“Not idly do the leaves of Lorien fall”
The second part of a trilogy is oftentimes the worst. It exists in a no man’s land without beginning or end, a bridge we must wait for and wait further to continue that cannot survive on its own. So it’s therefore a rarity when this chapter possesses the ability to tell its story in a way that allows for its own success while also augmenting the larger whole. J.R.R. Tolkien understood this when he wrote The Lord of the Rings. Even though his epic of Hobbits and the One Ring was really just one book split into three volumes, he drew each with its own self-contained point of conflict—one you weren’t necessarily aware of beforehand so you’re able to experience its singular progression from start to finish.
With The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien told of a mission to destroy the weapon of Sauron, the thing that would bring darkness upon Middle-earth. He introduced the themes of greed and corruptible power; of heroes of men, elves, dwarves, and wizards cognizant in the knowledge that they wouldn’t be able to control it no matter how selfless they believed themselves to be (and some who wanted it anyway). In this alliance there was a representative of each species of good, each faction that must stand and fight against the enemy’s army of orcs, goblins, and the dreaded hybrid Uruk-hai. We witnessed their strengths and weaknesses, saw their anguish, and understood their regret when falling prey to hubris. The stakes were set, the characters’ paths forward paved.
Motivations were drawn on an individual basis to ensure we knew who was trustworthy and who was courageous enough to combat the walls closing in. It thus became the purpose of The Two Towers to widen the aperture and gaze upon this world from a higher vantage point so the truth of war and futility of escape could be accepted on a grander scale. While we were privy to Saruman the White’s (Christopher Lee) allegiance as Sauron’s right-hand, those on the ground weren’t. They continued going about their business knowing war was on the horizon, but unaware of how close. So we watch as the fellowship separates onto equally important paths, each keenly positioned to tell the world this was the moment. This was their last stand.
Director Peter Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Stephen Sinclair were then tasked with adapting Tolkien’s words into a cohesive chapter despite its myriad moving parts. We must invest in the main through-line of Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Samwise (Sean Astin) traveling to the gates of Mordor and Mount Doom beyond to destroy the One Ring and leave Sauron as but a memory. We must accept that Strider (now officially Aragorn of Isildur’s bloodline, a sort of last scion of Jesus Christ as played by Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) will make difficult decisions to open allies’ eyes to the fight at-hand. And even Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) will prove their worth enlisting an ancient race to the cause.
So while the film itself is but a call to arms when all is said and done, its intricacies in that goal are immense. The first provided audiences the necessary exposition to understand what followed while also portraying the struggle of overcoming one’s fears and uncertainties to become heroic figures worthy of song. And now the second serves as an evolutionary leap in scope to show how nations follow suit. While it is great to see representatives of every living thing rise to the occasion, a handful of warriors do not stand a chance against tens of thousands of killing machines born in the fire of Hell. No, those individuals must find a way to activate their people and make them understand survival cannot be achieved idly.
This is the moment when we as a people recognize the importance of freedom—when those who’ve lived centuries insulated from the rest of Middle-earth open their eyes to the reality that safety isn’t assured, others won’t simply save them, and hope isn’t enough. The ominous return of Sauron was conjecture days before, a black cloud looming that made citizens close their doors and pray for salvation. But now it’s here. It’s real. Faith that Frodo can fulfill his mission only goes so far when one false step all but ensures the thing we fear the most. So Aragorn and company must sound the alarm and rally the troops. They must wake others from their slumber and remind them that each defeat is a defeat for them all.
In this mission we also find the duality of characters caught between the greater good and self-interest. Whether it’s the brave Eomer (Karl Urban) and Eowyn (Miranda Otto), nephew and niece of the corrupted Rohan king Theoden (Bernard Hill) searching for answers as the vile Wormtongue (Brad Dourif) whispers Saruman’s bidding; the despicable yet pitiable Gollum (Andy Serkis) warring within himself, past goodness and present evil locking horns to decide the road best for his survival and singular desire; or the massive tree-like Ents, slow movers holding a big-picture view that too often excludes them from destruction occurring outside their forest—complex situations find all choosing mind over heart, duty over family. And some like Faramir (David Wenham) must do so despite sacrificing every aspiration in the process.
It all leads to some glorious interactions as Tolkien and Jackson open up this sprawling world. Suddenly we see Aragorn accepting the role Gandalf (Ian McKellen) hoped he’d eventually take on, his tenacity and place in so many communities (the North and Gondor) allowing him to see past a yearning for immediate salvation. Legolas and Gimli, soldiers of high regard and lineage, find their egos cannot provide them the drive and strength that following Aragorn into battle can—their union as a three-headed beast of reckoning more potent than either alone. Frodo and Sam begin to see Gollum not as a monster, but the effect of evil corrupting good—a mirror foreshadowing what may come for the former and therefore a figure we need to believe can change.
For all the action and pontificating of a glorious battle at Helm’s Deep—the stone fortress sanctuary Rohan has used to defeat many enemies—it’s these smaller moments that resonate by getting closer to the central themes. The clarity in Samwise’s eyes as he acknowledges what’s happening to Frodo despite also finally understanding they cannot turn back. The anger on Merry’s face as he frustratingly endures what seems like an abandonment by kind-hearted creatures who could save them all and the doltish Pippin buckling down to realize exactly what that would mean for their home miles away. And we cannot forget Faramir’s tipping point to be what he knew his brother Boromir (Sean Bean) was as opposed to what their father (John Noble‘s Denethor) believed him to be.
Don’t get me wrong, though, Helm’s Deep is a magnificent set piece of emotion, kinship, and sacrifice. The scale of this fight is immense with Jackson and company going all-out to ensure we witness the chaos and carnage as well as the regality of courage despite it. Explosions, ladders, barricades, and arrows flying through the air—the body count mounts as egos are stripped away and faith is hopefully rewarded at the most crucial of moments. It’s a visual extravaganza to compliment the quieter parallels in Mordor and Isengard (the titular two towers housing Sauron’s eye and Saruman’s army respectively). It’s proven that the fellowship didn’t break apart, but consciously separated into a three-pronged attack to box evil in just when it seemed evil had the upper hand.
And it looks amazing even fifteen years later. The Uruk-hai are disgustingly menacing, a horde unleashed on the stoic elves and weary humans. The bird’s eye views of the Keep with a mass of warriors on both sides of the rock walls looks as expansive as necessary for the stakes to feel rightfully insurmountable. Even the Ents in water possess an authenticity “walking trees” shouldn’t be generally afforded. But the real coup arrives in the special effects wizardry that is Gollum. Assisted greatly by Serkis’ unhinged yet empathetic portrayal, this is a fully computer-animated character that engages with the actors in almost every frame by touch. The coloring may give it away at times, but never the performance or physical integration. We feel this bundle of pixels’ pain.
That’s the success of this series in a nutshell, though. Our ability to relate to this fantastical world and its strange inhabitants is why Tolkien’s work is timeless. Whether or not he wrote it as an allegory of World War II, the comparisons cannot be dismissed out of turn. It’s necessary either way because these are different species coming together for a unified cause. You have elves and dwarves, who in a larger sense despise each other, joining for their salvation. And yet here we are—humans all—unable to find common ground because of prejudice through race, religion, and gender. Evil exists as its own attribute above all those, a trait seen beyond surface appearances. Whether you’re better than your neighbor means nothing if you’re both dead.