Tag: The Two Towers

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

Lord of the Rings Dwarf Jokertoon
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

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