With the release of The Desolation of Smaug, I thought I’d head back to look at some of my favourite scenes from Peter Jackson’s original and humungous Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Straight off the bat I have to say I am a huge fan of the first movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, which to my mind had the best story, the hardest job to do (setting it all up) but also has the best execution resulting in it having (in my opinion) the most memorable scenes. That said, with 6-7 more hours after that film to follow the journey there are some tremendous sequences throughout the sequels that just cannot be ignored no matter how much I enjoyed that first trip to Middle Earth.
I’m going to look at 12 of my favourite outstanding sequences from across the trilogy but of course with such a small number there is going to be a huge number of brilliantly inventive scenes that have not made the cut including Aragorn and the dead, Saruman’s speech, the Prancing Pony, Legolas versus the Oliphaunt, dwarf tossing, the Black Rider, the White Wizard, the final coronation, the Ent Attack and the Black Gate. These are all visually spectacular and to not include them only serves to highlight how good the other sequences are as well as showcase the general high quality across all three movies. In all honesty, I’m not a huge fan of the Special Editions – the original movies are more than fine without the extras – so you won’t see the Mouth of Sauron on this list either and some sequences (the final siege at Minas Tirith) are so large and all encompassing that they take up half the movie and seem to be made up of smaller sequences, some of which are included below. So without further pause, let’s see who takes their place as the rightful heir to the top of the throne!
12. Bilbo’s birthday (The Fellowship of the Ring)
The longest sequence in the list is this set of scenes that show us the party that is thrown in The Shire for Bilbo Baggins’ 111th birthday. Right from the start we see everything that Jackson is going to tease us with going forward from the intimacy of the relationships, the “jokey” Merry and Pippin, the first glimpse of the Ring and the realisation that this homely town is what is truly at stake as the journey plays itself out. A masterful director of the large action sequence, Jackson shows us that we won’t forget the characters and what they are fighting for throughout their epic quest.
11. The Helm’s Deep Battle build up (The Two Towers)
After the forest fight and loss of Boromir to the “army of Orcs” in the first film, Jackson goes large in this finale to the second movie as the men of middle earth call upon the Elves to help them protect the final bastion that is the stone-walled Helm’s Deep. As Jackson cuts between the Orcs getting closer, the women and children in the catacombs below and the masterful use of humour (Legolas lightens the mood by asking if he can get the diminutive Gimli a box to stand on so he can see over the wall) before the tension is ratcheted up as they stand off against each other. The orcs begin their spear chanting (an off-the-cuff action made up by bored extras apparently) as the rain begins to pour which gives the whole scene an ominous atmosphere. Then finally, we see THAT arrow from an inexperienced elderly soldier which slips from his bow and takes down the first orc. It’s only then, when the tension is unbearable does the battle begin, itself a great sequence, but for me its effectiveness is all in the subtle build up.
10. Ride of the Rohirrim (Return of the King)
Another battle beginning right here but this time it’s already deep into the fight when the Rohirrim show up and are shocked to see the largest war-torn conflict of the war yet and despite their trepidation, a rousing speech from Théoden reminds the audience what they are fighting for. Then after a call to “ride for ruin”, the riders’ spears are ceremoniously hit by the sword of Théoden as he rides down the line of horses before leading his cavalry of men to their destiny. Actor Bernard Hill’s voice is all bombastic shouting which is perfect for the scene and then Jackson shows that despite the thousands of hardened orcs, the will of men on horseback will always be a force to be reckoned with as the real/CGI horses head into the fray.
9. Shelob (Return of the King)
A scene that I knew was coming after friends kept saying this will be something special and although Frodo’s first encounter through the webbed caves is a solid chase sequence as he finally realises he’s been tricked by Gollum, it is the follow up episode involving her stinger and Sam’s return that cements this part of the film for me. Jackson is renowned for his rollercoaster camera moves and it is the almost silent shot of Frodo being hunted by Shelob, who straddles some rocks above the unwitting protagonist, that is possibly my favourite shot in the whole movie. After the endless noise of battle and fervour, to take the movie back to a personal moment of one-on-one with such a majestic tracking shot is a masterstroke of confidence and allows us to remember that Frodo is (mostly) alone on his quest and that the support of Sam is crucial to the success of the task they’ve been given. This is a scene of remembrance also as we earlier hear Galadriel’s voice followed later by a brilliant cut as Frodo is paralysed with venom and falls down to the floor and “dreams” of the Shire. With some great CGI providing some real “weight” to the spider and its “pincers” as she fights with Sam the sequence is a wonderful web of filmic tricks.
8. Saruman vs Gandalf (The Fellowship of the Ring)
Dear George Lucas, there’s more brilliant action between these two old codgers fighting it out with their magical staffs than a million CGI’d Gungans/droids ever could. Even with Christopher Lee, Lucas just isn’t the filmmaker that Jackson is and this sequence has echoes of the Sidious vs Tyranus battle but has so much more flair. We finally realise that Saruman is not an “old friend” but has been using his palantir (glowing orb/crystal ball) to align himself with Sauron and as Gandalf goes to leave we get a supernatural smack-down before he sends the Grey wizard spiralling up the Tower. Showing how a fight sequence can go beyond mad-fast-cutting and/or ludicrous CGI, the battle between these two elderly gents has some serious importance to the story which is why we care so much about its outcome.
7. Lighting the beacons (Return of the King)
Jackson mostly avoided sentimentality and used the beautiful landscape of his native New Zealand as the backdrop for his vision of Middle Earth and whether augmented with CGI or miniatures, the natural scenery was never bettered in the photography of this sequence. Gandalf tasks Pippin with starting a fire on the beacon at Minas Tirith that creates a chain reaction across huge vistas to get a message to Aragorn/Théoden that Gondor needs the help of men and assemble the Rohirrim for battle. Peter Jackson’s skill again lies within the fact that amongst the chaos and multiple story strands he can place panoramas of various terrains in a musical montage and let the stunning environments speak for themselves whilst not ignoring this all important plot-point.
6. Sméagol talks to himself (The Two Towers)
The now legendary motion-capture performance of Andy Serkis sits at the half-way point of my list and it was the conversation between the two warring inner-personalities of the creature Sam and Frodo meet on their way - the ring-obsessed Gollum and the more sensitive Sméagol - that showed how brilliant both the emotion came across as well as the excellent CGI that captured all the nuances of Serkis’ facial features. Debating the acts of the sneaky Hobbitses and their “false” ways, the angry Gollum attacks the friendless Sméagol and tries to get him to admit to how he stole the Ring in the first place and that he shouldn’t listen to “Master”. After standing up to him, Sméagol wins out and we see some respite for the poor creature – albeit very briefly. Mainly focusing on the performance of Serkis, Jackson’s great cutting shows the audience what otherwise would be in the character’s head and Serkis would forever be remembered for this amazing role which he reprised in Jackson’s prequel The Hobbit.
5. Council of Elrond (The Fellowship of the Ring)
This is a beautiful sequence which shows the diversity of kingdoms in Middle Earth and allows Jackson to showcase each of the main characters’ motivations whilst at the same time turning an essentially boring discussion meeting into a fiery ring-obsessed shouting match. A great shot of the characters arguing in the reflection of the ring itself and Sean Bean’s Boromir summing up the huge task ahead (“one does not simply walk into Mordor”) is followed by Frodo finally volunteering to take it and an amazing Ian McKellan reaction shot as Gandalf shows his sorrow, pride and relief all at once to the inevitable. The Hobbits join in and Elrond himself names the group the “Fellowship” and Jackson raises a heated conversation to a crucial acknowledgement of the official journey.
4. Prologues (All three movies)
A bit of a cop-out as I choose three sequences for one entry but I think the intros to each of the films are tremendous works of mini film-making themselves and incredibly underrated so let me take you back to the release of the first film and its initial impact on me. Firstly, having not read the books and not being a huge fantasy fan I had big doubts about the film as I headed to the cinema on a very cold night in wintery Leicester. However, within 5 minutes I had been witness to a whistle-stop history tour of Middle Earth, action sequences, introductions to many characters and an understanding what was at stake from the outset and I was immediately hooked. Fast forward one year and the release of the sequel and similar doubts arose again as I took my seat in the cinema. As we again witness Gandalf and co in the mines of Moria I thought Jackson decided to remind the audience of the film’s crucial part again – not bad I thought as it had been 12 months since the previous movie had been out. However, when the camera followed Gandalf over the edge of the bridge this time and the fight with the Balrog continued as they fell I was blown away as we saw the same event from a different viewpoint. Again, I was hooked as Jackson had switched my expectations. What could he cook up for a third and final film with even greater expectations? Well, with the praise heaped on Andy Serkis as Gollum, what better way to showcase the actor than portray where and how Gollum came to be in possession of the Ring. As his Sméagol murders his cousin Déagol to get hold of the “precious”, it was a great finale to all three very different but entirely memorable intros to each epic movie.
3. All Shall Fade (Return of the King)
What easily could have been an embarrassing misfire (no doubt some think it is) again shows how Jackson used every cinema trick in the book in his magical movies. This time, we get Pippin, who has offered his service to Denethor, singing to the Steward of Gondor as his surviving son Faramir rides out to almost certain death to try and take the enemy-captured Osgiliath on horseback. Cutting between the disgustingly gluttonous eating habits of Denethor with the simple melodic refrain of Pippin’s folk song, Jackson uses these quiet moments to punctuate the big battle sequences and we don’t need to see the massacre that’s about to occur as the breaking of bones by Denethor during his meal along with teary Pippin’s melancholic ballad symbolises all we need to know. “All shall....fade”.
2. Balin’s Tomb (The Fellowship of the Ring)
“They have a cave troll”. Small words uttered without seeing a single evil enemy, it is after Gimli’s mournful laments to his long lost brethren that Pippin trips an orc trap by dropping a mummified set of bones down a well. After admonishing the accident-prone Hobbit (“Fool of a Took. Throw yourself in next time and rid us of your stupidity!”), Gandalf realises he has set in motion a chain reaction that leads orcs to their door with Frodo’s blade Sting glowing blue in their presence. As they attempt to get in we see our first action scene as the amazingly animated CGI cave troll comes in swinging and the group fire arrows, axes and swords in its directions before Frodo’s Mithril vest saves the day as he almost comes a cropper to a thrusting trident. An amazingly frantic and exhausting action sequence with brilliant camera shots and editing, the scene propels the group further into the mines to face an even greater foe...
1. You Shall Not Pass (The Fellowship of the Ring)
Not a very original choice but an iconic piece of cinema lore as Gandalf’s final stand against the fiery Balrog over the Bridge of Khazad-dûm is as famous a quote as “Here's looking at you, kid” and “Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn”. The culmination of an amazing set of scenes following one after the other, this film was cemented in my list of best films of all time from this point onward. All told, from the unsuccessful attempt to cross Mount Caradhras in winter, through the entrance to the mines, the conversation about Gollum (Jackson’s favourite scene apparently) all the way to the exit of the group onto the rocky mountain outcrop with Boromir defending the grieving Hobbits as Aragorn pushes the forlorn group onward, the totality of this hour of cinema is one of my favourites of all time and is up there with the most breathtaking moments in the history of the movies.
Thanks for sticking with me and as I said at the start, everyone will have their favourite sequences and with over 12 hours of film to chose from I have barely scratched the surface here and with two more films to come in The Hobbit trilogy we hopefully will be spoilt for more exemplary movie moments from Jackson’s interpretation of Tolkien’s rich world.
Midlands Movies Mike