The Dying is in the Details: Hollywood Warfare, Part Two

So, I mentioned archery in the previous part of this article. Let’s talk about that a bit, shall we? About archery. About the cool guy’s way of staying really far away from the actual combat. That seems like a fun conversation, doesn’t it? DOESN’T IT?! Well, I think so.

Despite that opening, which you might be forgiven for thinking is hostile towards archers (the filthy cowards!), I do not actually dislike them. Except in an ironic sense, because that makes it okay. Right? That’s how literary irony works, I think. Or was that just literary bile in general? On which note, let’s start with how arrows work. They are not invariable one-hit kills, okay? I hate to tell you this, but they’re really not. They were, and still could be, exceptional psychological weapons, but they’re far from a guaranteed kill. And don’t say ‘headshots!’ Headshots are cheap. You can kill yourself by slipping and cracking the back of your skull on a curb. If that seems paranoid, welcome to my world. I wouldn’t be so caustic if I weren’t terrified of being a corpse! The point is this: arrows have an immense probability of not doing fatal damage. Unless they hit an artery (which applies to any little cut), or a major organ (see previous parenthesis), or you get hit by a bunch of them (which even applies to ants!) they’re just as deadly as Hollywood makes them look.


That small ant is a Driver ant. They are literally the stuff of nightmares and horror films. They make me glad I don’t live in Africa. Because they can’t swim. Wait- water kills Driver ants. There’s water all around me! OH GOD!

 

That’s not to say arrows weren’t effective. It’s the fear of injury and death that make armies flee, more even than the reality of them (which, by the way, a panicked rout often leads to). Even a man who knows, logically speaking, that his armor is strong enough to stop anything but a perfect hit from a longbow or crossbow is still going to be gulp a bit, hunker down lower beneath his shield and so on, when he sees a sky-darkening cloud of sharp shafts descending on him like the wrath of an angry minor deity (major deities prefer meteors, I believe, which is what trebuchets are for). Because there’s always a chance that one of those many, many shafts will hit at just the right angle to dig in, or it’ll slip through his visor, or gash his arm in a minor way that leads to a killing infection in a week’s time.

Now, consider the watershed battles of Crecy and Agincourt, where English longbowmen decimated French cavalry. At Crecy, a heavy rain began to fall as the French forces advanced, ruining the bowstrings of their Genoese mercenaries’ crossbows, which couldn’t be removed. The Enlish and Welsh longbowmen, however, were able to detach their strings and keep them under their clothing until the start of the volley exchange. The result was that the crossbows didn’t even reach the English line, whereas the longbows had no trouble hitting their targets. The Genoese were understandably averse to getting shot repeatedly with no chance to return fire, and tried to retreat. The French knights and men-at-arms, however, tried to charge directly through the Genoese, but horses are not tanks and so cannot instantly crush large numbers of human beings. This caused a horrible scrambling mess which the English were able to fire into with impunity, allowing them to win the battle with minimal casualties. At Agincourt, the French were funneled down a muddy slurry of a road between two lines of trees, again while their knighthood jockeyed with each other to show how ballsy they were. Again, the English won with a small fraction of the French’s casualties.

You see the issue here? These were two battles that favored absolutely every advantage of the English longbows. They’re not good examples to use as a general marker of the bow’s effectiveness as a weapon. That being said, before it seems like I’m too down on archers, consider this: bows are not weapons for lightly-built, lithe people. That’s a damn lie. When you’re talking about a medieval war bow in particular, without all those fancy-pants modern accouterments and adjustments, you’re looking at some serious upper body strength in order to use one. Most modern bows are in the 30-75 pound range (13.6-34 kilograms, for those of you not in Baldeagland). The lower limits for medieval longbows are more in the 100+ pound range. This is not a weapon for a lanky sissy. This a weapon for a man who, given an arming sword, could almost cut another man in half without too much effort (or closer to than many knights could, at any rate). I can’t even benchpress 100 pounds (that I know of; I actually haven’t tried!), but I’ve lifted enough weight to imagine that pulling back against that kind of force is utterly hellish.

Hollywood does not understand this concept. They’re very caught up in the knightly idea (because knights were known for their humility and open-mindedness, y’see) that only a little girly man uses a bow, because a real man kills other men face to face. While wearing seventy pounds of steel equivalent in toughness to his sword that totally hide his facial features. And wielding a sword that cost more than the lifetime income of most farmers of the time. And riding a horse that dwarfs most plough-horses, carrying a lance long enough (and maybe sturdy enough) to skewer ten men at once. But yeah! Totally manly and brave and so on. Damn bourgeoisie! Is the French revolution easier to understand now? Because I’m sure getting it more.

On a side note, this was not intended as a veiled attack against the French, who I think we all agree have had enough to deal with recently. I haven’t addressed that because I don’t think there’s anything new I can say. Well, maybe there’s something. Give me a little time. Anyway, my point is this: Hollywood is simultaneously making archers way overpowered, yet totally downplaying how badass they are. They should stop that. I mean, goddamn. Also, screw Elves. You don’t just mystically have a talent for archery, or if you do your whole otherworldly purity routine is horsepucky because you’re naturally good at murder. That’s the most Orcish thing I’ve ever heard! Also, regarding all this flawless immortal skin nonsense: bows are very bad for your silken fingers. Bows give you callouses. Callouses are not pretty. They’re tough, and that’s good because that’s what they’re for, but they’re also not pretty.

For the record? As a warrior, I’d put value on how pretty I’m not. Being all shiny doesn’t win wars. Just ask a longbowman. He’ll tell you how gunmakers put him out of a job. Which led to line infantry, who were all about being pretty. But then that led to artillery barrages and WWI, which was not pretty. War is bad!

Look, just accept that I’m right! And I’m right because I write, alright? Ha. Ha. Kill me.

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