`Two Towers’ film reflects tone of book

By David Ibata
Tribune staff reporter

January 12, 2003

Happily for fans of J.R.R. Tolkien, director Peter Jackson stayed true to the fantasy author’s artistic vision in “Fellowship of the Ring,” the first film in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

Unhappily, in “The Two Towers,” Jackson may reflect the “Rings'” racial view of the world as well.

As the United States wages war against an ominous “other” — currently Al Qaeda terrorists, soon perhaps Iraqis and eventually, North Koreans? — it’s worth keeping in mind Tolkien’s stern admonition against viewing his work as allegory.

For years, Tolkien scholars have waged a fight on two fronts: against an academic establishment that for the most part refused to take the author’s work seriously, and against white supremacists who have tried to claim the professor as one of their own.

The first controversy may be decided in Tolkien’s favor once the present generation of literary critics passes from the scene (I admit some bias in this regard), but the second probably always will flare up whenever some skinheads read more into the “Rings” than really is there.

And with the enormous popularity of Jackson’s film interpretation of Tolkien’s work coinciding with the current international crises, it’s possible some will start confusing villains on the screen with real-life adversaries on the battlefield.

In “Fellowship,” we saw non-human foes: Orcs, trolls, Uruk-hai, Ringwraiths and the like.

No connection can be made between ordinary people and these malformed uglies. No problem here.

Human adversaries

In “Towers,” though, which continues to do big at the box office as the second film of the Rings trilogy (the third, “Return of the King,” is to come out at the end of the year), the series’ heroes — hobbits, elves, dwarves and people — for the first time encounter races of human adversaries. They include the Easterlings and Haradrim, denizens of lands in the east and south of Middle Earth who have joined with the forces of evil.

The Easterlings can barely be made out under their armor; their faces are covered except for a narrow slit through which glare pairs of coal-black eyes. But their headgear looks like a cross between a Samurai warrior’s helmet and a cone-shaped “Coolie” hat. An Asian influence is obvious.

The Haradrim are more recognizable. They are garbed in turbans and flowing crimson robes. They ride giant elephants. They resemble nothing other than North African or Middle Eastern tribesmen. A recently released “Towers” companion book, “The Lord of the Rings: Creatures,” calls the Haradrim “exotic outlanders” whose costumes “were inspired by the twelfth-century Saracen warriors of the Middle East.” The Saracens were Islamic soldiers who battled Christian invaders during the Crusades.

The “good guys” include the human Dunedain, Rohirrim and Gondorians. All fair-skinned, mostly blond and mostly blue-eyed. ( A third group of human foes in the film is white: the Wild Men. The fallen wizard Saruman incites them by reminding them the horsemen of Rohan oppress them and have driven them from their lands. Cavalry against native tribes; does this picture seem familiar?)

In the nearly five decades since “Lord of the Rings” was first published, Tolkien fans were willing to overlook parts of the text some condemned as racially insensitive. In “Rings,” it was argued, race was never directly addressed in the book, and physical descriptions of enemy humans were rare. Things that might strike today’s reader as discomfiting were attributed to the intellectual, cultural and social milieu within which Tolkien (1892-1973), an Oxford don, moved.

Can anyone recall one white male author before the present literary era — other than perhaps the far-seeing Mark Twain in “Huckleberry Finn” — who, when the two sides came into conflict, depicted men of color sympathetically and Caucasian men as evil? Better to focus on the “Rings'” main themes: of courage, hope and love, of friendship, loyalty and spiritual strength, in the face of a fearsome threat.

But like the ghostly faces in the Dead Marshes, that irritating issue of race always lingered just beneath the surface.

Amid the pre-release hype of the “Two Towers” premiere, commentators such as John Yatt of the Manchester Guardian newspaper couldn’t resist stirring the water: “`The Lord of the Rings’ is racist. It is soaked in the logic that race determines behaviour,” Yatt wrote in a Dec. 2 essay. The book describes evil humans as “dark, slant-eyed, swarthy, broad-faced a rag-bag of non-white characteristics that could have been copied straight from a [British National Party] leaflet.”

The screenwriters who adapted Tolkien’s book to film sometimes muddied things further. For instance, they wanted to convey the idea that the threat facing humankind in “Towers” was not merely defeat in war, but extinction. In film dialogue not found in Tolkien’s original text, Aragorn warns King Theoden of Rohan that Saruman has bred an army “with a single purpose: to destroy the world of men.”

It is not explained how Saruman can threaten the demise of humankind when some of his own minions are human. (The human presence will be even more pronounced in the third film, when Sauron unleashes the Easterling and Haradrim upon the West.) Perhaps a more accurate statement would have been that the forces of evil have assembled an army “to destroy the world of civilized white men.” Of course, Aragorn — and the director Jackson — cannot say this.

Parallels with current events

With “Lord of the Rings” seizing the popular imagination, could some see parallels between the film and the current political climate: the fear of and anger against non-white immigration in Western Europe, as evident in the recent election successes of far-right candidates? Or, in the United States, the wholesale arrests and prosecutions of people of Islamic and Middle Eastern origin in the post-9/11 environment?

As a Japanese American, I cannot help imagining how the movie “Rings” would have been received had it appeared in 1942 instead of 2002. It would quickly have been seized upon as allegory, and there would have been no doubt whom the Orcs and Urak-hai represented: The “Japs.” Consider how closely the non-human adversaries in “Rings” resemble some of the worst depictions of the Japanese drawn by American and British illustrators during World War II.

Japanese propagandists likewise pictured the Allies as goblins and demons from that country’s folklore. This is how all cultures have portrayed a wartime enemy: as less than human.

You might ask if I’m looking for offense where none is intended. I believe the issue is not whether Tolkien or Jackson intended to offend — they did not, I am sure — but the author’s or filmmaker’s ability to create images that shape one’s view of the world.

Pernicious images

And certain scenes in “Towers” remind me of some of the most pernicious images of the cinematic past, from “Beau Geste” to western serials to John Wayne war flicks: that of faceless brown hordes hurling themselves against a band of white heroes.

I’ll admit that I joined everyone else, cheering as thousands of Orcs and Urak-hai were slaughtered at the climactic battle of Helm’s Deep. They are vicious, violent, ugly as sin, loathsome eaters of “man flesh.” As Aragorn tells the besieged defenders, we should feel no mercy for them.

Would we have felt the same thrill of victory if the massacred enemy were humans?

And by the way, where were they? In the book, but not in the movie, the Wild Men also fight at Helm’s Deep. We do see men killing men earlier in the movie, when Gondorian scouts ambush a band of Haradrim. Yet the latter mainly fall under hails of arrows. There’s no sword-on-sword, one-on-one combat. It all seems antiseptic, like a smart bomb on TV blasting a bunker without the splatter of blood and flesh.

In a passage from the book often cited in defense of the author, Tolkien described the Gondorian attack on the Haradrim. Hobbit Sam watches from cover as an enemy soldier falls dead close by, his neck pierced by arrows: “His brown hand still clutched the hilt of a broken sword.” (This scene is in the film, but it goes by so fast it barely registers.)

“It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much,” Tolkien wrote. “He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace. . . .”

In “Return of the King,” will Jackson again reserve the bloodiest fight scenes only for those species too depraved to feel any sympathy for? Or will he follow Tolkien’s lead and acknowledge the humanity of at least some of the enemy?


A defense of J.R.R. Tolkien against allegations of racism can be found at “The One Ring” Web site: http://greenbooks.theonering.net/quickbeam/files/040101.html

Copyright (c) 2003, Chicago Tribune