Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy has earned wide recognition as one of the most significant accomplishments in the modern age of cinema. The films translate J.R.R. Tolkien’s prose through popular filmmaking tropes and cutting-edge technology into a stunningly visceral travelogue of brotherhood, grief, sacrifice, and storytelling itself, enlivened by the panoramic vistas of New Zealand where they were shot. However, there’s a caveat to the retrospective glow that has steadily amassed around the trilogy since The Return of the King swept the Oscars in 2004. Perhaps due to the epic scope of the project, which forms an almost 10-hour opus when connected together, the long view of director Peter Jackson’s accomplishment deemphasizes the minutia tantamount to its success.
Therefore, as we await Jackson’s latest foray into Middle-earth with the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the time appears ripe for a fresh look at The Lord of the Rings films. However, rather than focusing on where and how the pieces fit into a broader mosaic of the trilogy, an inside-out approach to these movies would make for a more worthwhile account of their riches.
For this piece, I’ve appropriated the concept of Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy’s “Moments Out of Time” annual look-back at a given year’s cinematic offerings. My hope is to highlight individual moments, disconnected not just from the trilogy’s story, but also from the generally accepted account of its collective achievement. Thus, the “Moments Out of Time” concept applies beyond merely the format of highlighting specific excerpts from the movies. These moments—some of which are individual shots, others extended sequences—aren’t necessarily the best or most pivotal within a certain context for evaluating the films.
Each of the following 10 moments illustrates a slightly different shade of the films’ fluid realization of a complex visual, thematic, and emotional spectrum. They encompass moments large and small, every one offering a distinct flavor of Jackson’s interpretation of Middle-earth, and all magnifying the larger accomplishments of the trilogy as a whole. I’ve limited my list to 10, though dozens more could arguably have been featured.
Elrond’s Prophecy (The Two Towers). Although Jackson is on record as saying that fantasy should be real and accessible, he tends to excel most at dreamlike ambiances, particularly those personified by despair. A flash-forward sequence presenting a glimpse into Arwen’s (Liv Tyler) future is a poignant expression of this. Rendered in gray tones, the sequence portrays the immortal elf standing beside Aragorn’s (Viggo Mortensen) tomb. Brittle leaves fall around her as she’s suspended in stillness through time’s passage. “He will come to death, an image of the splendor of the kings of men, in glory and undimmed before the breaking of the world,” Elrond (Hugo Weaving) imparts. “But you, my daughter, will linger on, in darkness and in doubt.” It’s an instance of sustained lyricism, and it may also be the darkest iteration of the films’ fixation with death and loss.
Concerning Hobbits (The Fellowship of the Ring). For The Lord of the Rings movies to work, getting the Shire right was a critical step. The embodiment of paradise for Tolkien, the Shire is also where much of the story transpires before the primary conflict gets going. For Jackson, the task was not only to establish endearing characters, but also to create a world that you could swept up into—all based on mood rather than any specific story point, no less. Alas, the rolling countryside populated by pipe-smoking, ale-drinking hobbits carries the same whimsical charm as a certain wizard on his way for a visit. In the film’s opening scenes, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) ride on a horse and carriage through the hills and meadows, bantering about dragons and adventure. Jackson economically intersperses this with vignettes of life in the Shire; the lasting image out of this is when Gandalf sets fireworks off the back of the cart to the jubilation of the children behind. Taken in whole, the scenes in the Shire are inviting enough to make you forget the problems of the outside world that will soon beckon these folks into action. And though the story does not return to these green pastures until the end of the third film, the peaceful rhythms of the Shire resound profoundly over the journey.
“To War!” (The Two Towers). The Lord of the Rings movies are famous for sweeping images of destruction and ruin. No single shot is more potent in this regard than the revelation of Saruman’s (Christopher Lee) army in the series’s second entry. The story informs us back in the first film that that villainous wizard has been breeding an army, but no less astounding is the reverberating effect of seeing thousands of rabid orc soldiers assembled at Isengard. This is due in part to how Jackson stages the moment, with the camera following behind Saruman as he steps out on the balcony without a break in the shot. The next shot pulls back from the balcony over the endless spears and roaring bellows of the army, in one of the signature moments of the series. It has technical bravura, but more importantly it possesses an arresting simplicity.
The Witch King Revealed (The Return of the King). Although it gets lost amid the frenetic pace of The Return of the King’s first act, a scene with Frodo, Sam (Sean Astin), and Gollum (Andy Serkis) outside what appears to be an enemy stronghold on the fringe of Mordor is brilliantly atmospheric, with Jackson exerting all the tools at his disposal to a chilling effect. The fortress emits a hazy green hue that makes for a cogent backdrop for the Witch King to rise up out of the city on a massive winged beast to call on Sauron’s forces. A nightmarish vision and an ominous prelude to war, the moment builds an understated contrast between the two primary parties involved. Frodo and Sam never encounter the army pouring out slowly from the fortress, but even as they climb further out of harm’s way, Jackson, never releasing the close visual proximity between Frodo and the endless line of orcs, sublimely underlines the anxieties materializing across a span of narrative threads.
“I will take the ring to Mordor.” (The Fellowship of the Ring). For all its accomplishments, the trilogy couldn’t have worked without McKellen’s brilliant turn as the wizard Gandalf. He lends an aura of believability to the whole affair and makes the world of Middle-earth something palpable. An arguably greater accomplishment is how he steps into the role of one of 20th-century fiction’s most memorable characters, effortlessly imbuing the wise old wizard with curmudgeonly wit. But McKellen’s ultimate mark on the character may be the gentle gravitas that he commands in the quieter moments. Gandalf is a flawed and feeling wizard, thanks to the actor’s startling range of movements and voice tones. Just take a look at his reaction to Frodo’s volunteering to take the ring to Mordor, wherein he conveys relief, grief, and even perhaps regret in a single, beautifully realized close-up.