In my review of The Fellowship of the Ring I referenced a great many things that was only going to appear in my review of the second film, and then I withheld the second review until a fair deal of other film reviews had put themselves between the two installments. In many ways this paralleled my own viewing experiences with this trilogy, where I deliberately dragged out the days between each movie so as to prolong each cycle (perhaps to get a taste of how the actual journey was like for Frodo?), as well as how I cruelly denied my friend absolution by making her wait over a week between Towers and Return (technically it really was just a simple matter of clash of schedules and reality getting in the way… though she seems inclined to differ). And in case you were wondering, it’s the same friend I referred in the first review, and she is important here as a measure of a first-timer’s viewing experience. As I’ve mentioned when reviewing Fellowship, my first viewings weren’t nearly that great, and so I lost something of the proverbial first-timer oomph.
[Allow me to digress a little here into how this whole episode started. I had always been looking for someone who was as obsessed with the film trilogy as I was (funny how there’re so many of you out there on the Internet but so few around me). We watched The Hunger Games together a few months ago, and after the film she declared it the best movie she’d ever seen. I turned to her and said, “You poor deprived soul.” The rest is, as they say, history.]
The Two Towers is actually my favourite film of the trilogy, and while I do think that The Return of the King is Jackson’s film-making at its peak – and despite repeatedly emphasising that each film improves on the merits (and demerits) of its predecessor – The Two Towers remains the best film of the trilogy, in my opinion. Oftentimes book and film trilogies suffer the middle-child syndrome, where the intermediate film suffers the most because it had the doubly-damning burdens of filler and bridge thrust upon it (more so for books than films- in films invariably the second film starts the inevitable slippery slope to mediocrity, and the third movie is where many film trilogies hit rock bottom). Not so for The Two Towers. Although shortest in terms of content (to give you an idea, the first film’s ending cuts into the literary Towers‘ beginning, and the film version of The Two Towers ends before the literary version exits, leaving out the whole sequence involving- her), and acknowledged by the film-makers themselves to be the hardest installment to make, Towers nevertheless triumphs as both sheer entertainment and supreme work of art, beginning with enough groundwork laid and ending on solid note that manages to give the audience resolution without ultimate conclusion. The second film was in fact my first exposure to The Lord of the Rings – I got into the whole saga through the movies, before I touched the books – and I could understand it perfectly despite no knowledge of the happenings of Fellowship. Yes, the groundwork is that brilliant. That I only watched the film because it was on TV and I couldn’t tear my eyes away despite starting out with no intention of watching the movie further attests to how enrapturing Towers is- a point further confirmed by my friend, who’d go to the toilet only when I assured her I’d pause. The third film may be the Oscar winner, but there’s just something raw and visceral about the second film that makes it even brighter than the polished blade that is the third film.
Everything the first film so excelled in, the second surpasses. No more of the rookie cheesiness and camp inspired by traditional sword-and-sorcery fantasies. The second film is relentlessly dark, featuring a colour palette that is primary grey, black, and brown. It puts a thick bold line under the themes highlighted in the first film: friendship, loyalty, corruption, duty, hope. It ups the stakes, revs up the action sequences, and amps up the epic-ness to dizzying levels. The Battle of Helm’s Deep is cinematography in its best form, and cinema at its most epic. The number of epic sequences is- well, I’d love to say innumerable, but barring fantastical descriptives, it’s really quite tangible, and someday I’ll do a screenshot montage of all the epic scenes. But the epic-ness is immeasurable.
Ensemble casts can go horribly wrong, as can stories tracking a large number of characters. Hell, the mediocre Hollywood flicks can’t even develop a single decent character. When you talk an entire board of living, breathing characters with their own distinct personalities and quirks, things can derail into a horrendous, pulpy mass. Luckily for us, if there’s any film that can pull this off, it’s got to be the Lord. But handling a gazillion character arcs alone is not enough, where Peter Jackson and co. are concerned. Handling different perspectives? Now we’re talking. Managing three alternating viewpoints, each as captivating as the last? Challenge accepted. Think The Avengers‘ treatment of its ensemble group of superheroes, lending just enough screen time and character development to each member of the team. Here it’s a bit different, because Sam and Frodo, Merry and Pippin, and the quartet of human, elf, dwarf, wizard are truly separated by time and space. First time I watched Two Towers, I couldn’t get enough of Legolas and the action scenes. I’ve mellowed now and eagerly soak in scenes from all three groups of the disbanded Fellowship.
Of all the things the second movie has ramped up, if you were to ask me I’d say the anteing of the emotional journeys these characters undertake is the highlight of The Two Towers. The slippery slope that Frodo continues down toward darkness and despair is the most obvious in this movie, and watching the first two films back-to-back accentuates even more the drastic change in Frodo’s character, from a carefree, smiling Hobbit in the Shire to the tragic hero here. I’ll leave off what I want to say about Frodo in the concluding paragraph, so hang in there. Merry’s and Pippin’s significance in the story is often overlooked, and it wasn’t until after repeated viewings that I was able to grasp their contribution to the story arc (as well as tell them apart). In a brilliant stroke of genius they use their talent for trickery, which caused so much trouble for the Fellowship in the first film, to drive the Ents against Saruman. It is a pleasure to watch a first-timer’s reaction to Gandalf’s resurrection. As they say, “you should see the look on your faces.” And then later on, when Aragorn takes his plunge down the cliff, my friend turned to me and pressed me for an answer as to whether he dies. (She conveniently forgot my explanation of Aragorn’s identity and why the third film was entitled Return of the King.) And when Frodo’s death is hinted at in a telepathic exchange between Galadriel and Elrond, she pressed me again about whether Frodo lives. The point I’m trying to make is, Lord of the Rings does at times seem more about its world rather than its characters, and it may be difficult to objectively analyse the character development in these films (an essential trait of a good film) in the face of so much epicness and the standing of this trilogy in the world of film, but when I saw for myself how much the films inspired my friend to care about the fates of the characters- well, that shows something there.
The characters are all the more enhanced by the outstanding script. Lord of the Rings is just so endlessly quotable. The second film, in particular, stands out in terms of the raw emotional impact of the dialogue, especially in the conversations between Sam and Frodo. And then, of course, there is Sam’s speech.
Frodo: I can’t do this, Sam.
Sam: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?
Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.
Sam: I wonder if we’ll ever be put into songs or tales.
Frodo: [turns around] What?
Sam: I wonder if people will ever say, ‘Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring.’ And they’ll say ‘Yes, that’s one of my favorite stories. Frodo was really courageous, wasn’t he, Dad?’ ‘Yes, my boy, the most famousest of hobbits. And that’s saying a lot.’
Frodo: [continue walking] You’ve left out one of the chief characters – Samwise the Brave. I want to hear more about Sam.
[stops and turns to Sam]
Frodo: Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam.
Sam: Now Mr. Frodo, you shouldn’t make fun; I was being serious.
Frodo: So was I.
[they continue to walk]
Sam: Samwise the Brave…
Merry: [to the suggestion of returning home] The fires of Isengard will spread, and the forests of Tuckborough and Buckland will burn. And all that was once great and good in this world will be gone. There won’t *be* a Shire, Pippin.
And now for the creme de la creme. One thing I look out for in my movies is character. That’s the principal reason why I so love autobiographical films and psychological thrillers. And here I where I begin my defence of Frodo Baggins. There’s been a lot of criticism leveled at both the literary version and (especially) the film reincarnation of Frodo. There are brilliant essays out there debating and re-debating (rebating?) the subject of Frodo as the hero of the books, so I’ll just direct you to a couple of them and focus instead on Elijah Wood’s Frodo. Anyhow, this is a film review, not a book review. The biggest complaint people seem to have with the films is how Peter Jackson emasculated Frodo. The Frodo Baggins of the films seems incapable of defending himself and always in need of rescue, a notion repeated again and again in Fellowship of the Ring in the scenes on Weathertop, the pursuit to Rivendell and the Mines of Moria scene. This point has been discussed so extensively that I will not bother trying to add anything constructive to the thread. I will instead ask this simple question: why do we watch films like Black Swan, True Grit, and the Bourne films, where our protagonists are clearly damaged, disturbed, even ruthless human beings? Why do we look for flaws in our superheroes, and why do perfect, all-round good characters hold no appeal for us? If we don’t ask for perfection in our heroes, then why do we look for it in Frodo? Why must we look for a traditional fantasy hero archetype in Frodo? We have Aragorn to fulfill that role. In my opinion, Frodo is possibly my most favourite character in the film trilogy, because he provides an expansive canvas for an extremely detailed, in-depth character study. He is the tragic hero whom you just want to give a hug to. He personifies the horror of the corruption that is the Ring, and he is the lens through which we see the character traits of other players like Sam and Gollum magnified. His relationship with Gollum is a brilliant stroke of story-telling. Frodo empathises and sympathises with Gollum more than Sam does because he understands the dual attraction and burden of the Ring, and in Gollum he sees what he might become in future, which makes it all the more significant for him to help Gollum- because to save Gollum from the madness of the Ring would mean a chance for his own redemption. Watching Frodo develop throughout the trilogy is like watching a madman’s slide into insanity, on a smaller, more cinematic scale, or a drug addict’s slide into dissolution, on a nobler scale. I especially love the scenes in Osgiliath. When Frodo offers the Ring to the Nazgul it makes for a moment of pure, unbridled ‘oomph’ – the proverbial ‘oomph’ moment, as I like to say, when a movie hits you so hard in the chest with it’s brilliance. Seriously the frantic back and forth cuts between the Nazgul on the fell beast and the look on Frodo’s face is… epic, to say the least. Haunting, silently cutting, cold that seeps into the dark recesses of your heart. For a while my desktop wallpaper was the Nazgul rising up on the fell beast as Frodo stands dwarfed in the foreground. I can only imagine how that shot might have looked on the big screen. That scene strikes me further as an exercise in interpretation. What exactly was Frodo thinking? Had the Ring so overpowered him that he was helpless to resist its calling to its master? I like to see it a different way. The way I see it, Frodo is fully aware of what he is doing, and that he is willingly surrendering the ring to the enemy shows just how much burden and pain the Ring brings him, so much so that he is willing to relinquish his life and his quest just to be rid of the Ring. The way I see it, Frodo isn’t overpowered by the Ring’s corruption, he’s overpowered by his own damaged spirit. Suicidal, I would have used to describe his state of mind, but it doesn’t quite seem to cover the scale of his psychological hurt. When he draws his sword on Sam, the look on his face is simply haunting: first confusion, then abject horror. The Frodo in the last shots of the film, as he expresses his gratitude for Sam, is possibly the best Frodo of the entire trilogy, because in that moment he is brave, victorious, free from the Ring for just a blink of time, and a true friend.
Rating on Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
Rating on IMDb: 8.7
Viewing history: Seen 4x! Twice on TV, twice on DVD