There is nothing quite as thrilling as a last stand. You cannot help but admire characters who stand little chance of survival, but they still draw a line in the sand and hold firm against overwhelming odds. Some may survive and others may fall, but it’s the valiant stand that counts: they do not turn tail, run and hide, they are souls of iron pushed to the limit who say ‘no more’. When the desperate fight for survival begins, we cannot help but root for the underdog, grasp that thin thread of hope and hold on for dear life.
Here are some of my favourite last stands in genre fiction—from films, television, books, and games.
(Warning: Spoilers are included!)
The 13th Warrior
Antonio Banderas is compelling as Ahmad ibn Fadlan (a real 10th century Muslim traveller, famed for his written descriptions of the Volga Vikings) reluctantly recruited into a conflict between Norsemen and the mysterious, monstrous Wendol who take human heads and eat the dead. The plot might be slim and suffers from reshoots, but the importance of language and learning is wonderful, and the growing comradeship between Ahmad and the surviving Norsemen deepens the stakes as the Wendol relentlessly assault the village the warriors protect. The film drips with atmosphere and the action is impressively frantic.
After a set-piece battle in the depths of a cave system where they slew the Mother, one of the two leaders of the Wendol, the dwindling number of heroes are holed up in the village preparing to face the savage horde one last time. Their leader, Buliwyf, is dying from poison, and they have little hope of survival but their (and our) spirits rise as Buliwyf drags himself from his death bed to face the enemy one last time. After killing the second Wendol leader and routing the horde, Buliwyf’s final moments seated on a throne of broken shields, weapons and barricades is a genuinely emotional and fitting end.
One of the best action films ever made. The second half of Aliens is a series of claustrophobic last stands culminating in Ripley strapping on a loading mech and going toe to toe with the terrifying alien queen (animatronics and physical effects have so much more impact than CGI). One of the outstanding aspects of the film is that Ripley is not a trained marine, just an intelligent and stubborn woman who refuses to give up. As 1980’s characters in an era of action movie men with bulging muscles and bad quips, Vasquez and Ripley blew the idea that women could not be badass heroes right out of the airlock.
Sure, the mech vs alien queen is a superbly tense last stand with an iconic line in “Get away from her, you bitch!” but I would argue that the moment between Vasquez and the inept and inexperienced Lt. Gorman is its match. One thing a last stand excels at for an audience is a redemption arc to make you feel loss for somebody you never thought you would. Gorman’s inexperience and panicked inaction greatly contributes to the failure of the mission, but he does redeem himself. As the survivors of the expedition retreat through claustrophobic air ducts being chased by relentless xenomorphs, Vasquez is attacked and kills one at close range, getting its acid blood all over her leg. Just when it looks like the end of such an awesome character, against all expectations it is Lt. Gorman that goes back for his fellow marine. A heroic rescue swiftly flips to despair as they find themselves cut off and surrounded. Gorman takes out a grenade and the two marines go down fighting, taking the aliens with them. It’s an incredibly effective scene on all levels.
(Note: Strong language warning)
Dog Soldiers delivers B-movie schlock-horror action in spades. What’s a military unit to do when they are holed up in a remote Scottish farmhouse under siege by werewolves? The werewolves have broken into the house and separated the remaining soldiers, each fighting to hold them off in a desperate but seemingly futile attempt to survive. Spoon has barricaded himself in the kitchen, and when one breaks through the door we expect Spoon to be immediately torn to pieces. Instead, his berserk attack on the werewolf using knives, bowls, kitchen implements and unfettered fury takes us (and it) aback, and we dare to hope he might even win. On the verge of delivering the triumphant finishing blow with a frying pan to the face, a second werewolf snatches victory from his hands and pins him to the wall by the throat, resulting in one of my favourite last lines: “I hope I give you the shits, you f***ing wimp.”
The Iron Giant
Last Stands are at their best when they make you feel fist-pumping victory or tear-jerking loss, and this is one the later. Under mistaken assault by the US army, a nuclear missile is launched at the Iron Giant by an utter tool called Agent Mansley (I will always hate him with a burning passion) and the whole town seems doomed. The Iron Giant, determined to prove that he is not a weapon, says goodbye to his young friend Hogarth, and takes flight to intercept the deadly missile with his own body.
“You are who you choose to be.”
Then the nuclear explosion lights up the sky as the Iron Giant sacrifices himself to save his friend and the town. Cue the lump in our throats and the wet eyes. Ye gods…the feels…
Babylon 5: “Severed Dreams”
Faced with obeying illegal orders issued by an increasingly xenophobic, fascist, and expansionist Earth Gov, the diplomatic station of Babylon 5 formally declares independence. Earth sends a fleet of warships to retake the station by force and a regretful battle erupts as human forces turn on each other following Babylon 5’s refusal to surrender. Loyalists and independents exchange fire, with losses mounting on both sides. A badly damaged destroyer allied with Babylon 5 rams a loyalist ship, sacrificing itself to protect the station, and Babylon 5 barely wins the battle. Just as they sigh with relief and take stock of the damage, thinking the threat is over, a second force of warships arrives from Earth to take them out. All seems lost and the air is thick with despair. Ambassador Delenn’s arrival in the nick of time with a force of Minbari warships behind her is accompanied with such a surge of relief from all of us. Angry Delenn is a force of nature:
“Only one human captain has ever survived battle with a Minbari fleet. He is behind me. You are in front of me. If you value your lives, be somewhere else.”
Interestingly, and very progressively for a 90s TV show, Delenn was originally intended to be an explicitly trans character in gender as well as species, and though the makeup and insufficient audio tech put paid to that after the pilot, much of the narrative around that remains.
Legend by David Gemmell
When you say ‘last stand’, this is the book I think of. The whole book is about a fortress and its small force of defenders standing against a massive army bent on conquest. Fortunately for the defenders, they have Druss the Legend, an aging but indomitable man arguing with his own mortality and legend. He has a large axe and no give in him. When it was written, David Gemmell was himself grappling with the diagnosis of a life-threatening health condition, and you can feel a lot of that real inner struggle emanating from the character of Druss.
The books is pervaded with a fatalistic optimism in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, and filled with heroism, self-sacrifice and honour. Cowards find their courage, villains find a spark of goodness, and heroes meet emotion-wrenching ends. It’s everything you want from a last stand.
Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J. Parker
No heroic defenders here, just a bunch of underequipped engineers using stubbornness and skill, conniving to defend a city against a vastly superior foe instead of using force of arms. With the garrison slaughtered by invaders, only Orhan and his engineers remain to defend the capitol. It has the construction of defensive siege engines, digging of tunnels to intercept enemy sappers, frantic battles, self-sacrifice and a good dose of deception and bluffing to make an epic last stand.
Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold
Not only a military last stand, but a theological one, with the previously mad/cursed Ista facing an army led by demon-ridden sorcerers, with only her shaky grasp of the gods and her second sight to fall back on. What I love most about this is the older characters, the cunning and subtle use of sorcery, and the changes wrought in all who survive.
It’s slow burning character-driven book, following Ista finding her way in life, growing more self-assured and coming into her own power. By the end of the book when the castle is under siege, you care deeply about all the characters and their fates as they ride out on one last do-or-die mission.
Mass Effect 3
The terrifying and alien Reapers are poised to harvest all technologically advanced organic life in the galaxy, and over the course of three games fraught with torturous choices and numerous sad and memorable moments, finally, the last stand of the galaxy is here. As Commander Shepherd of the Normandy, you gathered your allies and military forces, but now the Reapers have attacked Earth and it is time to use them in one desperate last stand to save your home, and the galaxy.
The moment the combined fleet of the allied races arrives in a likely-doomed attempt to defend Earth is a thrilling and fearful moment. The Reapers are akin to monstrous, many-legged techo-organic gods, but the disparate fleet of thousands warps in and opens fire with dogged determination even as Reaper-beams cut through their ships like soft cheese. The fleet opens a path for the Normandy to reach Earth and attempt to fight through the ruined, alien-infested streets of your home to reach the one thing that can save them all.
The Witcher 3: Battle of Kaer Morhen
One of the most memorable moments in one of the best games ever made. The terrifying and nigh-unstoppable Wild Hunt have come for Ciri, and only Geralt, Ciri and their allies stand any chance at all of stopping them. After an age of fleeing, it is finally time to make a stand at the ancient witcher fortress of Kaer Morhen.
Every previous encounter with the Wild Hunt has reinforced their power in the mind of the player, and you are left in no doubt that it will be a hard fight. After some frantic preparations are made, tension explodes as portals open and the first wave of enemies pour through to assault the fortress. Geralt and his allies fight hard but are forced to retreat deeper into the fortress fighting back with fire and sword and sorcery. The lives of allies you have fought beside hang in the balance, and the beauty of the writing and characterisation means you genuinely care if they survive. Not all do.
Cameron Johnston is the British Fantasy Award and Dragon Awards nominated author of dark fantasy novels The Traitor God and God of Broken Things. He is a swordsman, a gamer, and an enthusiast of archaeology, history and mythology. He loves exploring ancient sites and camping out under the stars by a roaring fire.