This is actually a neat kit review to pick up with after the last one, since this is essentially a more successful effort to construct a fantasy panoply for a plate-armored common infantryman. Today we’re looking at the Gondor Heavy Infantry from Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Return of the King. Compared to the Lannister armor from last time, Gondor’s kit actually borrows slightly less of its concept from historical exemplars, but makes up for it with a much more capable execution.
As a special bonus, because I love Tolkien, we’ll also briefly compare the armor of the film to what is described in the books at the end.
If this is your first kit review: how this works is that we’re first going to look at the possible historical models for the overall kit (the historical basis), which will give us some grounds for comparison. Then we’ll look at armor, weapons, and other equipment.
As with the Lannister infantry, the closest parallel to the general equipment of the Gondor heavy infantryman (distinct here from the lighter rangers, who we may discuss at another time) are late medieval or early modern infantrymen armored with the almain rivet (discussed in more detail here). We’ll talk about how well that style of armor is recreated in the films in a moment.
One area where the concept of the Infantryman of Gondor fairs much better is how this military system relates to the society that spawns it. One lesson I drill into my students when teaching military topics is relevant here: every army is a battlefield instantiation of the society that created it. Armies almost always deeply reflect the peacetime organization of their societies, replicating structures of power, class divisions, gender expectations, racial or citizenship categories, and so on. They cannot help but replicate these systems.
To return briefly to the last kit review, this was one of the failures of the Lannister army concept. While we were repeatedly told that structure of Westerlands society under the Lannisters was based in the considerable power of individual families (in a nested system of vassalage), these men were absent in the actual organization of the army, which instead favored disciplined masses of well-trained peasants (who were themselves completely left out of the structures of power in society). The army simply did not reflect the society which supposedly spawned it.
(Aside: Just so there is no confusion – there are actually a number of ways a society can be organized to get large numbers of commoners into the army as well-trained infantry, not all of which require giving those commoners a political voice, but all of which require integrating them into political structures (for instance, into administrative and tax structures). The issue with many fantasy worlds, (e.g. Westeros) is they do neither, instead constructing a political system where the commoners who evidently make up the most important part of the army have neither a political voice, political stake or meaningful integration into the structures of state power.)
The Lord of the Rings films provide only hints of the political structure of the Kingdom of Gondor, but what we see suggests a society far more likely to be able to put together this sort of army. The government seems to be strongly centralized under the stewards. In contrast to the society of Westeros, which holds the smallfolk (who make up their infantry) in unveiled contempt, Gandalf’s declaration to the gate guard that they remember they are “Soldiers of Gondor” who will thus stand their ground at all costs implies considerable social investment in these men. For that statement to have any motivating value, it must matter that these men are soldiers of Gondor. That must be an honored position. And it quite evidently is!
Expanding for a moment to the books, we see more indications that this is the case. While Gondor – like all societies – has its aristocrats, the contingents that arrive to defend Minas Tirith are mostly counted by the towns and regions they come from – the “men of Lossarnach,” “men of the Ringlo Vale” “Fisher-folk of the Ethir” and so on, rather than by what lord or noble has organized them (RotK, 46). Likewise, Aragorn arrives to the battle “leading a great valour of the folk of Lebennin and Lamedon” (135). That’s not to say that there is no ‘feudal’ language in the text – local aristocrats also figure into these reports. This is not a standing professional army. But the men evidently matter as much in the reporting as the aristocrats who lead them.
At the same time, this army is distinctly provincial. Where each contingent of men is from matters, and the army is broken down along these lines, not only in its accounting, but evidently in its leadership structure (note that each of the regional contingents normally has its own leader).
What Gondor absolutely does not have is a system built around mounted heavy horse. Only one region of Gondor maintains a significant number of heavy horsemen: Dol Amroth. Instead, Gondor has invested in its infantry and we are in fact told quite bluntly that, “the people of the City used horses very little” and “have less skill with horses than some” (RotK, 24, 34). While the aristocrats of Gondor ride into battle (as with Faramir and Prince Imrahil), quite evidently Gondor has not made the same investment into a system of aristocratic heavy-horse-warriors that the societies of much of medieval Europe – or of Westeros – did. Instead, it has placed the burden of importance on the infantrymen, while the value of military aristocrats lies not in their own martial prowess, but in their leadership ability.
(For a quick and readible overview of the heavy horse system – especially in as a matter of social emphasis rather than strictly a matter of technology or battlefield expedience – chapter chapter 5 of Lee, Waging War (2016) offers a good introduction with some solid bibliography for pursuing the issues further)
I think Tolkien is drawing on two main systems for this form of army: the Anglo-Saxon Fyrd and the Byzantine Theme. In brief:
The Fyrd system was established under Alfred the Great, King of Wessex (in England), it was active from c. 878 to 1066 C.E.. The kingdom was divided into 33 regions. Each region (through its local aristocrats) was able to raise a local force to defend itself (a regional levy – the fyrd) and collect taxes with which the king maintained a centralized professional force (the housecarls – the men of the king’s house – literally ‘house men’). For a major army, the fyrds would be called upon to contribute troops – mainly infantry – to the main army. The resulting force contained a large body of amateur infantry (arranged in a shield-and-spear wall) along with a core force of professionals set about the king.
The Theme system, established by the Byzantines in the mid-7th century (and active for centuries thereafter) was actually a somewhat very similar system, but on a significantly larger scale (see the map below) and in a wealthier, more densely populated region. In each theme, the army consisted of semi-professional soldiers – fighting was their job, but they were given plots of state-owned land to support themselves as farmers in peacetime. This theme-army (called a thema or theme) provided a continually present local defense force, which was ideal for countering sudden raids. Those armies came to also define the administrative units of the empire, such that the themes were essentially provinces as well.
At the same time, a large fully professional army was maintained at the capital (the tagmata). In the event of a major invasion, this army would move out to the problem area, collecting the armies of the themes as it went. We’ve actually already discussed how the Byzantine beacon system – almost identical to the Beacons of Gondor – fit into this system, so the inspiration to Gondor’s military system is fairly clear.
What is important to stress in both systems is how the class of people who provide the infantry are integrated into political systems. Taking just England as an example, constructing the system of fortified towns (burhs) which anchored the fyrd-system required fairly intensive administration of the English countryside – land ownership had to be counted and tracked (because military service depended on it). That administrative system – largely maintained by later Norman kings – was one of the reasons that England remained an uncommonly well-administered kingdom through much of the Middle Ages (one complete English survey, the Domesday Book, dating to 1086, survives to the present day – it is a unique and fantastic document, and a large part of the reason we know so much more about the English countryside than many contemporary areas).
Likewise, both societies valued the military service done under these systems. This is an element of the development of military systems which is easy for students and experts alike to miss. The value a society places on a given arm of the army is a major determinant of how effective it will be. Both because it determines how heavily the society will invest resources in that arm, but also because of how it impacts the mindset of the troops in question. Soldiers who believe they are valuable and valued elements of the army, who think their survival and effectiveness are important and have been invested in, will tend to fight better. Getting back to what we talked about with the Unsullied, this social investment is another way to build that all important infantry virtue: cohesion.
While neither of these systems survived late enough to be contemporary with the style of armor (the almain rivet) Gondorian soldiers wear, it’s not hard to imagine at least the professional core of these systems being so equipped. Where the film falls down a bit in representing a system like this (and breaks with the books): the movies have removed the lower quality regional troops (which are quite in evidence in the books, c.f. RotK 46), in order to make the entire army uniform. It’s always unfortunate to see the chance for visual storytelling like this lost, but I can understand, given the incredible range of props required for the film, the desire to keep the number of armor-types down.
Part of the reason I spent all of that space on the social position of the infantry is that we’ve already discussed the historical reference point for mass-produced European-style plate armor for infantry, the almain rivet. I don’t want to get bogged down in repeating everything I said there about these kinds of armor, so you can head back that way to read about the ways in which I felt that while Game of Thrones‘ Lannister infantry armor was clearly modeled on the almain rivet, it didn’t capture the form or function of it well. Lord of the Ring’s Gondorian armor is quite a bit more successful; there are some problems with it, but it is quite a bit better than par for film and TV armors.
There is some variance scene to scene, but generally the armor consists of what is sometimes called ‘half-plate’ worn over what looks to be textile padding (or at least, a Hollywood outfit similar enough for us to assume) and mail voiders (we’ll talk about what those are in a second).
The extent of plate coverage is a breastplate with backplate and tassets (covering the upper legs), a pauldron with lames (telescoping metal plates) covering the upper arms, a helmet, and in many cases greaves (protection for the lower legs) and bracers (protection for the lower arms); not everyone seems to have the latter. As I discussed before, there is a fairly normal logical sequence to armor (with some exceptions, of course) in terms of what part of the body is covered, and this armor largely fits. While traditional European almain rivet generally didn’t include greaves, it’s not an implausible addition, especially for shield-bearing infantrymen.
The oddity here is the bracers that we sometimes see, ironically for precisely the same reason why I find the greaves eminently reasonable: these men are shield-bearing. This is a nit-pick, but I’ve found that generally lower arm protection is less important for soldiers with shields, since their shields protect that part of the body quite well. Some of the Gondor soldiers merely have mail covering their arms, and that seems a touch more likely to me. But this is no great issue.
So the coverage is more or less right, what about the individual pieces?
For the breastplate, I like that it is angled and clearly made out of metal, rather than leather or some other material. It isn’t perfect though. The breastplate itself – and this is a very common film-and-game armor mistake – comes too low on the body. European breastplates transition into the fauld (a plate or set of plates protecting the hips) at the natural waist (that is, at the thinnest point in the trunk of the body). You can see that, for instance, here:
That high waist and the ‘bell-shape’ it creates as the breastplate flares out into the fauld beneath it allows for greater freedom of movement, and actually avoids a problem you can see clearly here:
Notice how the bottom of the cavalryman’s breastplate, under the belt, needs a sort of ‘bib’ shape so that he can still move his legs around? If you waist the armor a bit higher, and cover the hips with an articulated fauld, you avoid that problem, while offering superior protection and mobility.
The other issue with the breastplate, to my eyes, is that while it narrows some at the waist, it doesn’t narrow enough. Costume designers, generally, seem allergic to the ‘wasp-waisted’ shape of most historical breastplates. Now it is true that some historical armors do not have that wasp-waist – famously, Henry VIII’s armor doesn’t, because he was quite fat – but most do. That narrow waist aids mobility, but it also allows for the curved (technical word: globular) shape of the breastplate, which causes strikes to glance off more easily – you can see my discussion here and here on armor penetration to see just how powerful sloped armor can be.
Next up, the pauldrons (the armor covering the shoulders), I like that they’ve used articulated lames to allow for lots of shoulder coverage without constraining mobility. My one criticism is the relatively ‘boxy’ shape of the top-plate of the pauldron. This is also a trend in fantasy armor-design, which is to create really over-sized and boxy or ‘bubble’ shaped pauldrons, presumably to make the wearer look like they have huge shoulders. But historical pauldrons (see the Oakeshott image above) tend to fit much more closely to the shoulder.
There are some things I really like. First, the breastplates have a ridge around the neck. I like it, but it should be larger, and ideally complemented by a second ridge lower down, like on the Churburg cuirass (pictured below). That kind of ridge is important – you do not want a spear-point hitting the breastplate and then riding up into your neck!
Next mail voiders. This armor kit gets bonus points for including what appear to be mail voiders (though it could be a full mail shirt) beneath the armor, and also on parts of the legs. Now, almain rivet for the common infantry was most often, as far as I can tell, worn without mail voiders (because mail was very expensive), but in this context, I think it speaks to both the wealth of Gondor and the investment in the lives of these soldiers that many seem to have that sort of reinforcement, which is absolutely a plausible way to try to up-armor this kind of arsenal-plate. They don’t always have quite the coverage I’d like – in some cases, they don’t cover the armpits, which they should and there’s never a mail skirt, which would have been quite useful given the gap the tassets leave over the crotch.
Also, just generally the use of lames properly articulated. This is one place where this kit clearly outperforms something like the Lannister armor, which simulated armored lames by just attaching thin sheets of metal to a continuous leather backing. In contrast – as you can see with the cavalryman above – the lames here are fully articulated, as they would have been historically, using leather straps and sliding rivets. One oddity is that it seems like some of the tassets stack top to bottom and others bottom to top, but this is no issue. My impression is that top-to-bottom (where the lower lames are inside the upper ones) is more common in Europe, but hardly universal, and that bottom-to-top seems to me to be more common, for instance, in Japanese armor.
Finally, the helmet: completely plausible. This is essentially a bit of a mix of a barbute, an Italian style of helmet which may have mimicked the shape of the Greek Corinthian helmet, with the raised crest of something like a Kulah Khud or a Turban helmet. In fact, some barbutes have small crests already, although not so prominent as these. But the raised, point top to the helmet has the same sloped-armor effect as we’ve already discussed with breastplates, and was a popular design feature in a wide variety of helmets from Europe to China and back again. I find this take eminently reasonable as a fantasy helmet – my only quibble is I’d like to see a helmet liner – we see enough of these helmets on and off of people’s heads that we should see a nice, thick padded helmet-liner, quilted like a gambeson. You can see some surviving historical examples in the Wallace Collection, if you ever head that way.
Grade: A-. The almain rivet is a historical design and – for all of the little flaws – this is a reasonably OK effort at producing one for film. I am offering the costume team here a bit of a break, because I understand that they – much like historical arsenals – need to make a lot of these (we are often seeing several dozen on screen at once) cheaply. Still, for an armor that is mostly in the background, the overall effect is solid.
Leaving aside the archers, each soldier appears to have a spear as a primary weapon, an arming sword as a secondary weapon, and a mid-sized rectangular/oval shield held with a strap-grip. Individually, I actually am OK with all of these, but collectively, they aren’t quite right.
The spear looks to be 8, maybe 9 feet long, with a long straight metal blade hafted on it with a traditional metal-socket-haft, coming to a point. The blade looks to be slightly waisted (probably to evoke the design of ‘leaf-bladed’ swords like Sting); I don’t follow why that design feature would be here, but I have seen it in historical examples of what I’m fairly sure is the inspiration, so, fair game. I think it’s pretty easy to classify this weapon as a yari, a type of Japanese spear (or even pike, for the longer variants) perhaps most famous for its ubiquity as the standard weapon of Ashigaru infantry during the Sengoku-Jidai (1467-1615), though it was used both before and after that period.
And it is not a bad imitation of that type. The socket-system is different – the yaris I have seen – admittedly, not a huge number – are hafted with a tang (a section of metal extends down inside of the wooden haft) rather than a socket (where the metal of the tip shrouds over the top of the haft, usually being secured by one or more nails or rivets). To be honest, I’m not sure that a socket-haft would hold up to the forces on this weapon: that long straight edge lets you cut with this spear as well – in Europe, such ‘hewing spears’ often have either longer sockets or langets (metal strips running from the tip further down the haft, secured by rivets) to better secure the head. But this is a minor quibble, to be sure.
The problem, is that the yari is a two-handed weapon, so this kit continues a problem see in the Lannister kit, which is giving the shield-and-spear infantry spears too large and heavy to be used in one hand. The key problem here is that the blade of these spears is long – a couple of feet, at least – and it’s going to be heavy, affecting the weight and balance of the weapon. Most hewing spears are for use in two hands and the yari is, to my understanding, no exception (of course many such weapons can be used in one hand in extremis, the question here is the ideal use of the design).
Which brings us to the shield. I actually don’t mind this shield design – it is not absurdly sized, appears to be made of wood with an approrpiate leather outer-layer, painted with a design and what seems to be (or is intended to look like) a metal rim at the top and the bottom. Polybius describes Roman shields as being rimmed this way, so that tracks just fine (Plb. 6.23.4). The grip system seems – it’s hard to tell – a little off; using a strap-grip system here is fine, but I’d expect a system much like a European heater or kite shield (pictured below).
But the main problem is having the shield. These fellows are very heavily armored. And while Peter Jackson thinks you can put an arrow through a steel breastplate, in practice, you cannot. Historically speaking, more complete plate protection in most cases led to a steady movement away from shields. Now I want to qualify that: since not everyone had access to plate protection, shields didn’t flee the battlefield completely or right away.
Consequently, we can solve two problems with one change in this kit: drop the shield. Suddenly, the yari works as a two-handed weapon for use in formation, and the shield no longer reduplicates protection that the armor is already amply providing (and I suppose change the scene of the fellow getting hit by an arrow in the chest to have it hit him in the neck or face).
As for the swords, I struggled to get good screenshots of the Gondorian arming swords, but they looked quite serviceable. Some of them have disk-pommels and upward curving guards, with a central ridge but no fuller, which would make them pretty standard Oakeshott XV’s. Faramir’s sword has an unusual pommel, but it’s quite like a type B, C or N (following Oakeshott, again) with a bit of an artistic flourish, and seems fairly reasonable – apologies but I could not get a good screenshot of it.
Grade: B/B+: Individually, I don’t have a huge problem with any of these pieces, but the shield belongs in a different kit from the spear and the armor. Flashy spears with long metal tips typically require both hands.
As I’ve noted in the other kit reviews, TV, film and video-games almost never show soldiers with the amount of additional equipment – food, entrenching tools, tents, cooking supplies, and so on – which they would actually have. Return of the King is, sadly, no exception.
While the Fellowship itself (most famously Sam) marches with baggage (although not nearly enough of it), Faramir’s rangers have not a backpack or satchel between them when marching through Ithilien.
We get a pair of very short scenes set in camp, in Osigiliath in Return of the King and at the pool in The Two Towers (we also see some of Osigiliath in The Two Towers as well). The camp in Osgiliath has all of the problems as Ed Sheeran’s camp in Game of Thrones – too small and not enough stuff. We see some cooking tools, some hay (important because they have horses), and a lot of spare weapons, but no tents and not nearly enough food or other equipment. Osgiliath is large enough that we might assume there is a more permanent encampment sheltered deeper in the ruins.
But, Faramir’s camp at the pool is much better. In the background of the scenes, we see stockpiled supplies by the crate and sack-load, in addition to the usual (and generally excessive) complement of spare weapons. We even see a fair number of Gondorian soldiers stowing supplies in the background.
I think the real problem here is that a lot of the folks involved in producing this material don’t have a good sense of what an army ought to have with it, so at best they just figure that armies carry lots of weapons and so stack up lots of spare weapons. And that’s not necessarily wrong! But spare weapons are a tiny proportion of the total baggage of an army: far more would be carried in food, tools, bedding and the like.
The bar for this category is very low, but at the same time, unlike our previous examples, we only rarely see Gondor soldiers on the march far from home. We get only a very short look at Aragorn’s vanguard setting out for Mordor – it is entirely plausible that his baggage train is further back in the army (and would be camped well to the rear of his formation once he reaches the Black Gate) – still, we see no supplies.
Grade: B-: All told, this still isn’t a great showing, but having even one scene with what appear to be boxes and barrels of provisions puts Lord of the Rings ahead of a fair bit of the competition.
Overall, I actually really like this kit. There was clearly some care put in to getting elements of the armor right, and most of the pieces have pretty solid historical models, with little deviations, like the pointed helmets and the use of a yari over a European style spear, that felt in-place and largely fitting with the design.
I feel I should note that these kits are somewhat of a deviation from the books, which note only Imrahil’s cavalry from Dol Amroth having ‘full harness’ (meaning wearing a full harness of plate armor, RotK 46). Tolkien’s reference points for equipment tend to be earlier in the Middle Ages (where his own expertise was), before the advent of plate armor. Thus dwarves of Dain’s army in the Hobbit described as “clad in a hauberk of steel mail that hung to his knees and his legs were covered with hose of a fine and flexible metal mesh…” (Hobbit, 276); that kind of protection – a hauberk with mail chausses (leg coverings – in this case, made of some ingenious dwarven sort of armor) would have been the gold-standard of protection around the year 1000 A.D., but hardly impressive by the early 15th century when we start to see full plate harnesses. What there is in the books describing particularly Pippin’s armor and the armor of the guards of the citadel leads me to believe that Tolkien has in mind something like 13th century armor – full mail coverage, with a surcoat – rather than the 16th century almain rivet-inspired design we see.
But that doesn’t bother me all that much, because what I really love about this kit is how it expresses the values of Gondor effectively in a visual way. Unlike Faramir’s elite rangers, or the Guards of the Citadel, these infantrymen are common soldiers. Nevertheless, Gondor has spent a ton of resources protecting the lives of these individual common soldiers, affording them very strong protection with what appears to be quite high quality armor.
It fits with a society, as discussed above, which values these men and their battlefield contribution and so is willing to devote the resources necessary to preserve them (and also ensure maximum effectiveness). But it also visually expresses Gondor’s problem: this ancient society still clearly has quite a lot of wealth in its vast city of stone, but severe manpower problems. Consequently, a ‘materiel-intensive’ warfare style – heavy infantry in very heavy armor – makes good use of the resources they do have to try to offset the problems in numbers they face.
I think, had they gone the strict-interpretation route, and put basically everyone in mail, these distinctions – especially between Gondor’s wealthier society compared to Rohan’s poorer one – would have been less clear. As a way to express visually things we are told in the text in the books, I think the armor succeeds quite nicely.
Overall Grade: A-/B+; despite some minor flaws, the armor works and is believable, made from believable materials (read: iron and steel). What keeps this from a higher score is the lack of equipment we see them carrying, and that pesky shield, which really ought to go.