The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers – revisited

(2002, dir. Peter Jackson)
52-week film challenge, film 16


It’s difficult to believe that just over 20 years have passed since the release of this, the “middle bit” of Jackson’s epic LOTR trilogy of films. A local IMAX screen has been showing the trilogy recently, and I was intrigued by the “remastered for IMAX” tag they added, so I went along to visit this old friend of a movie.

(A brief side note on that particular screening: I should have stayed at home. It was not “remastered for IMAX,” it was just the Blu-ray theatrical version blown up (in proportion, thank heavens) to fit the wider IMAX screen. There were problems with resolution and frame-skipping in the action sequences as a result. Very disappointing.)

When these three films came out originally, I was pretty obsessed with them, since I was re-reading the tales for the first time since college — not to mention the impact the first film had had on fans and first-time viewers alike. It truly brought the story out of “cult” status, and captured the mainstream through a combination of clever screenwriting (to bring cinematic order to the sprawl of Tolkien’s world-building) and state-of-the-art effects work.

According to my first review (back in 2002 on this very blog), I watched The Two Towers at least 10 times while it was in cinemas, both as a student of filmmaking and a Tolkien fan. It was a wonderful feeling to see packed houses and appreciative audiences who would never in a million years have read the dense and nuanced source material.

It was great to see them enjoying a tale that, although laden with special effects, wasn’t a crap sci-fi misfire like Attack of the Clones or the forgettable fantasy Reign of Fire — the latter was about dragons, and nobody remembers it. No, The Two Towers was a “war” movie that focused on the foot soldiers, the power brokers, and the innocent victims who get swept along.

Ironically, the film is probably one of the best “epic battle” movies ever made, though I can think of a few others of that lofty ranking. Both as a book and as a movie, it benefits hugely from all the scene-setting and character-introducing work done in the first movie (The Fellowship of the Ring).

This means that there is little in the way of backstory — since if you were going to see this one, it means you saw the first one, and we get straight on into the action. We do start off with a brief (very brief) recap of the (film) climax of Fellowship, the fall of Gandalf the Grey (and a bit more of what happened in his battle with the Balrog).

Then there is a good-sized break in the action to update us on the progress of the other characters as we left them in the first film — Sam and Frodo trying to enter Mordor; Merry and Pippin held hostage by Orcs and Uruk Hai, and Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas in hot pursuit. Jackson wisely shifts around between the three disparate groupings, signaling the depth and vastness of the different paths the Fellowship is taking towards the same goal.

It is with Sam and Frodo that we quickly meet up with the real star of the second film; the stunningly-realised Gollum (Andy Serkis). Although the character is obviously a CGI-generated effect, he convinces us totally of his physical presence. This is entirely due to Gollum having a physical presence during the filming for the animators to work off of. Played (and voiced by) Serkis, Gollum is (pardon the pun) fleshed out and made convincingly whole as a result.

Not only do the other actors have someone real to interact with, but they hear the voice we hear (one of the more remarkable vocal performances in many a year) — this was the secret to making Gollum so credible, and it really holds up. I would have loved to have seen the faces of Elijah Wood and Sean Astin when they finally got to see how all but Serkis’ facial expressions and movements were replaced with the Gollum character.

Praise should not be spared to the animators as well; though they had a remarkable (and undersung) actor’s performance as a strong starting point, they beautifully embellished it, expanding on Serkis’ unseen physicality and captured facial expressions in an eerie yet beautiful way. Serkis and the animation team should have been awarded a shared Oscar, for Gollum was the most fluid of collaborations between computer animation and human performance that had yet been seen on screen.

What Elijah Wood and Sean Astin saw (right), versus what we saw (left).

The film jumps around between these three sets of main characters, as well as introducing us to new plotlines and the characters that go with them — the Rohirrim, King Theoden and his daughter Eomer, Grima Wormtongue, the Ents, and so on. We learn a lot more about the “manufacture” of the Uruk Hai and the raising of Saruman’s army (which is representative of several nation-states, not just Orcs and Uruk Hai), but of course this is all glossed over compared to the book, because we only have three hours!

We can feel the film’s elements coming together, slowly at first but quickening in pace alongside returning “minor” (in the film) characters like Elrond, Arwen, and Saruman, and the buildup to war is effectively communicated. The film’s climax is the first test of Sauron’s forces, the battle for Helm’s Deep and its aftermath, which makes sense from a film perspective but falls well short of where the actual second book in the trilogy ended.

Mind you, Tolkien never intended the story to end up as three books — that was a merciful publisher’s choice — so the divisions in the books are just as “artificial” as those in the films. Jackson is guilty of rearranging the storylines a bit, glossing over or underplaying some important foreshadowing, and I think it is fair to say that while Jackson and his fellow screenwriters had a genuine gift for boiling down the long and complicated sections of the books without dumbing them down, they are also guilty of lingering on their own invented/contrived segues a bit more than strictly necessary.

Once you accept that most of this was crucial in making a set of films that would perform well at the box office with mainstream audiences rather than just Tolkien wonks, the justification for Jackson’s alterations are much more understandable. Let’s not forget that this was a huge risk by the studio — shooting all three films simultaneously in New Zealand and relying on a relatively-obscure NZ effects house, with a total investment of over $280 million before they saw the first dollar back (but the films earned at least 10x the budgets, so the potential alienation of the Tolkienites paid off).

Almost to a fault, Jackson predictably compressed long sequences (such as the four-day hunt for the Uruk Hai by Aragon and company), lingered on visually beautiful but less-vital plot points (like Edoras and of course Helm’s Deep), and shorthanded drawn-out or not-strictly-vital scenes and characters. The Ents in particular got precious little, but very effective, screen time — and featured some well-done CGI-enhanced puppet work of the time, though it must be said some effects have aged less well than the film overall.

There are a few moments — rare, but notable — that are not as well done as one would have hoped. There are waaay too many shots of Saruman running about and fretting on his balcony as he sees the Ents destroying his Uruk Hai “factory” (but too late to stop the war), but for a wizard he just looks helpless and impotent — very unlike his presence to this point.

The battle for Helm’s Deep takes up the entire third hour of the film, and is wonderfully gritty and dark. How so many filthy, terrorised, unwashed people can be so damn good-looking is one of the main mysteries of the film — but another is how Jackson manages to squeeze in bits of humour even in the most tense of moments, as the soldiers of Edoras face off against an overwhelming army of nightmare creatures. The battle scenes are a bit drawn out, with lots of shaky-cam cutaways of chaos between the more choreographed set pieces, but it is effective and involving.

Jackson cleverly sets up the resolution of the battle much earlier, shortly after the “reborn” Gandalph reappears to (some of) our heroes after seemingly falling to his death — Balrogs apparently make hot but suitable cushions for a long fall — in such a way that when he fulfills the promise he made in Edoras an hour-and-a-half (screen time) ago, it is thrilling and wraps up a plot point that had seemingly been left hanging with the Riders of Rohan scene. I will mention again here that the Balrog scenes near the beginning of this film only touch — lightly, and inaccurately — on the actual reason Gandalph survived and defeated it.

If you’re one of the people who never saw the film because you never read the books, fear not: plot-wise, you will be able to follow this easily, and the lore/minutia you don’t know will roll off your back with ease (and this is the true genius of Jackson’s filmmaking on this project). The overall themes are the power of love and friendship, the underlying presence of evil as the root of all hatred and war, and of course emphasizing kick-ass action sequences over the generally more scholarly and pastoral tone of the source material.

As I said in my original, contemporaneous review, this is the kind of movie they weren’t often making: tales with enough magic to take a long time to tell; grand spectacle very well balanced with thoughtful interludes (the “peaceful” lands versus the terrorized war-torn lands is a particularly sharp allegory that I like to think Tolkien would have appreciated being preserved); characters both major and minor with real depth, even when we first meet them.

Theoden nearly stole the film — actor Bernard Hill was fabulous in the part and we would have liked to have seen more of his character.

Nitpickers gonna nitpick, and it should be noted that I haven’t seen so much as a single frame of Amazon’s pre-LOTR Tolkien series thus far, but in both my original opinion at the time and upon revisiting The Two Towers now, Jackson did a great job straddling commercial/studio concerns and creating the visual language of the world Tolkien created. That he really introduced the wonder of Tolkien’s epic to the larger world should not be under-appreciated.

Addendum: There was a successful animated film by Ralph Bakshi in 1978 entitled The Lord of the Rings that covered (very roughly) the first half of the LOTR story to roughly the same point where Jackson’s Fellowship and Two Towers gets to. I saw Bakshi’s film on its release, and it was the thing that finally got me to sit down and read the intimidatingly-long books at last.

Bakshi never got to do a sequel to finish what he started on his version, but it was very influential (even to Jackson) — and the rotoscoping techniques Bakshi used in selected moments was very memorable and innovative. Without it, we probably wouldn’t have gotten Jackson’s version, so a hat tip where it is due.

I’m undecided about whether I should finally finish watching the extended versions of Jackson’s films (I have them, on Blu-ray even, but the extended Fellowship sated my appetite at the time), or dig up a copy of Bakshi’s epic and give that a second viewing ahead of its … gulp … inevitable 50th anniversary re-release in a few years’ time. I hope they’ll put it back in cinemas, and I hope they have a senior discount on it by then!

Orpheus (Orphée), (1950, dir. Jean Cocteau)

52-week film challenge, film 12

As I watched Cocteau’s previous take on the idea of chaining the mythological tale of Orpheus to the struggle artists go through to create and realise their art, The Blood of a Poet, I kept getting flashbacks of some other film I had seen decades ago that featured some of the same inventive visual effect and angst-y performances, but I couldn’t quite place it. I’ve seen more than my fair share of arty and experimental films, so I imagined that it was simply some film that had been influenced by Cocteau, as many have been.

I turned out to be right — it was Orpheus, Cocteau’s own second attempt at some of the visual ideas and concepts he expressed in Blood of a Poet. I had seen the second part of this prolonged trilogy many years ago, and remembered more the story and contemporary setting than the effects and other bits he borrowed and polished up from his earlier film. My scholastic impression of Orpheus was that I liked the urgent, modern (at the time), beatnik tone of the first half, and was less impressed with the slower-paced second half.

Now that I’ve rewatched it after all these years, I’m even more impressed with it (though I still think the second half could have used better editing). Cocteau was a pioneer of shorthand storytelling, and of deliberately leaving a lot of elements unresolved — I’m still working out the full meaning of the character Cégeste (Édouard Dermit), though I think he may represent the image of a writer at his peak, and be sort of a representation of Orpheus’ (Jean Marais) image of himself.

Poor Cégeste spends nearly all of the movie either dead or as a zombie servant.

In the film, Orpheus is a famous poet, hanging out in a bar for poets, being kind of an ass until a Princess (a memorable performance by Maria Casares) and her boy toy Cégeste arrive. Orpheus is mesmerised by the Princess, while Cégeste starts a brawl, dropping some of his own poetry in the fracas. Cégeste starts to flee, but is run over by two mysterious motorcycle riders.

The Princess persuades the arriving police that she will take Cégeste to hospital, and drags a willing Orpheus along into her limo “as a witness.” Along the way, Orpheus discovers that Cégeste is actually dead, and the Princess is some otherworldly creature. His instincts make him fall in love with her as they ride to her ruined chateau, accompanied by the motorcylists who killed Cégeste. Abstract poetry begins to play on the radio (which is later revealed to be Cégeste’s own poetry, read by him: time is meaningless in the underworld).

Cégeste is resurrected by the Princess, and the riders exit the chateau through a mirror (a direct steal from The Blood of a Poet, and only one of several in this movie). Orpheus, who is isolated in another room, eventually wakes up the next morning far from home, with the Princess’ limo driver Heurtebise (François Périer) waiting for him to take him home. Orpheus offers Heurtebise room and board in his home and space in the garage to hide the limo, which everyone in the village would recognise and alert police.

Heurtebise (l) and Orpheus (r) receive a threat from the underworld.

Orpheus refuses to discuss his all-night disappearance or what happened to Cégeste with his wife Eurydice (Marie Déa), and really behaves in a self-centered, brutish manner — even as she tries to tell him she is pregnant. As Heurtebise starts to fall in love with Eurydice, all Orpheus wants to do is sit in the limo and transcribe some strange poetry mixed with meaningless other oration — that mysteriously only comes through on the limo’s car radio.

The Princess visits Orpheus while he is asleep, and influences his dreaming. She eventually has Eurydice killed in the same fashion as Cégeste, as she is in love with Orpheus. We learn that both the Princess and Heurtebise are themselves spirits, and servants of Death (who is not personified in the film).

The Princess in her Death uniform as she watches Orpheus sleep.

Orpheus is shocked out of his defensive state by the news, and Heurtebise reveals himself as an agent of Death, noting that the Princess accidentally left a pair of gloves behind. He offers to lead Orpheus into the underworld to retrieve the unjustly killed Eurydice. Orpheus confesses his secret to Heurtebise: he is in love with the Princess, but agrees to travel with Heurtebise to undo Eurydice’s murder.

Orpheus is able to enter the underworld through the mirror by donning the Princess’ gloves, and Heurtebise and Orpheus move through a ruined city until arriving at a barren room where other agents conduct an investigation of Eurydice’s murder, questioning the Princess, Cégeste, Orpheus, and Heurtebise before concluding that the Princess overstepped her authority.

They agree to return Orpheus and Eurydice to the land of the living, on one impossible condition: Orpheus may never look upon her again, or Eurydice will disappear from this world and return to being dead. Forced to agree, Heurtebise, Orpheus, and Eurydice return to the living world, but find the restriction very difficult to avoid. Ultimately, Orpheus errs, and Eurydice disappears.

At that moment, a gang from the poet’s cafe arrives, angry that Orpheus has refused to reveal what happened to Cégeste and his missing body. In a violent confrontation, Orpheus takes a pistol but is quickly disarmed and himself shot dead. This of course causes Orpheus to reappear in the underworld, where he finds the Princess and declares his undying love for her.

The Princess seems to know that this affair was her own doing, and regretfully decides to sacrifice herself to Death so that Orpheus might be returned to life and become “an immortal poet.” After another tribunal hearing, the decision is made to return Eurydice and Orpheus to life with no memory of previous events. With no recollection of his love for the Princess, Orpheus returns to his true nature and loves Eurydice again, excited for his forthcoming child.

The Princess and Heurtebise, having caused this mess, are sentenced to a fate worse than death: they must replace the tribunal members who judge the dead. The sadness in the Princess’ eyes at the end is a powerful image, and the audience is left wondering if the crowd at the poet’s cafe has also had their memories wiped of these events.

Taken as a whole, my initial impressions on first viewing were not wrong, but very incomplete: having known the story of Orpheus already — thank you, Edith Hamilton — I mostly ignored that part of the film (while enjoying the visuals, some of which return to the same locations as in The Blood of a Poet). Now, I see more of what Cocteau was going for — again comparing the difficulty of true artistic creation of going to hell and back and forcing one’s self to confront one’s angels and demons.

It’s true the second half is slower-paced, at times becoming a cosmic version of a police procedural — but the performances, the passionate flow of emotions, and the gorgeous filming — particularly of the ruins of the underworld — kept me more attentive to the mystical aspects of the story this time around.

Orpheus is not quite as good as Cocteau’s earlier Beauty and the Beast, but it is a classic and it is a stunning accomplishment that still feels fresh in many ways. The influence of the film in later works by others is now obvious, though somehow Cocteau’s films remain singular in style and vision.

There have been many variations on the Orpheus & Eurydice story, and I haven’t seen all of them, but I’m confident that this remains one of the most original and interesting versions. The conclusion of his “trilogy” around this tale — The Testament of Orpheus, in which the director himself is the star — is next on my list, and I encourage anyone with an interest in classic French cinema to investigate this incredible artistic achievement.