02 January 2004

Give me a ring some time…

One gag I rather liked in Padraig’s best man speech at the wedding the other day was his thanking of Peter Jackson for releasing The Return of the King, which made it a particularly fashionable time to be a ringbearer.
My little brother gave me The Two Towers on DVD as a Christmas present, so having watched it as a bit of revision, I went to see the final part of The Lord of the Rings on Tuesday. I was impressed, but want to see it again before I make my mind up. I’ll not give anything away, in case any of you haven’t seen it yet, but I’m not sure it’s as good as the previous two parts.
Why? Well, it wasn’t for lack of spectacle, and it certainly wasn’t for a lack of dizzyingly vertiginous shots down cliffs and mountainsides. I’ll have to see it again, as I’ve said, but I wasn’t wholly sold on the ending. I guess I’d never realised quite how important the ‘Scouring of the Shire’ really was.
For those who haven’t read the book, the final section of the trilogy is given over to the cleansing of the Shire, which has become corrupted by Saruman in the heroes’ absence. It’s been obvious since the first film that this wouldn’t be included in the final film; it’s slightly anticlimactic, it’s not crucial to the plot, and it only really works if you’ve had a good hard look at the Shire in its prime, rather than the glimpse we saw at the start of the Fellowship. I’ve been long accustomed to the idea of it being ditched from the final film, but somehow found the film a little unsatisfying without it.
If The Lord of the Rings is really about anything, it’s about how in the eternal war between good and evil the ultimate battleground is always the human soul. Jackson brings this out quite well in the film, in minor characters such as Boromir and Faramir, and above all in the central trio of Frodo, Sam, and Gollum. The focus on those three in the final film is laudable, as a lesser director might well have been tempted away from them by the more glamorous battle scenes. Jackson skilfully cuts between the great scenes of obvious heroism in battle and the quieter, more anguished, and ultimately more important scenes of the trio trekking towards Mount Doom.
And yet… while this serves to show how dangerous the Ring is, and sharply focuses on the struggles within Frodo, Gollum, and Sam, I think that their quest is made almost too important by the absence of Tolkien’s finale.
Why? Well, when you read the Shire sections that bookend Tolkien’s tale, one thing that becomes clear is the cheapness of evil; yes, the struggle with Sauron is a great and epic tale against a terrible evil force outside us, and the Ring is perhaps the most dangerous thing in the world, capable of corrupting anybody. But the Shire sequences make it quite clear that evil can be far more banal than that and that the struggle against it is an ongoing fight; evil is not something to be banished with one tremendous victory; rather, it is something within us against which we must constantly fight.
By leaving out the ‘Scouring of the Shire’, the films seem to suggest that evil only exists outside us; that, I’m sure, is something with which Tolkien would never have agreed.
Reasons not to study military history…
A friend recently e-mailed me to say how he recently finished hacking his way through my book and how this has forced him to look at battle scenes in films with newly critical eyes; he was concerned by the battle scenes in The Return of the King and wondered what I thought.
Strangely, I was quite pleased with them, though I had been scathing towards the battle sequences in The Two Towers; the main battle scene at Helm’s Deep is utterly ludicrous.
I think Peter Jackson was impressively inventive with his attempts to film this battle, so sketchily rendered by Tolkien, but having watched it three or four times now, can’t help but shake my head in dismay.
Theoden is supposedly an experienced commander, who has fought many wars. Now, I’m not sure who he’s meant to have fought against, but whoever his foes were, they were clearly tactically inept; they must have been for him to beat them.
No burning pitch to be poured on attackers? Silly, Theoden, very silly. And not guarding that drainhole at the base of the wall? Very careless. But as for listening to Aragorn? Madness.
At one point Saruman’s orks break through the fortress’s walls, and Aragorn is holding the gap with a force of Elven archers. Now, the elves are clearly outnumbered, but it’s a confined space, so there numerical inferiority doesn’t count for much. Besides which, they’ve all got bows and arrows; these elves are not merely crack marksmen, they’re fast too. They can lash off arrows with an astounding speed. What does Aragorn do? He lets them fire one volley and then has them charge the bigger, stronger orks, all of whom are wielding huge heavy hacking weapons. The elves don’t stand a chance.
Later on, just as the fortress is clearly doomed, he persuades the King to ride out against the orks. Ride out? In a confined space? Is he entirely mad? Horses would be less manoeuvrable than orks on foot, making their riders easy targets. This wouldn’t merely be a suicide ride; it’d be a bloody embarrassing one.Yes, I know the orks get beaten off by the riders, but that’s cinematic license. There is no way that would have happened.
And then, of course, there’s that truly surreal moment where hundreds of horses charge down what appears to be a cliff covered with scree against a waiting army of pike-bearing orks. Where do we start here? Having horses running down a cliff is an impressively absurd cock-up; all it would take would be one stumble – and let’s be fair, it’d be an achievement for one not to – and the whole lot would come down in a giant bloodied horseball.
And then there are those waiting orks, with their spears sticking out. Gandalf may blind them, but while some may drop their spears, and others may raise them, none seem to run away. So in effect what you have is hundreds of horses crashing into a prickly wall of flesh; dozens of horses would have been hideously skewered, and then hundreds more horses would have collided into them from behind, turning the edge of the battlefield into a long dyke of mangled corpses, horses, men, and orks all mingled in a bloodied mass.
All it would have taken to make that work would be to have the slope be gentler and the orks to have broken and ran. There’s a battle scene in The Return of the King where Jackson gets that exactly right; the Rohirrim charge in and seeing them the orks panic and turn; this opens gaps between them allowing the horses to ride among the orks, the riders slashing to left and right.
Oh well. I’ve enjoyed all the films, I have to admit. A lot, in fact. I reckon there’ll be more DVD purchases to be made.

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