I know you’ve all been waiting very patiently to hear my thoughts on this, what with Hu Jintao’s visit and the State of the Union and all that. …The cavalry charge at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields in Return of the King is freaking retarded.
I’ll be going with the movie version, not the book, because, well, the movie is more fun and more people are familiar with it. Besides, it’s a lot easier to just post a link to YouTube than find the text in the book. (Embedding is disabled, sorry.)
So, the entire strategy was some of you go down the left, some down the middle, and some down the right? What? Oh, man, that’s just a plan that can’t be beat! Now, you might be thinking that in a movie it’s pretty difficult to explain complex battle tactics, especially while keeping it entertaining. Maybe. But, The Last Samurai did it. Gladiator did it. Return of the Jedi did it. Hell, earlier in Return of the King you see that the strategy for defending Minis Tirith is to fall back and force the army of Mordor to conduct a siege at every level of the city. This strategy would make a lot of sense to people who saw in Two Towers Saruman’s army get wiped out by the 600 defenders of Helm’s Deep without a single Oruk reaching the top of the wall.
But, nope, just a simple left, right, middle plan is called for here apparently. And of course, when the actual charge happens, it’s basically just a big wall of cavalry moving straight ahead. A simple “everybody just go forward” would have worked.
Anyways, on to what really makes this retarded. At the start of the battle there are 200,000 orcs, against 10,000 Gondor defenders. Gondor looks way better defended than Helm’s Deep, so by the time Rohan arrives, I think we can estimate that Mordor’s army has been reduced by a good 50,000 or so. That still leaves 150,000 orcs, and that’s a big number to charge your 6,000+ cavalry into.
So, here’s how a cavalry charge works. Your guys get going really fast, on big heavy horses, with really long lances, and try to just plow into the enemy, trample all over them, and hopefully disorganize their ranks and send them into a quick retreat. But, as you engage the enemy, you get slowed down and lose that momentum. That means that whoever is behind you also has to slow down, and the guy behind him slows down and so on, and if you have a cavalry formation 20 ranks deep, about 75% of your guys will have come to a halt without even being able to see the enemy. They’ll just be staring at the back end of another horse.
That is, in a best case scenario. What’s more likely is that the guys in the middle and back will have too much speed and not enough room to stop, and will just end up trampling on your own guys. You’ve just charged the guys in the back of your army into the guys in the front. It can work when you’re trying to get that extra yard in football, but not really a good move in war.
In addition to running into the enemy instead of just running into your own dudes, choice of weapon is important in a cavalry charge. As the Rohan army is lined up, we see a lot of lances out in the front. That’s exactly what you want. Lances are really effect when charging, while swords and axes and stuff are better once you’ve slowed down and are fighting man-to-man. But, once the army gets on the move, those lances seem to be disappearing. And, by the time they actually crash into the orc army, there’s not a lance to be seen. The axe and sword dudes are in the front. I guess that means that when the guy behind you slams into you because he didn’t have room to slow down, he’s going to slam into with a big ass sticking-pole. Ouch.
Here’s what should have happened.
Rohan divides its army into 3 groups, each with a specific task, instead of 3 all doing the same thing. First group of 1,500 cavalry line up in 4 rows (instead of 20) of 375 men each (or, 374 men, 1 woman, and a hobbit). These are all your guys with lances. They charge and do exactly what you saw in the movie. Then after they have hit the orc line, they push as deep into the orcish army as they can. Why?
Because all the spears and things that are good at killing horsies are on the outside of the formation. The easy pickings, like archers and catapults will be in the middle. Now, to protect the orcses getting slaughtered by the horses, the spears on the outside will have to turn around and pursue the cavalry.
At this point, group two with 3,000 cavalry lines up in a formation 4 rows deep, 750 long, and they charge into the backs of all those spear orcs that just turned around. The spear orcs will either get slaughtered, or will have to break off attacking the first group, or, more likely, will end up some going one way, some going another, and just completely disorganized. But wait, there’s more.
When we get the nice overhead view of Rohan’s charge, it looks like there lines of about 300 troops long present a front the same length as the orc army. A line 750 troops long is going to be way bigger than that, so won’t a lot of the troops just end up running on empty field, going straight past the battle?
Yes. This is called flanking. They ride past the wall of orc spears, and then turn and charge. With far more orcs taking the full force of a cavalry charge, as opposed to fighting a traffic jam of horses, and the fight coming to them on two fronts, morale will be shot and there’s a good chance the orcish army will break ranks and flee.
But just in case they don’t, you still have group 3 in reserves. That group of 1,500 cavalry breaks into 15 subgroups of 100 each, form up in 4 lines of 25, and wait to reinforce parts of group 2 that need help.
Now, maybe not all of this will translate into film exactly, but it doesn’t need to. The audience might not follow the details of what’s going on in the battle, or why certain troops are doing different things, but you’ll at least be left with the understanding that there was an actual strategy, and not just a battle orchestrated by a 9 year old.