Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Greatest Epics ever made (in my humble opinion)

What is the equivalent of a Deadhead for lovers of the Lord of the Rings? Hobbithead is just awful. Perhaps a Lordian or Lordite would be ok. Maybe not. A Gandalfian? All right, I can’t think up anything better. Whatever it is, that’s me. I’ve read the books at least ten times and – admittedly, it’s a lot easier – watched each of the movies at least four or five times despite my initial reservations that it would dilute the importance of the books.

There are lots to things to say about the books, but I will keep it to a sentence. They are, in my humble opinion, the best, deepest, most interesting books of the 20th century, blending history, religion, language and mythology in a manner which no one seems able to duplicate and very, very few can approach (I thought T. H. Whites Once and Future King got close). Ignore the comparison with Tolkien you find on the dusk covers of fantasy novels.

I can’t snap off a post about the books. They just mean too much to me and I will probably labor over it for weeks someday (you could check out the Will the real Tom Bombadil please stand up [7/17/07] post, if you are interested, though). But, I saw the movies this past week on cable and remembered that I wrote this last year and never published it. I dusted it off, did a little editing and here it is. However, if you haven’t seen the movies or could care less about The Lord of the Rings, click off and come back next week.

The stories, bloopers and trivia that came out of the movie making could probably make a book (I presume it did, although I never read it). I’m only going to mention the ones that interested me. Too bad that I didn’t think of this last week, as it is kind of fun to watch the movies knowing this stuff. These items were all on the web amongst many others, and I took the ones that seemed like they were from reliable sources and seemed interesting.

Probably the three movies, individually and collectively, deserve their inclusion in top 100 lists. For me, they are the greatest epics ever made (although, I'm not really an epic guy). Filming all three together must have been an exhausting undertaking and it occurred on up to seven different sets each day. The “dailies” were three to four hours long – that is, each day the dailies were as long as each of the three movies ended up.

Sean Bean, who played Boromir, is more famous in England than here. He is the star of an ongoing series of British tv movies in which he plays the hero, Richard Sharpe (1993-2006). Never saw them; just heard of them. You have possibly seen him in National Treasure and Ronin (where, playing a real loser, he outperforming an all star cast, imho, including DeNiro) among many other movies. In Lord of the Rings, he had a special problem. Some of the filming in New Zealand was done near the top of a mountain. Everyone would helicopter up. That is, everyone except Sean, who refused to go up in a helicopter (I don’t blame him; I like to fly, but helicopters scare me). He would walk two hours up the mountainside and then down again at work day’s end dressed as Boromir. That’s dedication. The cast and crew could watch him walking while they flew, no doubt pointing and laughing at every sighting.

There are two portraits above Bilbo and Frodo’s fireplace. One is actually of the director, Peter Jackson, and the other of producer, Fran Walsh, also a screenwriter and, probably more important, his significant other. Jackson snuck himself into the first movie, standing outside of the inn in the village of Bree, the second as a defender at Helm’s Keep and the third briefly as a pirate and for a split second playing Sam in the fight with Shelob. Fran Walsh is in the movies in a slightly odder way. When you hear the Nazgul’s scream – that’s her. However, she did not do their voices. That was the same actor who played Gollum – Andy Serkis.

Many thousands of props were made for the movies by WETA, a New Zealand special effects workshop that built all the props for the movies. Some of the crew got in the films in an appropriate way. They played orc blacksmiths working in the depths below Isengard. Famous Tolkien artists John Howe and Alan Lee also got into the movie, being two of the nine human kings bearing rings. Howe’s skinny arms were also the models for Gollum’s. Guess he needs to work out a little.

Sean Astin is the son of the great John Astin (Gomez Addams to me) and Patty Duke. Playing the seemingly buffoonish, but loyal and indefatigable Sam Gamgee, he had to put on 30 pounds for his character. His was one of many injuries on set. If you recall the scene near the end of the first movie when Sam wades into the river after Frodo’s boat, Sean stepped on a piece of glass and had to be airlifted to a hospital. If you also recall, Sam cannot swim and nearly drowns before Frodo rescues him. We watch him sink beneath the waves until Frodo grabs him. Actually, that never happened in real life. The drowning was filmed at a different time in a studio without any water. Big fans created the wavy effect and special effect magic did the rest.

Sean’s own daughter played Sam’s daughter at the end of the movie. The baby in that scene was actually his movie wife’s (Rosie’s) own kid. Then again, when Aragon kills his first orc after leaping off the pirate ship, it is Viggo Mortensen’s own son, Henry. Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh’s’s kids are seen in the shot where Sam and Rosie marry. Why not? Hollywood is nothing if not incestuous. Many other people from producers to Howard Shore, the composer, were used as extras.

Shore’s soundtrack ranks him up there with John Williams in my book. The song that ends the third movie, Into the West, written for a friend who died of cancer, is spellbinding. I intend to play it at my pre-funeral party.

Sean’s father ("Gomez Adams") also auditioned for Gandalf, as did, it seems, almost every older actor in the world. He didn’t get the part. (Can you imagine -- “Galadriel . . . that’s French”). Horror actor, Christopher Lee, also wanted to be Gandalf. He was a huge LOTR fan and actually met Tolkien once upon a time. He was the first main character cast, but as the evil Saruman, not Gandalf. He broke his hand while filming, but in the hotel, not on the set.

Who wouldn’t want to be Gandalf? Even old Tom Baker, the best Dr. Who there ever was, was in the running at one time. I think I would have liked that, but McKellan was superb and I have not one complaint.

Speaking of Bakers, the role of Sauron was played by a young and successful stuntman named Sala Baker. He also managed to play a couple of orcs and a Gondorian and one of the Rohirrim. He’s not going to get an Oscar but none of the actors did. A number of actors played multiple roles.

Young Orlando Bloom, who probably has benefited from these movies in terms of fame more than anyone else, auditioned for the role of Faramir while still a drama student. He didn’t get it, of course, but the better role of Legolas. He performed many of his own stunts and broke a rib for his troubles. It may seem unbelievable the way he fired off arrows so rapidly in The Return of the King, and it should. It was computer generated. Bloom and actor John Rhys Davies (best known for playing Indiana Jones’ buddy) were both thrown from their boats in filming the river scenes. Viggo Mortensen came close to drowning during the scene where he was floating down the river (after he went over the cliff).

Dominic Monaghan(Merry) and Billy Boyd (Pippin) both originally auditioned for the role of Frodo Baggins. It is a little strange, but fun, to watch the last film and try and picture Boyd or Monaghan walking on the ship at the end, leaving a sorrowful Elijah Wood behind. Anyway, the two ended up being best buddies. I understand that Monaghan now has a role on the t.v. show, Lost, which I don't plan on ever watching. Boyd, is a singer, and actually wrote the tune that he sings near the end of the movie using words from the books (Viggo Mortensen also wrote the melody for the song that he sings after Gandalf crowns him -- talented group).

Davies played the dwarf, Gimli. That was a bit of a stretch, literally, as he is actually 6’ 3”. The poor guy was allergic to his makeup and could not film any two days in a row. It took 3 hours just to put the make up on. He was also the voice of Treebeard (just listen; you will hear it), who was physically represented by a 14 foot tall puppet. That is almost half as tall as the model for Orthanc, which looked huge, but was only 27 feet tall.

Gimli didn’t have it so bad with make up. Bernard Hill, Theoden, underwent up to nine hours of make up for some of his scenes -- I presume the one where Saruman was controlling him. But I feel worse for the actor who played Grima. He had to repeatedly shave off his eyebrows during filming. How fast do eyebrows grow, anyway? Wouldn’t a little plaster forehead have been easier?

Ian McClellan was also too tall for his own good. The scene where he bumps his head on the rafter in Bag End was not scripted (Not sure I believe that one). But, it supposedly happened and he just kept on acting. Actually, there were two Bag Ends for filming purposes. When Gandalf was in a scene they used a smaller one to help the illusion of how short the hobbits were.
It is interesting to watch the mourning of the fellowship in the first film for their lost friend, Gandalf, after he died in Moria, when you learn that none of the cast members had actually met Ian McKellen yet. The scenes were not filmed in sequence and he wasn’t even in New Zealand at the time. I guess that’s good acting on their part. They looked really sad.

Bilbo was played by Ian Holm who has been nominated for an academy award as the trainer in Chariots of Fire and he has been acting for about a half century. He had once played Frodo in an early 80s BBC radio version of LOTR. Bilbo’s speech to the hobbits at his 111th birthday party was the first dramatic moment in the three moveis as he slipped on his ring and disappeared, shocking everyone. The only thing was, Ian Holm wasn’t actually there. He performed all his scenes that supposedly took place in Hobbiton while standing in front of a blue screen in a studio. And the birthday cake? Plastic. It caught on fire while he was making his speech but, like Ian McKellan, he kept acting away. Show must go one and all that.

Remember Bill the pony who Sam had to release before the fellowship started through the mines of Moria. Well, it was too much trouble to bring the real life Bill into the mountains for that scene, so the horse actually had a double played by two guys in a horse suit, like you might see in a junior high production, only much better quality. Now, that’s funny.

Speaking of horses, how did they avoid injuring them during the battle scenes? Simple. They filmed them by themselves (well, with their riders) in the studio going through the paces and wearing special protective clothing. Computers did the rest.

During most of the filming Sam and Frodo had to interact with the animated Gollum, which was represented to them by an orange ping pong ball. Couldn’t they have made a Gollum doll or something. Good acting.

Peter Jackson had wanted Lucy Lawless (Xena) to play Galadriel and Uma Thurman (Kill Bill) to play Arwen. Both apparently got pregnant before they could audition. So what, Kate Winslet was fantastic as Galadriel. I originally thought Liv Tyler the weak link in the movie as Arwen (Why do I feel bad saying that? She is not going to read this). Is she even really an actress? But, actually, she was pretty good. Thurman might not have been an improvement. Winslet was also offered the role of Eowyn.

Jackson had wanted Daniel Day-Lewis to play Aragorn. Admittedly, he probably would have done a good job. Of course, given his propensity for getting into his character even when he wasn’t filming, that might have been a little weird. Then Jackson tried to get Russell Crowe to play the heroic part. He wanted to, but couldn’t manage to schedule it. I’m not a big fan of his (the whole Meg Ryan and the telephone throwing things) but he probably would have been good too. But, now, who can image anyone but Viggo playing Aragon? Not this dweeby little blogger.

Fran Walsh was not the only behind-the-scene-screamer. If you remember the fireworks scene in Fellowship, there is a scream when the dragon firework happens. That was Billy Boyd (Pippin) who was startled by the fireworks, which he had not understood would be real.

When they needed a scream for the orcs in Moria, they found what they wanted in possum calls. The cave troll scream was a little more complicated, being comprised of walrus, tiger and horse sounds.

In one of the great (read "stupid") business moves of the century, Tolkien sold the rights to the movie for $15,000 in 1968. His estate was never in favor of Jackson's film but there was nothing they could do about it at that point. Eventually, one grandson named Simon publicly supported the project and the Tolkien family supposedly disowned him. However, the most important Tolkien, Christopher, son of the Master and author of many books on Middle Earth history himself, eventually signaled that it was okay with him. As good as the films were, if I were a Tolkien, I would have insisted on a Masterpiece Theatre type scene for scene version.

The films were not perfect, nor could they ever hope to be. Many noted the absence of Tom Bombadil, but he was easily excludable from the film, as he adds character, but really doesn’t move the story at all. The entire drama of the return to the Shire was left out too, but how long could the films be? Personally, I was affronted by the few anachronisms in the film such as when the subject of “dwarf tossing” comes up, and the scene in which Legolas skateboards down some stairs. However, leaving that aside and some of the changes in sequence or story, which bothers me in any adaptation of a classic, I was delighted by these movies.

And that’s a wrap.


  1. I'm a little unhappier than you about some of the changes that they made, and the multiple endings are too drawn out. Minor quibbles, it's an amazing work. Would write more, but I think I left my ring upstairs. I'm coming, my precious...

  2. I watched the movies too this past weekend (the first one is actually on right now). They really are amazing. Epic. Im always struck by how amazing the background landscapes are.
    I didn't think any trilogy could be better then Star Wars (I pretend that Ep 1,2 and 3 didn't happen) but LOTR may.
    One correction Dave, Cate Blanchett plays Galadriel not Winslet.

  3. Thanks for the correction. I always have and always will mix up Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet. One of them played herself on one of my favorite shows, Extras (same guys who did the British "The Office") but I can't tell you which one.

    When I was writing it up as "the greatest epic" I questioned myself whether Star Wars deserves that title instead. It might, and you could probably convince me, particularly in terms of how it revolutionized movie making. But, right now, I find I can't watch Star Wars anymore, even IV, V and VI (I'm with you on the I, II and III). That may be b/c I have seen them too many times.

    As to Bear's comments about the story changes, I just keep reminding myself that I had better get used to it, b/c they almost always change the story for the movies. Character changes bother me more than plot changes, as with Daniel Day-Lewis's The Last of the Mohicans, but, I have to admit, despite destroying who Natty Bumppo was meant to be, and major plot changes, it was still a great movie.

  4. Anonymous2:19 PM

    Good post...entertining.
    i also was gonna point out the Winslet/Blanchet thing. How could you confuse the fat chic on the Titanic with an elf Queen??


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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .