The first installment in Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings stories, The Fellowship of the Ring, was a general triumph both in its storytelling and its movie-making, but the epic journey to destroy an enchanted ring and the evil creator Sauron with it has only just begun. The Two Towers, the second installment, is thus given the job of living up to the first film’s high standards while also preparing the way for the third film, The Return of the King. And I think my appreciation for this film has actually grown during the past decade. Shall I describe it to you?
Or would you like me to find you a box?
My precious …
After the same haunting, slightly Godfather-esque melody that opened the first film plays, the movie begins over a beautiful snowcapped mountain, with the sound of a magical incantation in the distance. Smartly assuming that viewers saw the first film, The Two Towers revisits one of the first film’s most visually and emotionally exciting scenes, in which the powerful wizard Gandalf faces the ancient, fiery demon known as a Balrog. Locked in combat, the two fall enormous distances with Gandalf wielding a huge sword and plunging downward.
In another area, heroes Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee are traveling onward, alone. The eponymous Fellowship has been scattered, with Frodo and Sam separated from their two Hobbit companions and from the rest of their group, not all of whom survived the first film. Some early lines of dialogue establish the characters’ partial lack of control over their destiny, and the malevolent Ring of Power that Frodo bears is clearly taking a physical and emotional toll on him. On top of this, the creature Gollum–so deformed and shrunken that his spine is heavily visible–is utterly consumed by his desire for his “precious” ring, such that he struggles with his own temptations to kill Frodo and Sam and take it.
Frodo has taken Gandalf’s message of pity to heart, and Frodo extends that pity to Gollum, whom Sam simply wants to tie up and allow to starve. The pitiable creature swears to serve his “master” (the Ring-Bearer), taking an oath on his “precious.” While looking nothing like an ordinary person, Gollum is excellently animated, and his movements, expressions, and ways of speaking look completely realistic. It’s just as well that Gollum takes an oath, whether he intends to hold to it or not: Frodo and Sam need a way to Mordor, and Gollum is the only real option they have.
They’re taking the Hobbits to Isengard!
The Hobbits Merry and Pippin find themselves in a dangerous situation where they could well end up on the menu–one goblin does, at the hands of his own “allies,” which we see to some extent–with Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli trying to stay in pursuit. Gimli brings some early comic relief, which lightens the mood without disrupting the pacing, and throughout the whole movie, he polishes this ability into an art form. The monsters themselves look fantastic in any lighting. The wizard Saruman (with his tower, Orthanc), in the service of the dark lord Sauron (with his tower, Barad-dûr), is building an enormous army and going out of his way to destroy the environment in the process. Finding herself and others in danger, a mother emotionally but strongly sends her two children away on horseback, that they might ride and raise an alarm. The little girl is a powerful and heartbreaking actress.
After a nighttime action scene with a band of Uruk-hai and its morning aftermath, two characters run from danger by climbing a very tall tree … which then opens its eyes. It then begins talking. As with most of the characters in this series, this Ent, a herder of other trees who is named Treebeard, is introduced as a potential foe with uncertain loyalties. Even with dramatic irony in play for viewers familiar with the story, The Two Towers does a good job of establishing an increasingly stressful mood, though I can imagine that it must be exhausting for the heroes to continually wonder whom they can trust.
After Gollum saves Frodo’s life in a moment that looks like something out of a horror movie, the two have a discussion in which Gollum winds up revealing a part of his past. It’s an excellent scene that helps to develop Gollum as a character and to show how deeply conflicted he really is about his own actions and motives. It’s equally easy to understand why Frodo wants to have mercy on the same person–to the extent that term still applies–that Sam would just as soon have nothing to do with.
Going back to the earlier mention of the divided narrative, one of the big problems I have with the core plot’s structure is this: while the story thread of Frodo and Sam trying to make their way to Mordor probably has the widest likely impact upon the world as a whole when compared to the other plots, it’s a very straightforward story, and there’s really not very much to it. A large part of this thread consists of Gollum leading Frodo and Sam from one place to another, with few outright surprises along the way, and while I would argue that Frodo’s story is by far the most important, much of the excitement in the movie occurs on scales of cities and communities that are more significant on their own than when compared to the possible future, good or ill, of Middle-earth as a whole.
What we need is a few good taters!
On the bright side, even though much of The Two Towers feels important only in the short term (which is more of a problem in an epic and desperate quest than in a wandering and sometimes aimless adventure whose point is to see what’s around the corner), the story and the movie do a good job of making that short term quite enjoyable. Many of the new characters introduced are involving to watch, whether the viewer wants to root for or against them: a shieldmaiden who knows her way around a blade and is concerned about providing for her own survival, a king whose mind has been sapped, a somewhat lecherous advisor so emotionally agitating to watch that I’m surprised someone hasn’t slit his throat already, and other individuals with stories of their own add to the motley cast introduced in the first film. (The shieldmaiden is competent without rubbing this in the viewer’s face, and her bug-eyed expression when Aragorn parries her blade while she’s practicing is hilarious.)
Upon gaining strength, believing that his people will be made safe this way, King Théoden of Rohan orders them to the fortress and refuge of Helm’s Deep, a decision that several characters criticize for a variety of reasons. While there’s enough action to hold the story steady, much of the movie’s later sections and a large portion of the plot deal with the fate of this place and of Saruman’s intent to destroy it. In the meantime, other than the numerous exciting fights with all manner of beasts, Orcs, and even evil Men, some of the film’s best moments really are its most simple: Frodo’s and Sam’s disagreement on how to treat Gollum threatens to turn hostile, but Frodo’s anger seems based as much on the corrupting influence of the Ring he bears as on plausible, real-world interaction; likewise, Gollum has an extended “conversation” with himself about whether to betray the Hobbits, which is made to look like an actual two-way talk between the parts of his personality, thanks to creative use of camera angles.
Not all of the character development is so successful, even if its good intentions do produce enjoyable results in their own way: one scene of Gimli joking about Dwarf origins is so comedic that it feels overdone, as does a moment where a woman stares on and on at Aragorn longingly. Aragorn’s actual romance, with the Lady Arwen, feels “adequate” in that at the least it doesn’t seem sudden or forced, even if the drawn-out dialogue issues from the first movie persist, along with a kissing scene that goes on for so long that it starts to test my patience.
On the bright side, in what is perhaps the opposite of how most of the rest of the story behaves, the romance is deeply interesting, not so much out of concern for its outcome but because of the way it deeply affects both partners for the time being. Aragorn and Arwen both carry a visible and troubling weight, as the strong odds against them being able to be together in the first place are compounded by the distinct possibility that even if they do marry, Arwen may easily outlive her husband and have no comfort for her grief. (I suppose that frankly she could eventually remarry, but I don’t recall this being brought up.)
This leads toward one of the most amazing sequences over a long period of time that I’ve seen in a movie to this day, and as it essentially takes up the rest of the movie, this sequence and its surrounding events more than deserves a review section of their own. Saruman and a servant of his continue to plot their devastation of the Deep, and when the camera pans to Saruman’s created force, it’s incredible. Except for where he’s standing in the picture, the army of ten thousand Uruk-hai pretty much literally fills the whole screen even from a distance. When in a column formation, the Uruk-hai forces extend so far that they look like a black-armored river.
When told of this enormous horde, Théoden arrogantly says to let them come, secure in his feelings of invulnerability. His insistence on self-sufficiency is annoying, but it feels increasingly “normal” in a setting whose overall worldview seems to become more and more cynical by the minute. The movie continues the series tradition of establishing most every character antagonistically at first, but in one case this behavior sticks, resulting in one character in particular balancing his status as “hero” or “villain,” as it were, on a razor’s edge and becoming all the more interesting and difficult to predict for doing so.
The plot of Treebeard and the other Ents continues, as does the question of what role, if any, they will play in Saruman’s war. Unfortunately this plot is really slow to develop, something Treebeard himself even mentions, and until the outcome is ultimately revealed (one way or another), the scenes of this subplot leading up to it feel irrelevant.
Night has fallen, and with it, the mood of nearly everyone in the story except for Théoden. Even Legolas, who doesn’t receive much character development but gets by on charisma, personality, and combat ability, is pessimistic about the heroic forces’ chances against a force that heavily outnumbers theirs, Elven reinforcements or no. That being stated, the story is best when it finds a mood and sticks to it, and its choice of grimness demonstrates a sincere commitment to dealing with themes of war and death: with men and even capable boys called to take up arms to defend the Deep, there’s a quietly powerful scene of an old woman watching her son or grandson, likely not more than twelve, be walked off for war preparations. After having spent most of two movies doing the same thing, the story is less successful in trying to build up suspense regarding the trustworthiness of new characters, than it is when leading up slowly and painfully to tremendously awesome fights, arguably the film’s best attribute.
The Uruk-hai assault has begun, thanks to an archer becoming impatient, and said archers are forced to switch from bows to swords as Uruk-hai take ladders to climb up the fortress walls. It’s awesome to watch the heroes be forced to continually switch tactics, and while this probably isn’t doing much for Gandalf’s previous message of mercy, it’s just too funny to watch Legolas and Gimli compete for kills as though they’re playing a game. A sneak attack that destroys a huge part of the wall is incredible to see, with stone and Men and Elves flying everywhere in slow motion, and the story is given a pacing boost it needed, thanks to the added “convenience” this gives to an enemy thousands strong. At one point a certain warrior dies–not part of the Fellowship in any way–and the movie mourns for him, which doesn’t work well when this character has rarely if ever been significantly introduced to the viewers even in mentioning (at least one of Gimli’s relatives in the first film was given that much).
As is consistent in Jackson’s sweeping portrayal, it’s an amazing sight to watch so many people pour through the newly created breach, which forces the heroes into the keep, where they’ll have to make a last stand. Elsewhere, another character goes from being a liability in The Fellowship of the Ring to being an asset in this film, and when the plot finally returns to Frodo, his recurring mental attacks by the Ring, while monsters fly overhead, give the plot the sense of unity and relevance that the whole movie needed. As the heroes of Helm’s Deep prepare to make a potentially costly but thoroughly enthralling gambit, it’s a powerful sight to physically watch the sun rise, and the movie’s spirits go with it. What happens next probably isn’t actually wise, but the movie does far too much of a good job making this decision look impressive, whether it would actually work in a similar situation or not.
As the story concludes, the heavy losses and failures having led to this point are covered over with hope, and that is what makes a movie that sometimes stumbles in the details so inspiring: it is about hope and about largely unambiguous heroism and noble intentions that are made clear despite whatever issues the plot itself has. It is beautiful to watch a heroic speech being made over the events that are now taking place, and if moments like this inspire other enjoyers of the series like those moments inspire me, then I think it’s no wonder that these stories and others like them have endured for so long. They may yet continue to do so even when a number of other stories are all but forgotten.
Conclusion: It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered.
Relevance is something The Two Towers struggles with at times, because when a story so heavily showcases a valiant effort to save a defenseless population from an eradicating force of thousands, and then its actual priorities make events like this feel insignificant by comparison, the story has problems. Nevertheless, while the quest’s actual focal point often feels limited to being a footnote in terms of the time and detail spent developing it, this film remains important in other ways. It reminds us of the value of heroism, and of hope, and of the usefulness of both.
There is a point in this film, essentially synonymous with the end, where everything just comes together. As with the first movie, the special effects and the designs of sound and music are consistently impressive. Once the various plot fragments become reunited for one special and incredible moment, however, the movie as a whole becomes validated. Even if The Two Towers doesn’t contain any world-shaking plot twists and, in the long run, doesn’t feel hugely essential for understanding the story and indeed the conclusion of The Lord of the Rings series, this movie can still be very much worth your time.
This post was originally written and published on my movie review blog, Projected Realities.