The Best Scenes in The Lord of the Rings
Almost exactly a year ago the extended DVD of The Return of the King was released, completing Peter Jackson's masterpiece. I remember doing a marathon around Christmas time, spending a whole day watching the trilogy. That's 11 hours of screen time, and not a minute goes wasted. This year, after the mediocre Narnia film (though I admit it was better than I expected), I needed to revisit Middle-Earth again. Tolkien's magic, of course, remains pure and bittersweet as ever.
Here are my twenty favorite scenes in descending order. Those from The Fellowship of the Ring are in green, The Two Towers in red, and The Return of the King in blue.
1. The Grey Havens. The best scene of all, surpassing the book, showing what Tolkien's story is about: friendship, suffering, and passing on. If it doesn't make you cry, then you don't have your priorities straight.
2. The Slopes of Mount Doom & "The End of All Things". These scenes are counterparts, the heart of the story, with Elijah Wood and Sean Astin giving organically authentic performances. Even if you know the outcome -- the deus ex machina eagle rescue -- it seems like a pre-ordained end for the hobbits. This is what Tolkien's theme of hopeless courage is about: breaking one's back for friendship; finishing the one-way journey with no real hope of success.
3. The Breaking of the Fellowship. From Aragorn and Frodo's farewell to the closing credits. The Uruk-hai battle is great, and the scene between Aragorn and the dying Boromir is probably the noblest in the trilogy. Frodo's resolve to go to Mordor alone, remembering Gandalf, and Sam chasing after him in the boat all culminate in an emotional scene foreshadowing dark times ahead. This entire sequence stands as a serious cinematic achievement for its perfect closure despite being a cliff-hanger.
4. The Siege of Gondor & the Pelennor Fields. Viewed in a cinema, with loud bass and strong surround sound, you're in the midst of chaos and destruction -- the catapult attacks, the winged Nazgul, Grond, the oliphaunts, and (best of all) the apocalyptic charge of the Rohirrim. Eowyn's confrontation with the Witch-King exceeds expectations, and the army of the dead is used nicely on the Pelennor. Only Legolas' cheesy oliphaunt stunt puts a stain on an otherwise perfectly orchestrated war. Theoden has the best line: "Ride for ruin and a world ending!"
5. Flight to the Ford. Beginning with Arwen and Frodo on horseback and ending with the incredible flood at Bruinen. Arwen's close evasive action, coupled with the pulse-pounding choir music, still leaves me mesmerized after seeing it so many times. It's a testimony to Jackson's vision that he can alter a crucial scene from the book and make it as good (if not better) than the Tolkien original.
6. Gandalf and the Balrog (TT). One of the most mind-blowing prologues in cinema history. The battle between Gandalf and the demon as they hurtle down the shaft makes the preliminary confrontation on the bridge look like child's play.
7. The Morgul Vale. The most frightening scene in the trilogy, and very true to the book. I could easily vote this the best purist scene, even if the Witch-King isn't on horseback. It's hard to imagine the terror of the Black Breath being conveyed so convincingly on screen, but here it is. I was nearly cowering in my seat the first time I saw this on a big screen.
8. The Hobbit Reunion in Rivendell. The first sight of Rivendell through Frodo's eyes as he reunites with his friends is paradise, and the score feels like paradise. The interaction between Frodo and Bilbo is played perfectly, and Frodo and Sam's homesickness by the waterfall makes the subsequent decision to go to Mordor all the more poignant.
9. Galadriel’s Gift-Giving. This should have been in the theatrical version, since all gifts received (weapons, lembas, cloaks, hithlain rope) come into play later in the story. Everyone loves and remembers this stuff from the book -- especially Gimli falling in love with Galadriel, a crucial turning point in his opinion of the elves. The dialogue between Galadriel and Aragorn is some of the best in the trilogy (taken from Tolkien's appendices), and I love her ominous farewell to Frodo.
10. The Voice of Saruman. Unforgivably eliminated from the theatrical version, this eight-minute scene is brilliantly acted by Christopher Lee and a vast improvement over the lame "Sharkey" epilogue from the book. The dialogue is crisp, tense, and pure Tolkien. Great poetic justice, Saruman getting impaled on his own machinery.
11. The Forbidden Pool: "A Clockwork Orange". The waterfall and pool are just how you imagine them from the book, and the shot of Gollum squatting over and eating the fish is great. His regression to self-pity and schizophrenia after Frodo's "treachery" is heartbreaking, and in the extended version the rangers really beat the hell out of him. Faramir comes off considerably darker than Tolkien's character, and rightly so. This is the kind of reality lacking in most fantasy, where good guys are usually a bit too good to be true.
12. Frodo Poisoned/Sam and Shelob. The second part of Shelob's Lair. The spider is played brilliantly against Frodo after his narrow escape (Shelob's revenge), and the pivotal rescue battle shows Sam coming into his own like Tolkien wrote him. His grief over "dead" Frodo is some of Sean Astin's best acting.
13. A Knife in the Dark. Misty Weathertop, the steady advance of the five Nazgul, and the music all combine to offer a scene scary and Gothic. And the sight that greets Frodo when he puts on the Ring comes right off Tolkien's pages.
14. "Where is the Horse and the Rider?" In the book Aragorn recites this poem (the Rohan anthem) as he approaches Edoras. But it's far more cinematic to have the King of Rohan himself tragically recite this before going into battle, what he thinks is certain doom for his people. This one still gives me chills after so many viewings. Great theatrical acting on Bernard Hill's part.
15. Pippin's Song for Denethor. Film editing at its best. Pippin singing -- cut to Denethor gorging -- cut to Faramir galloping to suicide -- cut back to the steward's slobbering mouth -- back to Pippin's lamenting anguish -- to Faramir again -- it's a uniquely memorable scene that has Jackson stamped all over it. Billy Boyd is a gifted singer.
16. The Treason of Isengard. The interior of Orthanc is splendid, especially the chamber of the Palantir. The wizard battle between Gandalf and Saruman, absent from the book, could have come off rather cheesy. But it was surprisingly well done -- and the score is perfect, with the choir reaching that intense crescendo as Saruman goes crashing through the double doors.
17. Arwen's Fate. Elrond's vision of the dead Aragorn in Minas Tirith, and Arwen wandering alone afterwards in the empty forest of Lothlorien, evokes the theme of bittersweet loss that runs through Tolkien's saga. The Evenstar music is flawless, even better than Enya's love theme from the first film. Elrond's monologue comes from Tolkien's appendices, probably my favorite adapted lines from the book.
18. The Black Gate Opens. The theatrical version wrecks this by omitting the Mouth of Sauron. In the extended version the Mouth displays the mithril vest in order to prove that Frodo is dead and the Ring is on its way to Sauron. Going into battle, the heroes have no hope at all, and Aragorn’s line ("For Frodo") refers to the hobbit's sacrifice -- they're avenging his death rather than buying time for him. But it's a great scene in either case. Even the theatrical version conveys hopeless courage as the Army of the West charges the hordes which outnumber them.
19. The Green Dragon (FOTR). Hobbit culture at its purest. The hobbits get drunk and rumor-monger, the Gaffer tells Frodo he's as cracked as Bilbo, and Merry and Pippin are just themselves -- a couple of singing, boisterous clowns. Their song ("Hey-ho, to the Bottle I Go") is actually a fusion of two songs from the book, one of which Pippin sings solo while taking a bath at Crickhollow. This should have been in the theatrical version, no two ways about it.
20. Frodo in Bag End (ROTK). Frodo's voice-over conveys the sense of loss and things never being the same again. Bag End looks so sad and vacant, and here we see Frodo suffering from his spiritual wounds -- the lingering effects of the Witch-King's blade and the Ring. Watch carefully as he writes in the Red Book: it's the only post-Mordor scene where you can see his half-finger.