originally released. But despite its otherwise banal offerings to the annals of cinema, there's a terrific sequence in which the French battle at night against their British opponents using arrows that are on fire. The sneaky British rejoin their attack with "night arrows," the medieval translation of which is arrows that are not on fire, summarily wiping out a line of archers and sending the French scrambling for cover.