A sense of imminent apocalypse permeates the stunning second part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Sukhdev Sandhu reports
Splat. There goes somebody’s ear. The Lord of the Rings is back, and it’s dark as hell. Actually, it’s an atrocity exhibition, a Bayeux Tapestry of gore and dismemberment, as strung-out and infernal a piece of kiddie cinema as can ever have been made.
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Like a certain chocolate bar, it’s probably “not for girls”, but it’s still very good, infinitely better than Harry Potter and, let’s not be bashful here, the collected oeuvres of Oliver Stone and Terrence Malick.
The first part of Tolkien’s trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, was a rare triumph of magic over marketing. It tapped into the dreadful, uncanny recesses of children’s imaginations, locating terror in gothic mountains, wild horses and huge forests, rather than in the prosaic world of the school playground or the town centre car park.
It also avoided the icky cuteness and razzle-dazzle joyrides of most American teen movies. The last hour of Peter Jackson’s film was one of the slowest and most emotionally exhausting stretches of cinema I’ve ever sat through, like watching Tarkovsky direct Ben-Hur.
The Two Towers is equally desolate. It’s an Anglo-Saxon epic poem in the fashion of The Seafarer, in which the journey and its attendant struggles are as important as the actual completion of the quest. Frodo (played by Elijah Wood) is making his way towards Mordor, where he hopes to throw the accursed Ring into a volcano.
He’s helped out by Gollum (Andy Serkis), a hobbit gone bad, a monstrous hybrid halfway between a spasming Caliban and a vein-mangled, Bobby Charlton-haired crack addict from an Aphex Twin video.
His body is contorted with pain; his mind is pretty ugly too, tortured by the knowledge that he killed his own cousin in order to get the Ring. Shady and duplicitous, he tries to win the trust of Frodo and Sam, but his overtures are about as sweet as disinfectant.
Elsewhere on Middle-Earth, the none-so-solid crew of Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), his comically blond Elf-archer pal Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and plucky little dwarf fellow Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) are trying to help the people of the besieged Rohan kingdom fend off the armies sent by Saruman (a wonderfully crazed Christopher Lee).
Their efforts, while slightly impeded by Aragorn’s growing affection for a Rohan princess (Miranda Otto), are at least more efficacious than those of Merry and Pippin (Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd), who have managed to get themselves captured by Treebeard, a very old and very slow-talking tree, many of whose arboreal colleagues have been chopped down by ecocidal Saruman.
The Two Towers is grimmer than The Fellowship of the Ring. It lacks the hey-nonny-no bucolics of that film’s early parts, and, from the opening scene onwards, feels oppressively heavy, as if the sky is about to fall down. Jokes are few and far between. The characters, taciturn and engloomed, resemble pack horses forced to trudge through swampland for centuries on end. Even the forests are full of memories and anger.
The blighted landscapes and feeling of imminent apocalypse that permeate The Two Towers remind us that Tolkien served as a junior officer in the trenches during the First World War. The battle scenes, bloody and remorselessly protracted, recall the killing fields of the Somme and Passchendaele.
Such ghostly echoes may lead us to speculate that The Lord of the Rings, far from being merely mythological, or an ageless story about the battle between good and evil, speaks very forcefully to many of the conflicts and catastrophes that were destroying Europe in the middle of the last century.
Peter Jackson doesn’t exaggerate the extent to which the story may be read as a political allegory, but he does wrench The Lord of the Rings from the sweaty-palmed clutches of its core audience of misfit male adolescents.
Instead, his version harks back to that moment in the late Sixties when the trilogy was commonly found next to tomes by Wilhelm Reich and Carlos Castaneda on the bookshelves of beatniks and counter culturalists.
Frodo sees the Ring’s destructive powers as confirming the adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Saruman, meanwhile, is The Man, a power-crazed fundamentalist and authoritarian. He mistreats the environment and cares not a jot for those weaker than him.
The shots of Sauron’s fortress within Mordor are perhaps the most terrifying in the film: tens of thousands of midget workers, hunched in servitude and drudgery, looking like a cross between the mechanical toilers in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the huge colonies of granite-cliff labourers in a Sebastiao Salgado photograph.
Fear is the key to the success of The Two Towers. It’s much more scary than the average thriller or teen slasher movie. The Berzerker Uruk-Hai are as frightening as anyone since the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Archers aim for the heads of those rushing at them. The bodies of the slain drip with pus and gore.
All the while, the cameras, swooping and dancing with abandon, make the carnage seem wholly exhilarating. Jackson, for all the multi-million-dollar budgets at his disposal these days, is still pretty much the same guy he was when shooting such splatter-fests as Bad Taste in the 1980s.
It should be admitted that the film sags and drifts for long stretches. Those scenes starring Elijah Wood are especially wearisome. He’s supposed to be a hero for our times, weighed down by destiny; instead, he looks like a pop-eyed homunculus whose range of gestures alternates between perplexed and confused.
By contrast, Andy Serkis is superbly slithery as Gollum, a major achievement given that he performed wearing a motion-sensor suit, and then had his own body parts masked out in favour of computer-generated images.
It’s crucial that the film, like the journeys it narrates, is straggly. I spent the duller sections thinking about how flaxen-haired Legolas looks like a Milky Bar hippy as he pings his egg-slicer-strong arrows at the barbarous monsters. I also drifted off looking at Viggo Mortensen: has a more virile, dynamic actor ever appeared on the silver screen?
The Two Towers is as epic as mainstream cinema gets these days. We should count our blessings. It has the courage to be gloomy and feral and despairing. Slow and magisterial, it never chivvies along the action just to placate ADD-stricken kids.
It also feels like a romance, reminding us of the sheer thrill of sitting in a packed cinema with a thousand strangers, getting lost in storytelling, and transported to lands more far-flung and fantastic than we can imagine. “Do you think people will ever talk about us or tell stories about us?” asks a character at one point. Were the same question to be asked of The Two Towers, the answer would be an enormous yes.