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Why The Battle of Winterfell was really The Lord of the Rings' Helm's Deep 2.0
If you’re a hardcore fan of The Lord of the Rings and J.R.R. Tolkien who has moved on to obsessing over Game of Thrones, it's pretty likely that the Battle of Winterfell gave you some serious déjà vu.
It was an epic battle, the longest in screen history, so there were only so many references from which Miguel Sapochnik, director of “The Long Night," had to draw on. Primary among them was The Battle of Helm’s Deep, featured in The Two Towers. There was no other cinematic battle he could rely on as the ultimate guide for pacing the final showdown between humans and a horde of undead creatures.
It should be noted that the orc invasion in Helm's Deep was half the length of "The Long Night," which goes to show just how insane an accomplishment The Battle of Winterfell really was. Still, even with the difference in run time, there were plenty of moments in Game of Thrones' fight in the north that mirrored Helm's Deep, and we've collected some of the most prominent for your nerd edification and/or education.
**Spoiler Warning: Obviously, there are spoilers for Game of Thrones below**
The warm up
Game of Thrones: On the eve of battle, you’ve got all the humans either nervously practicing swordplay or getting herded into the keep. Night falls. The human forces brace themselves for an assault from an enemy that is definitely not human. Sound familiar?
The Lord of the Rings: Right before they’re about to get wrecked by the genetically modified orcs otherwise known as Uruk-hai or ice zombies, a surprise unit joins forces with the army. Even with Elves or Dothraki on their side, they are still bracing themselves and sweating under their armor as something ominous closes in. Then the carnage begins. It’s inevitable that at least one semi-important character is going to die in the middle, before or after someone screams to open the gate (more on that later).
Let’s not forget that pivotal moment at dawn when something white either comes riding in or retreats and fades off this mortal coil. You have to admit that there was something about Melisandre’s death that was just as redeeming as Gandalf’s iconic entrance.
Maybe this is just how battles go in fantasy movies and TV shows.
Anyone over the age of ten heading to the front lines
Remember that kid at Helm’s Deep who was barely old enough to lift a sword, never mind even try growing a beard? The one Aragorn took aside and gave a real intense pep talk to before the big showdown? Yeah, that kid (his name was Haleth by the way).
Remind you of Lyanna Mormont? Or the fierce little girl (who I firmly believe had to be related to Lyanna Mormont in some way) who insisted on fighting while she was standing in line for dinner, until the really doubtful man handing her a bowl of something finally convinced her to guard the crypt? She must have been all of seven. Rohan didn’t have enough men, and neither did Westeros, which is why they had no problem with recruiting underage troops.
By the way, that girl guarded the crypt with all the ferocity of someone three times her age and at least twice her size. Makes you think.
When you want to face your enemy but can't
Tyrion can probably relate to Gimli on this one. There is a point before the assault of orcs or ice zombies, depending on what you’re watching, that they stand against those stone turrets in almost the exact same way, trying desperately to make themselves half an inch taller so they could at least catch a glimpse of the enemy before death arrived. The determination in both of them is palpable. At least Tyrion doesn’t get the insult of being offered a box. Speaking of the wall, let’s not forget how the orcs and the zombies have to claw their way up the fortress walls if they have any intention of winning.
This situation also pits a deceptively short but surprisingly tough character against legions of big brawny warriors. Granted Tyrion reluctantly has to join the women and Varys in the crypt and doesn't get to fight like Gimli does, but at least he’s wearing shiny custom armor.
Forgetting grudges when you're doomed
The Westerosi and Dothraki are like aliens to each other. I mean, the Dothraki don’t even believe an ocean exists. The Elves and Men in The Lord of the Rings have pretty much been giving each other the silent treatment since the Second Age. It could be that those pretty elves think mortal men are vastly inferior. Have you seen the looks on Haldir and Legolas’ faces when they first encounter humans (and that Dwarf)? Likewise, men think Elves are seriously stuck up.
There’s also the language barrier. At Helm’s Deep, Aragorn almost magically speaks Elvish to Haldir, the commander for that non-canonical army of elves in armor that looks like a wetsuit. In the North, Melisandre, however slimy she is, asks Jorah to say “lift up your swords” in Dorthraki so she can light them on fire.
Even if they would have otherwise turned their up noses at their ad-hoc allies in other times, no one from Middle-earth or the Seven Kingdoms objects to a few extra swords before Uruks burn the Earth or the Night King swallows everything in frozen doom.
The not-so-calm before the storm
You can almost feel the tension in armies of Westeros and Rohan pulsing through your own veins as they brace themselves for battle. In Winterfell, the armies are lined up on the snow, while they wait from behind the turrets at the Hornburg, but the visuals of dread and silence are remarkably similar. You may see entire lines of fighters steeling themselves or closeups of characters swallowing their dread as the wind mercilessly blows through their hair.
Maybe you could argue this is something that happens in every single battle in every single fantasy saga. Everything is on that much more of a dramatic scale when the fate of an entire realm rests on one decisive clash of swords. Coincidence? Who knows.
Open the gate!
I swear that when I first saw this scene, I had to do a double take because it was almost as if someone spliced in footage from Helm’s Deep. Someone hollers “Open the gate!” at a similar point in the battle before the Orcs come crashing in as warriors throw themselves at them. Same thing at Winterfell; just replace the orcs with ice zombies and really turn down the lighting. This “open the gate” moment comes at a point of desperation in the battle where people are getting knocked off left and right and there is no end in sight, only piles of corpses.
There is a resurgence of hope when enemy corpses begin to pile up again. Unfortunately, there are other corpses who you may or may not have been attached to when they were alive, which leads us to…
Somewhat important characters getting slaughtered
It happens before the “open the gates” scene in LOTR and after in GOT, but somebody’s got to die — as long as they're just below the upper echelon of characters. It can’t be anyone in serious throne contention. In LOTR, that’s just Aragorn, so just substitute any Fellowship members of at the Keep as being unbreakable. It’s still generally towards the middle of the battle when everything is such a blur that you almost can’t tell good guys from bad guys anymore.
The way the doomed characters crash into their ends are actually total opposites. Haldir didn't bother to look behind him and got cracked on the head by an Orc’s ax. On the other hand, Theon and Lyanna both charge to their more noble deaths in the Battle of Winterfell.
Salvation descending on the battlefield at dawn
When things are looking really bleak towards the end of the battle, with the dead outnumbering the living, they are rescued by a blaze of white light. The obvious one is Gandalf riding in at dawn. He brings with him Eomer and replenishment of forces that take down the last of the Uruks, and we can all breathe until The Return of the King.
The way Winterfell gets saved at dawn is more unexpected. You know how Melisandre tells a quietly raging Davos she’ll be dead by dawn? It’s not because she sees zombification in her future. She inspires Arya to take down the Night King, then takes off that creepy magic collar of hers and walks, hair streaming behind her and turning as white as Gandalf’s before she crumples into pristine snow.
Remember, this is the same remorseless fire witch who had no issues with human sacrifice and birthing demon babies a few seasons back.