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