Wednesday, January 25, 2012
LOTR Movies Retrospective: Return of the King
Return of the King is my favorite Rings flick, but it gets off to a shaky start. Even though we don't need a Gollum origin story---we've gotten two movies into the trilogy without one---Peter Jackson decides we need one. Now, he could've started off in Isengard, with the death of Saruman, which they actually filmed, and which you'll find in the extended version; in spite of the fact that the whole Saruman strand has been very prominent, Jackson figures that we don't have to find out what happened, and that this would somehow prevent us from "cracking right into the story." Of course, instead of cracking right into the story, we get a Gollum flashback from a thousand years before, and a slighting of the Saruman material that left Chris Lee quite justifiably fuming. Just weird.
As for the flashback itself, it seems like an afterthought, and rather a cheapo one. If you were going to do this stuff, it should've gone into Fellowship anyway, where it was located in the book. Smeagol and Deagol, wearing sweaters (!), are sitting in a boat in a nondescript pool....Deagol snags a fish, which drags him into the water, and right off, there are very peculiar scale (no pun intended) problems with the fishy special effects. I think these arose because they were trying to depict an undersized person and oversized fish, and just got confused. The quarrel between Semagol and Deagol is creepy, but the murder doesn't work. It just seems kind of abrupt and arbitrary. And the transformation of Smeagol into Gollum is simply bad. As you know, I love Andy Serkis's Gollum elsewhere, but having him writhing on rocks, and pretending to have bronchitis, and pitching a fit in a little tiny set to simulate his ostracism by the other proto-hobbits and his descent into loonyville just doesn't make it. Nor does the close-up FX transition from Serkis-puss to Gollumface. I for one was waiting for the movie to just get going...crack into the story, as it were.
We cut to Sam and Frodo and Gollum; they've been freed by Faramir, and are heading down towards the crossroads that will take them to the Morgul Pass. It's a just a small bit of three-way interaction, but it works to re-establish the characters...Frodo's more obsessed with the ring than ever, Gollum's just as annoying, Sam hates him, it's getting unnaturally dark. Fine.
From there, we get a nice smooth transition into the story's other strands, which are skillfully interwoven almost immediately, at least for the time being. In the extended version, it's much more clear that Isengard has been hemmed in with Huorns...liked that. Merry and Pippin are waiting for Gandalf and Co...they've been inside the ruined, flooded stronghold, and have plundered a bunch of choice supplies and pipeweed. In the original theatrical version, Pippin, who had a mouthful of salted pork or something, declared that he and Merry were "sitting on a field of victory," although that came out as "shitting on a field of victory," and in the extended DVD, that seems to have been attended to.
There are some impressive views of Isengard all flooded out with ents stalking around in the water...Treebeard shows up...we get the Voice of Saruman scene, but there isn't enough of it. It is, however, nice to see Saruman plummet off the top of Orthanc after being knifed by Grima Wormtongue,...since we weren't going to have the Scouring of the Shire no matter what, Saruman really needed to be exterminated here, and I'm glad he winds up on a spike on a wheel that slowly rotates down into the dirty water. Really, keeping this stuff would've been better than putting in the Gollum origin story, especially since we have Pippin finding the Palantir, a matter which figures prominently later on...if you don't have it being chucked down by Wormtongue, what is the thing doing in the water anyway?
After this, we're back to Edoras. Dead heroes are saluted at a feast, and then Merry and Pippin perform a musical number for the Rohirrim, who find it inexplicably amusing. Then there's some more goddamn Gimli-funniness, in this instance, a drinking contest between him and Legolas, in which we get to hear a lovely Gimli-fart. Yeesh...although, after Pippin squeezed out that lembas-poot in Fellowship, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised.
Later on, we have the thing where Pippin sneaks the Palantir away from Gandalf...I like the fact that Gandalf sleeps with his eyes open. But Pippin's encounter with Sauron via the seeing-stone is a lost opportunity...we could've had some sort of visualization of Sauron aside from the big flaming eye; instead, we mostly get Pippin rolling around and screaming with the stone putting out cartoony animation. In addition, it's all in blurry afterthought slo-mo, because they don't seem to have filmed it in slo-mo to begin with. Surprisingly cheesy.
Gandalf decides to take Pippin to Minas Tirth with him...the farewell between Pippin and Merry works pretty well; there's a lot of gorgeous NZ scenery with Shadowfax speeding through it. We cut from this stuff to Arwen and a group of solemn elves (including Brett from Flight of the Conchords!) heading for the Grey Havens through a forest...Arwen has a vision of a son she's going to have by Aragorn. This isn't in the book, but it works anyway...she decides to blow off the whole Grey Havens thing and return to Rivendell and get hitched to Aragorn...we're glad. And it's nice to see Narsil reforged finally, into Anduril, for Aragorn...should've happened back in Fellowship, but better late than never.
Gandalf and Pippin reach Minas Tirith. Just like Jackson's renderings of Helm's Deep and Edoras, it incorporates just about every detail that Tolkien talks about, including the big blade of rock that bisects the city. And even though Tolkien didn't specify the architectural style,the design choices---namely Romanesque/Italian Rennaissance, mostly in a kind of sad white marble, really click. When Gandalf tells Pippin not to say anything to Denethor, it's a good bit of comedy (actually, I think all the Pippin/Merry funny stuff in the films is genuinely funny). The great Hall of the Steward is a wonderful Romanesque basilica, and even the statuary (which has been largely inept in the rest of the trilogy), is reasonably good. Denethor on his seat, with Boromir's chopped horn across his lap, is a most effective image of grief and despair.
John Noble does a good job with Denethor's quasi Shakespearean dialogue, which is largely drawn directly from the book...he doesn't look like Tolkien's Denethor, but Jackson said they'd had enough old guys with beards, and that's okay. Pippin being suddenly moved to swear fealty to Denethor is moving...John Noble's expressions are pretty wonderful. Sparks really fly in the clash between Denethor and Gandalf over Aragorn and the restoration of the monarchy. When Gandalf storms out with Pip in tow, he delivers a brief disquistion (drawn from Tolkien's appendices) about Minas Tirith's decay that was cut from the theatrical version, more's the pity...it's some of the best stuff in the movies, and really sets up Denethor's madness later on.
It's back to Frodo, Sam and Gollum...Sam gripes that it would be teatime in decent places, but Gollum reminds him, "We're not in decent places." They arrive at the crossroads that leads to the Morgul Vale...we have the bit (cut from the theatrical version), where they see the statue of an old king that has been decapitated by the bad guys, a stone sheathed in metal bars sitting on the shoulders...quite unsettling. But then they see the statue's actual head...a last ray of light strikes it, showing that it's got a crown of flowers. Most affecting, although I wish Jackson had left in the line about "they cannot conquer forever" before the shadows cut off the sun.
As Frodo et al. approach Minas Morgul, Pippin and Gandalf are watching the Mountains of Shadow from a balcony in Minas Tirith...the mountains look like they're maybe fifteen miles away, which is too close, but okay. There's a stupid bit in the extended version in which Gandalf seems to be getting lung cancer or at least bronchitis from smoking his pipe...eminently losable. However, the conversation with him and Pip gives us some worthwhile exposition, notably regarding the Witch-King of Angmar (we get a shot of the Nazgul Lord armoring up, and his helmet is bitchin'). and the whole thing is most evocative of "the Deep breath before the plunge." There's a palpable sense that the shit's really about to hit the fan...from this point on, the stuff with Fordo and Sam and Gollum, as they sight the Witch's King's city, is intercut with Gandalf and Pippin material, and it works just fine.
Once again, Minas Morgul, with is evil corpse glow, is right out of the book...I would've liked to have the nasty fungusy Morgul flowers, but maybe most people aren't quite so fond of such things as yours truly. Love the shaft of evil light that shoots up behind the walls, as a signal...Gandalf and Pip see it from Minas Trith, nice touch...the Witch-king landing on the Morgul battlements on his flying mount is awesome (rather better than having him ride out on a horse, as in the book), and the orcish horde that comes marching out with this wierd crippledy-twitchy-reptilian gait is appropriately grisly. I appreciate the differences in armor and gear between Saruman's orcs and these guys...Saruman's Uruks were obviously more state-of-the-art and modern, while Sauron's orcs are more fucked up and old-school. Everything about them is crappier, although there sure are a lot of them...
The hobbits and Gollum ascend the secret stair, and their steady progress upwards is impressively depicted...I particularly enjoyed the changing angles and distances as we get farther and farther above Minas Morgul...Jackson does a superb job with dizzying heights, and this stuff is even more vertigo-inducing than the yawning gulfs in Moria. Gollum is being sneaky, and Sam gets right up in his face. There are some fabulous expressions on the skank, where he's letting Sam know that he knows he's got a protector in Frodo, and that Sam really can't do anything...it's unbelievably hateful. Actually, the nastiness in Gollum has been coming steadily to the fore, with his facial characterizations depicting it quite chillingly.
After this, we have Sauron's army gliding across the river towards Osgiliath on some improbable medieval Higgins Boats. The action as they overrun the city isn't particularly interesting...I don't really like the depiction of the orcs as larger and more formidable than, well, orcs would be...they should seem rather more like a flood of cockroaches or ants, bringing heroic men down through sheer numbers. I also don't buy the Gothmog character, the hideously deformed orcish colonel or general or whatever he is...in the book, there's a brief reference to a Gothmog, Lieutenant of Morgul. But really, that Gothmog would've been a human being in all likelihood...Sauron's top dogs seem to be Black Numenoreans, relatives of the Corsairs. Oh well.
But as things go south at Osgiliath, we get another of the trilogy's best sequences: the lighting, against Denethor's wishes, of the beacons along the summits of the White Mountains. There's nothing much like this in the book, and it's splendidly shot and stirring, complimented by Howard Shore's rousing music. I could grouse about about scale problems with the beacons in the distance, but...I won't. Love this part. Great, great cinema.
We shift to Rohan...Theoden decides to answer the call, although having it as an issue to begin with is rather silly. The muster is decreed; the king heads out with his troop from Edoras, after a good speech from Eomer which foreshadows Theoden's much more powerful speech later on at the Pelennor fields.
Meanwhile, the defenders are driven out of Osgiliath...Faramir and his guys retreat headlong towards Minas Tirith, pursued by winged Nazgul, and would obviously be toast if Gandalf didn't ride out to save them. Why Gandalf would have Pippin on his saddlebow, I don't know (actually, it's so Faramir can see him later and Gandalf can find out that Faramir's seen Frodo)...there's an amazing use of motion-control as the camera swings back towards Minas Tirith, which looks completely real, even though most of it, perhaps all of it in that shot, is digital.
As I've already mentioned, Faramir sees Pippin and is startled...he tells Gandalf and Pip that Frodo and Sam are alive, welcome news...we can really sense their relief...then Faramir goes in and has a confrontation with his father, who is immensely pissed that he didn't bring the ring to him. The scene is faithful to the original, but very shortly, the characterization of Denethor will pretty much go to bits for a while. On the other hand, Faramir is finally becoming the guy we really loved from the book.
Back on the Secret Stair, Gollum gets a glimpse of the ring, snatches at it while Frodo is asleep...Sam sees this and goes after him...Frodo wakes up and reprimands Sam. More and more we get the feeling that Frodo and Gollum really do have this horrible rapport, because they're both ring-freaks, and it's kind of like a private club, or a shared perversion. Sam's an outsider. While this is effective, Jackson winds up taking it way too far, though...more on that later.
Okay, back to Minas Tirith.
Denethor sits down for a huge meal as he orders Faramir, most ill-advisedly, to try and retake Osgiliath. This is peculiar, seeing as how he wouldn't summon the Rohirrim. But when Faramir asks him if he wishes that he'd been killed in Boromir's stead, and Denethor says yes,the scene works, and Faramir becomes even more like the actual Faramir from the books. Still, it's hard to get into the exchange because Denethor is already starting to eat disgustingly (it's just a ridiculous cheap shot at a character who doesn't really deserve it) and there's going to be way more absurd Denethor-gluttony later on.
High up in the Mountains of Shadow, meanwhile, Frodo and Sam are asleep as Gollum plots some evil...needing to put Sam out of the picture once and for all, he scatters some lembas-crumbs on him to make it seem as though Sam is pilfering. When Frodo wakes up, Gollum points out the crumbs, Sam goes ballistic, and Frodo tells Sam to leave. Sam heads back down the steps.
Now this is all wrong. It's even wronger than the characterization of Faramir. Sam is Tolkien's next-best character after Gollum (I suppose one could argue that he is the best), and in some ways he's the emotional heart of the story, more important even than Frodo. He's kind of the ultimate batsman (a batsman being an officer's assistant in the Brit army during WWI), and having him leave Frodo to Gollum's tender mercies when his master is clearly out of his mind is simply preposterous. Worse yet, this nonsense means that we don't get one of the strongest scenes in the book: namely, the thing where Gollum, moved by the sight of Frodo's sleeping face, is really thinking of repenting. It just strips a layer off Gollum, and for the life of me, I don't know Jackson and his writing team decided to take this approach.
Back at Minas Tirith, Faramir has gathered a troop and his heading out to try and retake Osgiliath. Gandalf tells him that Denethor loves him, and will remember it before the end, but...Denethor's volte face about Faramir later on will simply seem incoherent. As Faramir rides out, Denethor is still eating...cherry tomato-juice drooling over his chin, he asks Pippin to sing him a Shire-song, all this intercut with Faramir's company charging Osgiliath on horseback...as if you'd try to take a city with cavalry. Needless to say, the attack fails...and Denethor just keeps on eating. It's one of the low points of the film.
The Rohirrim muster at Dunharrow. Pippin gets armored up, but it's plain that no one plans to let him fight. Actually, their reasons are pretty good, but of course, if you've got the novelist or the screenwriter on your side, you're going to make out just fine in the battle, even if you're three feet tall. I suppose I really can't complain...I myself have written characters in and out of dicey situations they wouldn't survive. Similar feelings regarding Eowyn...she speaks up in defense of Pippin's martial ambitions, obviously standing up for herself in that regard as well. It would be easier to take if she seemed more like an actual asskicker...as I've mentioned, I would've preferred a more valkyrie-like take on the character. Miranda Otto does indeed carry most of her scenes, but it's mainly because she's so cute, and you wish people would let her do what she wants and not be mean to her. Actually, I do wish Aragorn would just give in and wind up with her...I like her better than I like Liv Tyler, because Miranda doesn't look like Steve Tyler.
Did you ever notice, by the way, that Nastassia Kinski looks like her father Klaus? Also, that Klaus Kinski looks almost exactly like Robert Kennedy? Oh damn, better get back to Return of the King...
Where were we?
While everyone's waiting about, Aragorn gets a visit from Elrond, who brings him Narsil reforged, and informs him that Arwen, for some reason, is dying. This invention by Jackson is simply mystifying...apparently he felt the story just wasn't dramatic enough...either that or it was an attempt to inject more Liv Tyler into the thing. But it's simply worthless, and the time could've been spent on something else.
Theoden tells Eowyn she's got to stay behind...Miranda Otto looks incredibly unhappy; we feel for her, we really do, and it's not just her performance and cuteness...the scene is well-written, and Bernard Hill does a good job too.
Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas head on into the Paths of the Dead...back at camp, everyone's upset that Aragorn is leaving. We learn the muster is insufficient, and that the Sauron's forces are going to win down in Gondor. However, Theoden, to cheer everyone up, says, "We will meet them nonetheless." This is particularly silly; I guess it was an attempt to capture the whole Byrtnoth, Northern Thing, "as our Strength lessens" sensibility, but having my king uttering such stuff would simply be a downer, rather similar to that bit in Two Towers where Aragorn blurts out, "Then I will die beside them!" in front of all the desperate Rohirrim before Helm's Deep.
Aragorn and Co. approach the Paths of the Dead through that strange patch of NZ badlands, with steep vertical sides and gulleys, where Jackson filmed the opening of Dead Alive, you know, the place where the Sumatran Rat Monkeys hang out. It's very creepy looking. Not what Tolkien had in mind, I think, but...the whole Dunharrow-Paths of the Dead sequence is one of the vaguest, most ill-thought out sections in Tolkien's trilogy. He gives you no real sense of the topology (odd for him), and everything about the ghosts is rather indefinite. Yeah, they broke faith with Aragorn's ancient relatives, and yeah, he has the right to call them up, but we don't get any concrete idea of what they're like now at all. Also, it's sort of problematic that Aragorn uses them on the Corsairs and then just holds their oath fulfilled, instead of using them at Minas Tirith later....Jackson's Aragorn at least retains their services at the Pelennor Fields.
This is not to say that Jackson fixes things by rendering them more concrete and superficially more logical. His Paths of the Dead Sequence is just kind of juvenile, with a lot of walking on scary skulls, and Gimli freaking out, and ghostly fingers picking at his nose and making him sneeze. The King of the Dead and his guys are nifty in a comic-bookish kind of way, and they live in a cool ghost city, but they're not scary...I would've gone for something rather more J-horrorish, like that black apparition you get towards the end of Kairo,the one who's out-of-focus except for his eyes. But the whole Dead sequence could've been a whole lot more annoying...Jackson actually did a scene where the ghostly city bursts open in a flood of skulls...it's just peculiar and arbitrary, and removing the thing out for the theatrical version was a good idea.
Back at Dunharrow, the Rohirrim are pulling out...Theoden tells Pippin he can't go. Pip's really bummed, but then a mystery rider comes and picks him up...turns out it's Eowyn. We're happy that both of them are going to get a chance to put their necks on the line.
Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli emerge on the banks of the Anduin...even though they've been copiously skulled, they don't seem to have the Dead Army with them. The Corsairs of Umbar show up, heading for Minas Tirith on the river. The boats and the water effects in these shots are not very convincing...the water in particularly is very lackluster and dull, and the boats don't look like real objects. The rare scenes in the Trilogy with bum special effects real stand out, because the standard on the rest is so high...generally, when there's some unsuccessful stuff, I try not to let it take me out of the movie, although I feel justified in bitching here.
Sauron's forces finally arrive at Minas Tirith. Once again, the military dispositions are ridiculous...all the baddies (and there sure are a shitload) just park themselves in front of the wall and stand there in formation. In Tolkien, they got there and laid seige, set up camp, dug trenches, etc. I suppose the idea here is that they're just going to prevail immediately with their seige engines, but...no army could comport itself this way. It is impressive visually, though...I think you could make an excellent case that Return of the King is the most incredible movie spectacle ever.
It is odd, however, that arrow-riddled Faramir could've been dragged by his plodding horse all the way from Osgiliath without the malefactors, who are apparently only a few hundred yards behind him, taking an interest. Even more inexplicable is Denethor's reaction when Faramir is brought to him...after freaking out about his son, he takes a look over the battlements and sees Sauron's army, which, apparently, he hasn't taken a peek at before. Once again, it's like that bit with Brad Dourif in Two Towers at Orthanc...the shot of the assembled legions is pretty awesome, but I'd like it better if things made sense.
We get this kind of dumbed-down visualist stuff, by the way, because of the evil influence of numbnutssimus George Lucas. It's all his fault. But I digress.
Anyway, Denethor freaks out even more, and Gandalf has to bonk him with his staff and take over the defense of the city. The movie has Gandalf being a whole lot more active during the battle than the book does, that's perfectly reasonable cinematic license...unlike changing Denethor from a proud dignified ruler at the end of his rope to a tomato-juice drooling, overly complicated nincompoop.
Sauron's forces commence the assault by catapulting a bunch of severed heads into the city...very glad that detail was retained. There's a catapult-vs.-trebuchet duel that's quite wonderful...the assault towers are pushed up by trolls...the state of the art FX mayhem from this point on is simply so stunning and well directed that you stop thinking about problems for long stretches. I love the fact that the defenders are trebucheting great big chunks of marble buildings into the enemy ranks; the scenes with the winged Nazgul swooping in and out and snatching up little guys and dropping them from tremendous heights are simply tremendous...kinda makes you wish you were a Nazgul.
In a scene that's not from the book, a seige-tower lets down its ramp and Gandalf and Pippin find themselves up to their eyeballs in orcs. It's exciting and well-staged, and even if it's sort of hard to believe that Pippin could save Gandalf's bacon in such a situation, we're glad he does.
A battering-ram is applied to the gates, but doesn't achieve anything...Gothmog orders his lackeys to bring up Grond. If I'd been Gothmog, I'd have started with Grond right from the gitgo, but whatever. Grond is wonderful, a giant ram with a ravening wolf's head at the business end. I don't think you'd want to have the business end hollow and full of fire, because that would lessen the impact and make the ram more liable to collapse, but it all just looks preposterously cool...
Right about here, the first disc ends and you have to put on disc two.
That opens with Aragorn and his chums going down to speak to the Corsairs as they sail by. When the Corsairs don't turn around, we learn that the Dead have been following Aragorn, and that they can just go rolling out over the water...the Corsairs are overwhelmed. I do wonder what it was like for Aragorn and co. on board those ships afterwards...were the dead going up in the rigging and singing yo-ho-ho? Drinking rum? Did Aragorn and the King of the Dead sit down and have a heart to heart? Did Gimli amuse the ghosts with farts and pratfalls? Golly I hope so.
As for Frodo and Gollum, they arrive at Shelob's Lair. It's nothing like Tolkien's version, which was pitch black...after the fashion of most movie caves, Jackson's version is quite nicely lit, and really, in a movie, as in real life, completely black blackness is rather a problem. The spider arrangements are quite horrible to look at, and that's justification in itself, although they don't make any sense...at least, not unless there were some other, smaller spiders than Shelob about. After all, Shelob's this big monster, and Jackson's version seems to have deposited silk into every nook and cranny in the caves, going back and forth in ways that would have, among other things, torn up her own webs. Shelob herself is based on some sort of really deadly NZ spider that apparently apparently terrifies the shit out of Jackson, although she should've been more black-widowish...also, as per usual, Jackson substitutes running around for actual fear. In the book, you have a bunch of highlights on Shelob's multiple black eyes as she approaches, and Frodo has to use Galadriel's luminous vial to back her down...in the movie, he stumbles and screams and gets caught in an improbable web, the scene a rather blatant rip-off of the spider-gremlin bit in Gremlins 2, I kid you not.
Anyway, he slices his way out, and, in a bizarre trackway that seems to have been smoothed by Shelob's bulbous gut, has an encounter with Gollum, who's most put out that Her Majesty didn't kill the Hobbit...he gets chucked down inside a fissure...Frodo continues on towards the pass of Cirith Ungol.
The Rohirrim, meanwhile, are heading towards Gondor...there's a good scene between Eowyn and Merry....In Minas Tirith, Denethor decides he's going to burn himself alive and take Faramir with him onto the pyre. From this point on, the Denethor strand is much more like the book, and ultimately it'll get pretty potent.
Climbing down the Secret Stair, Sam finds the lembas that Gollum tossed over the side, and decides to go back up and save Frodo...given the fact that Sam would've known all along that it was just a trick, I don't know why finding the Lembas would've made any difference. As for Frodo, he doesn't realize that Shelob's still after him...she gets him too...when she stings him in the stomach, Elijah Wood's expression is somewhat comical, but the stuff where she wraps Frodo up is really really ghastly, and Sam's eruption onto the scene is thrilling. In the book, the spider-fight consisted largely of Sam hacking into her eyes and then having her trying to crush him and coming down on his blade...you get all that in the movie, although the fight itself goes on much longer. I didn't mind though...Shelob's a great special effect, and the action is vigorously directed. Frodo looks deader than hell when Sam rips open the webbing and takes the ring...you're quite thoroughly horrified, and really empathize with Sam. And when a bunch of orcs from Cirith Ungol show up, Sam hides, they take Frodo, and we find out that Frodo's merely zonked from venom and not dead, we're even more horrified.
For what it's worth, this material works rather better in the movie than it did in the book...Tolkien had a very complicated cave-setup, involving multiple tunnels and a door with a gap between its top and the lintel, so that Sam could hear the orcs, and at a very long distance too. Hate to say it, but Tolkien really wrote himself into a corner with the Shelob's lair-Cirith Ungol stuff, and had to tie himself in knots to keep our protagonists alive...Jackson's logic here is far less tortured.
Back at Minas Tirith, Grond is making hash of the main gate...Gandalf tries to organize a defense, but a horde of trolls busts in. In the book, the besiegers never get into the city, but here they do, and it's genuinely terrifying, featuring amazing motion-control bits where we just catch little shaky glimpses of the monsters beyond this or that corner. Pippin comes and tells Gandalf that Faramir's alive, and that Denethor is going to burn him...Gandalf heads on up to put a stop to all that. As he's approaching the tombs where Denethor is about to start these festivities, Gandalf is intercepted by the Witch-King, although this confrontation is interrupted when day breaks and the Rohirrim arrive. This sequence, which corresponds to the bit in the book where the gate is broken and the Witch-king rides in briefly, was cut from the theatrical version, and I'm ambivalent. It's a good scene, although the geography makes no sense, given what's already been established about the city...I don't expect most people pay attention to things like that.
But as I said, the Rohirrim have arrived at last, and what comes next is super. Interestingly, when I was younger, I used to do all these really complicated Tolkien pictures with India ink or Bic pens...some of these things wound up with Tolkien himself, and God knows what became of them. Most of the ones I still had were destroyed when my house burned a while back, but I've still got one of the last pictures, a Panavision shot of the Riders lined up and ready to go, diagonal composition...aside from the fact that I had the sky being quite black, the picture is extremely similar to a lot of Jackson's shots along the Eorlinga front ranks.
When Merry and Eowyn first clap eyes on the forces arrayed against them, there are some fine reaction shots...one of the things I really love about these movies is that the people will see things like the Balrog, or a giant Mordor-host, and really look scared. But everybody gets rousingly bucked-up by Theoden's speech, which is straight from the book, and really does capture the whole Northern thing ethic quite beautifully; as the Riders charge, Howard Shore's music swells powerfully. For the movie to be any good, this sequence had to be tremendous---when C.S. Lewis read Tolkien's original, he said, "That's as good as anything in Homer," and he was dead right. Well, Jackson truly nails it...it brings tears to the eyes and makes your throat catch...great, great stuff, with unusually visceral CG when the riders go crashing in among the orcs and riding them down.
After all that, the story shifts back to Denethor, and while you might think it would lose some pressure, it doesn't at all...Tolkien's version was quite nightmarish, capturing the horrifying pagan despair that Denethor was lapsing into, and Jackson, once again, does quite the job. John Noble seems exactly like Denethor at this point...my only quibble is Denethor catching fire, running a very long distance, and flying over the battlements, a human torch. But then we're right back into the primo carnage below.
The Rohirrim, needless to say, are cutting quite a swath through the orcs, but they don't get things all their own way...where Tolkien had a bunch of cavalry-on-cavalry stuff between the Eorlingas and the Haradrim, Jackson serves up a counterattack by Oliphaunts, which I have to say, were underemployed by Tolkien. Here were have some of the most eye-popping giant monster biz imaginable...the oliphaunts are extremely memorable designs, brachiosaur-sized titans with multiple tusks and great big shuddering castle-like howdahs on their backs, filled with nasty painted southrons...I don't believe for one moment that the Rohirrim could've brought any of these things down, but you really get swept away by the imagery as they ride in and under the beasts, shooting arrows and spearing their legs. You feel somewhat sorry for the monsters when they do come crashing to earth, but boy, they do crash impressively...I particularly like the way the howdahs shudder and slip and come splintering to peices.
And as if all this is not enough, the Witch-King, who's apparently been biding his time somewhere, finally descends into the fray! Theoden's horse is killed, and he gets crushed under it...Eowyn steps up to protect the dying king...the Nazgul's mount lands, and we finally get a good look at its head...it's rather better here. Anyway, Eowyn chops it off pretty shortly, and the big decapitated corpse collapses, with the Witch-King rising up out of the wreck. The design on the Nazgul boss is rather better here than it was in the book...Tolkien's Witch King just had a crown floating atop an invisible head, with a couple of red-glowing eyes hanging between...Jackson's Nazgul Lord has that fabulous mean spiky helmet filled with just plain darkness...it's better.
However, just as things are warming up between Eowyn and the Witch-King, we cut away to the river, where Aragorn's captured corsair-ships are pulling in. Sauron's troops come up to greet the vessels, not knowing that they're full of living dead guys...Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas jump off, are met with scorn by the baddies...and then the ghosts come swarming out. It's funny and cool, although...interrupting the Eowyn/Nazgul action is very poor judgement, rather like the intercutting you get at the climax of that American version of The Ring...you shouldn't cut away from Sadako coming out of the TV, and you shouldn't come between the Nazgtul and his prey.
Again, Miranda Otto is compelling in the scene, more because she's cute and frail-looking than because she's a convincing warrior...in her little beaky helmet, she looks rather like an adorable baby budgie. However, The Lord of the Nazgul unships a huge wicked morning star whose head looks like it weighs about a ton, and we don't want to see the budgie get bashed...he clocks her in the arm, and gloats about how no man can kill him, and prepares to finish her. However, Merry gets in behind him and stabs him behind the knee, and Eowyn, most dramatically, flips off her helmet, reveals her long blond locks, screams, "I am no man!" and sticks her sword right into the Nazgul's helmet. In Tolkien's book, the Nazgul's clothes merely deflated as his clothes emptied out; in Jackson's version, the Witch-King spazzes and crumples in on himself... I prefer Jackson here.
As the dead sweep across the battlefield, Aragorn and his buds slaughter a bunch of Orcs...Gothmog gets dismembered. Gimli kills a lot of orcs, but Legolas gets the most spectacular exploit: he climbs aboard an oliphaunt, gets up into the howdah, shoots the shit out of the Haradrim manning it, and then brains the big beast with a point-blank arrow through the skull, leaping off as the monster comes thundering down. A lot of the earlier scenes with Legolas doing superhuman Elvish stuff, such as the thing with him sliding down on the shield in Two Towers, really didn't work, in my opinion...but his climactic elephant execution blew me away. It's yet another amazing piece of business in a battle sequence chock full of them.
The dead guys swarm into the city and clean out the orcs and trolls guys...wonder what the inhabitants made of that. Afterwards, Aragorn meets up with the undead king and holds his oath fulfilled, over Gimli's objection. Eowyn and Theoden have one last affecting scene before he finally dies. Then Eowyn gets packed off to the Houses of Healing and is cured by Aragorn; could've done without the song. Pippin finds Merry on the battlefield and gets him to the medics. In the extended version, we get the beginning of a hospital romance between Eowyn and Faramir...we're glad for them, and including this stuff is better...they show up together at the end of the theatrical version, after all.
We cut back to the Frodo/Sam material. Frodo's been taken to the fortress that guards the pass of Cirith Ungol. The shot which begins this scene is startlingly awful...the camera swoops in on a window at the tippy top of the tallest tower, and we see Frodo on the floor, and that's okay, but...the problems with scale are amazing. Frodo's about the size of the Fifty Foot Woman.
Things improve after that, though...the fortress is nicely rendered, a Gondorian fortress that's been captured and turned into an orcish pigsty. Now, even though the chain of events that lead up to Frodo getting free are fairly implausible (they were in the book), it does seem important to have our protags actually penetrating and escaping an enemy stronghold. Of course, what you really want is to get inside Barad Dur and have Sauron actually come onstage; but of course, if Sam and Frodo had actually gotten into Barad Dur they wouldn't get out. It just would've been stupid. Now, in an earlier draft of LOTR, Tolkien actually had Frodo being captured and taken into Minas Morgul...he wrote some of that stuff up...but I guess he decided that the hobbits wouldn't have gotten out of there, either. Nope, we have to settle for Cirith Ungol, sigh.
The film's version is pretty much what you have in the book...the orcs fall to fighting each other over Frodo's mithril-shirt...Sam sneaks in to find most of them dead. Some of the survivors see his shadow and assume he's much huger than he is; he kills a few and the rest flee...then he goes up to get Frodo, killing one last hideous orc-bastard. Frodo is relieved to find out that Sam took the ring, but immediately wants it back...Sam's reluctant, but gives it over...once again, someone relinquishes the ring, further undermining Jackson's rationale regarding Faramir. Damn I hate that Faramir stuff!
Frodo and Sam get into some enemy armor and go out into Mordor. Given the way the orcs have been depicted up till this point, I don't know why anybody would believe the Halflings are orcs, seeing as how the orcs are all about man sized...it made more sense in the book.
Back at Minas Tirith, the victors have a council of war...Seeing as how Gandalf was resurrected after his death and sent back by God Himself at the "Turn of the Tide," Gandalf is oddly defeatist now. He sits and sighs and stares and says, "I've sent Frodo to his doom." But Aragorn peps everyone up with a wild suggestion: why not march the army up the Black Gate, and thus distract Sauron and give Frodo a better chance? In the book, this is mainly Gandalf's idea...having Aragorn propose it kinda beefs up Aragorn'e role, I suppose, and after all, he is the titular king. Still, Gandalf being all morose is just incoherent characterization, and one more example of Jackson's incurable tendency to take dialogue from one person and give it to another.
As part of the distract-Suron campaign, Aragorn shows himself in the Palantir...Sauron responds by giving him a vision of Arwen on her deathbed. As I said earlier, I just don't know what to make of this dying-Arwen strand...the movie would be better without it.
There is, however, a whole bunch of consistently great stuff after this. As the allied host heads out from Gondor, Frodo and Sam make for Mount Doom, and the two story threads are much more rapidly intercut. The Hobbits get swept up in one of the orc-columns that's on the move to the black gate; there's a particularly horrendous mutilated orc-chieftain who takes an interest in them; Frodo and Sam pretend to start a fight, and all the orcs, quarrelsome creatures that they are, swiftly join in, giving our guys a chance to bug out. Afterwards, it's a slog across some very nasty stony desert, lensed in some well-chosen NZ volcanic landscapes. We have the scene with Frodo and Sam dropping their armor (along with Sam's beloved cooking gear) into a fissure, some paranoia about being spotted by the Eye, and Sam seeing the star far overhead, reminding him that there's some true untouchable beauty in the heavens...finally they reach the slopes of Mount Doom.
Aragorn and crowd, meanwhile, have arrived at the Black Gate; when Aragorn demands that Sauron come out, the mega-hideous Mouth of Sauron appears, at least in the extended version. Orginally, apparently, Jackson was going to have Sauron himself show up, in the guise of an angel of light; they even did some animatics of this, I believe; but they decided, wisely, to can the idea. Why would Sauron come out, after all? On the other hand, I wouldn't have axed the Mouth of Sauron; grotesquely made-up gob enlarged by special effects, he's a true apparition, played by the Road Warrior's gyro-pilot, Bruce Spence. I really liked the crack below his lower lip---obviously his great big teeth caused the skin to split. Jackson decided not to go with this because of the change in structure between the books and the film; since the Frodo/Sam strand wasn't interwoven with the other material in the books, we didn't know that Frodo had escaped from the orcs; in the film, having the Mouth of Sauron come out with Frodo's Mithril-shirt just didn't add any suspense, because all this stuff was being intercut with Frodo and Sam reaching Mount Doom. Aragorn and crowd might be demoralized, but we aren't. But I knew how the story turned out going in, and I bet most of the audience did too, and I'd rather have retained Bruce Spence's collossal maw. Also, I liked it when Aragorn chopped off his head. That wasn't in the book, but I am a fan of decapitations, simulated ones, at least.
Aragorn delivers a speech. It isn't as good as Theoden's speech before the Pelennor fields, probably because Tolkien didn't write it. Aragorn's is kind of a riff on Henry the Fifth, and doesn't really make it...one bit, about everybody fighting here, "on this good earth" is mystifying...good earth? Before the gates of Mordor? What were Jackson, etc all thinking? It's rather like that bit in the Welles Macbeth, in which Duncan, arriving in Macbeth's dank dark barbarian-age stone pile, full of gibbetted corpses, says, "This castle has a pleasant seat."
But Aragorn's speech doesn't last too long and the final battle starts...our guys rush headlong into the enemy ranks (in the book, they stayed up on a couple of hills, rather more sensibly) but I don't mind one more charge. Jackson was going to have Aragorn hacking and hewing at Sauron himself, but didn't, thank God; a bit of Sauron animatic actually made it into the film though, during the fight between Aragorn and that troll.
All this has been interleaved with Frodo/Sam biz, which has been getting more harrowing...the thing where Sam carries Frodo up the slope is genuinely excruciating, and the part where Sam gets his first view of the entrance to the Cracks of Doom is simply awesome cinema, given a gigantic boost by some great Howard Shore biblical epic music. Then we get a vicious clash with Gollum, who's looking even more venemous and wicked than ever...Sam knocks him off Frodo with a rock, then finds himself fighting him tooth and nail, finally driving him off with a sword-slash to the ribs, as Frodo stumbles on up into the side of Mount Doom.
The interior of the Cracks of Doom is impressively hellish...I love the outhrust stony projection that hangs over the lava. When Frodo decides to take the ring for himself, it's one of the rare moments when Elijah Wood is actually effective...he looks extremely evil (actually Elijah generally works better as an evil little creep, as in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Sam's reaction is perfect, although just about everything Sean Astin does in this movie is spot-on...anyway, this particular scene is intensely horrifying, and once we get the shot of Sauron reacting to Frodo donning the Ring, and his eye turning towards Mount Doom, and the Nazgul at the Black Gate turning towards Mount Doom themselves, we truly feel like everything in the whole damn world is teetering on the brink.
Gollum bopping Sam on the head and then advancing on Frodo works well, although having Gollum floating in midair with his legs locked around Frodo's invisible body does not. Yeah, the basic idea is immediately apparent, and interesting, but the image is funny and cartoony...having Gollum fighting with his feet planted would've been just plain better. However, when Frodo got his finger bitten off, it made my hands hurt. I would've preferred Gollum just dancing on the edge and going over, seeing as how, if Frodo had grabbed him and they both went over together, it's almost inconceivable that Frodo could've snagged anything to hold onto...in addition, he's just as crazy as Gollum about the ring at that point, and probably wouldn't have relinquished his grip on him. However, that long shot staying with Gollum all the way to the bottom is very cool, and so is the inscription on the ring lighting up from the heat just before the circlet melts.
Of course, the volcano science throughout is all wack; Gollum would've been a proto-halfling torch long before he actually hit the lava; moreover, while he might've splashed a bit, he wouldn't have sunk in, seeing as how he wouldn't have been remotely as dense as the liquid stone...not sure if anyone should care about this, though.
I was quite taken , however, with Sauron's reaction to the ring's destruction...loved his eye getting all white-hot and dysfunctional and losing its form...the collapse of Barad Dur is just as wonderful as it needed to be, as is the crumbling of the Towers of the Teeth, and the giant explosion that blows the top off Mount Doom. It's extremely persuasive when the good guys before the gate display all kinds of elation, then realize that Frodo must've gotten zorched, and slide right then into terrible grief.
But we know that Frodo and Sam are still alive, even if they're way out on a crag, surrounded by lava; Sam revealing that he would've liked to have married Rosie Cotton is great, as is Frodo's declaration that he's glad to have Sam with him, "here, at the end of all things." And just when you think things couldn't get any more moving, the eagels come swooping in! There's a bit of a crib from the Road Warrior,, namely the thing where we're looking down on Frodo as he's going along in the eagle's claw...it's plainly derived from that shot of Max after he's been rescued by the Gyro-Pilot. But it's exactly the shot to crib..fade out to a bedroom in Minas Tirith.
The scene where Frodo wakes up and everyone comes and bounces on his bed and laughs for no reason simply sucks. After a while, as more and more people come to visit, it begins to remind one of the stateroom scene in Night at the Opera. I can't say I cared for Aragorn's coronation much either. Viggo Mortensson's song stylings seem rather stiff and uncomfortable (Miranda Otto's Old English warblings were much better), and his kiss with Liv Tyler just seemed wrong. Still, we're glad to have final glimpses of Elrond and Legolas and Gimli.
The return to the Shire is just fine. Love Frod and Sam and Pippin and Merry riding up in their foreign duds and the other hobbits looking at them as though they've all got two heads. It's a pity we didn't get the Scouring of the Shire, but I understand why we didn't. The scene where our heroes are sitting, unappreciated, in the Prancing Pony while an Andy Serkis hobbit is lionized because of a giant pumpkin that he's just hauled in is priceless. We're delighted by Sam and Rosie's wedding; and we feel a considerable pang when we realize that Frodo can't re-adjust to the Shire because he was damaged so badly by his struggle with the ring. When Gandalf shows up with the wagon with Bilbo in it, the makeup job on Bilbo is rather too thick and obvious, but we're happy to see Bilbo again, even if we're shocked that he's aged so much. The Grey Havens don't quite make it as a special effect...they're rather too gingerbready and golden (they should, of course, be grey) but then again, Tolkien doesn't give us much to go on. Frodo's farwell to his friends is, again, quite touching, particularly the line about how "the Shire has been saved, but not for me." The shot of the ship heading out is none too convincing, but the movie had earned sufficient goodwill at this point (for me at least), that I put up with it.
First time I saw the film, though, I was worried right up until the end that Jackson was going to tamper with the last line, Sam returning and saying, "Well, I'm back." Well, as you already know, that wasn't messed with, and I've been a bit more relaxed about everything every since.
The end credits, with some nifty Alan Lee artwork, are very nice...I was particularly interested to note that, whenever a New Line Exec's name comes up, it's accompanied by a picture of Sauron, a Nazgul, an orc, or some other kind of baddy. Which brings me to our final summation and scorecard...I think at least fifty percent of the blame on the stuff that doesn't work probably should be laid at the feet of New Line. They had a lot of crummy ideas that introduced all sorts of distortions into the final product even though Jackson sometimes succeeded in ameliorating them. On the other hand, New Line did put up the money, and decided to pay for three pictures, when Jackson was only expecting two..that's something.
As far as the characters go, Gollum is perfect; Gandalf, Sam, Bilbo, Boromir, Legolas, Saruman, Legolas, Eomer and Wormtongue are about as good; Elrond, Merry, Pippin and Treedbeard are pretty successful; Faramir, Denethor, and Theoden are all well-cast and played, although they're let down by the screenplay. I don't think Viggo Mortenssen clicks; he doesn't seem like enough of a craggy weathered badass. Liv Tyler looks like her dad, as I've said for the third time now, and Kate Blanchett looks swell but talks too slow, and her big scene is really ill conceived. Gimli is right at the bottom of the barrel...the idea of thirteen Jackson-style dwarves in The Hobbit is rather chilling.
Overall, the effects are fantastic; the movie is one of the greatest FX films ever, and in that respect, hasn't aged a bit since it came out, Gollum being the single finest achievement. The music by Howard Shore is simply wonderful...vaults right into the front ranks of classic film scores...huge number of tracks and a host of wholly different themes. The screenplay is variable, oddly schizophrenic...for the most part, it works best when it sticks to Tolkien, although there are any number of moments when it improves on the original, or opens things out in a perfectly desirable way. The photography starts off okay, but improves steadily...good-looking movie on the whole. As for Jackson's direction, it's almost always good, and rises to some pretty awesome heights when it needs to.
So there. Man, I sure have run off at the mouth about these movies.
Bit of a postscript. There is a certain amount of stuff that Jackson didn't mine...I presume that whoever holds the rights could just go in and make some other films, look into the matter, at any rate. You could make a scary little wierd eighty-minute long Tom Bombadil movie, for example. Just assume that the audience knows who the Hobbits are, and why they're on the run (maybe even have some black riders at the beginning and the end), and have them plunging into the Old Forest. Spend about the first third of the film on steadily creepier tree-horror, climaxing with old Man Willow and our guys getting bailed out by Tom. Have him be fairly bizarre...he should be played by a slightly porked-out Ewan Macgregor, or maybe Kenneth Branagh. He takes the Hobbit to his house, we meet Goldberry, and thing are tres odd. The middle third of the movie is Tom describing some of his exploits....I guess you might have to secure the rights to Adventures of Tom Bombadil. Then the last quarter or third of the film could be the Hobbits out on the Barrow-Downs, running afoul of some very creepy wights, and being rescued by Tom...might even see him facing down the Black Riders as the Hobbits escape into Bree.
You could also do a Scouring of the Shire movie...might lend itself to adaptation rather easier. Have Frodo and crew departing, then zero in on Rosie Cotten et. al as Saruman's slimebags infiltrate the place, facilitated by Lotho Pimple...do a real slow burn and make it really unsettling and rather painful, with more and more of the Shire being ruined. Then, long about halfway, or perhaps two-thirds along, our heroes return, and put everything to rights in a series of ambushes.
Anyway, I would like to see either of those movies...actually you could film them very successfully in Delaware and Maryland, believe or not, in White Clay Creek, Middle Run, the Judge Morris Estate, and Fair Hill. Seriously, we have stuff around here that beats the NZ Shire locations all to hell...