Sunday 20 January 2013

The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003)

Who determined that men must wear their hair short?  Someone, somewhen must have decreed it, and done so with great power.

These are the films that made me grow my hair long.  Everybody here (and in 90 per cent of this adventure, 'everybody' is synonymous with 'all the male characters') - the wizards, the men and the dwarves, have long, magnificent, flowing hair.  The hobbits have rather less, but still a good deal more, I'd say, than the male average when the thing saw release.  How I admired the hair (and the general style and bearing, but the hair seemed both achievable and symptomatic) of Aragorn, of Elrond, of Gandalf the Grey, the most magnificent.

It's been long and short ever since.  It takes time to make it long but I ill care for it, or the pressures of 21st century Britain demand its loss.  I think I'd still be glad to grow up to be Bilbo or Radagast (but now, you see, I'm talking in the wrong film), but am wary of letting my pate come to resemble that of Grima Wormtongue or Jimmy Saville.  Ah, you cry, this is not a hairdressing blog.  Indeed not!  Shall we return to the matter at hand?

The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Sean Bean is Boromir.  Doomed, of course.

Well, you've all seen these films, perhaps several times at ever-increasing lengths, so there's little I can tell you about the content.  The big surprise, rewatching this first part, is how real some of the locations look.  I've always accepted the grand locations augmented by CGI and cunningly composited model-shots in the later films, without consciously registering that this is how they were put together, but the places roamed through in 'The Fellowship of the Ring' feel like real places you could visit - as if anybody with a camera and a few Orcs could go and gather the same footage, without having to find a portal to a real fantasy kingdom to get the scenery they're after.  Only a handful of slightly dodgy slo-mo footage seems to date the film, the remainder seeming magnificently timeless.

The fellowship is peopled by excellent characters, well-cast.  Four hobbits, two men (one dark and handsome; the other Yorkshire and treacherous), a wizard (Gandalf, of course), an elf (Legolas manages to be stylish, effete and dully humourless all at once) and a dwarf (Gimli is somehow very Scottish and very Welsh at the same time - an excellent combination).  For some reason, this is the only one of the films where we see dwarves other than Gimli.  Presumably they're occupied somewhere else during the ensuing world-war, but they could have made a few of the battles much less precarious if they'd done as the Elves do and sent a couple of battalions to Helm's Deep or Pelennor Fields.

A friend of mine, who presents the Minute Doctor Who Podcast, suggested that Elijah Wood was poor casting for Frodo, and that this was the films' greatest hindrance.  It seemed a curious suggestion to me - perhaps because I watched the films long before reading the books, so to me he is Frodo and Frodo is him.  The vibrant relationship between him and Sean Astin's Samwise Gamgee is the heart of the films, and everything else is window-dressing - even the battles, even Gandalf, even the pretty lights and colours of the Balrog and the fireworks and the eye of Sauron.

The Two Towers (2002)

Frodo, perhaps about to kill slimy old Gollum.

So the Fellowship fell to pieces.  I expected this film to show them taking separate routes only to be reunited and carry on as before, but by the time this sequel starts, they're irreparably divided, like Earth in the time of Peleg, and we're following several stories at once.

I'll take this chance to say something about sequels, as it seems to bear some relevance to this blog and experiment.  I'm meant to be looking at a hundred films from a hundred years, but it doesn't seem quite right to take up three per cent, and three consecutive years, on The Lord of the Rings - a fine series, but one with a very consistent style.  It's better, perhaps, to count it as one big film, and tie it to just one of those years, allowing me to re-use 2001 for 'Moulin Rouge' and 2003 for 'Good Bye Lenin' (for instance).  I'll apply the same thinking to my 1971-3 trio of Shaft movies.  If I didn't go with this sort of thinking, I'd be able to have a long weekend binge of the canonical Bond movies and wipe out almost a quarter of my 100 films at the expense of variety.

Back to 'The Two Towers', then.  A sequel without new characters would be a pointless thing (please let me know if you can think of any good examples), and two fine adventurers enter here.  Firstly, the cadaverous form of Theoden, from whom Gandalf (if I may spoiler a spoiler) exorcises Saruman, and who subsequently gets his groove back, once he realises that his obviously evil servant Grima Wormtongue is evil, obviously.

I can't easily screen-cap blu-ray, so I photographed my TV.  Does it show?

Secondly, Gollum: seen in the distance in 'The Fellowship of the Rings', but a hero and a villain from here on.  Just as we've gotten used to Frodo and Sam adventuring alone, the relationship is shaken up by this CGI monstrosity.  Sam, who's been nothing but hearty good-humour and encouragement, suddenly reveals a nasty streak, despising this slimy churl, a creature who alternates saving the day and threatening murder.  It's an arresting, horrible yet sympathetic performance which owes at least a little to Peter Lorre in 'M' (1931), and it's not without reason Gollum is still so celebrated and impersonated.

There's a great deal of fighting, here as in the threequel.  I still can't tell where the real soldiers and sets end and the models and CGI begin, so I'm content to say the sequences work as impressively as intended.  Everything's beautifully designed and strikingly attractive.

Starting in this film, Aragorn has a choice of two wives - a storyline plumped up considerably to make the lack of women in these films less embarrassing.  Of course, since Aragorn is royal, and this is the real Olden Days, he could probably fix the problem with bigamy - or since he and Arwen are both very long-lived, he could marry Eowyn first, wait for her to grow old and die, and then marry Arwen.  Perhaps I'm being unduly unromantic making such practical suggestions, but I thought it worth suggesting.  As it is, Aragorn gives his full attention to his sword and his battles, perhaps waiting to see who survives before ironing out the destiny of his loins.

The Return of the King (2003)

Andy Serkis is a real person, not just the puppeteer of Gollum

'Return of the King' holds my two favourite scenes of the trilogy. First, before the film's title dares appear, we're treated to Gollum's back-story, as Smeagol and Deagol fight over the newly-found precious.  It was an unexpected delight, watching this for the first time in the cinema, to see Andy Serkis in the flesh.  An appropriate reward, I think, for his years being motion captured - his voice and movements were celebrated, but only here is his face seen.

My other favourite scene is the one with the beacons - a moment the book covers with half a sentence, but which in the film is a beautiful triumph.  Here, grizzled old Denethor is most reluctant to call for aid, but young Pippin scrambles up to light the city's waiting bonfire beacon, and once its flames have grown, we see another light spring up on the far horizon in answer.  The camera flies over distant and inhospitable mountains as beacon answers beacon, the signal going out for aid, calling stations presumably maintained for this purpose for many generations.  It's an awesome, surprisingly emotional sight.  Like the defiant singing of La Marseillaise in 'Casablanca' (1942), it gives me a thrill of hope in the midst of desperation.  For me, this is the best part of the eleven-hour adventure.

Frodo just gets dirtier and dirtier in these films, and not in a saucy way.

Watching the films in their extended form (as seems appropriate), it's easy to grow a touch fatigued during this final instalment.  The first two went up from three hours to three-and-a-half apiece.  'The Return of the King' was already three-and-a-half hours long in the cinemas, which felt about as extended as was required, and so ends up almost four-and-a-half hours in duration.  The ending sequence, which was derided (unfairly, to my mind) is under twenty minutes in length from the destruction of the ring to the start of the credits - not inappropriate when compared either to the extent of the adventure that precedes it, or to the equivalent portion of the book (more than forty-thousand words, not counting the appendices).  Twenty minutes seems about as long as one can acceptably make an audience cry with a mix of sadness, merriment and relief.  Each strand is tied up, everyone goes home, and Frodo, Gandalf, and Bilbo in his dotage resolve that they must leave Middle Earth forever.  For a happy ending, it is very sad.

Nine years later, enough time has past since this massive epic that I very warmly welcome 'The Hobbit', by way of a prequel.  But that, as they say, is another story.

You would think that the extra capacity available in a lavish blu-ray box-set would allow the inclusion of both the extended and the sensible editions of these films, wouldn't you?  Nope.


  1. It's not even capacity: the very technology of DVD and Blu-Ray allows for a menu option for Cinematic Release / Extended Edition, the only addition being a tiny playlist file. BUT NO, CAPITALISM.

    (Also, very much enjoying your posts. Looking forward to King Ralph).

  2. Seamless branching, you mean? That would work if the extended version was just the original with new scenes stuck in, but the extended versions were complete new edits, with all manner of adjustments to the original footage, soundtrack etcetera, so I doubt it could be done quite so cleanly as this. But, as you say, CAPITALISM.

    Still, who wants to watch the short versions of Lord of the Rings these days? If one's in the mood to watch any of this trilogy, it's a desire, not just for adventure, but for *slightly too much* adventure. Adventure, here defined as sitting down and looking at a thing.