What epic fantasy fan doesn’t look forward to the big confrontational moments? I know, right? But one of the biggest mistakes I used to make as an aspiring author was getting confused about what it is that I was really enjoying in a fight or battle scene. In this blog, I’m going to use the fight between Hector and Achilles in the 2004 movie Troy to illustrate what it is that makes a story-fight work so well for the audience.
Firstly, here’s the actual scene for those that haven’t memorised it:
Well acted. Well choreographed. Lots of spears and shields and swords and panting. But those aren’t the major reasons that this fight scene works so well.
Here’s my take.
1) Before we ever get to this point in the movie, the abilities of both warriors have been fully established. We’ve seen Achilles take out Boagrius in the opening scene, throw an impossible spear throw and cut through cannon fodder. We’ve seen Hector take out cannon-fodder, but we’ve also seen him defeat Ajax, the second hardest guy in the Greek army. They are both established as the prime warriors on each side.
Ok that’s not in the fight scene but that’s really important ^_^
2) The stakes are set high from the beginning not just on a plot level, but a personal level.
While Hector and Achilles fight is part of the larger Trojan war narrative, in this sequence, it’s personal. Achilles has come for blood to avenge Patroclus. There is nothing more boring in fight scenes than lack of personal stakes, and the stakes here are massive on an intimate level. This gives the audience their investment.
3) Removal of helmets
Whilst it may also be a plot to ensure that you can see the actor’s faces, it’s also perfectly structured. Firstly, Achilles shows his disdain by removing his second most important piece of protective gear (shield comes first, of course) but it’s also displaying his arrogance and belief in his own supremacy. Hector’s removal of his own equalises this: it shows his intention to fight Achilles as an equal. He will not be cowed, or bow down before him, even though he knows he won’t win (“I’ve seen this moment in my dreams”).
4) Despite doing some awesome stuff, Hector is clearly on the back foot from the beginning. His actions are more frantic, more energetic, more powerful. Achilles is controlled, calm, seething with aggression but there is no doubt at all that he has the upper hand, even when Hector pulls out something cool like breaking Achilles’ spear with his knee. By comparison, Hector’s spear is broken because he makes an error, not because Achilles did something awesome. EVERYTHING is harder for Hector.
5) Hector’s downfall becomes foreshadowed through minor victories on Achilles’ part. An elbow to the face: the trademark downward blow to the shield which, even though it’s his protection, staggers Hector backwards (I mean, if there was really that much force, it would just break Achilles’ sword but who cares it’s awesome).
6) Around 2:50 into the video, Hector manages to slice against Achilles’ breastplate. It does not damage – but it’s the first time Achilles has even appeared to be touchable. The audience are given the very smallest hope that Hector might pull through.
7) The minor victory lulls Hector into a desperate attack that nearly causes him to lose. When placed at Achilles’ mercy, the pain of the fight is intensified because Achilles hasn’t broken a sweat and tells him to get up.
8) Finally, Hector’s exhaustion kicks in and despite his final desperate onslaught – still highly skilled – he just can’t last. He’s proved he’s the greatest warrior that the Trojans have to offer. And he still couldn’t make the cut against invincible Achilles.
All of this is important to creating a compelling combat narrative. A fight has to go beyond the simple hack and slash. Is it visually appealing? Entirely. But the storytelling runs heavy through the scene and makes this one of the best fight scenes in cinema.
Fight scenes are not something that ever sits apart from the story that you are telling. They are essential, bloody parts of some narratives, but as always it comes down to characters, stakes, plot development and keying in to those little bits that have been foreshadowed before.