Final Thoughts: Middle-Earth Movies

We’ve been through all ten Middle-Earth films and a bunch of extras, so it’s time to wrap up with some final thoughts. Since there are so many characters in these films, I’ll be breaking it down (mostly) by species.

BEST AND WORST DWARF

Seeing as how there are thirteen dwarves in The Hobbit‘s company alone, that means we have more than 39 choices here, not to mention Dain, Gimli and others. As for the worst, I find Dori, Nori and Ori from the Jackson films pointless, but I particularly find Ori, the baby of the group, to be the most unbearable.

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He’s the middle one… I think.

It would make sense to give a portrayal of Thorin or Gimli the point for best, simply for getting the most screen time. Hans Conreid and Richard Armitage both give their all in playing Thorin, the former making him a wizened dwarf who has never had a home, the latter a younger and somewhat stoic, but unquestionably good dwarf with a tragic arc. I like John Rhys-Davies’ performance as Gimli in Fellowship enough, but he just gets dumber as the other two go on. My favorite is actually Bofur from the Jackson films, portrayed by James Nesbitt, who has a huge heart, a great sense of humor, and is constantly stealing scenes. As for which specific film, I’m going to call it a tie between Unexpected Journey and Battle of Five Armies, because he gets incredibly heartwarming scenes in both.

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BEST AND WORST WIZARD

I have some issues with Ian McKellen’s Gandalf but nowhere near enough to count him as the worst, especially seeing his kind moments in Return of the KingUnexpected Journey, and especially Fellowship. Radagast the Brown is silly, but there’s still something likable about the guy, even in the midst of the bird droppings and quirkiness. The worst is the Gandalf who looks and sounds nothing like Gandalf in Russian The Hobbit.

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As for the best, Christopher Lee’s Saruman is great, especially in the extended cuts. It’s a role he deserved to play, and he relishes every moment. However, the very best is John Huston’s Gandalf in the animated The Hobbit. He reprises the role in the animated Return of the King, but he just has less to do there.

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BEST AND WORST HUMAN

Well there are a whole ton…

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But yeah it’s Denethor, no question. He’s so over-the-top that it makes his scenes hilarious.

There are obviously a whole ton of good ones. I like Bard in Battle of Five Armies, Faramir in Return of the King, and Eowyn in Two Towers and Return of the King. John Hurt’s Aragorn from Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings almost takes it, instantly showing a kingly and ranger side, but I have to give it to Sean Bean as Boromir from Fellowship of the Ring. He is the best part of Jackson’s trilogy, giving a Shakespearean arc to a character who could have easily been forgettable. Fellowship is his movie.

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BEST AND WORST ELF

When done wrong, the elves in Tolkien’s work can come off as aloof and uncaring. I can’t stand Legolas in Jackson’s films with the exception of Fellowship, but it ultimately comes down to Thranduil the Wood-elf king. He’s voice by OTTO PREMINGER in the animated film, and yet I still find Lee Pace’s melodramatic take worse, especially in Desolation of Smaug.

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In Bakshi’s film, Anthony Daniels shows us that Legolas can be an interesting character, even with just a little screen time. Liv Tyler is great as Arwen, especially in Fellowship, and I quite like Evangeline Lily’s Tauriel in The Hobbit films. The best has to be Hugo Weaving’s Elrond, especially because it seems like such odd casting on paper, yet it mostly works. I wish he had more moments of lightness, but I really love him in Unexpected Journey most of all. His scene with Bilbo as they lightly snark at each other while walking around Rivendell is brilliant.

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BEST AND WORST HOBBIT

Honestly, there aren’t all that many who are bad. I have some issues with Merry and Pippin in Jackson’s films, but I’m all in by Return of the King. Sam in Bakshi’s film is really stupid, but by the time the Fellowship breaks, he gets a lot better. The worst has to be a tie between Merry and Pippin in the animated Return of the King. In a special where Frodo and Sam are also not great, the radio DJ voices of Casey Kasem and Sonny Melendrez are just awful and distracting.

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On the good side, Christopher Guard and Elijah Wood both have their moments as Frodo, but I much prefer Guard’s stronger performance. Sean Astin is brilliant as Sam Gamgee, but every single portrayal of Bilbo is memorable, except perhaps the brief one in Bakshi’s film. The best of these is Martin Freeman though, who brings such heart and such humor to Bilbo that he takes this category without competition. If I had to pick his best film, it’s Unexpected Journey, simply because he feels like the main character.

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BEST AND WORST VILLAIN

Is it Richard Boone’s badly-voiced Smaug? The hokey-looking Smaug from Russian The Hobbit? Azog or any of the other pointless orcs from The Hobbit trilogy? Sauron’s living suit of armor? No, it’s the goofy sounding Witch-king of Angmar from, you guessed it, the animated Return of the King.

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Yes, Christopher Lee’s Saruman is up for this one too, but he also just misses the win. It’s ultimately very close between Benedict Cumberbatch’s Smaug, a breakthrough in special effects featuring brilliant voice acting, and Andy Serkis’ Gollum, a breakthrough in special effects featuring brilliant voice acting. I really do like Smaug, but it’s Gollum that truly steals the show.

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BEST AND WORST SONG

Music is a large part of Tolkien’s writings, and most of the films work in some songs one way or another. For the worst, there’s the Goblin-town song from Unexpected Journey and literally every song from Rankin/Bass’ The Return of the King. However, the “win” unsurprisingly has to go to the funky disco number “Where There’s a Whip, There’s a Way.”

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As for the best, we have “I See Fire,” “The Last Goodbye,” “Into the West,” any version of “Misty Mountains Cold,” “Roads,” and more. I have a soft spot for “Rolling Down the Hole” from the Rankin/Bass Hobbit, but I have to give it to Enya’s “May It Be,” which closes out Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring. It’s gorgeous and an absolutely perfect note to close on.

BEST AND WORST EXTENDED EDITION SCENE

Obviously, this will only involve the Jackson films, but each extended edition has moments that truly elevate the film. However, there are a few that make you scratch your head. Aragorn trying to eat Eowyn’s unappetizing soup in Two Towers is a failed attempt at comic relief, and the aforementioned Goblin-town song in Unexpected Journey is just plain awkward. The worst is still the testicle-chewing Master of Lake-town from Desolation of Smaug, though. Seriously, someone wrote this scene, set it up, filmed it and watched it without once considering it might be pointless and disgusting.

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Most scenes added to the films, however, expand the characters greatly. There’s Bilbo and Elrond’s brief scene in Rivendell in Unexpected Journey, the additional Beorn scene in Desolation, all the additional character moments (and Alfrid’s death) in Battle of Five Armies, Pippin and Faramir in Return of the King or the death of Saruman in the same, and all of Boromir’s additional dialogue in Fellowship. However, the win has to go the additional scene of Boromir and Faramir in Two Towers. It’s the first time we see Faramir feel like his book counterpart, and we quickly see the love between these two brothers. We never actually see them together in the book, so it takes what is there and does more with it. It’s an absolutely brilliant scene.

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BEST VISUALS

With the exceptions of the Rankin/Bass cartoons and the Russian Hobbit, each film has moments of pure visual wonder, letting us soak up Middle-earth in all its glory. Smaug looks fantastic, as does Gollum. Most all of the backgrounds in the Hobbit films look beautiful, but sometimes it’s hard to beat the models and on-location shots of Lord of the Rings. Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings has some breathtaking backgrounds, but also some unfinished animation which refuses it the win. Even though I wanted more from Mordor, I ultimately have to give the win to Return of the King. Just look at the Grey Havens.

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BEST AND WORST SCENE

I’ve already talked about the bad scenes from the extended cuts, but there are still plenty to go around. There’s the gardens of delight from the animated Return of the King, the terrible cliffhanger ending of Desolation of Smaug, literally any of Alfrid’s scenes in Battle of Five Armies, Galadriel’s heavy metal voice in Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf calling the same character “Aruman and Saruman” in the same breath in Bakshi’s film, war looking like a dance in Russian The Hobbit… the list goes on. Nothing is more unpleasant and a waste of time than Sam’s banishing in Peter Jackson’s Return of the King.

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What is the best scene in all of these films? There’s the defeat of Smaug in Five Armies, the barrel scene in the animated Hobbit, Bilbo and Bofur’s scene in Unexpected Journey, the riddle contest, Thorin’s death, meeting Aragorn in Bakshi’s film, the Balrog and much more. Ultimately, I have to give it to the Council of Elrond from The Fellowship of the Ring. It’s gorgeous to look at, introduces many important characters, shows us the danger at hand, and puts the movie on course for a tremendous second half.

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BEST AND WORST STORY

The worst story is Rankin/Bass Return of the King. Yeah, shocker.

No film tells the story perfectly, but do I prefer the drawn-out pace of the Hobbit films or the faster pace of the Lord of the Rings films? Both have their strengths and weaknesses, as Unexpected Journey has amazing atmosphere but takes a little long to get going, while Fellowship of the Ring has a near-flawless second half, but a speed round of a first. It might be surprising, but I ultimately give the best story to Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings. It’s quite a good adaptation story-wise, in spite of its flaws, and it just feels like Tolkien’s work while still showing Bakshi’s magic.

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AH NO NOT THAT PICTURE! No one wants to see Treebeard’s anus.

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Let’s see where that puts us…

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And that puts us at a tie, which is somewhat appropriate. Look at the way the two trilogies mirror each other. Both have phenomenal opening installments, long-winded second installments that are best when they show the hobbits or their starring special-effects villain (Smaug or Gollum) and end with a film drastically improved by the extended edition. That said… I have to pick one.

Unexpected Journey is a more consistent film, atmospheric and fun with an amazing lead and gorgeous visuals, but there are a few unnecessary scenes. It got the higher score in the original review, but if I had to watch one right now, it’s Fellowship. The second half of this film is absolutely brilliant, and regardless of the score, it’s the better of the two. I’m confident to call it the best film overall.

WINNER

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The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

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  • Year: 2003
  • Director: Peter Jackson
  • Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen

It’s the final review in the Middle-earth series, and this is the big one. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won 11 Oscars including Best Picture and is considered one of the greatest films of all time, so have I just been too mean?

My Original Thoughts on Return of the King

Ugh, this was the one that killed me. So much was cut from the book that I really had a beef with Return of the King and couldn’t watch for a long time. It wasn’t that everything on screen was unbearable, but so many things were removed that it was an entirely different story.

My Thoughts Today

The extended cut helps a lot, no question. I think that’s been the case in every single one of Jackson’s films so far (in spite of the testicle-eating in Desolation of Smaug), but I’ve noticed it most in both final chapters (Five Armies and this). Both of these have long battle sequences, and the theatrical cuts just feel excessive. However, the character scenes added into the extended cuts manage to make these battle sequences feel earned. The films are longer, yes, but they’re broken up with dramatic character moments. If we care about the characters risking their lives in battle, the battle sequences are that much more interesting.

Return of the King is actually the shortest of the three volumes of Tolkien’s work (the appendices excluded). Like the previous two, it is split into two books, the first involving the war in Gondor, and the second involving the destruction of the ring, the crowning of Aragorn, and the return journey. However, there are only three chapters involving Frodo and Sam’s journey until the ring is destroyed.

I understand leaving some of Two Towers for this film, but does it all work here? We start with a prologue, showing how Smeagol (Andy Serkis) became Gollum. Both Tolkien in his book and Bakshi in his film showed this early on, but I understand wanting to wait.

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The opening prologue of Jackson’s Fellowship was long enough, and we knew who Gollum was. It also nicely cuts to Gollum now, traveling with Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin), showing us ultimately how far he’s fallen.

I spoke about the Saruman scene in my last Adaptation Snub, but it really is a great scene. In the book, this is the first time the characters meet Saruman in person. We know him through Gandalf’s tales and all the background we’ve heard, but this is our present-tense introduction. His army may have been defeated, but he still has his voice, and that wins over some of the company temporarily. However, Gandalf isn’t fooled and he breaks Saruman’s staff. Grima Wormtongue drops a Palantir on the ground, unsure what it is, and we don’t see Saruman again for a while.

In the film, Grima (Brad Dourif) stabs Saruman (Christopher Lee) causing him to fall with the Palantir. Even though the Scouring of the Shire is cut, I’m just glad we get a scene where Saruman truly feels like his book counterpart, and Christopher Lee is brilliant. The death scene is overkill in true Jackson fashion, as Saruman is stabbed, falls from the tower, lands on the spike of a wheel and gets drowned, but for Jackson, it’s fairly subtle.

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Apparently getting bit a poisonous snake as well would have been too much.

After Pippin looks into the Palantir, he and Gandalf ride with haste to Gondor’s capital Minas Tirith, which looks amazing.

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Honestly, some of my favorite scenes in this film are just Gandalf and/or Pippin walking around Minas Tirith before the battle starts.

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You really feel the weight of it all when Gandalf and Pippin are standing at the top level of the white city, with the fires of Mordor visible in the distance.

Inside the city, Gandalf and Pippin meet Denethor (John Noble).

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The way his character is changed is perhaps more angering than the things left out altogether. Of course a movie cannot always convey all the complexities present in a book, but this film is four hours long! There are plenty of Denethor scenes, especially in the extended cut, and yet there is barely anything sympathetic about his character. Book Denethor is deeply, tragically flawed, somewhat hopeless from relying too much on the Palantir, but still not an altogether bad person. He has descended into madness, but he still lights the beacons to call for aid from Rohan, because he might be mad but he isn’t insane. When he burns himself on a pyre, it’s one of the most tragic moments in Tolkien’s work, a once great man having given up all hope.

John Noble plays Denethor like someone out of a middle-school production of Shakespeare. He chews so much scenery that they had to start just giving him actual food to eat on screen.

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There’s a scene where he’s talking with his son Faramir (David Wenham), complaining that he didn’t bring the One Ring to him. As much issue as I had with Faramir in the last film, at least he now feels like his book counterpart. He even gives a version of the famous line about not using the ring regardless of the circumstance. However, Denethor will not have it, standing up, tripping over his throne, and muttering something that probably translates to “Boromir was loyal to me.”

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He then trips again, falling square on his butt as Faramir approaches him. For a slight moment, we think maybe he’s seeing the light, until we find out that he’s just hallucinating his favorite son (Boromir) being there. It’s just so silly.

Look, there are plenty of over-the-top Shakespearean characters in these films that work. Take for example Theoden (Bernard Hill). He gives grandiose speeches rallying his people, has his flaws but overcomes them, and has a very theatrical demeanor about him.

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It’s not necessarily the exact way I read him in the books, but it still works. Now, obviously he’s meant to be a more sympathetic character than Denethor, but his overblown moments don’t feel hammy.

Denethor on the other hand just get more and more ridiculous, leading to one of the most hilarious death scenes in cinematic history. In the book, Denethor finally gives up hope after looking into the Palantir and seeing another fleet of ships coming. In the movie, Denethor is only implied to have the Palantir, making his madness seem less justified. There is a scene in the extended cut where Aragorn uses the Panatir by Denethor’s throne, but I always thought the reveal of Denethor having one brought it all together beautifully and tragically. Subtlety is great, but this is one aspect really should be in the forefront to properly understand the character.

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There’s a great scene where Pippin sees Denethor walking by with his funeral procession, carrying the wounded body of Faramir to the pyre with him. It’s not overblown, and we do feel a bit of tragedy for Denethor as he walks through the kingdom, giving up hope fully. Then it gets stupid.

Denethor soaks himself with oil in the most over-the-top scene since… well, his last one.

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As he prepares to burn himself and his son, Gandalf rides in to save the day and casually tosses Pippin on the pyre so he can save Faramir. Denethor attacks Pippin, so Gandalf has his horse kick him Denethor back onto the fire. He has a brief moment of clarity until he catches completely and begins running down the hall like a madman (which he is).

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In a moment that was clearly shot in an earlier version of this scene that was far more subtle, Gandalf coolly says “So passes Denethor, son of Ecthelion.” Yeah, passes right down the hall! You are a wizard right? Can’t your extinguish him or something? Nope, just give a calm eulogy as he runs right past you.

Oh but wait, there’s more. Denethor runs all the way to the tip of the city’s cliff and jumps all the way down into the battle.

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Why don’t you just play “Great Balls of Fire” over the scene while you’re at it? It wouldn’t make the scene any less somber. How about a 1960s Batman-esque PLOP appearing when he hits the ground? An obligatory Benny Hill theme joke?

As silly as Denethor is, I really do like Pippin in these scenes. Actually, both Merry and Pippin are much more like their book counterparts here. I get that Jackson was trying for character arcs, but they’re such cliched arcs. There’s a subplot in the book where Pippin befriends a soldier of Gondor and his young son, and while it’s not featured in the movie, we get a scene that still captures its spirit perfectly. Faramir points out that Pippin is wearing his armor from when he was a boy, and Pippin tells Faramir that he is different than Boromir, having “strength of a different kind.” Faramir’s kindness and wisdom are his defining characteristics in the book, so it’s nice to finally see them here.

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Peter Jackson is brilliant with these little character scenes, and they pop up all through his six Middle-earth films (especially in the extended cuts). The battle sequences are grand, sure, but these character moments make them worth it.

The defeat of the Witch-king is handled pretty well here… at least much better than it was in the Rankin-Bass cartoon. He doesn’t sound like the Knights Who Say Ni this time around, actually having a threatening voice and appearance.

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He never takes off his helmet to reveal a crown floating above nothing (It might not look scary, I get it), but his defeat is as satisfying as it was in the book, as Merry and Eowyn (Miranda Otto), having formed a kinship on the road, tag-team to take him down.

Surprisingly, one of the aspects of the book that seems like it shouldn’t work totally does. While Aragorn conjuring up an army of the dead works in the context of a book, how does one successfully transfer that to film? Well, Peter Jackson actually acknowledges the fact that it’s going to look a little silly without going full-on goofy with it.

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One step creepier and it might have been too much, but one step lighter and you’re riding Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean. For a filmmaker that never misses a chance to be overblown, this is just the right balance. There’s even a “You and what army?” moment that actually works. It’s like the characters are aware this looks a little silly, so they play it up a bit.

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In one moment during the battle, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) is in the forefront, standing up like a rugged action hero, and in the background dozens of the army of the dead are just beating up on a creature. It’s genuinely funny, and it’s meant to be (I think).

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Aragorn finally starts to feel kingly in this film, never as much as he did in Bakshi’s film, but he’s getting there. When he and Gandalf decide to lead an army to the gates of Mordor, we see his inner royalty. At the gates, they meet The Mouth of Sauron.

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Hey Jackson, STOP BEING SUCH A LITERALIST! He’s The Mouth of Sauron, as in “his mouthpiece,” just like the Eye of Sauron isn’t a literal eye watching over Middle-earth. It’s like those disgusting lip and ear devices from Santa Claus.

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All I’ll say is I’m glad Tolkien never had a portion describing how Sauron “raped the land,” or Jackson may have had to bump up the rating on this one.

Alright, now let’s talk about the dumbest thing in the whole film

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Okay… second dumbest. To be fair, the Frodo, Sam and Gollum scenes mostly work in this movie. They’re not necessarily brilliant, but a lot of the film is about creating a distraction so Frodo and Sam can slip into Mordor and destroy the ring when no on is looking. That’s the big spectacle, so it makes sense to focus on that more. However, there is one moment in the Frodo and Sam story that is so frustrating that it brings the movie to a screeching halt.

Gollum steals some lembas bread and frames Sam for it. Frodo, being corrupted by the ring (and just sorta dumb too), immediately believes the vile creature instead of his best friend, and tells Sam to go home, even though they’re on the outskirts of Mordor. Question time.

  1. The three of them only have a little bit of food left. Sam is Frodo’s best friend. Even if Frodo thinks he stole some food, he is planning to send him back to starve. How is a “good” character that cold?
  2. What has Gollum done to prove himself trustworthy? Sam has been suspicious of him and Frodo knows Sam is the wise one.
  3. The friendship between Sam and Frodo has not been gradually growing apart, not even in the slightest. Frodo has a been a bit more trusting of Gollum than Sam has, but that’s it. The two of them are incredibly tight, so why this sudden turn?
  4. This separation only exists to kill time and make the two enter Shelob’s lair alone, but it doesn’t even cover that much time. Sam just kinda walks back, sees that Gollum lied, and goes back into the cave. Couldn’t you have been a better steward of time, Jackson?

Frodo gets attacked by Shelob until she is ultimately killed by Sam, and Frodo fights with Gollum, seemingly killing him. With all the fake-out deaths in this series, this one actually works. We believe Gollum is truly gone and don’t see him again until Mount Doom.

Once Frodo and Sam are reunited, their scenes in Mordor are effective. Frodo has been very weak the whole time, but his weakness is justified as he draws closer to Mount Doom. I just wish Mordor itself stood out a bit more visually. This is a hellish land of darkness and evil, and we’ve seen it from a distance since the first film, but unfortunately, it just looks kinda gray up close. We see a bit, but in this case, less is not more.

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Even the Rankin/Bass cartoon got this aspect right.

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The Mount Doom sequence is changed a little bit, in that instead of Gollum falling during a celebration of reclaiming the ring, he falls due to Frodo lunging at him for it. It’s a small change that’s understandable, but then they fake out Frodo’s death again by having him fall of the edge and hang on for dear life. It’s the most important moment in the whole story! Why do we need more forced drama?

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Everyone in the world has talked about how this movie takes too long to end, so I’ll be brief. The only major issues I have with the endings are 1) They’re mostly fake-out endings. It looks like the credits are constantly about to roll every time and 2) The missing scenes of The Scouring of the Shire… but I already talked that to death here.

Apparently a Faramir/Eowyn wedding scene was shot but does not appear in the extended cut or deleted scenes. As much as I do love these two characters in the book and mostly in the films, I understand removing it. At least we do get a little bit of their romance, which is such a pleasant diversion in the book.

The scene at the Grey Havens is gorgeous, and I’m glad that the filmmakers didn’t shy away from Frodo’s trauma. He doesn’t just get a tacked-on happy ending, and the scene at the Grey Havens is his first real sense of relief after the journey.

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Look at that shot. You could just frame it as a painting. The movie is a visual marvel, and if the Mordor scenes were more imposing, it would be one of the most visually interesting movies of all time.

Ultimately, yes the extended edition is a lot better than the theatrical. There are dumb moments, but it doesn’t just feel like endless battle sequences. I still don’t think it’s a masterpiece, but there are more moments of greatness than I had remembered. Let’s check out the final score.

Adaptation (36/50 Points)

The Gondor stuff is really well-handled, a few exceptions aside. It’s actually amazing how well the Army of the Dead story works, and while the Frodo and Sam portion isn’t genius, it mostly works alright. The stuff cut at the end still hurts.

Cast (14/25 Points)

John Noble brings down the movie a lot, but I actually think Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan really bring a lot to their scenes as Pippin and Merry. I still don’t care much for Legolas and Gimli, as they’re too stoic and goofy respectively.

Experience (23/25 Points)

It’s a gorgeous film, and most of the issues from the previous two are cleaned up. Visually, it’s the best of the three, no question.

FINAL SCORE: 73%

It’s not as good as Fellowship, because there’s not a performance that sticks out like Sean Bean’s Boromir, but it’s more consistent than Fellowship. While I don’t consider it as great as most viewers do, I can see some of what they see in it. It really is a well-made film.

Next time, I’ll take a look at my final thoughts on the series.

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Re-entering The Ninth Gate: Even Hell Has Its Heroes

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No, you didn’t read that wrong. Yes, I am taking another look at one of the lowest-scored films I have ever reviewed—Roman Polanski’s mysteryish-horrorish film The Ninth Gate.

So what made me want to take another look at The Ninth Gate at all? Well, for one, it at least felt like a film that was trying to say something. As cheap as the ending felt, the rest of the film seemed like it was trying to raise some questions (if not answer them). Obviously Roman Polanski has made some of the greatest films of all time, and there is a small group that calls this a very underrated film. I discovered some essays and videos trying to discern meaning in this film, and while I wholeheartedly disagree with 95% of what was written, a few of the ideas made me consider that maybe there was more here than met the eye. So was there a whole bunch of stuff I missed the first time? Is this a masterpiece on the level of Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby? Was I very wrong about this film? Well, in order: Yes, No and Maybe.

Disclaimer: This is not going to be a review of the whole plot of the film. If you haven’t seen the film or read my original review, I would recommend doing at least one of those first.

My biggest criticism of the film in my original review was the ending. Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) discovers that one of the nine engravings Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) used in his attempt to summon the Devil was a forgery. He has sex with The Girl (Emmaneulle Seiger) as Langella’s corpse burns inside the castle, finds the true engraving and walks into the castle. Fade to white.

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I wanted to see what happened when Corso entered the castle, of course, but that was far from my only issue. I made a comparison with Reepicheep from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and suggested that in that book, we don’t need to see him enter Heaven, because it’s all about his desire to enter it. Since Corso seemed to have no desire to enter the ninth gate until the third act when it was convenient, you couldn’t claim this was about a hero’s journey, right? You have to show us what’s in the ninth gate to give us some kind of satisfaction.

When someone seeks enlightenment of any kind, how do they achieve it? Well, if it’s religious enlightenment as with Reepicheep, it is achieved by faith, patience or traditionally being good. If someone seeks intellectual enlightenment like Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey, it comes, obviously, through using one’s brain. Entering the ninth gate is not a form of traditional enlightenment, because it is an attempt to summon the Devil. So how does one achieve this form of enlightenment?

When Corso arrives in Europe, he visits the book shop of The Ceniza Brothers (José López Roder).

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They tell him about Aristide Torchia, the author of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, who allegedly co-authored the book with the Devil. Corso suggests that this is ridiculous, leading the brothers to tell him that Torchia was burned at the stake for his beliefs. One of them then says what may be the most important line in understanding this film, “Even Hell has its heroes.”

So what would a hero look like in Hell? Who would truly be worthy of entering the ninth gate? Both Liana Telfer (Lena Olin) and Boris Balkan feel they are worthy for different reasons. Telfer is the head of The Order of the Silver Serpent, a sect that meets once a year to read from The Nine Gates, worship the Devil and participate in an orgy. This is the closest thing to Hollywood’s traditional portrayal of Satanism in films such as Eye of the DevilThe Devil Rides Out and (to a lesser extent) Polanski’s own Rosemary’s Baby.

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However, this kind of Satanism is looked down on by both Balkan and Baroness Kessler (Barbara Jefford), the owner of a different copy of The Nine Gates. Kessler criticizes the Order for simply turning it into an excuse for sex, which is why she herself has left the order. She also dislikes Balkan for being a coward and sending hired men to look at her copy. Balkan criticizes the Order for similar reasons, believing they do not take their Devil worship seriously enough. He insists that he alone has cracked the code and he alone can enter the ninth gate.

So why is Liana Telfer unworthy? Is it merely because their meetings have turned into sex parties and they just aren’t serious enough? Well no, because if Balkan was right about everything, he would be a worthy candidate to enter the ninth gate. Both Telfer and Balkan reflect a conflict that exists in most every religion or belief system. They both have different ways to worship their god, but perhaps it’s not the way they’re worshiping, but rather the fact that they’re worshiping at all.

Most religions involve worship of a god or gods, sure, but why on earth would people who respect the Devil worship him? Tradition dating back thousands of years (it’s not explicitly in The Bible.) tells that Lucifer was banished from Heaven for refusing to worship God and leading a revolt to overthrow Him. Why would a religion centered around a usurper who refused to worship involve people gathering around to worship that very usurper? Yet Liana leads a bastardization of a Catholic mass (the standard type of Satanic service we often see in film, sans the human sacrifice), where everyone gathers to worship him. What kind of sense does that make?

That’s not to say Balkan is any better. Sure, he doesn’t hang out at Black Masses, but he is still a Devil worshiper. He believes himself to be the only one to whom the truth has been revealed, a fundamentalist or even potential “cult” leader. However, he still refers to Satan as “Master” over and over, and is very reverent and subservient.

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When I first watched this film, I was livid that one of the nine engravings just randomly turned out to be a forgery, as this seemed to be a cheap way to kill of Balkan and let Corso enter the ninth gate instead. I mean, Frank Langella just looked silly lighting himself on fire and claiming he was immune to the flames as he burned up. Don’t get me wrong, I still think it looks silly, because that’s the point. It makes perfect sense that this engraving is a forgery, because why would a Satanic ritual involve being covered in fire and not burning? If Hell is the intended goal, why would burning and not being scorched be the ritual? Doesn’t this sound more like a Christian (or at least a person who knows The Bible) trying to guess what a Satanist would believe? It is reminiscent of the story in the book of Daniel of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who were thrown into the furnace and not burned. Of course it looks silly when a man attempting to enter the fires of Hell claims the fire is not burning him.

So then who is worthy to enter the ninth gate? Who is a hero of Hell, if it does in fact have them? Let’s look at what we know about Aristide Torchia, the author of The Nine Gates. He successfully summoned the Devil and apparently collaborated with the Devil on the book—the word “co-authored” is even used at one point. This does not suggest that Torchia was a servant, but rather a cohort of the Devil. He refused to worship him, but by seeing himself as an equal, was worthy of summoning him.

So who in The Ninth Gate falls into that category? Yes, I’m obviously pointing towards Corso, the main character who I criticized endlessly in my original review. Corso may not seem like a Satanist at all, at least not the kind we’re expecting, but really look at the guy. Does he have one traditionally sympathetic quality? He is constantly engaging in some vice, whether it’s smoking…

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Drinking…

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Or having sex.

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He’s also slovenly, lazy, selfish and incredibly greedy. Balkan even praises him, saying “There’s nothing more reliable than a man whose loyalty can be bought for hard cash.” I don’t think Corso does one sympathetic thing in the course of the whole film, which I now believe is the point. He shows no grief when his co-worker Bernie (James Russo) is found dead, only fearing for his own life. He lets Liana Telfer seduce him in exchange for the book, but ultimately knowing it’s locked away somewhere and never intending to give it to her. As he did with Bernie, Corso only fears for his own life when he finds the owners of the other two copies dead.

The only thing resembling a sympathetic act is his mercy kill of Balkan, but is it really? He obviously cares more about the engravings, making sure to snatch them all up before shooting Balkan. Also, look at his face while aiming the gun. It looks pretty wrathful to me.

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Sure his expression changes a bit once he sees what the flames are doing to Balkan, but it’s not really that sympathetic. Wouldn’t most people be uncomfortable having sex outside a castle someone’s corpse is incinerating in? It’s incredibly clear Corso lives for absolutely nothing but hedonistic pleasures.

In terms of what the audience expects from a spiritual enlightenment story, Corso checks none of the boxes, which is why the film is such a frustrating watch the first time. However, since “Even hell has its heroes,” Corso seems to check all the boxes there. He resembles Lucifer more than any of his followers, because he refuses to be a follower at all. Heck, even Balkan, who would be seen as a traditional “Big Bad” in this kind of story has more sympathetic qualities than Corso, not only saying he has a soft spot for him, but also showing it more than once. He could have easily framed Corso for the first two murders, but after Corso follows him to the castle following the murder of Liana, Balkan simply tells him to pick up the check at his New York office, actually paying him for the job he was hired for. This is pretty unexpected in such a dark film, especially with the enormous check that he is implied to have promised him (At one point, he mentions adding a zero to it.) Even after Corso says he wants more than money, Balkan says “Kindly leave,” and even when he doesn’t and gets stuck in the floorboards, Balkan still does not kill him. Since this is a ritual Balkan has been hoping to do for a long time, he obviously does think he’s giving Corso a privilege by watching.

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Best seats you could give me Balkan? Don’t give me that “Last shall be first” stuff.

On the other hand, Corso tells Balkan he is the “only apparition” he’ll see that night. Corso is not the Devil literally (OK some have theorized he is, but that’s taking it too far), but he is the closest to the Devil in terms of personality. He has ignored the rules put into place by everyone who insists on some kind of order in their Satanism, and he is not a Devil worshiper in any sense. This is why Corso alone is allowed to enter the Ninth Gate into whatever lies there.

So is The Ninth Gate a brilliant film? I would still say that’s a stretch. It’s intriguing in a film like this to take a look at what one of Hell’s heroes would look like, but it also leads to very few sympathetic characters. I still argue that the only truly sympathetic characters are Willy Telfer, who dies in the opening scene upon discovering his wife is a Satanist, and Victor Fargas, the owner of Copy #2 of The Nine Gates who merely likes it for the literary value. I may have been a bit hard on the performances, as Frank Langella makes Boris Balkan a truly towering presence, and I now understand more of what Johnny Depp was going for. The pacing still has some serious issues, as it really drags in places, but upon closer inspection, The Ninth Gate is a good film, a very good one. It raises questions that other films wouldn’t dare to, and I have to give it serious credit for that.

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