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In the movie world of 2002, Christmas means one thing: the release of Part Two of Peter Jackson’s epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. But, says Nick Roddick, the appeal of The Two Towers has to do with a lot more than just the extraordinary scale of the undertaking.

Anyone familiar with the press books that film companies send out to brief the media on their upcoming releases, will know that, when you get to the numbers - how many tons of steel, thousands of extras or zillions of special-effects pixels went into making this or that movie - they have run out of interesting things to say about the film.

But not always: when the producers of The Lord of the Rings do this, the numbers are so astonishing that they add to the already formidable mythology that has built up around the film. A year-and-a-half in production; 26,000 extras; 2,400 crew members; specially developed software that can give each of the 10,000 digitally generated Uruk-hai warriors the ability to respond individually and even take their own decisions… These are the kinds of things you don’t find in your average movie, or even your out-of-the-average tentpole blockbuster. They are, quite frankly, unique.

But they do not, in themselves, account for the success of the franchise. That comes from the epic nature of the achievement.

"a true epic"

If what Jackson had come up with, when Part One of the LOTR trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, New Line opened just before Christmas 2001, had been merely impressive, the movies would have gone down in film history as a marathon achievement, a bit like those wide-screen extravaganzas of the fifties, where several directors, a handful of stars and a cast of thousands combined to tell a slice of American history. He didn’t: he produced a true epic.

“This is not about effects,” says Alex Funke, who was responsible for photographing the miniatures used on the three films (although some of them were so large they were dubbed ‘bigiatures’). “This is about telling this very beloved, moving story. If you see the effects, then we did the job wrong. This is about doing whatever you have to do to tell the story in such a way that the audience is completely involved with the movie.”

On December 19, 2001, Jackson achieved just that, delivering something quite out-of-the-ordinary - a genuine epic, which pulled off the ultimate triple whammy: satisfying the millions of fans who had voted JRR Tolkien’s original novel the ‘Book of the Century’; enthralling a generation of kids who had never heard of Hobbits; and fascinating adult audiences who might have gone in to the cinema thinking Middle Earth was a place best left to Dungeons and Dragons aficionados and old hippies. After all, the shop in which I bought my first kaftan in 1967 was called ‘Gandalf’s Garden’.

I was in New Zealand when the film opened and, although the London and New York premieres had already happened, the Wellington opening was the year’s biggest media event. The city was officially rechristened ‘Middle Earth’ for the day; and the crowds were so huge that it took Jackson and his cast half an hour to move down the red carpet to the specially refurbished Dominion Theatre. It had been decorated for the event with several actual LOTR creatures, shipped over from Jackson’s nearby WETA workshop (WETA, in case you’ve ever wondered, is not an acronym but the name of a particularly large and repulsive antipodean insect). Right through into February - high summer in New Zealand, when most people are at the beach - you couldn’t get a seat at the Dominion to see LOTR.

But, for all the enthusiasm with which Fellowship was received, not just in New Zealand but worldwide (it has grossed US$860 million - almost four times the reported production budget for all three films), it was only the beginning. Frodo, Sam and Merry were on the banks of the Great River, ready to face the terrors of Mordor, a third of the way through their quest to cast the Ring back into the Cracks of Doom - the only way to prevent the Dark Lord Sauron, who created it, from regaining control and enslaving the world.

"anticipating the next chapter"

“People are anticipating the next chapter of what happens, because it becomes much more dynamic,” says Elijah Wood, who plays Frodo. “And much more interesting, in my opinion. There are more battles and, of course, you’ve got the inclusion of Gollum, who is one of my all-time favourite characters in literature.”

Here’s a rundown of the characters, the locations and the underlying cosmology that holds together The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. 

Major returning characters:
Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee aka Sam, Meriadoc Brandybuck aka Merry, Peregrin Took aka Pippin
The Fellowship get separated in The Two Towers. Frodo and Sam (Sean Astin) are forced to accept Gollum (see below) as their guide through the hills of Emyn Muil. “Frodo is suffering a lot the longer he holds the Ring,” says Astin. “Sam always trusts Frodo and appreciates how hard what he’s going through is for him. But just when you thought it couldn’t get any more difficult for the little Hobbits trekking across the vast plains and deserts and volcanic regions of Middle Earth, it gets a little worse for them.”

Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), meanwhile, were captured by the fearsome Uruk-hai at the end of the first film. Escaping from their captors, they flee into Fangorn Forest, despite reports that it is haunted, and meet up with Treebeard and his fellow Ents (see below).

Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), the elderly wizard who guided the Hobbits in The Fellowship, was apparently killed in the Mines of Moria two-thirds of the way through that first film. But he returns astride Shadowfax, a snowy stallion. “Gandalf is immortal,” explains McKellen, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in the first film. “But he returns a changed Gandalf, brought back not as Gandalf the Grey but now Gandalf the White. It’s quite clear from the book that he’s got renewed vigour. He returns with a clear aim in view; focused, like a Samurai; and dedicated to the job at hand, which is to provide overall leadership to the Fellowship.”

Elrond, Arwen and Legolas 
Elrond, the elf Lord of Rivendell (Hugo Weaving) and his daughter Arwen (Liv Tyler) know that their people are doomed, yet the trusty archer, Legolas (Orlando Bloom), a Prince from the neighbouring elven realm of Mirkwood, fights on alongside the humans of Rohan. “It’s a sad time, a parting time for Elves,” says Weaving. “They know that their time on this earth has come to an end and they must make way for the rise of Man.”

The wizard (played by Christopher Lee) who has crossed over to the dark side has bred a lethal mutant army of orcs. They now threaten the Rohan fortress of Helm’s Deep, while Saruman has used the sinister Wormtongue to corrupt Theoden, King of Rohan. Otherwise, however, Saruman essentially plays a backstage role in The Two Towers.

Aragorn and Gimli
Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), also known as Strider, the brave human warrior who befriended the Hobbits and helped them with their quest, and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), the dwarf, begin the action of The Two Towers as they try to rescue Merry and Pippin from the Uruks. Later, Aragorn helps inspire the people of Rohan to fight back against Saruman - and finds himself strongly attracted to Eowyn, the Rohan princess.

“Aragorn is given more responsibility, like the others in the Fellowship,” comments Mortensen. “He knows that he needs to step up and do not only what Boromir [the other human warrior, played by Sean Bean, who died at the end of The Fellowship] expected of him, but what Elrond, who has been like a father to him, and Arwen expect of him; and, most importantly, what he knows to be his calling.”

New characters:
Theoden, Eowyn, Eomer… and Wormtongue
Theoden, King of Rohan, home to the human aristocrats of Middle Earth, has been corrupted by his adviser Wormtongue (Brad Dourif), who is in the power of Saruman. “He has been virtually a zombie,” says Bernard Hill, who plays Theoden. “He has been eaten away by the poison of Saruman, put there by Wormtongue.” The latter character is finally thwarted by Gandalf, resulting in the desperate last stand at the Rohan fortress of Helm’s Deep, probably the most memorable set of The Two Towers - a massive castle built against a towering mountain range.

“Helm’s Deep is a large stone fortress set in a narrow, rocky gorge,” says director Peter Jackson. “It’s not a strategic castle: it’s actually a refuge. It’s where the people of Rohan go for protection in times of war. But, in this particular instance, the Uruk-hai, led by Saruman, are intent on killing every man, woman and child in Rohan, so they set a huge army against this fortress.”

The saviours of Rohan are Eowyn (Miranda Otto) and Eomer (Karl Urban). Eowyn provides the story with its first human heroine. “There are very few women in The Lord of the Rings,” says Otto. “Eowyn is the first real human female character. Galadriel [Cate Blanchett] and Arwen [Liv Tyler], who are both Elves, were introduced in the first film. But the second film takes you into the world of human beings.

“Eowyn in the book is described as the daughter of kings. It’s a very difficult time in Rohan and she has had to watch the whole house deteriorate, the whole lineage decline. She wants to spur Theoden into action, but she is powerless to do that to her king.

“Generally, in the myths and legends we hear as young girls, we’re given Sleeping Beauty, we’re given Cinderella. They’re all stories about women who are in difficult situations and are then saved by men. But Eowyn is a character who is in a difficult situation and must become empowered or lose everything. She knows she must find the strength within to save herself and her people.”

Treebeard and the Ents
An ancient people who live in the Forest of Fangorn, the Ents - and their leader, Treebeard - are basically trees who can move slowly of their own volition, putting down and pulling up roots as they go. They are remnants from an earlier age where life - like them - moved at a slower pace, but their essential goodness is reawakened by the plight of Merry and Pippin.

“The way that Treebeard affects Merry and Pippin, and the way Merry and Pippin affect Treebeard is very interesting,” says Rhys-Davies, who provides Treebeard’s voice as well as playing Gimli. “I don’t think that Treebeard would have done anything of great value if he hadn’t met them: he needed that connection. And I also don’t think Merry and Pippin would have grown into these people that could see a wider scope of the world if it wasn’t for Treebeard saying to them, ‘At the moment, evil will rule the world. But then, at some point, good will come back and rule the world.’ And that’s a good thing for the Hobbits to hear.”

And finally… Gollum
Gollum is the great creation of The Two Towers - a tragic character who has been destroyed by the power of the Ring which he once possessed and which he refers to as ‘My Precious’. In those days, 500 years ago, he was a Stoor Hobbit called Smeagol, but his greed and his obsession have warped him into a spineless, worm-like creature who is like a mirror image to Frodo - and a frightening warning of what Frodo might become if he allows the Ring to work its magic.

Readers of the books may forget some of the other characters, but they never forgot Gollum. It is Gollum who guides Frodo and Sam towards Mordor - but he knows and they know that his real motive is to regain the Ring.

A computer-generated character, Gollum’s movements are nonetheless modelled on those of British actor Andy Serkis, who does not merely provide the voice: he effectively plays the role. “The character of Gollum is a completely digital creature, but I was determined to have an actor to actually create the character,” says Jackson. “Obviously, Andy creates the character through the voice, but we’re also doing a lot of Gollum as motion-capture, which is when Andy wears a suit covered in these little dots. He says the dialogue, he plays the scenes out just as he would, and the computer is able to capture his movement, and translate that to the digital version of Gollum.”

And then there is the voice, a sibilant sound which is at once plaintive and sinister, capturing everything that Gollum has suffered, and hinting at everything he will do to get his Precious back.

"emotional memory"

“I had an emotional root to that sound,” says Serkis. “For me, it is where his pain is trapped. That emotional memory is trapped in that part of his body, his throat. In just doing the voice, I immediately got into the physicality of Gollum, and embodied the part as I would if I were playing it for real…”

Published December 19, 2002

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