The first in a trilogy of films that captured the world’s attention, #3 is often imitated, but never equalled.
Brought to life by an unlikely director and filmmaking team that have since become giants in the industry, it blends fantasy, suspense, humour and most of all… heart, to become a truly epic adventure.
#3. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring – Extended Edition (2001) Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Christopher Lee. Directed by Peter Jackson.
I was never a Lord of the Rings fan as a kid. I’d heard of it, sure, but I’d never read the books or even seen the old animated version.
So when I heard they were making The Lord of the Rings into a live-action movie, I met the news with a nonchalant shrug. But then I started hearing more about it. And the more I heard, the more fascinated I became.
First of all, it was going to be three movies, since there were three books. That made sense. Secondly, they were being directed by New Zealand filmmaker, Peter Jackson, whose quirky, Michael J. Fox ghost movie, The Frighteners, very nearly made this 40 for 40 list. And lastly, all three movies were being filmed at once, to be released a year apart in a daring undertaking rarely seen in ‘place-it-safe’ Hollywood.
Now my interest was piqued, and when the first trailer for Fellowship of the Ring was released, it became an instant ‘must-see’ film for me. I couldn’t wait.
Despite my interest, I refrained from reading the books, wanting to go into the movie knowing as little as possible, besides the most basic plot elements. Little people with big, hairy feet named Hobbits, alongside elves and wizards and various other fantastical beings seek to destroy a magic ring before its malevolent creator can use it to rule the world.
Now, I understand that most people regard The Return of the King as the best of the trilogy. The Academy certainly felt that way, awarding it eleven Oscars. But personally, I remain of the opinion that Fellowship of the Ring is not only the best Rings movie, but (obviously) one of my all-time favourites of any film.
I appreciate the relatively-simple storyline. Peter Jackson and his wife, Fran Walsh, and their writing partner, Philippa Boyens, did the impossible by crafting a script out of the novel by the legendary J.R.R. Tolkien; a book forever touted by Hollywood as ‘un-filmable’.
Jackson’s direction helps create a majestic Middle-Earth. A lived-in, sometimes grim-and-gritty, sometimes heavenly fantasy realm, filled with a mix of spectacle, adventure, and most of all… danger. His decision to film all three movies at once also solves any potential continuity issues. Unlike many other trilogies, where new directors or fan opinions can alter the original intent of the story, Jackson’s movies remain consistent and true to themselves and their narrative from beginning to end.
I’m grateful that unlike the horribly-fake and cartoon-looking Star Wars Prequel Trilogy, this film looks and feels very much real, thanks in no small part to the use of real sets and miniatures. Yes, this movie has its fair share of CGI, but many of its visual marvels come down to the fact that our eyes are more willing to accept what we see on the screen because it is actually there, just cleverly shot and expertly lit. Then when the CGI elements are laid in over the top, it creates an almost seamless blend that fools our minds.
Jackson’s previous work and his love of horror and cult films actually give some of the more tense scenes a genuinely spooky feeling. And the cinematography (even the simulated cinematography) by the late Andrew Lesnie, is nothing short of breathtaking.
I think the greatest decision the filmmakers made for this film was to have everything seen through the particularly-striking eyes of one character: Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood).
Though Frodo, Wood takes us on a journey from the sleepy Shire, inhabited by the peaceful and fun-loving Hobbits, to the world of men, dwarves, elves and even monsters of Middle-Earth. We share his experiences; his wonderment, his excitement, his fear, as just like us, he witnesses the incredible world around him for the first time.
Frodo is guided through (most of) the movie by the film’s most-recognisable-character, Gandalf the Grey, with a career-defining performance by Ian McKellan.
McKellan was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for this film, and rightly so. His Gandalf is warm and friendly, yet strong and commanding when needed. Thanks to the excellent script, Gandalf acts as our guide just as much as he does Frodo, as he mentors the young Hobbit through his adventure.
The famous confrontation at the Bridge of Khazad Dum, is breathtaking to watch. With his famous cry of, “You… shall not… pass!” McKellen still elicits goosebumps from me while watching that scene, even after all these years.
The character of Strider, later revealed as Aragorn, the rightful heir to the throne of Gondor, is a tricky role to play. The fact that Jackson originally hired Stuart Townsend in the part, only to replace him when he realised he’d cast the character too young, is testament to the role’s difficulty.
Thankfully, Jackson found Viggo Mortensen for the part. Convinced to play Aragorn by his then-teenaged son, Mortensen delivers a wonderfully-stoic-yet-heroic performance, that in the wrong hands, could have become hokey and clichéd.
His stilted, forbidden romance with the elf maiden, Arwen (Liv Tyler), a hero in her own right, is handled with the perfect balance of romance vs. responsibility.
Aragorn’s need to protect Frodo and the One Ring showcases Mortensen’s proficiency for Hollywood swashbuckling, and his complicated relationship with fellow man of the West, Boromir (Sean Bean) is a true highlight of the movie for me.
I am a massive Sean Bean fan. He’s never failed to entertain me in a variety of roles, and as Boromir, he’s at his very best. No stranger to playing villains, Bean is allowed a rare redemption arc in this movie.
As the film progresses, he goes from arrogant soldier, burdened with the protection of the people of Middle-Earth, who refuses to align with Aragorn, who he sees as ‘nothing more than a ranger’… to an obsessed, almost-possessed creature of instinct, wanting to take the Ring for himself… to noble and sacrificial warrior.
Like all good Bean performances, of course he dies. But Boromir at least receives one of the greatest ‘Last Stands’ I’ve ever seen. And his final moments, in which his character finally accepts Aragorn as his king, are simply brilliant.
The Fellowship of the Ring is also fleshed out by its many other supporting characters. Fellow Hobbits, Samwise (Sean Astin), Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) aid Frodo in his quest as only they can, while elder statesmen, Ian Holm passes the literary torch as the famous Bilbo Baggins.
Orlando Bloom shines as the elf archer, Legolas, partnered with the great John Rhys-Davies as standoffish dwarf, Gimli, in yet another chameleonic role from Davies. The always-impressive Hugo Weaving brings Elrond to life as only he can, and Cate Blanchett is simply magnificent as Galadriel. Her frightening turn and upsetting vision of what might be, when she transforms into what looks like the water-logged, demonic corpse of her once-immaculate character, is another unforgettable moment.
One thing I really like about this movie, are its villains. Typically, especially in a fantasy film like this one, the bad guy is a larger-than-life, bombastic sorcerer or superhuman being. But for this movie, and The Lord of the Rings as a whole, the lead antagonist is a disembodied spirit, represented by a huge, flaming eyeball.
And I love it.
Sauron is such a powerful force of evil in this universe, that the movie stresses upon us that should his minions capture the One Ring and allow him to merely become corporeal again, it’s over. There’s no fighting him. There’s no last-minute plan that will defeat him. There’s no Kryptonite or magic spell that will expose his weakness. Nothing. Forget it.
As such, the secondary villains are then instantly upgraded in the threat factor. In any other film, Saruman (Christopher Lee) would be the final big-bad, the ultimate evil-doer threatening the protagonists. So it’s refreshing to see him as a follower of Sauron.
Lee creates an imposing, multi-dimensional character, using his impressive voice, stature and life-time of accumulated despicable roles to make Saruman a more-than-memorable villain. We are told of his former kind and peaceful nature, but unlike many movies, are never shown his turn to evil. We are simply left with a now-malevolent wizard so afraid of Sauron’s potential; he’s decided he’d rather live on his knees than die heroically on his feet.
Saurman’s hideous creations: the Uruk-Hai, led by the monstrous Lurtz (Sala Baker) add an even greater threat to the Fellowship than the already-intimidating orcs and goblins. Yes, they’re defeated by the end of the movie, but as ‘disposable foot-solders’ go, Saruman’s creatures are up there with the best.
Speaking of creatures, Fellowship of the Ring boasts some of my all-time favourite movie-monsters. The aforementioned Black Riders or Ring Wraiths pierce our ears with their soul-crushing screams, the octopus-like Watcher in the Water unnerves us with a Lovecraftian otherworldliness, and last but not least, when the Fellowship enter the daunting Mines of Moria, we get not one but two incredible on-screen leviathans.
In my opinion, the battle with the Orcs and their Cave Troll kicks off the film’s greatest action scenes, as the lumbering beast clumsily battles Aragorn and the others to a standstill and seemingly impales Frodo to death, all the while swinging its chains around with sound effects that will surely test out your home theatre system’s surround sound capabilities.
But then, even when the Cave Troll is slain by Legolas and his perfectly-placed arrow, we don’t feel like celebrating. The mournful cries that accompany its final breaths remind us that this isn’t some Machiavellian evil-doer, but rather a mistreated animal, one our heroes were forced to put out of its misery.
The second impressive beast that appears soon after the Cave Troll sequence (and my personal favourite) is the Balrog. Described by Gandalf (before we ever see it) as a ‘creature of shadow and flame’ and a foe that is ‘beyond any of you’, the demonic Balrog is simply incredible.
The CGI is brilliant. You can feel the weight of the creature with each threatening step, and its fiery, dragged-stone-like roar confirms this is one monster not to be trifled with. This is easily my favourite scene of the movie, highlighted by Howard Shore’s awe-inspiring score.
I’m impressed that we actually get some character out of the big guy, as well. As the Balrog approaches Gandalf, it seems to think it is simply another (albeit brave) mortal man standing before him. But as the Balrog’s sword is deflected by the wizard, a close up shot of the creature’s face reveals that he now understands Gandalf is more than he seems, and as such, the Balrog ups its game. It’s a subtle moment I’ve only caught since watching the movie so many times, but one I really commend Jackson for adding.
The action and spectacle of the Moria scenes are contrasted immediately by the sombre tone following Gandalf’s ‘death’. Elijah Wood and Orlando Bloom in particular steal that scene, the former breaking our hearts with his agonising grief, while the latter (as an immortal elf) remains stunned and the very concept of death.
And even despite Boromir’s heroic death, the final battle against the Uruk-Hai remains another feature, as Aragron, Gimli and especially Legolas, dispatch their foes in a fashion truly worthy of an epic, fantasy adventure.
Although it is only the first part of the trilogy, I feel this film still works as a standalone movie. For me, the ending gives the impression that even though things are going to be tough for a while, eventually, everything will be okay.
Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas head off to save Merry and Pippin with a rousing fanfare, and although Frodo and Sam are traipsing into the dangers of Mordor, the movie has already done such a great job of showing how together, they can accomplish anything, that we sense they’ll somehow be all right.
If there were never any other movies in this series, I feel I’d be satisfied with just this one. The bittersweet ending seems to imply that not everything needs to be shown or spelled out to the audience for the story to be complete. Sometimes, you can fill in the blanks yourself. At least that’s how I see it.
Especially when you watch the Extended Edition, which is the only version I own and to be honest, will watch. Yes, these movies are already long to begin with, but by splicing the deleted scenes back into his movie, Jackson restores several crucial character moments to flesh out and perfect what was already a terrific film.
While it was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, (losing to A Beautiful Mind) I don’t feel Fellowship of the Ring quite gets the recognition it deserves. The smaller scale (relative to its sequels, anyway) of the story really helps the audience concentrate on the characters, since in parts two and three, they’ll be separated and whisked away on disconnected adventures, only to reunite in the final moments of Return of the King.
Needless to say, this movie really made an impression on me way back in 2001 when it was released, and for a good while it rivalled the soon-to-be-revealed numbers one and two on this list. Besides some (but, very little) aged CGI and the occasional overacting extra, I struggle to find even the smallest fault with this film. Testament to its greatness is the fact that should I come across it on cable television, I refuse to watch it. Instead, I immediately begin planning to make time to watch the entire film, knowing that in the days that follow, I’ll end up watching the rest of the trilogy as as well.
So I guess it’s clear by now that I love this film. I hold it dear to my heart, and in fact, you could almost say, it is… precious to me.
Anyone up for a long walk to the mountains?
Rating: 5 out of 5 hairy Hobbit feet.
Favourite Moment: Gandalf Vs The Balrog.
Honourable Mention: “They have a cave troll…”
Next week: #2 – “Show me the way to go home… I’m tired and I want to go to bed…”