Who doesn’t love a good siege story? They feature an overwhelming underdog (whether that’s a group of people or a single person) trying to survive against insurmountable odds. We can identify with this – we’ve all been the underdog at some point in our lives and perhaps that’s why so many of us find these stories so appealing.
Here are (in my opinion) five of the best siege movies ever made.
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Napoleon Wilson: Still have the gun?
Leigh: Two shots. Should I save them for the two of us?
Napoleon Wilson: Save ’em for the first two assholes who come through that vent.
This was John Carpenter’s first professional full length feature film (His first movie Dark Star was originally a short student film that was expanded to feature length). Assault on Precinct 13 also signalled the start of Carpenter’s golden period – a span of ten years when pretty much everything he touched was electric (including Halloween, The Thing, Escape From New York, and Big Trouble in Little China).
Assault on Precinct 13 is a gritty 1970s thriller about a soon-to-be defunct police precinct that comes under attack from a gang of vengeful street thugs. Defending the station are a handful of police officers, some staff, and a couple of prison inmates (including Napoleon ‘Got a smoke?’ Wilson and Duke from the Rocky movies).
The electronic score is one of Carpenter’s finest and most atmospheric. The dialogue is on point too. There’s so much to love about this film. With its merciless depiction of urban violence, Assault on Precinct 13 is a balls to the wall, fast-paced siege movie, and ninety minutes of non-stop thrills.
‘Haven’t you had enough? Both of you! My god, can’t you see it’s all over! Your bloody egos don’t matter anymore. We’re dead!’
From Richard Burton’s opening narration to the exhausting (and entirely fictional) final salute of ‘fellow braves’, Zulu is a tense, exciting and emotional ride of a movie. It’s based on the real-life Battle of Rorke’s Drift in 1879 where 150 British and colonial troops held off an attack on their garrison by approximately 4000 Zulus. This was a ten hour battle at the end of which, 15 soldiers lay dead, two more were mortally wounded, and 350 dead Zulus lay scattered around the garrison.
Zulu was Michael Caine’s first major film role. He plays against type here, cast as Bromhead, a blue-blooded army officer who along with Stanley Baker as Lieutenant John Chard, lead the British soldiers against the Zulu forces.
The film is wide open for interpretation about colonialism. In 1964, the British Empire was crumbling. At first the Brits refer to the Zulus as ‘fuzzies’ and even the Levies on their own side as ‘cowardly blacks’. By the end however, Chard is clearly ashamed at this ‘butcher’s yard’ that he himself has helped to create. Could this be a timely admittance of the horrors of Empire?
Colonial and racial interpretation aside, this is a fun movie. It’s so watchable that it’s a Bank Holiday staple on British television and even if I had other things to do I’d aways end up watching it. It’s also one of the greatest examples of the siege scenario – the underdog coming through against the odds. It’s that bit more poignant because several minor historical inaccuracies aside, it really happened.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
‘I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.’
Long quote I know, but well worth it!
There are many people who’ll tell you that The Two Towers was their favourite instalment of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Battle of Helm’s Deep, which takes place in the latter half of the film, is a big reason for this. It’s an outstanding visual spectacle that never tires with repeat viewings. Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, as well as 300 Helm’s Deep soldiers, 100 Rohan peasants, and about 500 Elves are defending the great stronghold of Rohan against the might of 10,000 Urak-hai.
It’s an epic siege and it blew me away when I first saw in on the big screen. And it’s no exaggeration to say that this is one of the greatest battles ever put on film, both in terms of visual spectacle and emotional engagement.
‘Look to my coming on first light on the fifth day. At dawn, look to the east.’
‘They mostly come out at night, mostly.’
Sigourney Weaver was born to play Ellen Ripley. In this second instalment of the Alien movies, the acid-blooded xenomorphs lay siege to Ripley and a squad of cocky Marines who have been sent to exomoon Lv-426 to supposedly wipe the creatures out.
There’s a great supporting cast with the likes of Bill Paxton, Michael Biehn, and a wonderful performance from Carrie Henn as Newt (Carrie’s a teacher in California now – probably the coolest teacher ever!) And who can forget Paul Reiser’s excellent performance as slimeball Carter Burke.
There are all sorts of potential allegorical interpretations in the movie. I like this kind of thing so indulge me for a paragraph. Imperialism – the jingoistic, hot-headed Marines have been sent by the big corporation to fight the alien race of another planet and to do so for questionable reasons. It’s been suggested that James Cameron used the Vietnam War for inspiration. The Marines are technologically superior – they have the superior firepower but the aliens have a better knowledge of their landscape and know how to use it – not unlike the United States and North Vietnam. It’s interesting, no?
Aliens was made before CGI became as big as it is today. Remember this was 1986. The film was made using rear projection, puppets and miniatures, along with in-camera effects and clever editing tricks. They did a pretty damn good job too. When I see CGI on the big screen today I usually think ‘there’s CGI’. In Alien, I don’t think about special effects. I’m too absorbed in the film.
Aliens also set the bar high when it came to sequels. Unfortunately the Alien franchise has dipped ever since (although I think the third movie is good!) but Cameron’s example of how to improve upon a great original is a timeless lesson for filmmakers.
Seven Samurai (1954)
‘This is the nature of war: By protecting others, you save yourselves. If you only think of yourself, you’ll only destroy yourself.’
‘Who’s your daddy?’ Seven Samurai that’s who. Every other action movie that followed owes this classic a debt of gratitude. It’s in my personal top five films (maybe top three) of all time. It’s that good.
The premise is fairly simple. With marauding bandits set to raid their village and steal their crop, a bunch of farmers hire a small band of samurai to protect them. Simple concept yes, but the best thing about Akira Kurosawa was how he could turn simple concepts into fully-formed, satisfying cinematic experiences. He could make a film come alive and touch you. Think about Ikiru. It’s such a basic idea – a dying man learns to live and yes that’s what the film is about and yet it’s about so much more.
Seven Samurai was remade several times, most notably by John Sturges as The Magnificent Seven in 1960. It’s hard to overstate its influence in terms of making use of action sequences and characterisation – each of the seven samurai have their own personality and skill-set. They’re clearly individuals. There’s also the key relationship between the samurai and the villagers, adding depth, that unique ingredient that elevates a decent action movie and turns it into something special.
And then there’s the rain in the final battle sequence. Has any other film made you touch your head to see if there’s a leak in the roof?
Seven Samurai is glorious. I understand that many people might balk at the idea of watching an old black and white Japanese film that comes in at a little over three hours. But if that’s you, seriously reconsider.
From Dusk till Dawn
Dawn of the Dead
Dog Day Afternoon
Kojiro vs. The Vampire People
Hope that post has got you in the mood! If you’re up for something different, Kojiro vs. The Vampire People is my ‘siege novella’ – as inspired by some of the films above. It’s a fast-paced dystopian/action-adventure/horror tale – a one man against the odds thrill ride set in an alternate London.
It can be read as a stand-alone story or as part of The Future of London series.