Every month (or so…..I swear they’re coming more regularly) we take a look at a movie on the Internet Movie Database’s List of the TOP 250 FILMS OF ALL-TIME. These are movies that transcend a simple “My Favorite Scene” column. These are movies that are hard to just pry five gems from, but we do and examine the film overall. We’re on our eleventh installment in this series. Click on the links for The Shawshank Redemption, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Dark Knight, Pulp Fiction , Schindler’s List, 12 Angry Men, The Good The Bad and The Ugly, The Return of the King, and Fight Club to check out previous installments.
Having made it through the top 10, we come to #11 on the IMDB Top 250: the opening chapter in Peter Jackson’s flawless adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. Taking Tolkien’s masterpiece from the province of literary scholars and the kids who sat alone at lunch in high school, Jackson showed the whole world the scope of Middle-Earth (to such extent that New Zealand, where both the LOTR and Hobbit films were shot, pretty much considers itself Middle-Earth). The Lord of the Rings is my favorite film, and I treat it as one 12 hour epic, not three parts, but this works out to my advantage as all three chapters are in the top 15 and I get to showcase fifteen scenes instead of just five.
We already talked a great deal about what a triumph The Lord of the Rings was when we examined Return of the King, but it bears repeating that what Peter Jackson achieved in adapting the greatest novel in the 20th Century is nothing short of astounding. All of the pressure was on Fellowship. You could compare it to the skepticism/hope that preceded The Force Awakens last year. Tolkien fans couldn’t quite believe they were going to get as faithful a translation of the author’s masterpiece as possible and have it still somehow appeal to a mass audience that had never embraced epic fantasy on the big screen. One of the most brilliant pieces in the entire saga is the prologue to Fellowship. That seven minutes of exposition conveys so much of the world and the history of Middle-Earth to newcomers, while showing die hard fans just how epic in scope and faithful in detail these films were going to be.
As with every film in the Middle-Earth saga, the extended cut of the film is far superior to the theatrical (I honestly don’t know why anyone would watch the theatrical cuts again). This is, probably, my favorite of the trilogy. I tend to prefer beginnings over endings, and the Fellowship being all together is sort of like having a Dungeons & Dragons version of the Avengers (not to mix geek metaphors). I also think I love it so much because, until The Hobbit films, this was all you get of Gandalf the Grey, who is my favorite character in literature. Gandalf the White is the same person, of course, but at the same time elevated; from angel to archangel. I miss the hat and the pipe and the Grey’s absent minded professor feeling. Ian McKellan might very well never win an Oscar, and you can make your arguments for Gods & Monsters, but his losing to Jim Broadbent for Iris is one of those injustices that you can only look back on and shake your head. Pulling just five scenes out of this film is still agony, but here are my favorite.
1. The Bridge at Khazad-dum; Gandalf vs. The Balrog
Full battle between Gandalf and the Balrog spanning Fellowship and Two Towers.
In the months leading up to the film and standing in line, this was the event my friends and I were most anticipating. The Balrog has lead to so many interpretations in paintings and illustrations over the years, but the film version is my favorite. “Shadow and Flame” just as Saruman said, the creature is a cross between a Minotaur and a dragon, enormous and perfectly realized. When he roars, it’s as if a blast furnace has been opened. I have two cuts of the confrontation between Gandalf and the Balrog. The first begins as the Fellowship rushes across the Bridge of Khazad-dum and continues to show the heartbreak and grief that wracks the company after Gandalf falls into the chasm. It’s important to note, that Gandalf doesn’t fall. He lets go. He knows the Company would come back for him, putting the entire quest in jeopardy as the bridge itself is unstable and goblin archers are raining arrows down on the area. He sacrifices himself so that the others will go on, and “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!” has entered the lexicon of iconic movie lines.
The other cut is fan made, but brilliantly edits together the entirety of the fight from when the Balrog’s first footsteps are heard (just look in Gandalf’s eyes; he already knows he’s going to die) to the finish of the fight as recounted by Gandalf the White to Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli in The Two Towers. It’s a bit of a cheat, since The Two Towers will be examined soon enough, but it’s great to see the entirety of one of the greatest one on one battles in screen history.
2. Boromir’s Last Stand
I hated Boromir in the book. He was a character I felt had no nuance to him other than greed, and it bothered me not a bit when he met his end. Sean Bean did such a fantastic job taking this character and showing his motivation. He didn’t lust after the One Ring simply for himself but genuinely believed it might save the city where he was the equivalent of a prince. The humanity he gives Boromir makes all that happens between his brother and father in later films all the more poignant. If I was making a list of best death scenes, this easily makes it. From his redemption, to the agonizing impact of every arrow, until he passes in the arms of Aragorn: his captain and king. It’s heart-breaking, but in his death, Boromir shows the true character of his life and completely changed forever how I viewed that character.
3. Pity, Death, and Judgement
One of the things that makes The Lord of the Rings both my favorite film and book is that there’s genuine wisdom to it. There are passages in LOTR that have given me more solace or guided me more than verses in the Bible. I don’t mean that as a comparison between the two; if you’re primarily looking for wisdom, you hit the one written by The Big Guy (and Tolkien, as a good Catholic, would heartily agree). But this little scene between Gandalf and Frodo in Moria when Frodo wishes Bilbo had killed Gollum when he had the chances so many decades before, is so profound. Not only in how it prophecies that Bilbo’s act of pity might save them all (and does, as Frodo would have taken the Ring for himself in Mount Doom had Gollum not been there to wrest it away), but that all life is precious and all we can do in ours is make the most of what we can with what we are given. All that profundity in a tiny little scene of two minutes.
4. Balin’s Tomb and the Cave Troll Battle
Whatever your opinion of The Hobbit trilogy (and I loved it), one thing it does is make this scene in the Mines of Moria so much more personal. We know Balin now (played so well by Ken Stott). We spent three films with him, so now we feel Gimli’s grief at discovering his tomb. As back story, in the 60 years between The Hobbit and LOTR, Balin decided to lead a party to reclaim the Dwarven kingdom of Moria. He hoped to recover one of the lost Dwarven rings and, though the ring escaped him (Sauron already had it), the colony did thrive for a time, but Balin was cut down by a goblin archer and an army lead by the Balrog finished the rest. He wasn’t the only dwarf from The Hobbit to travel to Moria. The dusty book Gandalf picks up is resting in the skeletal hands of Ori, the slingshot-wielding youngest of the dwarves that retook The Lonely Mountain.
History listen over. What follows is really the first battle of the trilogy (complete with Peter Jackson’s beloved goblin beheadings). You see our heroes in action, what they can do and why they’re such an asset to Frodo. You also see the effort it takes to fell one cave troll, which will in short order be made to look like a LEGO figure next to the immensity of the Balrog.
5. A Wizard’s Duel
You wouldn’t think seeing two geriatric men fighting would be so cool, but the wizard’s duel that erupts upon Gandalf learning that Saruman has formed an alliance with Sauron is fantastic. It’s really the only magic on magic duel in LOTR, and it’s brutal. The great Christopher Lee had the best career after 80 years of age of any actor in the history of film. Had he been younger, Lee very likely would have played Gandalf, being a rabid fan of Tolkien’s work. It’s hard to imagine anyone else as Saruman though, and-again-to see him in The Hobbit films as part of The White Council that drives Sauron from Mirkwood and saves Gandalf to what he’s descended to 60 years later lends a lot of perspective. At the end of the day, though, it’s a great fight and show’s the difference in power level between “The White” and the other wizards.