Monday, March 22, 2010

Favorite Movies of the Past Nine Years - #1

I don't think there will be a return journey, Mr. Frodo.
- Sam Gamgee (Sean Astin)

#1 - The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2004)

One way to tell whether I liked a movie, and I think this is probably true of most people, is to ask how many times I saw the movie in the theater. It's not a perfect measure -- two of my all-time favorites, "The Princess Bride" and "Casablanca" were not seen in the theater (though at least in the latter case, I have an excuse, since I was born about 25 years after the initial theatrical run), but for movies of recent vintage especially, when I have ample opportunity to just wait until the DVD comes out, even if it's a movie I'd otherwise be interested in, it's a mark of some merit that I'm convinced to see the thing more than once in the theater.

Interestingly enough, four of the movies on this list were not seen in the theater at all. Four others were seen once. Only two were seen more than once:

  • WALL-E, which I saw three times, and

  • this movie, which I saw at least four times in its opening week.

By this measure, it's arguable whether WALL-E or daylight finishes second.

Why I liked it

I could recap the things I said in the capsule reviews of the other two LotR movies on this list, but rather than do that, I'll stick with just the things about this movie that struck home for me.

- Bernard Hill as King Theoden of Rohan really comes into his own in this movie, from his question to Aragorn near the start of the movie ("Tell me, why should we ride to the aid of those who did not come to ours?"), his reversal of his own question when Gondor does finally call for aid (through Merry's climbing skill and trickery), and his speech before his troops before their charge into battle on the Pellennor Fields. The best moment, though, the moment where it's clear that he's chosen a warrior's fate and will bring all under his command to that fate or they will not be warriors, is his comment to his lieutenant shortly after Aragorn leaves to try to recruit the spirits of the mountain to join his ranks:

Gamling: Too few have come. We cannot defeat the armies of Mordor.
Theoden: No, we cannot. But we will meet them in battle nonetheless.

It is my belief that the truest test of honor is the willingness to spend oneself in a necessary cause, even if that expenditure might not bring about success. Only cowards seek battle merely because they're sure they can win.

- David Wenham as Faramir also gets a great turn in this movie. Short-changed a bit in the screenplay for Two Towers (as noted in that recap, in the books, Faramir does resist the lure of the Ring when it's presented to him, making him Aragorn's equal in this; in the movie, Faramir has to have the consequences of claiming the Ring demonstrated to him at Osgiliath before he comes to his senses and lets the hobbits go), he makes up for it here by showing both honor and ultimate loyalty, taking his men on a suicidal charge against the orcs occupying Osgiliath simply because his father orders him to do so, and knowing that his father seems to want him dead.

Where does my allegiance lie if not here?

I'd like to think that the 'reunited at the foot of the cliffs leading to the Fireswamp' scene between Buttercup and Westley in The Princess Bride is a call-out to the burgeoning romance between Faramir and Eowyn, which is given short shrift in the books, but is clear given their behavior when Aragorn, after being made King, puts the two of them together in lordship over Rohan. The movies, sadly, don't treat this any better, but on the other hand, since they were already cutting vast stretches of the books, adding in new material would have been profoundly difficult, I understand.

- The 'big themes' are more visible at the end of the tale.

Way back in the initial recap, when discussing the critical backlash against the trilogy of late, I quoted a fellow who claimed that the LotR series didn't really have anything to say about larger themes, but was just a story about elves and hobbits. I pointed out a couple of items there to try to refute his point, but it's here, at the end of the tale, where you can really see some of the bigger themes, such as...

Ambition, while not evil in itself, can make one into a tool of evil

We, the children of the Reagan era and the internet bubble, have been told pretty much all our lives that if we want something, we need to strive and strive hard for it, and never let anybody get in the way of your goals. The difference between a champion and a loser is that the champion wants it more. Blah, blah, blah.

This trilogy teaches something very different: every character whose ambition extends beyond himself fails to achieve that ambition, and most come to a bad end:

  • Saruman, though it's clearer in the books than in the films, joins with Sauron to gain knowledge as well as power; he ends up dead at the start of the third film, impaled on his own water wheel. (He survives in the books, but goes on to orchestrate the Scouring of the Shire -- the movies are able to skip that (save for a few harrowing insights that Frodo gleans from Galadriel) by killing him off instead.)
  • Wormtongue's ambition is to gain influence, power, and comfort by serving Saruman, specifically in subverting Rohan; he wants Eowyn's hand as payment for his labors. He ends up alive, but utterly friendless; Eowyn forever lost to him.

  • Denethor's ambition is to rule the lands of Men in the absence of a king; Sauron uses Aragorn's very existence as a poison pill, not to get Denethor to join, but rather to leave Gondor weak and unable to resist Mordor. Denethor also believes that bringing the Ring to Gondor will turn the tide in Gondor's favor, but he refuses to see (as Faramir does at Osgiliath) that the Ring will doom rather than save Gondor. He ends up having sent both sons to their deaths, though one survives, barely, and goes mad realizing that he nearly burned that survivor on a pyre. He flings himself from the highest point of Minas Tirith, presumably to his death.
  • Boromir's ambition is the only one that can truly be described as noble; he wants to preserve Gondor from darkness, and believes that fulfilling his father's mission and bringing the Ring to Gondor will accomplish that. The Ring still uses that ambition to corrupt him, to the point where he nearly kills Frodo and takes the Ring from him. In the end, Boromir realizes his error, but still pays the ultimate price; he dies trying to save Merry and Pippin, and fails, yet his distraction allows Frodo and Sam to slip away with the Ring, keeping it out of the hands of Saruman's Uruk-Hai.

Nearly every other character begins with a simple ambition, if any. Sam wants only to serve Frodo, at least until the end of the quest, when his chief ambition becomes to marry Rosie (he does)**. Merry and Pippin join on a lark, participate in mighty events, and return to the Shire as heroes. Aragorn resists the draw of the kingship of Gondor again and again until finally forced to stand up against Sauron and fight; he, of course, ends up with everything at the end. Theoden, after his rescue from the grip of Saruman, wants only to find a good death; he does, in the arms of the person he loves best in the world.

** - The role of rejection of overweening ambition in resisting the lure of the Ring is even clearer in the books -- in the movie, when Sam rescues Frodo from the tower at the edge of Mordor, he hesitates when handing the Ring back to Frodo. In the books, it's made clear that Sam is having a vision -- the Ring is attempting to seduce Sam with a vision of Samwise the Great, mightly hero. Sam, of course, knowing he's not a mighty hero, finally shakes off the vision and is able to give the Ring back to Frodo.

Frodo's case is interesting, though -- at first, he merely wants to be of service to Gandalf, carrying the Ring to Bree where he is to meet Gandalf in secret. When Gandalf doesn't show, he carries the Ring onward to Rivendell at Aragorn's behest, then volunteers to carry the Ring further to Mordor once it's clear that no one else will carry out the task at hand. Yet in the end, the Ring seduces him, and he succumbs to his ambition to own the Ring right on the doorstep of its destruction; only a greater ambition to own the Ring than Frodo's own can take the Ring from him, resulting in its destruction anyway. But both Frodo and Bilbo have been tainted by their association with the Ring, and both end up traveling with the elves and Gandalf away from Middle-Earth, though the departure is portrayed as positive for both hobbits.

Even the very wise cannot see all ends

Gandalf even has a line to this effect in the first film, and the obvious pay-off for this line comes once Frodo has succumbed to the lure of the Ring; only Gollum, who could have been killed many times before if rasher heads had their way, ends up ensuring the Ring's destruction, though not in any way he intends.

The same theme echoes throughout the series, though. Theoden thinks Rohan is alone when resisting Saruman's forces at Helm's Deep, only to be shocked by the arrival of elvish archers to honor the ancient alliance between elves and men. Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas think they are about to face Saruman in Fangorn Forest, but discover that instead, this White Wizard is Gandalf, returned from certain death. Eowyn, finding while in camp that she will neither achieve glory (as her uncle Theoden orders her to remain behind to rule Rohan after his death) nor Aragorn's love (who still carries a torch -- and a necklace -- for Arwen), steals away with the army to find her own death; she ends up finding both glory (in slaying the Witch-King) and love (with Faramir), as well as being able to comfort her uncle in his last moments of life.

There is a lot going on in this trilogy, and anyone who can't see it is willfully refusing to see it. I may not be any kind of film expert, but Jackson's (and his collaborators') achievement is amazing, and the trilogy as a whole and this final chapter in it in particular is my favorite since the turn of the calendar in 2001.

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