Last week I wrote about The Fellowship of the Ring movie, and this week I follow up with the sequel, The Two Towers.
One of the first things I noticed about this film was the short, choppy sequencing of scenes. This mainly occurred in the first hour, and it made for a slightly disjointed viewing experience.
The movie picks up right where Fellowship left off, starting with a gorgeous panorama shot of snow-capped mountains. Then we relive Gandalf’s fall from the bridge of Khazad Dum, but this time we get to see more of his battle with the Balrog, which is sheer awesomeness.
The perspective switches (get ready for a lot of this) to Frodo and Sam, tired and lost, as they make their way through the razor cliffs of Emyn Muil. We see that the Ring is getting heavier for Frodo, who feels its pull more than ever before, and certainly more than old Bilbo ever seemed to exhibit (except for brief spells.) This wandering phase is rather dull until the arrival of Gollum, who has been following the hobbits with plans to steal back the Ring. They catch him in the act and truss him up with elven rope. Frodo decides to free Gollum in exchange for leading them to Mordor; Sam doesn’t trust him (with good reason).
I want to pause a moment here to say that the portrayal of Gollum by actor Andy Serkis is – without a doubt — the highlight of this movie. The Two Towers has always been my least favorite book of the trilogy, sometimes tedious in its depression, but Gollum elevates this movie to being almost as good as the first one. A vicious little beast who can turn so sweet and cute, he is a masterstroke of acting and CGI genius.
A good deal of Frodo’s plotline in this film concerns his personal quest to “save” Gollum from the Ring’s influence. Obviously, this is because Frodo wants to believe it is possible for someone so corrupted by the Ring (as he fears he is becoming) can come back to normality.
This is a subtle character arc nestled inside the humongous save-the-world storyline, and one that I appreciated a great deal. Because Frodo must wrestle with the Ring’s corruption and his concern for Gollum, the exterior obstacles (the terrain, the Nazgul, the army of Mordor, etc…) seem even more impossible to defeat.
We switch to Merry and Pippin who are in the clutches of the orcs, on their way to deliver the hobbits to Saruman. Things look dire for our young heroes, but Pippin has the wisdom to leave a trail for their friends.
Next we see Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas tracking the orcs holding Merry and Pip. Although poor Gimli is regulated to comic relief, I have to admit I found it a welcome relief from this movie’s sometimes-dour tone.
We get some scenes of Saruman preparing for war, which are a nice touch. Not only because they fill out the story, but because we get to see more of the incredible Christopher Lee.
Next we go to Rohan to see the situation there, with old king Theoden suffering under Saruman’s evil influence. Although the land of Rohan (while beautiful) is rather sparse, the drama unfolding in the king’s court is delicious. We have Grima Wormtongue whispering poison into the king’s ear. On the other side are the king’s own kin and loyal followers. Although the events are slightly simplistic, it’s still fun to watch Grima divide and conquer his political enemies.
Merry and Pippin are saved from the orcs by the arrival of the Rohirrim, although the scene ends with Pippin apparently about to be squashed under a horse.
Aragorn and friends encounter of the riders of Rohan led by Eomer, the king’s nephew who was exiled by Wormtongue. They learn that the horsemen killed the company of orcs transporting the hobbits and no one was left alive. Thereafter they search the battlefield, and Aragorn finds tracks leading into Fangorn Forest.
Back to Merry and Pippin, who have escaped the orcs (and the Rohirrim) into Fangorn where they fall into the hands/branches of Treebeard the Ent. I found Treebeard to be a pretty decent character, certainly a bit stuffy and monotonous, but that’s part of his charm. The Ent takes the hobbits to meet the White Wizard, whom at this point we’re supposed to assume is Saruman. (Cue the scary music.)
Then we go back to Frodo and Sam as they follow Gollum into the Dead Marches. I think it’s awesome how the lighting changed for these scenes, becoming stark and strange to highlight the weird atmosphere of this place. The sense of hopelessness is almost palpable. Gollum is in his “cute” mode, although he whines impressively about being hungry. Frodo succumbs to the lure of the bodies in the water and falls in, and it’s Gollum who pulls him out. Of course, we assume it’s because Gollum doesn’t want to lose the Ring into those haunted waters, but it’s still a wonderful twist. Later at camp, Frodo and Gollum forge a connection, with Frodo reminding him of his real name.
Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas enter Fangorn to find their friends but instead encounter the White Wizard, who turns out to be Gandalf, reborn as Gandalf the White. Gandalf fills in the rest of his battle with the Balrog, which includes this awesome line, “…Until at last I threw down my enemy and smote his ruin upon the mountainside.” So powerful and poetic. Gandalf calls the epic-level mount Shadowfax and they go riding to the capital of Rohan to speak with the king.
Frodo, Sam, and Gollum/Smeagol get to the Black Gate of Mordor. Too late, Gollum realizes they mean to go inside. But the way is too well-guarded. And here we see that Gollum may be Sauron’s greatest foil, for he talks the hobbits into trying a different “secret” way. Which brings up the question: why did Sauron let Gollum leave Mordor in the first place? Sure, I think the Dark Lord intended for Gollum to track the Ring and possibly alert him to its location, but He had to know that Gollum would try to snatch the Ring and vanish with it into some dank hole, and who knows how long before it surfaced again? I suppose Sauron thought he could win the war without finding the Ring, as long as his enemies couldn’t use it against him.
Gandalf and friends reach Edoras, where they are disarmed before being allowed to enter the king’s hall. In a nifty bit of trickery, Gandalf manages to keep his staff. It looks as if Saruman’s curse on King Theoden is too strong to break, until Gandalf reveals himself as the new White Wizard and finally manages to defeat Saruman. It’s a nice bit of storytelling, comparing the ravages of age on the mind with a magical curse. Theoden’s resurrection is a brilliant moment at a time of lost hope. It is immediately followed by the burial of his dead son. The question lingers: is Theoden’s spirit too broken to fight back?
Gandalf and Aragorn try to convince Theoden that he must fight for his kingdom before it is lost for good, but the king will not. Instead, he orders a retreat to the mountain fortress of Helm’s Deep. Gandalf rides off to find Eomer’s host while the rest of the heroes stay to help Theoden’s people. Aragorn and the king’s niece, Eowyn, form a connection; she’s intrigued by him.
Frodo and Sam are still following Gollum. Here we come to one of my favorite scenes, where Gollum and Smeagol argue about what to do with the hobbits. Smeagol (the “good” side) actually wins and “banishes” his Gollum personality with the classic line, “Leave now and never come back!” It appears as if Smeagol is turning over a new leaf. Perhaps Frodo can save him.
But then Frodo and Sam are captured by men of Gondor, led by Faramir (Boromir’s brother.) We see right away that while Faramir is brave and strong like his brother, he is also more thoughtful.
Aragorn and company escort the people of Rohan on the road to Helm’s Deep. As a side note, I love that Eowyn, while courageous and strong, is a horrible cook. Her expression when she finds out that Aragorn is more than eighty years old is priceless, though it does nothing to halt her growing infatuation with him.
Aragorn has a flashback about being back in Rivendell with Arwen before this quest began. He doubts the future, but she is confident in him. Then another flashback to Aragorn arguing with her father. Elrond wants Arwen to leave Aragorn and go with her people to the safety of the Undying Lands where she will live forever. Aragorn tries to break it off with Arwen, but she’s not playing that. These memories are broken up by an attack by goblin worg riders. Eowyn is told must stay with the common folk while the soldiers fight, which pisses her off.
Legolas has a moment to shine as he snipes goblins from a mile away and then does a cool horse-mounting maneuver. Gimli and Legolas begin to count their kills in a friendly, slightly pathological contest. Aragorn appears to have fallen to his death over a cliff, although no one goes down to try to find the body.
Saruman’s army advances toward Helm’s Deep.
Back at Rivendell, Elrond convinces Arwen to leave with the elves by reminding her that Aragorn, even if he wins this war, will eventually die and leave her alone. This transitions into Galadriel narrating the recent events in the story, posing the question of whether or not the elves will leave the people of Middle-Earth to their fate.
Faramir interrogates Frodo and Sam and finds out they knew his brother. Faramir knows Boromir is dead, which shocks the hobbits. We get a flashback to the day that Faramir and Boromir liberated the city of Osgiliath. This scene shows what a douche their father is, as he berates Faramir and sends Boromir to Rivendell to claim the Ring for Gondor. This scene gives us more insight into Boromir’s character, explaining why he betrayed the Fellowship. It also explains why Faramir is so stern with the hobbits. Both brothers struggle to live up to their father’s expectations.
The Gondorians find Gollum, and they are about to kill him until Frodo convinces Faramir to spare his life. The Gondorians capture Gollum instead (with Frodo’s help) and beat the crap out of him, triggering a return of his Gollum persona. Sam urges Frodo to put on the Ring and get away, but Frodo knows he can’t — he’s too far gone in the Ring’s embrace. Faramir learns from Gollum that Frodo has the Ring and decides to take the hobbits back to Gondor, to his father.
Aragorn turns up alive in Helm’s Deep. He has seen Saruman’s vast army of orcs and tries to convince Theoden to call for help, but he won’t. (Still too stubborn and hurt.)
Quick scene: Merry and Pippin witness an Entmoot.
Back to Helm’s Deep where the people of Rohan prepare for battle. It’s a good montage of prep and fear. They believe this will be their end, even Theoden. Legolas and Aragorn have a silly tiff about whether or not to stay and fight, but they make up pretty quickly. Then a company of elven archers arrives from Lothlorien to help.
The Battle of Helm’s Deep is one part of this movie’s triple climax. It’s very cool. Dark and violent with touches of black humor. Many feats of valor which are almost beyond belief, but suitably so. The bomb used to burst open the wall is awesome, especially how it’s lit by an orc doing an impression of an Olympic torch-runner. And Legolas surfs on a shield down a flight of steps. Over the top? Yes. Still awesome? Yes, indeed.
Back at Fangorn, Merry and Pippin have failed to convince the Ents to help the war effort. Until Pippin tricks Treebeard into taking them near Isenguard. Once the Ent sees the destruction of the forest there, he calls his buddies to come fight.
Faramir takes Frodo, Sam, and Gollum to Osgiliath, which is under attack from Mordor. (Again.) Frodo is falling deeper under the Ring’s spell, although I’m not completely sure why. Maybe because he’s lost hope? Sam tells Faramir the truth about how Boromir tried to steal the Ring. That’s when a Nazgul arrives.
Saruman’s army is breaking into Helm’s Deep as dawn approaches. Aragorn convinces Theoden (finally) to ride out in one final attack. They hold off the orcs long enough for Gandalf to arrive with Eomer and his cavalry. The good guys win! A portion of Fangorn Forest that traveled to Helm’s Deep finishes off the fleeing orcs with much munching and crackling branches.
The Ents attack Isenguard in a parallel battle. It’s an excellent use of models and CGI. The Ents “release the river!” to flood Saruman’s citadel. (I love when the burning Ent runs into the frame to dip his head into the rushing water.) Afterward, Merry and Pippin get high on pipeweed to celebrate the victory.
In the third simultaneous battle of the climax (don’t try that at home), Frodo goes forth to meet the Nazgul. He is just about to hand over the Ring when Sam tackles him. Frodo draws Sting and almost kills poor Sam before he comes to his senses. Frodo is ready to give up. Then Sam goes a little meta-story with his pep talk. Faramir lets the hobbits go free, even though it might be a capital offense. As they leave, Gollum’s bad side takes over. He plots to kill the hobbits and take back his Precious with the help of a powerful ally…
The movie ends with a mixed message of hope and foreboding. I’ve heard people complain that Towers isn’t as good as the first movie, but I don’t like comparing them to each other because I see the trilogy as one single work. The sets and design are first-rate, the casting impeccable.
I’m ready for The Return of the King!
Jon Sprunk is the author of the Shadow Saga (Shadow’s Son, Shadow’s Lure, and Shadow’s Master) and a mentor at the Seton Hill University fiction writing program. His next epic fantasy series begins in March 2014 with Blood and Iron.