Lord of the Rings III: “The Taste of Strawberries” – The Return of The King

LOTR cartoon ROTK
“I know my place”

In this week of all things Hobbit (part 1), the third set of complete Tweetnotes on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Extended edition, but DVD – not Blu-ray-masochistically so…  Three’s a big, bloody, brutal dream…

DO YOU REMEMBER THE TASTE OF STRAWBERRIES?  DO YOU FRODO?  NO.  BASICALLY, NO…  THIS IS BLEAK, FAR BLEAKER THAN IT SEEMS. 

Tolkien stated that his war experiences had a limited impact on his writing, but the writer of the account of the War of the Ring, rife with description of a land of evil, had not only survived the Great War, but Somme.  By the time of Return of the King, after The Two Towers has split the Fellowship but reduced the fronts, the story is little more than one large and brutal battle.  The scale is on a whole new level and the first prize in this raised game is not a trusted keep, scattered villages or ruins, but Minas Tirith: The White City that represents all of Man’s promise, while containing all his weaknesses.

Return is as huge as an oliphaunt, but the majority of the tale takes place in a small corner of Middle Earth, already stacked (literally) with the ghosts of the dead from millennia of previous battles.  Much of the tale is bleak – until the ring is returned, allies of Middle Earth’s victory is not guaranteed – and would remain pointless if Frodo failed.  It’s so bleak, a series of hopeful and much commented codas can surely be forgiven.  After quests and countless battles that could prove Pyrrhic, Return shows the fight to be worth it.

With such a focus on war craft, some war logic inevitably fails to hold up.  Strategy and movement may be difficult to track on a map when it comes to live action, but certain scenes such as the confusion over the direction of attack on Osgiliath seems strange when it’s been under siege for months.  In other ways, the battles’ hectic approach carry things along at a pelt.  There are no timing doubts as there were when the Rohirrim arrived at Helm’s Deep.  Much as I liked it, I couldn’t help thinking they’d been standing around looking at their wrist-dials for a few hours beforehand.

A certain degree of momentum comes with the introduction of two new lieutenants of evil; not a new thing in the films – they have previously come and gone like Sith apprentices.  Gothmog is a fantastically and twistedly rounded creation in his brief appearances (see the way he resists help to dismount his warg); his accent is also refreshingly mean when surrounded by Aussie/cockney orcs.   In the air, the Witch-King entrance seems a little sudden – even if we do get to see his walk-in wardrobe.  Fine, we’ve met him before – but why didn’t he have a crown, or demonstrate any leadership skills then? – bar skewering a hobbit.  If there are any faults with Return, it’s that this Nazgul could have been built up a little  more, especially as he’s a presumed ancestor of Aragorn’s.

Returns is of course more than just a war analogy.  The trilogy draws on many sources from the Nordic sagas, to Arthurian legend to Christianity.  Many of these had cross-pollinated long before Lord of the Rings was written – the paganism that fed into Christianity was in turn and itself retconned into Arthurian legend.  But combined, the effect is more than complementary, especially as Jackson adds his own cinematic nods.  He pays tribute to many conventions and classics of film.  From score to shooting, there are contemporaneous reactions to Harry Potter as well as ribs on The Godfather and Star Wars – the latter, particularly, and pleasingly in the multi-partite climax.  When scenes turn to Mordor and its Black gate, things even go a little – and unavoidably – Labyrinth.  The reference is cyclical and reassuring: many of these films had been heavily influenced by Tolkien’s story before.  One key part of Returns is Aragorn’s flight to the land of the dead.  The make-up and imagery don’t even attempt to hide the neat throwback to Peter Jackson’s early horror film roots.

Whilst in zombie-land, Aragorn’s prolonged absence gifts a chance for other humans to seize their moment, but it’s a mixed-bag.  Théoden gets his rightful martyrdom/punishment as a conflicted man, albeit via the Klingon school of motivation.  Of his kin, Eomer remains a peripheral figure while Eowyn picks up the mantle of strong female character.  Her compassion drives much of the development of Merry and Pippin, but her resounding success in battle – albeit a rather odd semantic get out – also neatly signifies ‘man’s’ further development.

It’s as easy to pick holes in Return as it is to lavish it with a trilogy’s worth of Oscars.  Even with multiple codas some strands remain undeveloped, particularly those relating to those ‘other’ men.  Faramir and Eowyn’s romance is vague and considering what she achieved, let alone how bloody little he did (bar remove a White Wizard from the front line!) it may have been better to see some of that rather than that overlong long hobbit bed hopping sequence.  Still, as their names aren’t in the title, maybe we’ll just have to wait for a spin-off soap opera.

There is another major player whose name bestrides the whole trilogy.  The final moments of the One Ring, its volcanic fate one drop away, are wonderfully done.  Jackson increases visual echoes and references to Isildur that were always simmering in Frodo’s scenes.  Even at the end he struggles with his insurmountable task, and Sam proves to be the strength carrier.  It’s only Gollum’s single minded and unique desire of the ring that really saves Middle Earth.  When he finally regains his precioussss after 80 years, His pleasure before realising they’ve lot each other forever is brilliantly captured and a fitting sign-off.  In fact, after some dietetic and non-diegetic stumbles on the way, the end to the Hobbit’s linear tale is wholly satisfactory.  Even the arrival of the Eagles serves to reinforce the point that they couldn’t have just flown there in the first place.  Sacrifice is key and not just for Frodo.  In Return, Hobbits are seen sacrificing their nature, men their lives and Aragorn realises he must sacrifice himself regally for Middle Earth.  Perhaps a key change in tightening the story is Aragorn’s resistance to this; in the book, his simply waiting for the right moment has its point, but increased reluctance ensures that the spring is coiled tighter.

And so, the Elves, and  couple of Hobbits set sale for the Grey havens, the Dwarves mine further and deeper under mountains, the Maiar wizards are forgotten in the minds of men, who multiply on the plains of Rohan and the towers of Gondor in peace and prosperity.  Over in the East, during the Fourth Age the Hobbits fade away too – though not cleansed, not in these films; that would have been too severe.  They could keep themselves to themselves safe in the knowledge that one day a few of them went on a trip to the publisher.

Jackson’s main trick may be overcoming the fact that we know the fate of so many of The Hobbits’ characters before that trilogy has commences…  But I’m sure he has some tricks up his long wizard sleeves.

Lord-of-the-Rings-athon Tweetnotes for The Two Towers live Storified in this Crack of Doom

Lord-of-the-Rings-athon concluded: 682 mins (11.37hrs)

Also consumed during part of this pre-Hobbit marathon:  Shore’s magnificent full trilogy score, X-box resurgent ‘Lord of the Rings: the Third Age’ (VG), Wii add-on ‘Aragorn’s Quest’ (VG), Brian Sibley’s ‘The Making of The Lord of the Rings’, Virgin’s sorry missed film companions – and heir guide to ‘Lord of the Rings’, the draw-dropping illustrations of Lee and Howe…  All of which simply wouldn’t exist without JRR himself.

Lord of the Rings II: “Let’s Hunt Some Orc” – The Two Towers

TTT
“I look down on him because he is lower class…”

In this week of all things Hobbit (part 1), the second set of complete Tweetnotes on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Extended edition, but DVD – not Blu-ray-masochistically so…  On to the Two…

‘LET’S HUNT SOME ORC’.  It’s a phrase that is not going to pass for Tolkien’s own no matter how good Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of Aragorn is.  But then, not much of the dialogue in Peter Jackson’s trilogy is lifted from the tome itself; its trick is capturing the gist so it appears faithful.  But then, with those rather combative words, Fellowship made way for The Two Towers; a different kind of film.

The generally linear plot of the first part is replaced with multiple strands following three distinct parties of the original fellowship continuing their quest; but that is too is a bit of an illusion.  While Merry and Pippin remain, rather importantly, stationery for the majority of the film, any urgency that Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli’s haste to save them injects into proceedings is ultimately rather pointless.  Most of The Two Tower’s journey follows a loop wider than the turning circle of a Rohirrim.  Of course, this fatalistic treading of water is a pretty heavy handed metaphor for man’s general weakness.  That said, that and the analogy do provide a pretty solid build-up for one of the most gripping parts of the trilogy (Set-piece Mark VI, below…).

In the book, despite years of suggestive front covers, the identity of the titular two towers is rather vague.  The film chooses to explicitly draw the link between Sauron’s Barad-dûr and Saruman’s Isengard, an invisible line that cuts right across Rohan, land of the Rohirrim, and threatens all Middle Earth.  Rohan is an interesting place.  A kind of sub‑kingdom of men it’s broad Anglo-Saxon set-up a rather stark counter point to the lost and now mythical kingdoms of Aragorn’s north and the more majestic, decadent and dare I say Aspirational Norman Gondor.  It’s effective in presenting ‘man en masse’ for the first time and Théoden’s rural kingdom also administers a sharp shot of Shakespearean tragedy and intrigue into proceedings that was lacking from the Arthurian mix of Fellowship – before administering a fine keg of history at the end.

Split into three ‘journeys’, The Two Towers makes ideal use of its ‘middle’ status.  But it is really is the beginning that sells it.  Jackson wisely kickoffs off at the very heart of the climax of Fellowship’s main highlight.  It’s a fine catch-up, a great action sequence at the front once again and also a neat conveyance of depth.  Gandalf and his demonic foe battle while Aragorn leads the Fellowship to Galadriel and their inevitable breaking.  It’s a soft and effective arm around the shoulder, leading us away from Fellowship’s simpler narrative to a world of parallel concerns.  Even if Gandalf the White’s initial impression of Saruman is rather mean/irresponsible/inexplicable (depending on your perspective).

In those same woods, the Ent scenes seem rather frivolous when you think of Tom Bombadil’s fate in Fellowship – but their ultimate contribution to the plot is considerable.

In Gondor, by contrast, Gollum is an addition that keeps the rather cloying twosome of Sam and Frodo bearable.  The technology and performance are rightly lauded, but it also shows how good Fellowship is; anticipation for the small grey one should have been far greater.

The extended version of The Two Towers really highlights how staccato the theatrical releases of the films could be. Additional runtime creates room for Denother’s first appearance and a brief cross-over with Boromir which does much to bridge the trilogy.  It even adds a little more to (a still quite insipid) Faramir.  It is there in Osgiliath, the ruins of Gondor’s old capital, that the heart of The Lord of the Rings really lies.  Man’s time is coming, the Elves are leaving them to it while the corrupted Elves (Orcs) stop at nothing to halt it.  Here is the despair, retreat pride and hubris ripe for the Return of the (still reluctant) King.  Of course, Lord of the Rings is a totally faithful historical account of a few thousand years ago, but remembering that would rather spoil the danger (nudge, nudge).

The ‘historical’ elements of the book really hits home in the last and greatest set-piece of The Two Towers.  Before that, the wizard and Balrog’s battle with gravity is neat and stylish for the service it provides the film.  Gollum’s little chat with Smeagol is the highlight of performance in the film, and certainly ranks as a set-piece.  Later on the warg attacks on the fields of Rohan are well realised, another great example of another action piece finding its own voice.  Rohan’s more familiar Viking imagery of settlements amidst the vistas is a long way from either the mines of Gandalf’s or the woods of Boromir’s demise.  Even against the decade old CGI, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has a lot to take on when it confronts a similar set-piece

But it is in the beautifully built up siege of the last act that something special happens.  Set-piece Mark VI: Helm’s Deep.  The threat carefully grows while Saruman’s ‘magic’ in mixing gunpowder adds a new and real military aspect; the mighty Helm’s Deep itself draws on countless sieges against impossible odds, not least Rorke’s Drift or the Battle of Thermopylae.  In its build up, every crumb is placed delicately:  The weakness of man, the retreat into that ‘unsinkable ship’, the noble last-minute sacrifice of elves.  After tour-de-force brutal action, Gandalf’s arrival is a new invention, but provides a far more satisfactory conclusion than the book’s.   Meanwhile, many miles away, Saruman finds himself similarly besieged in his One Tower: an odd, comic and bleak assault all in one.

The Two Towers, despite its wildly loose structure and rather illusory narrative is but a Hobbit hair, the best of the bunch.  It lacks the focus of Fellowship and the Bombast of Return but perfectly nails the sterling work that any middle film should do while also failing to show it like good special effect.  It kicks off with an audacious opening and on an emotional level it seldom gives up.  By the time Helm’s Deep appears on screen, the worry of whole species is palpable; far from the individual crises and burdens of Fellowship – not that this aspect ever really leaves).

And so by the end of the film, while little land has been gained, the focus of the story has completely changed.  With Isengard paralysed, the two-front war is over (The Hobbit looks to play up the idea that the third front was eliminated in anticipation some 80 years before); and Return of the King is set up to cover the simple slog of Man versus Mordor.  If there is a weakness in the piece, it’s Frodo,  Sam and their bloody elf bread – it drags, but there’s little way around that; it seems to be in a Hobbit’s nature.  This frailty is almost completely is lost behind the impressive Gollum.  Still, it seems strange that, with the ring bearer so dislocated, their conclusion of the film hangs on the suspense of Gollum’s luring Frodo into a rather inconsequential trap.  By pushing that Shelob sequence back to Return of the King, Sam and Frodo’s journey lacks that clinical punch it really needs here, but ultimately it’s for the greater good.  A new story has finally, properly arrived:  It’s no longer so much about the one ring, but the future king.

Lord-of-the-Rings-athon Tweetnotes for The Two Towers live Storified in this Keep in the Rock

Lord of the Rings I: “A Wizard is never late” – The Fellowship of the Ring

LOTR cartoon FOTR
“I look down on him because I am upper class…”

In this week of all things Hobbit (part 1), the first set of complete Tweetnotes on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Extended edition, but DVD – not Blu-ray-masochistically so…  First, a quick 101 on Middle Earth history…

THERE ARE BENEFITS TO ALL TRILOGIES, BUT NOT ALL TRILOGIES TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THEM. 

Criticism of Hollywood trilogies have often walked a well worn track; one that new trinites are general measured against.  In general, the first part is weighed down by its duty to origin, while the third part may struggle to tie up all plot strands as it strives for a suitable send off.  In between, part two can go in any direction; Constraint free, there’s no need for a beginning or an end and that open-endedness is only constrained by the creative team behind it.

In the Lord of the Rings however, there was a distinct advantage.  Circumstances (World War II) had led to a sweeping single story told across multiple books and published in three distinct volumes.  The names of each film and a rough structure, though rather inadvertently, was already set.  Easy.  But then again, no other adaptation, film, or radio had ever really done followed that… So it can’t be that easy…

Despite a fervent fan base, adaptation also brings the advantage of something tangible to react against.  With such a literary and fairly unwieldy tome, 14 years in the writing, the need to modify the narrative for the medium of film wasn’t just recommended but essential.

Simply, all Fellowship needed to do was begin and that was that.  Structurally much of it draws on Ring’s lighter prequel, The Hobbit and countless other quests.  Starting at the Shire, a danger is developed, a fellowship formed and then the journey undertaken across Middle Earth.

On film, Peter Jackson imbues proceedings with a new speed ; in fact, a perhaps indecent haste which struggles under scrutiny.  In any event, that Gandalf takes hours to realise the importance of the One Ring and practise his Marathon Man routine, rather than the book’s years, is a signal of intent.  Across the many hours of the story, there has to be a strong narrative drive through and past countless villains and trials which could otherwise appear weak or sporadic.  The enemy point is a key one; while there are many heroes on show, there are also many foes, not all of whom operate directly under the all seeing eye.  The epic opening, rather strangely narrated by a powerful but fairly inconsequential elf (a consequence of a story lacking in strong female characters), provides not only instant action gratification but the big bad himself.  Striding out onto the plains of Mordor to slug hundreds of man and elf pins is an interesting touch, considering main villain duties subsequently fall to a large orange eye…  But it’s visceral, it’s physical, and that’s its main contribution.

And if there are any words that sum up this adaptation, they’re visceral and physical.  Emotion is widened in what can be a terribly academic tale, the action drawn out and the scale constantly on show.  Even without the 3d or 48fps, Jackson instils a real tactility to proceedings that’s commendable considering how much of it lives on a hard drive.  From the squint of Elrond’s eyes as elf arrows volley past his face to Boromir’s thudding perforation.  This really is no mean feat where so many of the cast on screen are synthespians and its most quoted ‘creation’ is motion captured.  It shows how demanding the schedule was that Fellowship’s Gollum, with his green pallor, is quite different to the one we would meet in the subsequent films.  But in his own brief and sinister appearance, it works.

Two legendary set-pieces fall within the film.  The first is outstanding, and potentially the most important of the trilogy.  For whilst Fellowship simply had to begin the story, it also had to ensure the audience would come back to watch further two films that had already been made; and the Mines of Moria sequence does that brilliantly, especially in the context of the open plain and siege battles that would follow.  It has added resonance in the context of The Hobbit, but manages to stand on its own all the way to its fiery finish.  Set-piece Mark II is the singular journey of the Bane of Boromir Uruk-hai from Saruman’s Isengard to meet the fellowship.  Again, it’s physical, it’s scrappy, but it also works very well in slow-motion.  It helps that as a general rule, films where Sean Bean dies a horrible death are generally quite good.  And then with the fellowship disbanded, the story can begin proper.

For an opening assault, Fellowship isn’t actually constrained by origin as lore would have it.  Beginnings are shared across the trilogy, as rather befits a tale that’s all about death and rebirth.  Gollum’s origin was supposedly bumped back from each film, but makes a fine beginning to The Return of the King.  Arguably, we see Gandalf’s (necessarily cloudy) origin in the second film.  The sense of origin adds strength to the trilogy; guiding structure and keep things fresh while also providing a constant thematic reinforcement (Aragorn even has an extra resurrection analogy dragged over a cliff with him in The Two Towers).

Many changes have been made for timing, but the main character omission from the book is perhaps the most obvious nut understandable change.  Rhyming immortal Tom Bombadil is a bit of an anomaly, hard to represent on film, and as character voted most likely to ‘misplace the One Ring’ would only really serve to undermine the plot.  In fact, while speed played a role in many narrative changes, most serve one other distinct purpose: to put the focus firmly on the One Ring.

In this adaptation, no character is immune to it, with only Gollum seeming to desire its possession rather than its power.  It’s a clear, direct yet intangible horror than creeps through the films to such an extent that it highlights the ambiguity of the series’ name itself.  After all is the Lord of the Rings the Dark Lord, or in fact the One Ring?

Lord-of-the-Rings-athon Tweetnotes for The Fellowship of the Ring live Storified in this hole in the ground

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