Top 'Last Stand' War Movies

One of the all time great stories of war is that of soldiers facing a foe many times their size in fighting strength. One of the first appearances in human history of such a lopsided battle is the Battle of Thermopylae where 7,000 Greeks faced off against what is now estimated by historians to have been 100,000 to 150,000 Persians. This is such a prevalent type of war film, that I listed it as one of the central war film archetypes. In this week's article, I take a look at soldiers that fought to the end, against overwhelming odds, examining the odds of survival in each battle, and whether or not they survived (they live a surprising percentage of the time!)

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13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

A small contingent of ex-Special Forces security personnel and a couple of dozen American workers at a CIA connex in Benghazi, Libya find themselves the only ones able to respond when a CIA compound is overrun by up to 150 hostile forces that have seized the American ambassador.  With help not able to arrive until the following morning, this handful of Americans finds themselves surrounded by a huge much larger enemy force that they have to hold of until dawn.

Film Grade: C

The Odds:  15 to 1 (More or less)

Did they Survive?  Most of them, but four Americans, including the American ambassador, died and 17 other Americans were injured.

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300 (2006)

In this cartoon-like digital re-creation of the famous Greek battle of Thermopylae, the Greek Spartans engage in Matrix-like kung-fu fighting against the Persians, as they battle to protect a small mountain pass from an overwhelming invading military force. 

In 300, the number of Greek soldiers is reduced to - as the title suggests - 300 and the Persian army is inflated to 300,000. This makes continued fighting logistically difficult, as you might imagine, simply because of the number of dead Persian soldiers lying about. In the film, one of the more visually amusing set pieces is that the dead bodies start piling up so fast, that they serve as sort of a natural barrier or defensive wall for the Greek Spartans. Why build defensive fortifications when you can just kill several thousand of the enemy and use their dead bodies to build a wall? 

If 1,000 to 1 odds isn't fighting to the last man, I don't know what is!

Film Grade: D

The Odds: 1,000 to 1

Did They Survive? No. When you face off against 1,000 men, you do not survive. Even when your facing off against 1,000 men in what is essentially a cartoon.

(Read about the top Medieval war movies here.)

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Fury (2014)


Fury ends with the five-man crew of a Sherman tank trapped deep in Germany behind enemy lines. An entire 300 man battalion of SS soldiers is marching towards their position, equipped with mortars, machine guns, and an older WWII version of the RPG. The tank is busted up, it's tracks have come off, which means it's grounded. They can all run to the hillside and hide in the trees...or...they can hold their ground. It wouldn't be a movie if they decided to run and hide (though running and hiding is what I would do.) The ending is a violent cataclysm of blood and that's greatly fulfilling as a filmgoer.

Film Grade: B+

The Odds: It's a tank and five guys against a battalion, which is roughly 300 soldiers. In other words, it's 60 to 1.

Did They Survive?: Out of the five, just one survives.

(Read about War Movies From The Enemy Perspective here.)

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Blackhawk Down (2001)

Blackhawk Down.

Blackhawk Down, the Ridley Scott film re-creates the real life story of Army Rangers in the Battle of Mogadishu, in Somalia.  Originally tasked with kidnapping a militia commander, the mission goes horribly wrong when two different Blackhawk helicopters are shot down with RPG rockets.  This forces the Army Rangers to retreat to the crash sites in an attempt to rescue the pilots.  What they don't anticipate though is that the entire city of Mogadishu is going to converge on their location to fight them.  Trapped in a city out to kill them, the Rangers face overwhelming odds as they struggle to survive until morning, when a rescue mission can be attempted.  One of the all time last stand movies, and best of all, it's a true story!

Film Grade:  B+

The Odds:  There were about 160 Rangers and Delta Force operators and estimates of the size of the enemy force vary wildly, but many put it at about 4,000 to 6,000 (we'll split the difference and go with 5,000).  So 31.25 to 1.

Did They Survive?  Yes, for the most part.  On the U.S. side, 18 Army Rangers were killed and 73 were wounded, but U.S. estimates also put anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 Somalis killed.  That's impressive work, Rangers!

(Read about Ridley Scott's war filmography here.)

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Gallipoli (1981)


In Gallipoli, Mel Gibson is an Australian infantryman sent to Turkey in the first World War, unprepared for the brutal trench warfare that awaits him.  As I asked in this article on ethics in war, how many of us would follow orders and race over the side of a trench, knowing it would mean certain doom?  I'd like to think that I wouldn't, but given that most did, I presume I probably would have as well.  And that means, I'd be dead.  Just like the protagonists in Gallipoli.

Film Grade:  B

The Odds: 1 to 1.  The Australians initially outnumbered the Turks.  But the Allies strategy was poor and they were in a difficult position geographically, attempting to take a peninsula that was heavily fortified.  Bit by bit the Australians were worn down until they were outnumbered and then obliterated.

Did They Survive?  No.  The Australians suffered heavy casualties and were badly defeated.

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Lone Survivor (2013)


In Lone Survivorfour Navy SEALs are on a mission to assassinate a top Taliban target when they are discovered and the mountain they are on is swarmed by enemy fighters.

Film Grade:  A

The Odds:  The odds in this conflict vary.  Some reports say the SEALs just fought against fifteen Taliban fighters.  In the film, it's 200.  We'll go with the film version.  50 to 1.

Did They Survive?  No…well, yes.  Okay, one of them survived.  Marcus Luttrell, the guy who lived to write the book where he exaggerated the number of fighters that he faced (which is his right after enduring what he did).  However, unfortunately, his other three comrades died and Luttrell almost died on repeated occasions, only surviving by sheer will, some luck, and being one incredibly tough SEAL.

(Read about the Top Navy SEAL films here.)

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The Alamo (2004)


In this 2004 film, Billy Bob Thornton, Dennis Quaid, and Jason Patrick play three of the 100 defenders of the Texan fort, the Alamo. As in real life, the fort was sieged by 1,500 Mexican soldiers. And the result? Well, it's basic American history that Davy Crocket died at the Alamo.

Film Grade: C

The Odds: 1 to 15.

Did They Survive?  No. Not a single person survived the siege.

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Zulu (1964)


In 1879, the technologically superior British Empire faced off against the Zulu tribe in South Africa, a battle captured in Zulu, a 1964 British film about the battle starring Michael Caine.  The British were a relatively small contingent in an isolated part of the South African bush of just 100 men that were attacked by some 4,000 Zulu warriors.  The British reported that long before they could see the warriors, they could hear the stomp of their shields, which sounded like an approaching train.  They were besieged on all sides, and had no barricades, few weapons, and almost no defenses.

Film Grade:  B

The Odds:  40 to 1

Did They Survive?  Yes!  Most of them did…amazingly!

(Read about the Top African Conflict films here.)

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We Were Soldiers (2002)

We Were Soldiers.

Again, Mel Gibson faces overwhelming military odds, this time with the American Army in Vietnam.  We Were Soldiers tells the story of Lieutenant General Hal Moore and his calvary soldiers that were ordered to attack a Vietnamese outpost.  With 400 soldiers, General Moore swooped in out of the sky on helicopters.  What neither he, or the American military intelligence units knew, was that the position they were attacking was the base for an entire brigade of North Vietnamese soldiers, a unit 4,000 strong.  (These numbers seem to be different everywhere, even the article I link to lists different figures - the point, I suppose, is that they were vastly outnumbered.)  Unable to evacuate his soldiers due to the heavy enemy fighting, Hal Moore and his men were pinned down with nowhere to retreat to.

Film Grade:  C

The Odds:  10 to 1  (More or less)

Did They Survive?  Yes!  The Americans suffered approximately 250 casualties, but most of them (amazingly!) survived!

 (Read about the Best and Worst Vietnam films here.)