Daniel Day-Lewis narrowly escapes an ambush during the French and Indian War in 'The Last of the Mohicans.' Screen grab from 'The Last of the Mohicans.'
Few military tactics are as tried-and-true as the good old-fashioned ambush. Warriors have been using surprise attacks since before recorded history — even cavemen perfected the simple art of the ambush to take down large game such as woolly mammoths. To this day, the tactic, used to inflict heavy casualties by leveraging the element of surprise, remains one of the most devastating tools in a soldier’s toolbox. It also makes for great combat sequences in movies. Here are seven of the best ambushes to ever grace the big screen.
James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel about the French and Indian War has been adapted into at least 10 feature-length films and two television series. Michael Mann’s 1992 adaptation starring Daniel Day-Lewis stands high above the rest. Aside from great acting, it includes one of the best movie ambushes of all time — a column of British soldiers meandering through the Adirondack Mountains is suddenly enveloped by Huron warriors. Mann jumps between close-ups and beautiful wide-angle shots as the two sides clash with tomahawks and muskets. Mann, whose other directing credits include such action blockbusters as Heat, Collateral, and Public Enemies, is famous for using practical effects (rather than CGI) in combat sequences, and in that regard, at least, the ambush scene in The Last of the Mohicans is some of his finest work.
Like The Last of the Mohicans, the 2017 film Hostiles stars the actor Wes Studi and also features a memorable scene depicting Native American warriors ambushing a Western-trained army. Alongside Studi, the cast includes Christain Bale, Rosamund Pike, and Ben Foster. Bale plays a US Army cavalry officer tasked with escorting an aging Cheyenne chief (Studi) from the territory of New Mexico to Montana. Along the way, they are ambushed by a Comanche war party. The sheer abruptness of the attack lends a level of realism to the scene that is uncommon in Hollywood Westerns. Things go from calm and quiet to quick and violent in the blink of an eye. Just like in a real ambush.
Surprisingly, though it’s not technically a war movie, Forrest Gump features one of the best scenes on our list. It occurs soon after the film’s titular protagonist arrives as a brand new Army private in Vietnam. He has not seen any combat yet. Then, all of a sudden, he’s neck-deep in the shit. Standing confounded as bullets fly and grenades explode all around him, Gump remains frozen while the soldiers to his left and right are cut down by enemy fire. After a moment, he realizes what is happening and jumps into action. Between the tracers zipping across a rice paddy from unseen enemy positions, the soldiers blindly firing as quickly as they can, and the sudden piling of casualties, the scene deftly captures the nightmarish experience of being in the killzone of an ambush. Eventually, however, the scene’s realism gives way to Hollywood fantasticism when Gump proceeds to single-handedly save nearly everyone in his platoon, for which he receives the Medal of Honor.
The sequel to Sicario leaves a lot to be desired. The deadly cat-and-mouse game that made Sicario a blockbuster hit was abandoned for unabashed action in Day of the Soldado. But the sequel does include a few redeeming moments, including a refreshing take on the movie ambush. It begins with a convoy of HMMWVs and SUVs creeping through the desert and culminates in a close-quarters gunfight that largely takes place within the cramped confines of stationary vehicles. It’s not as good as the highway shootout in the first movie, but it’s certainly worth watching if you need a good ambush fix.
Movie fans who appreciate historically accurate ambushes (yes, plenty of us exist) need look no further than Ken Loach’s 2006 drama about the Irish Civil War. The film stars Cillian Murphy as an IRA paramilitary — a role he played long before he ascended to superstardom with his appearances in Peaky Blinders and Oppenheimer. At one point in the film, Murphy leads an ambush against a group of Auxiliary soldiers in Cork, Ireland. The scene offers a great depiction of how real-life guerrillas tend to use familiar terrain to their tactical advantage. The rebels hide in the swaying tall grass (i.e. the wind-shaken barley) of the Irish countryside to mask their movements before they pounce on — and ultimately defeat — a group of better-armed and better-trained soldiers.
Nearly every Vietnam War movie includes at least one ambush scene, but in terms of pucker factor, none hold a candle to the one in Oliver Stone’s semi-autobiographical 1986 film Platoon. The scene feels so real in part because Stone himself served in Vietnam with a Long Range Reconnaissance Platoon. And like the characters in his film, he was in the shit. In fact, he received two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star with Valor for his actions. That real-life experience really shines through in the ambush scene, which depicts a platoon of American GIs getting demolished while patrolling through the jungle. Two of the soldiers are wounded in the opening seconds and a third sets off a booby trap while running to help. To make things worse, an inept lieutenant calls mortars onto their own position, killing even more members of the platoon. It’s a certified shit show.
When HBO’s World War II miniseries Band of Brothers premiered in the fall of 2001, it forever raised the bar for on-screen depictions of combat. The series follows the 101st Airborne from their initial jump into Normandy on D-Day to the liberation of the Landsberg concentration camp. Tucked into the second episode is a top-notch hasty ambush. Unlike the rest of the scenes on this list, the ambush in Band of Brothers is not well-planned, and that is part of what makes the scene so compelling. The paratroopers find themselves in the path of some unsuspecting German soldiers. With little time to plan, one trigger-happy soldier prematurely initiates the ambush. Lucky for him, the rest of the paratroopers open fire, and a few well-placed hand grenades kill the Germans before any American blood is spilled.
Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.
BRCC and Bad Moon Print Press team up for an exclusive, limited-edition T-shirt design!
BRCC partners with Team Room Design for an exclusive T-shirt release!
Thirty Seconds Out has partnered with BRCC for an exclusive shirt design invoking the God of Winter.
Lucas O'Hara of Grizzly Forge has teamed up with BRCC for a badass, exclusive Shirt Club T-shirt design featuring his most popular knife and tiomahawk.
Coffee or Die sits down with one of the graphic designers behind Black Rifle Coffee's signature look and vibe.
Biden will award the Medal of Honor to a Vietnam War Army helicopter pilot who risked his life to save a reconnaissance team from almost certain death.
Ever wonder how much Jack Mandaville would f*ck sh*t up if he went back in time? The American Revolution didn't even see him coming.
A nearly 200-year-old West Point time capsule that at first appeared to yield little more than dust contains hidden treasure, the US Military Academy said.