Yesterday I featured the worst scenes in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, the ones I removed in my special cut of the films. Today I rank the best scenes. It’s easy to get the impression from yesterday’s post that The Fellowship of the Ring is my favorite film, while The Two Towers and The Return of the King leave much to be desired. That’s not the case at all. Even before my ruthless editing, the third film has always been my favorite, because whatever its deficiencies it more than makes up for on whole. It’s tragic on a biblical level and an emotional juggernaut.
Of the following twenty scenes, seven are from The Fellowship of the Ring, four are from The Two Towers, and nine are from The Return of the King.
1. The Grey Havens. The best scene of the book is the best scene of the film, and breathes Tolkien’s theme of the long defeat: the failure of Frodo, the passing of the elves, and the foreordained deterioration of men. If it doesn’t make you cry, then you don’t have your priorities straight. If on my deathbed I could watch one scene from one film, it would be The Grey Havens from The Return of the King. The white shores and far green country awaiting Frodo would be out of my reach, but I’d take comfort anyway.
2. “Do You Remember the Shire?”/”The End of All Things.” I have to take these two scenes together, as they’re counterparts. In my (many) theatrical outings a decade ago, they overwhelmed me and affected me so much I was shaking. No film has ever had that kind of power over me. The first scene is the courage, finishing the one-way journey with no real hope of success. The second is the aftermath, the unexpected victory even in failure (Frodo claimed by the Ring), and accepting imminent death.
3. The Breaking of the Fellowship. This one’s a cheat, but really everything is a favorite scene from Aragorn and Frodo’s farewell to the closing credits. The Uruk-hai battle is fantastic, 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 Battle of the Pelennor Fields. This one’s another cheat, but once the boulders start flying, the battle for Minas Tirith doesn’t let up until the last oliphaunt goes down. It’s relentless chaos and destruction — the catapult attacks, winged Nazgul, Grond, 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 a brilliant transposition from the book. Their victory implies that Theoden and Denethor were both right, that Sauron’s forces could not have been defeated by the armies of men.
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 even better. I also find it fascinating how horse chases work so well in movies, unlike car chases which easily become boring. This scene is the best horse chase in any film, hands down.
6. Gandalf and the Balrog (TT). My favorite scene of the second film is the flashback starter. 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. Great music goes with it too. Complaints about the Balrog’s wings continue to this day (Tolkien’s Balrogs of course don’t have wings), and it is rather silly that the creature is falling when it could have just flown upwards. But it doesn’t matter; this scene is a juggernaut.
7. The Morgul Vale. The most terrifying scene in the trilogy and true to the book. I could easily vote it 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, but here it is. I was nearly cowering in my seat the first time I saw this in the theater, just like Frodo cringing and holding his ears against the Nazgul shrieks. Tolkien describes a “noisome exhalation of decay”, and the sorcerous reek on display is hideous.
8. Frodo and Bilbo in Rivendell/Gollumized Bilbo. We don’t get much of Frodo and Bilbo together in the Shire, which turns out to be fine, because their interactions in Rivendell are perfect. First is the scene by the waterfall, where Bilbo produces his finished book, “There and Back Again”, and they contrast their adventures. In the later scene, Bilbo passes over of Sting and the mithril vest and asks to see the Ring. His sudden demonic transformation nearly gave me a heart attack when I first saw it; it’s that scary.
9. The Mirror of Galadriel. I had forgotten how frightening some scenes in the first film really are. Peter Jackson started as a horror film director, and no one else — certainly not Speilberg or Lucas — could have made Lothlorien so ethereally haunting and Galadriel’s temptation so terrifying. Much as I love the way the Shire and Rivendell are realized in these films, it’s the eerie forest of Lothlorien that impresses me most. The scene at the Mirror is the best, and it’s great that we get to see the water ring Nenya.
10. The Voice of Saruman. 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 pure Tolkien, even including the part about “the rods of the five wizards”. You can feel Saruman’s relentless contempt for Theoden as he goes on about Rohan being nothing more than a “thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek and their brats roll on the floor with the dogs”. It’s wonderful poetic justice when he’s 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 beat the living shit 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 first part of Shelob’s lair is pretty good, but the second part is an absolute classic. The spider is played brilliantly against Frodo after his narrow escape (Shelob’s revenge), and her silent stalking (with no scoring) as she positions herself above to sting him is genius directing. The rescue battle shows Sam coming into his own, just like Tolkien wrote him, and 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. Much like the Morgul Vale (#7), I could vote this one of the best purist scenes. Jackson nailed the Nazgul in a way that shows him at home in the horror genre.
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, and by far the best part of Helm’s Deep.
15. Pippin’s Song for Denethor. The editing here is brilliant. 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. It’s impossible to forget the details of this scene, it carries such impact.
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’s surprisingly well done. There’s none of the lightning or fireworks of B-grade fantasies; the wizards use telekinesis to beat the crap out of each other, and you can practically feel their bones cracking as they get pounded against the walls and floor. The score is perfect, and the choir reaches that intense crescendo as Saruman goes crashing through the double doors.
17. Arwen’s Fate. Elrond’s vision of the dead Aragorn, and Arwen wandering alone in the empty forest of Lothlorien, brilliantly captures the long defeat theme. Elrond’s monologue comes from Tolkien’s appendices: “Aragorn will come to death, an image of the splendor of the kings of men in glory, undimmed before the breaking of the world. But you, my daughter, you will linger on in darkness and in doubt. Here you will dwell, bound to you grief, under the fading trees, until all the world has changed and the long years of your life are utterly spent.”
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 army of the west really has no hope at all, and Aragorn’s line (“For Frodo”) refers to the hobbit’s sacrifice — they are 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. Sam’s Star. This really should have been in the theatrical version: Sam overcome by a single sign of beauty in the worst hell on earth, and Frodo on death’s door. The shot of Mordor here is the best in the film, a wasteland reminiscent of Ted Nasmith’s drawings. Much like other scenes between Frodo and Sam in Mordor (especially the sacred ones of #2), it’s diminished by commentary.
20. The Green Dragon. Here is 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 scene renders the “Concerning Hobbits” prologue superfluous and shows more in a single minute than Bilbo’s voice-over explains in five.