This post will cover mistakes in the Lord of the Rings movies, as they pertain to the military tactics and technology. The greater mythological / worldbuilding mistakes (of which there are many) will not be covered.
Nobody in Lord of the Rings books used plate armor – not even the dwarves. n the movie, King Theoden, Gondorians and Uruk Hai are all shown to use it.
Arrows could only penetrate plate armor if plate was not of high quality (a frequent occurence) and arrow was fired directly at the plate. Indirect fire could still cause casualties through lucky hits, but main effect of longbows at the battle of Agincourt was that French men-at-arms and knights were dead tired (pun intended) once they reached English lines; even so, English men-at-arms in the centre were hard pressed until longbowmen took out maces and joined the close-quarters head-bashing party. This move was quite effective as they were lightly armored, so mud did not have much effect on them, and were not tired (unlike deciptions in some media, and statements such as knight needing crane to get him on the horse, people in full plate armor were quite mobile; plate armor weighted about as much as equipment of a modern soldier, but weight was far better distributed).
The Fellowship of the Ring
In the first scene, a battle is shown between Numenoran/Elven Alliance and forces of Sauron. This is also where first mistake happens, though Jackson can be excused, for noticing it one must have read The Unfinished Tales. Namely, Numenoreans are shown using plate armor. While it is clearly shown in the Lord of the Rings that Gondorians and Rohirrim use chain armor (maille), only in the Unifinished Tales is it shown true for Numenoreans – Isildur takes off his maille in one scene, and no plate armor is mentioned. Elves likewise never used the plate armour.
Elves use some weird curved swords, when – being Noldor – they ought to use straight swords of the same type the Men of the West use (in fact, longswords are a Noldorin design to begin with). Bows that Numenoreans use also seem to be wooden, though it is hard to tell due to the lighting (they used steel bows in the books).
Elendil’s death and Sauron’s defeat also shown wrongly. Sauron did not, in fact, collapse when One Ring was cut off his hand. Nor did Elendil just die in one stroke. It were really Elendil and Gil-Galad who defeated Sauron, though they died in the process. Isildur’s contribution consisted of cutting off the Ring from defeated Sauron’s hand and then refusing to destroy it.
Likewise, the Numenorean (Arnorian) unit that got ambushed at Gladden fields was not cavalry, but infantry. Numenoreans at that time had no cavalry of their own – their entire military was infantry, with cavalry provided by the local auxilliaries. Nor did the ambush happen in a forrest. It happened just outside it, and the Numenoreans had enough warning to form a proper shield wall. As a result, they inflicted massive casualties on the orcs, despite being outnumbered maybe 10 to 1.
Isildur’s death is shown incorrectly as well. In the movie, Orc arrows penetrate Isildur’s back plate as he swims. But this is impossible. Firstly, short bow (and even a longbow) simply cannot penetrate armoured plate. Secondly, Isildur was not shot in the river. He had shed his (mail) armour, swam across the river, and was – unarmoured – killed by the orc guards on the far shore.
When Gandalf is shown imprisoned in Isengard, the sequence also shows orcs creating weapons. But there are mistakes there – most obvious of which is the fact that the swords are cast into open-top molds. But the open-top molds were never used – what looks like an open-top mould is merely one half of a whole. Two such halves were placed opposite one another and connected, so that the sword – usually bronze swords were cast – had the same shape on both sides. Second, the iron or steel swords were never cast, because it requires too high temperature and the cast iron is very brittle. Casting process cannot achieve the cleanness or the equal distribution of impurities that steel for weapons and armour requires. It also has too high carbon content (3 – 5% – so-called “pig iron”), which has to be reduced through forging in order to make usable steel. Forging further strenghtens the steel as impacts not only distribute the impurities, but also deforms and cycles the internal grain structure of steel. Such heterogenous structure is much stronger, as there are no obvious fault lines. Forging also removes the small voids which cast iron has, and which further weaken the structure. Because of these factors, casting a blade in its shape and then forging it to strenghten it does not really work. It is far better to start forging from a mishapen lump of metal than to start with a cast iron blade. A cast iron blade, even if forged after the fact (as done in this particular scene), would snap in the half or even shatter at first use. Lastly, stuff being poured here is not even iron. It is aluminum – which is orange when molten (660 °C), while molten iron (1500 °C) is bright white (blinding white, really). Watch Lindybeige complain about it.
Next scene, next mistake. Saruman’s orcs apparently spawn from muddy pits. But Tolkien was very clear that orcs, in fact, breed in the manner of the children of Illuvatar – that is, there are orc wives and children. And since they are a race, not a species, they can also crossbreed with humans and elves (much like different human races can crossbreed with each other).
When the Fellowship is attacked at Balin’s tomb, the orcs are led by a troll. This is not a mistake merely from the perspective of the story. Frodo is stabbed by the orc leader in the fight, and the mithrill mail shirt saves his life. Mail shirt which he is wearing without any sort of padding. Even against an orc or a human, spear stab might result in broken ribs, if strong enough. A cave troll should have killed him then and there by crushing his rib cage with his spear.
The Two Towers
Easterlings use what looks like scale armour, but is in fact some sort of spikey lamellar. And the armour is not very well designed. Spikes point upwards and overlap with bottom scale on top. This is a setup which cavalry soldiers would use, as they would expect attacks from below – but these soldiers are infantry. Easterling soldiers also use bardiches (a type of polearm) along with shields. In reality, it would be one or the other – the polearm or the shield, as using a shield typically requires a one-handed weapon.
Edoras is mostly fine, as far as the architecture goes. Yet there is one curious inconsistency. The entrance to the city appears to be of the Murus Gallicus type, a stone wall crowned with a wooden pallisade. Yet only the entrance is fortified in such a way. The rest of the settlement is surrounded with a simple pallisade – no stone base, no pressed earth as either base or the backing, no guard towers. This type of fortification is much less advanced and much weaker than the Viking ring fortress (cca. 1000 AD) or Anglo-Saxon burh, both of which would fit the Rohirrim society as depicted. It makes no sense for entrance to use this more powerful style of a wall, yet the entirety of the rest of the town to be relatively weakly fortified.
Saruman’s army marches in neat pike blocks. While this would be a logical choice if they were expecting a field battle, they are actually marching to a siege. And an army on the march usually forms into a column in order to negotiate the terrain better. Neither do we see any baggage train, which would surely have been present – supplies, siege weapons and the like.
Next we see Aragorn telling Haleth that “this is a good sword”. Now, the sword as designed may be good: Aragorn did swing it around, so his comment appears to be related to sword’s balance. But the blade itself is heavily notched, which would imply that it is, in fact, blunt. And no matter how well-balanced, blunt sword is not good – and we do not see it being sharpened before the battle.
In Battle for Helm’s Deep, few Elves and men are using incorrect draw. Before fighing starts, one seems to be holding the string with just his index finger. Historically, there were two primary draws used in Europe: Mediterranean draw, which used three fingers (index, middle and ring finger), with arrow being between index and middle finger; and Arab draw, which used thumb, with arrow being on the thumb. Mediterranean draw, which in context of the books should have been used by humans (humans in the movie do seem to use it) and Elves; with Arab draw being used by the Orcs, who used weaker bows. Several Elves seem to hold not the string, but arrow’s aft end. While it would allow (theoretically) for easier release, one can imagine that it would be rather tiresome. Legolas (Orlando Bloom) does use correct draw, and most Elvish troops seem to use the same draw.
After the Helm’s Keep is breached, we see a major mistake in castle design – albeit likely one placed there intentionally in order to shorten the movie. The Keep has two walls: lower outer wall, to which the Deeping Wall is connected, and the higher inner wall. In a proper fort, inner wall would provide missile support to the outer wall, and also act as a fallback line of defense for when outer wall is lost. But the inner wall in the movie has an inexplicable, unbarred passageway at the eastward side, through which Uruks pour in once the outer wall and the gate had been breached.
The Return of the King
I’ll start with layout of the Minas Tirith. In the movie, outermost wall is white and very low. But in the book, outermost wall is very tall (tallest of all walls), dark and unbreakable; same as Orthanc. It is interesting that Orthanc itself was depicted accurately in this regard. City is also too vertical: it is, in fact, much taller than it is wide, and more space appears to be taken up by city defences than by the houses of the living.
Part of defences of Minas Tirith are trebuchets; easily recognized because of free-hanging counterweight and ropes used to hold stones. But in book, there are no trebuchets and catapults are used instead. Further, while one Mordor catapult (and presumably more) is destroyed by Gondorian trebuchet in the movie, in the book they were too far away for city’s catapults to hit them. Trebuchets are also positioned on towers. This exposes them far too much, and action of the trebuchet could, in fact, damage the (flimsily-constructed) tower.
When the orcs attack at Osgilliath, a Gondorian guard is killed by an arrow through the breastplate. This would have been impossible even with a longbow at such a distance, and especially so with the flimsy short bow used by the orcs. Battle itself feels less like a medieval battle and more of a reenactment of a World War II battle with medieval weapons. Orcs advance in uncovered boats which look like World War II Higgins boat. Gondorian heavy infantry could have easily cut down the orcs had they formed a shield wall, but they do not do so – instead, they hide behind the columns, waiting for the orcs to land – as if exposing themselves will have gotten them killed by the mass machine guns orcish army apparently fields. There is also no evidence of any attempt to fortify the coast in the months since the eastern part of the city had been lost. Instead, the defenders cower behind the columns and allow themselves to be surrounded before attacking. And since the fight quickly degenerates into one-on-one duels – something that no ancient or medieval army would have allowed – there is no chance to hold the orcs back. In fact, fighting in Osgilliath in general can only be described as “mayhem” or, more accurately, drunken mob fight – neither side uses formations or tactics, and the orcs are winning through the weight of numbers.
And since Peter Jackson was determined to turn everybody into an idiot for the sake of drama, Denethor orders Faramir to retake Osgilliath. What Faramir does is mount a cavalry charge against a fortified city. And seeing how orcs have archers, and the stone walls they are standing on are not exactly keen on running away, Faramir’s charge ends in a predictable disaster.
Siege itself is wrongly shown. No exterior defences of Minas Tirith save for Osgilliath and Cair Andros exist; in the books, there was also Rammas Echor, a long wall encompassing countryside around Minas Tirith. It does get paid lip service in Theoden’s speech before the charge. Nazgul also did not partake in the siege except for the Witch King. No lives were wasted in trying to break the gates with smallish trunk; Grond was brought in immediately. While there are other changes in how the siege was carried out – in book, no enemy except the Witch King passed the gates; in the movie, dozen Trolls and thousands of Orcs swarmed the first level of the city once the gates were breached – these are not mistakes but deliberate changes in the story.
What is very definitely a mistake (as well as a deliberate change) is the manner in which the siege is carried out. In the book, the Witch-King mounts nearly a textbook siege: he surrounds the city with field fortifications and places siege weapons behind said fortifications. Orcs are described busy as ants, and the field is strewn with tents. His only mistake – one taken straight from Kara Mustafa at the siege of Vienna in 1683. – was not building contravallation (defensive wall) along with circumvallation (siege wall), which allowed the Rohirrim to overrun his defences. But in the movie, there are not any works. Instead, the entire army is arrayed around the city – as if on a parade. In essence, the Mordor commander had sacrificed military efficiency for the psychological impact – except a properly carried out a siege ought to have far greater psychological impact than mere posturing.
When it comes to defences, soldiers are arrayed too tightly on the wall, which itself is too short. Trebuchets are shown throwing rubble, and a soldier even says “we need more rubble”. But an organized, professional military such as that of Gondor will have had stones pre-shaped and pre-arrayed; Romans even produced them in various calibres (stones were calibrated by weight – 1 lb, 2 lbs, etc.).
In a next display of dazzling incompetence, first attempt at breaching the gate by the army of Mordor is made by a hand-held ram, more suited to breaching house doors than the armoured city gate. And this in a well-designed kill zone flanked by the bastions with the express purpose of protecting the gate. Grond is brought out only after there is already a pile of the dead in front of the city gates, and it doesn’t score any points for intelligent design either. It is pulled by large buffalo-things, which would have to be unstrapped and moved away before pushing pushing the ram final few meters to the gate. And one of those being killed in the process could nicely block the ram from reaching the gate to begin with.
What follows can be excused however – trolls are large enough that they do not require a formation, while any formation faced with an angry troll is likely to be literally smashed apart. So the fact that Gondorian formations disintegrate at places may be excused. What cannot be excused is the fact that Gandalf orders evacuation of the women and children only after the gate had been breached (nor the later portrayal of his confrontation with the Witch King, though that one is outside the scope of this article).
Rohirrim charge starts out impressive but quickly degenerates into an armed, mounted mob – but at least they are all still charging into the same direction.
While the next change is also deliberate (as are, probably, most of others mentioned), it is not a story-related change necessitated by the change of format but is done purely so that movie looks more grand (in American view, larger is better). Namely, Mumakil. While they were clearly larger than the Mumakil in the books, there were nowhere as large as in the movie. And the psychological effect that elephant’s smell has on horses is entirely ignored. In the book, the Mumakil stop the Rohirrim charge because their smell scares the horses, but here the threat of the Mumakil is wholly physical.