Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Lord of the Rings: Three films to rule them all

Part 10 of a 10-part series in which I examine my favorite films, and the reasons why I love them so.

Okay, so I'm cheating a bit here, capping off my "top 10 favorite films of all time" list with Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But just like Tolkien's novel, which was one book artificially broken into three parts for publishing purposes, I consider the LOTR trilogy to be one (albeit very long) film.

And a damned good one. In fact, I will unequivocally state the LOTR films are my favorite.

Unlike most of my reviews, which dwell on the reasons why I "love my favorite films so," I feel like I must spend some time defending Jackson's version of LOTR. Although these movies were met with tremendous commercial and critical success (Best Picture and Best Director awards, great critical ratings on RottenTomatoes, etc.) a sizable community of detractors exists.

For the most part, I think the righteous anger (and that's how I would describe some of the reaction I've seen, usually by Tolkien "purists") of some of these outspoken critics is misguided. Particularly, I don't agree at all with the notion that Jackson failed to capture the "spirit" of Tolkien's work. As I see them, the key points of Tolkien's novel include:
  • Frodo "fails" in his quest, but is redeemed by his act of pity towards Gollum--check, that's here.
  • The friendship and undying loyalty of Sam, the true hero of the tale, and how that friendship and unexpected bravery allows Frodo to succeed in his quest--check, that's here.
  • The terrible toll that war and sacrifice can take on the victors of a conflict--check, that's here.
  • The departure of the elves and the passing of a magical, timeless age into a time of mortal men--check, that's here.
  • Tolkien's preoccupation with death and the problems inherent in our pursuit of immortality, and the possibility of something greater--i.e., God--behind the great grey rain-curtain of this world--check, that's here.

In fairness, however, I do agree with some of the criticisms of these films. I don't think they are perfect, and here are my own:

The generally poor/shallow treatment of Gimli and Legolas. The former is almost wholly reduced to a comic device, while the latter is obnoxiously uber-powered. I loved Jackson's subtle early touches with Legolas (walking on the snow in the Pass of Caradhras, rapid-fire arrows in the battle with the orcs on Amon Hen), but hated the dreaded shield-surfing at Helm's Deep and his single-handed dispatch of the Mumakil in the battle of the Pellennor Fields. Gimli and Legolas weren't fleshed out, major characters in the books, but they deserved better.

The green ghost army. This, to me, is the most unforgiveable misstep in the Walsh/Jackson screenplay. By having an army of the dead sweep away all the orcs and mercenaries before Minas Tirith, Jackson undercut one of my favorite moments--the charge of the riders of Rohan. Had the brave men of Rohan waited just a few minutes longer, they could have watched as the undead army won the day without loss of life. Essentially, the ghosts negated Theoden's great moment of sacrifice and valor on the battlefield. And on top of that, I thought this was one of the rare unconvincing pieces of CGI in the trilogy. It almost appeared as if the budget had run dry by this point.

Too much artificial tugging at emotional heartstrings. This is just an overall feeling, but upon rewatching these films there's a few too many shots of Arwen's grief, Frodo's tears, etc.. The Lord of the Rings has enough built-in pathos and certainly doesn't need Jackson's heavy-handed reminders.

The exclusion of the Scouring of the Shire. I dearly wanted to see this filmed, and I think its message--that war touches us, everywhere, and that one can't simply "go home again"--is an important one and a central theme in Tolkien's work. But, to defend Jackson, this would have stretched the ending of The Return of the King--already quite long--to an interminable degree.

However, these criticisms are quite minor. Consider that, prior to 2001, the general consensus among movie buffs and Tolkien fans alike was the Lord of the Rings was "unfilmable." Jackson showed us otherwise, producing what I consider to be a stunning achievement and a work of lasting art.

There's so many good moments in these films, both large (the battles, the set pieces of Moria and Minas Tirith) and small ("It comes in pints? I'm getting one!"). Some of my favorites include:

The charge of the Riders of Rohan. This might be my favorite moment in all of cinema. Starting with the fear on the riders' faces after seeing the sprawling horde of orcs massed at the gates of Minas Tirith, to Theoden's stirring speech ("Forth, and fear no darkness! Arise! Arise, Riders of Theoden! Spears shall be shaken, shields shall be splintered! A sword day... a red day... ere the sun rises! Ride now!... Ride now!... Ride! Ride to ruin and the world's ending!") to the slow-panning back of the camera, revealing rank upon rank of Rohirrim, who scream "Death!" in unison and surge forward into a wedge, then watching the stunned looks on the orcs' faces as they realize this wave is not going to stop, until it parts their ranks like a hot knife through butter....that is some good stuff. If I live another 30-plus years I may never see its equal.

The casting/acting. Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Ian Holm as Bilbo, Sean Astin as Sam, and Sean Bean as Boromir are my favorites. All of them deserved awards. Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Miranda Otto, Christopher Lee, Bernard Hill (Theoden), Billy Boyd, Cate Blanchett, Brad Dourif (a great bit part as Wormtounge) all deserve accolades as well.

Sam's speech at the end of the Two Towers. This was a beautifully written/filmed sequence, and Astin pulled it off with great conviction: Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something...that there's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo... and it's worth fighting for.

You bow to no one. Enough said. I cried (just a bit) at this line.

Hobbiton. It's obvious that a great amount of effort was expended to make Hobbiton appear to be a lived-in, realistic place, and it shows on the screen. The attention to detail and the effort poured into this set piece are remarkable. I still recall sitting in the theatre back on opening night of The Fellowship of the Ring, and watching Frodo under the tree, reading a book, and the first view of The Shire. I knew right then that Jackson had nailed the look I had imagined in my mind all those years, and that I was in for a great ride.

"For Frodo." That look when Aragorn turns back to the small force at the Black Gates, with all hope gone, eyes heavy with grief, before charging in with Narsil drawn...I still get a shiver down my spine just thinking of it.

Theoden girding up for the battle of Helm's Deep. His speech: "Where is the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?" as he slowly straps on his armor with the bright beam of light shining through a narrow aperture is poetry on film.

Boromir's death. Bean brought Boromir to life, and his performance bettered Tolkien's depiction of the character from the books. After his death speech ("I would have followed you to the end. My brother; my captain; my king") I couldn't see the screen clearly until my eyes cleared. Must have been a dust-mote.

Into the West. What a beautiful song, performed magnificently by Annie Lennox. My kids and even my wife, no LOTR fan, are big fans. Really, the whole score (by Howard Shore) is a marvel.

Sam carrying Frodo up Mount Doom. This, folks, is what heroism is all about. Small steps taken by an unassuming, unimportant figure, beyond all endurance, with no hope to buoy him, up Mount Doom. Astin/Sam was a titan in this scene, carrying the weight of his master, the Ring, and the very movie itself on his back. All the special effects, the money, the casting, depended on the believability and sympathy evoked by Sam and Frodo, and Sam in particular. And Sam succeeds, as do the films, in brilliant fashion.


Falze said...

Good call. I don't know that, forced to choose, I could pick LOTR over Blade Runner (or Midnight Madness...okay, maybe over Midnight Madness...fagabeefee?), but Jackson did indeed pull off what I didn't think could be pulled off. True, it wasn't perfect, another hour total and I think he could have nailed it.

I hated that he left out the scouring of the Shire, mostly because, not only did he leave it out, but he replaced it with an idyllic ending for Samwise. I also felt that Galadriel's gift to Sam was an important motivator for the heroism that Sam showed at the end. All Sam's instincts to rise up and carry on at the end are instead triggered from within or something, when Sam's true motivation all along was getting home, as it should be. Completing your task, to be sure, but completing it so you could go home. Of course you can't have Galadriel's gift without the razing and subsequent scouring of the Shire, necessitating the use of her gift to rebirth the Shire from its ashes. I always loved that part of the books, Sam and his box of soil.

I would've loved to see Tom Bombadil, but in the end was he necessary for the movie? No.

As for poor CGI, I think the whole claymation-looking scene of Legolas on the oliphant takes the cake.

No! Don't do it, Peter! No more closeups of whimpering Frodo! NOOOOO!

You listed many of my favorite scenes, also. You forgot one that I thought was one of your favorites - "You shall not pass!" Of course coupled with the equally brilliantly delivered "Fly, you fools!"

I thought David Wenham as Faramir was one of the best acted 'minor' parts. He brought all that could be brought to the part of the scorned younger son, doomed to live and willing to die in Boromir's shadow in a seemingly hopeless cause - to win his father's love. It's too bad there wasn't time to show more of his and Eowyn's romance, he the battered, noble soul determined to do what is best and right, cast aside nearly unto death by his father, and she spurned in her childish affection for Aragorn, both finding healing in the other.

And many of the lump-in-the-throat moments. Pippin singing while Denethor tore through a small feast, alone, pigheadedly in denial as war rumbled towards his doorstep was another. The ending scene when Frodo and his company (whatever happened to Fatty? Can you truly do LOTR justice without Fatty? heh) offered to kneel was indeed another. The "For Frodo" scene was also good, including the exchange about dying between Legolas and Gimli, the truest and best depiction of the two of them in the entire trilogy. Gimli's touching 'Aye' is a better look into his soul than any chugged ale or belch that characterizes much of the rest of his character's 'development' in the movies. I think the scene that most gets me, though, is when Gandalf appears, with the sun, on the crest of a hill at Helm's Deep, then, riding up comes the always faithful Eomer with his men, who proceed to smash through a blinded line of orcs. The moment that Eomer, the one who never faltered, returning from him banishment to rescue his King, always gets me.

I cannot bring myself to like the casting of Liv Tyler as Arwen. I just can't. And I loathe Jackson's twist on the ford scene when the Riders were swept away - the actual defeat of the Riders I liked, the CGI water horses, etc. But not the way he twisted the scene. I wasn't terribly impressed by Hugo Weaving as Elrond, either, I found him much too young and much much much too closely tied to his Matrix identity, a movie still fresh when TFOTR came out.

I find that no matter how often I watch it I cannot accept Sauron on the battlefield as a superpowered evil robot...I just can't.

And why exactly was there a cave troll? Or better yet, why did Tolkien forget to add in the cave troll? It made that scene. "They've got a cave troll!" Many movies could indeed be bettered if only they 'had a cave troll'.

Brian Murphy said...

Yeah, picking a favorite film is always tough (and ever-changing, ask me tomorrow and Blade Runner might win). But LOTR moved me more than any other film I can remember. I was like a kid again watching these films, seeing each at least twice in the theater and all on opening night (which I never do).

Great call on Sam's gift as his motivation. That had actually slipped my mind, the little box of elvish soil that brought the scarred Shire back to life, better than before. And yes, I think the film would have been better with this and the Scouring added in. I don't care how long it would have made Return of the King--five, six hours, I would have watched it all. Hell, I'd go and watch a one hour "scouring" special release, and I'm sure that others would too.

The other parts you mentioned (Gandalf on the bridge, Faramir, Pippin singing) were of course awesome. There's just so much in these films to love and I knew that I would forget something. I actually haven't watched the LOTR films in quite a while; everything you see here in my review is from straight recall (which is saying something, considering the unreliable nature of my slipshod memory).

I'm assuming that you have/own the extended versions, right? The whole Faramir/Boromir/Denethor triangle is much more fleshed out in a great flashback scene, in which Boromir gives a stirring speech to the troops of Gondor and embraces Faramir, but the moment is ruined when Denethor comes striding in.

Yes, cave trolls make everything better. There was a goblin captain as I recall in the books that stabbed Frodo, but the cave troll added a whole new dimension of coolness.

That reminds me--the guy who played Eomer was a great casting choice as well.

I actually didn't mind the giant Sauron on the battlefield. It wasn't what I pictured from the books, and was a bit over the top, but I thought that Jackson did such a masterful job of explaining all the backstory of the Ring and the failure of Isildur in that opening sequence that I'm willing to overlook it. It worked for me.

Falze said...

Yeah, the scene in, uh...OK, I can't remember the name of the place, the city on the river outside of Minas Tirith, with Boromir and Faramir really epitomized the tragic relationship between the 3 of them as it made clear also the love of Boromir for Faramir and the lack of jealousy that such divided affections from their father should have engendered. And then Denethor showed up and ruined everything Faramir just crumbles.

You did pretty well remembering stuff, I figured maybe you were flipping through the DVDs. I made out OK, as well, considering I'm commenting from work :D the only things I looked up were some actor names. The amazing thing, with all the debate about changes, stuff left out, etc. is that there are so many great scenes and performances that are there, so many that you can barely recall them all. It's not like - yeah, that was a great part when X happened and that was it.

Falze said...

Oh yeah, my wife's favorite part I think is when the burning ent strides into the floodwaters bringing down Isengard and sticks his flaming head into the water to extenguish himself. She always chuckles at that no matter how many times we see it on TNT.

Brian Murphy said...

That burning ent is a nice little detail.

I thought of another favorite scene that I forgot while writing my review: The beacons of Gondor. The whole bit with one fire after another springing up through the mountains, flame after flame, across great distances, with the great score.

Falze said...

Yeah that was cool, especially on the big screen at the movies. Sort of marked the beginning of Pippin's growing up/redemption, also.

Falze said...

Just finished watching through the end of The Two Towers. The scene of the morning of the 5th day of the battle of Helms Deep was better than I remembered...Gandalf sits on Shadowfax on the hilltop watching Theoden and his meager band that remains charging the vast orc horde and says, "Theoden King stands alone." Eomer then rides up behind him and says, "Not alone," before calling on the Eorlinga to crush the orc line. Man, great scene.

Brian Murphy said...

That was a great scene. I liked the blinding light from Gandalf that caused the orc spearmen to shield their eyes (and avert their spears) just before the charge struck home.

I think my favorite part of the Helm's Deep sequence though is (as I mentioned in my review) when Theoden is getting his armor on for battle while reciting that bit of verse straight out of Tolkien. Also his line about "the Horn of Helm Hammerhand will sound in the deep." Unless you've read the books and the appendices there's no way to know that Helm was in the line of the great kings of Rohan. But it was a nice touch by Jackson and a nod to Tolkien fans.