The Fellowship turns 20: a “The Lord of the Rings” retrospective

Photo courtesy of Wing Line Cinema | The first installment of the hugely successful LOTR trilogy was released in December of 2001.

The LOTR films continue to show the quality of those who created them two decades later.

Twenty years ago, when I was a seven-year-old boy, I went to the theater to see some Disney movie. That was when I first saw the trailer for “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”. For three staggering minutes my seven-year-old eyes popped out my head, my ears danced and my heart recoiled in gleeful terror and awe. 

Nothing had ignited my burgeoning creativity the same way. At the time I didn’t know why. All I knew was that there was something about what I had seen that was unique from average big budget blockbusters I had seen before.

Twenty years later as a grown man, these films have the exact same effect on me. Not a shred of quality has been lost to the years. On the contrary, compared to the endless slop of formulaic, regurgitated, cinematic bile Hollywood has subjected us to in recent years, “The Lord Of The Rings” trilogy continues to shine brighter.

The difference really boils down to a quality which is lacking in modern blockbusters: artistic integrity. Director Peter Jackson sums it up best himself during an interview in the bonus features when he said, “As filmmakers we had no interest whatsoever in putting our junk, our baggage into these movies…this should ultimately be Tolkien’s movie not ours.”. 

For nearly a decade, Peter Jackson and just under 3,500 people committed to this goal. Not simply to make a good movie, or a profitable movie, but a movie which respected a literary masterpiece enough to go the extra mile.

This dedication is most evident in the Weta Workshop prop department.  For five years, hundreds of local craftsmen, art students, and construction workers often committed seven-day weeks and twelve-hour days to what has to be the greatest arts and crafts session in human history.

In this time, they produced 45,000 props for the film, including 19,000 costumes, 1,800 latex body suits, 100 fully functional steel weapons, 10,000 arrows, and over 12 million links of plastic chainmail. Richard Taylor, head of Weta Workshop, expressed the commitment expected during this work when he said, “If you couldn’t rise to the highest level of enthusiasm, passion and professionalism and grasp this task as if it was the most important thing you have ever taken on in your life, you were not worthy of the task.”.

Often entire sets were built twice; one for normal size and one for hobbit size. At certain points, even the New Zealand Army Corps of Engineers were enlisted to help. For a time, a group of people large enough to fill a small town poured all their energy and skill into a story they loved.

The results of this enormous effort proved they were worth every bead of sweat, and I believe they shine brightest in “The Fellowship Of The Ring”. No other movie makes me feel so many emotions while shifting from one to the other so successfully. The transition from the whimsical joy of Bilbo’s birthday party to the terror of Gandalf as he warns Frodo of the threat of Mordor. The ethereal beauty of the Elven realms and the imposing, obsidian shimmer of the tower of Orthanc. The wonder of the journey through Moria, and Gandalf’s stand against the swirling flame of the Balrog. All culminating in my favorite action sequence of any film, Boromir’s refusal to die as he defends his friends, his body riddled with arrows.

This imagery would be but a shadow of their beauty without the superb sound editing and masterful score of Howard Shore. The Uruk-hai, surging through the forest like a horde of mechanical boars is blended perfectly with the pounding industrial cacophony of the drums of Isengard. The immortal malice within the faceless black robes of the Ringwraiths personified by the malevolent screech which declares their dreaded coming. When the heroes rise to face these horrors, a triumphant song embodying heroism and brotherhood, rises with them.       

For that is the most enduring theme of these films, the love of friendship and loyalty in brotherhood. It is certainly a male-centric story, and this is a common critique of the films. However, I believe this is more than made up for when one considers the quality of the men in the story.

Many of the characters fulfill typical male action hero roles. They fight, they sleep in the dirt and show courage in the face of danger, but there is also a tenderness and compassion to them as well. They cry together, they hold each other in their sorrows, they consistently share their weaknesses and their doubts and often when they speak to one another they say things like “My dear Frodo…” These films provide a positive example of manliness which is a refreshing alternative to the toxic masculinity common in action films.

This is not to say that these films are perfect. The films are uncomfortably long at times. Pacing can be a real problem when the action dies down and after multiple viewings the excessive fake-out deaths get really old. While there are certainly times when Jackson’s skills as a director shine, there are just as many moments that prove Jackson’s greatest contribution was his skill as an organizer of talent rather than a director.

Flaws aside, Jackson proved a point that modern blockbusters could learn from. Culturally significant art is not confined solely to the nuanced realms of abstraction and subtle commentary. An exciting, action packed movie can also have artistic significance.

There is something enduringly heartwarming about these films. Not just within the story itself but in the story of their creation. Jackson and his team could have slapped together something half as good with half the work and these films still would have made an enormous amount of money.

Instead, they chose to have integrity. They chose to respect the creative significance of what they were undertaking. These films are a testament to the creativity, passion and hard work of thousands of people. For twenty years these films have reminded me that no matter how bleak this world can seem, it’s full of people that can do really cool things, and that is an encouraging thought.

%d bloggers like this: