The hippies who plastered "Frodo Lives" bumper stickers on their Beetles back in the '60s somehow overlooked what is blatantly obvious in Peter Jackson's "The Two Towers," the second installment in his risky, monumental adaptation of "The Lord of the Rings:" J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy classic is about making war, not love.
In one of those amusing ironies piling up like slain orcs around Jackson's three-picture project, Frodo's fellow hobbits are free to smoke their pipeweed in the bucolic Shire only because Frodo and his friends are killing and dying in faraway battles.
Indeed, "The Two Towers" glories in depictions of military discipline, valor and the chivalrous virtue of hacking your enemies to pieces. Given the current world situation, it could almost be seen as the most expensive recruitment video ever made.
Not pro-war, pro-freedom
"Tolkien was not pro-war," Jackson says by phone from New York, where the New Zealand-based filmmaker is stumping for the new film. "He wrote from the point of view of someone who had witnessed the worst of World War I at the Battle of the Somme, where most of his classmates died. He wrote some scenes in 'The Lord of the Rings' with that horror in mind.
"But he was passionate about freedom. Much of 'The Lord of the Rings' is about freedom. If there's anything worth fighting for, it's freedom from slavery. Frodo goes on this quest because of his fear the Shire will become enslaved. It's that, not any love of militarism."
"The Two Towers" is yet another instance of Jackson's seemingly mystical powers of persuasion not just behind the camera, but behind the scenes. When he convinced New Line Cinema to pony up $300 million for his adaptation of Tolkien's Middle-earth trilogy, he was a little-known writer-director with a short resume of low-budget, variably regarded films ("The Frighteners," "Dead Alive," "Heavenly Creatures") and scant experience with large-scale special effects.
A director's daring plan
Jackson filmed all three movies at once--an unprecedented feat--in a mammoth 15-month shoot in New Zealand. Last year's release of the first three-hour installment, "The Fellowship of the Ring," was fraught with more than the usual suspense: If it bombed, leaving two expensive, unmarketable sequels on the shelf, it might have bankrupted the studio.
Not only did the movie earn $860 million worldwide (second only to competing fantasy "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"), it garnered 13 Oscar nominations, winning four awards.
The boldest risk this year is Jackson's unyielding decision, despite studio pressure, to begin "The Two Towers" at a gallop, without any prologue recapping the events of the first movie. After all, Tolkien intended his three-volume fantasy as one long novel, and Jackson is determined to be nothing if not faithful to Tolkien's vision.
But it means that "The Two Towers" is a movie with neither a beginning nor an end, nor even a thoughtful reminder of the story thus far. It is instead a crescendoing series of breakneck action sequences and narrative thrust.
"It's only a year ago that `The Fellowship' came out," Jackson says. "Surely people haven't forgotten. I thought it'd be more fun to pretend we were out on a popcorn break that lasted 12 months and now the projectionist can start the next reel."
Just as Tolkien's literary version was one story divided into three books, Jackson sees "The Lord of the Rings" as one nine-hour movie necessarily chopped into thirds.
Besides, the first movie is out on DVD and pay TV, he says.
"If someone is going to `The Two Towers' without seeing `The Fellowship,' they are well-advised to borrow the DVD from a friend," he says. "There's really no excuse for not having seen it."
Journeys to Middle-earth
That's not as arrogant as it might sound. Jackson's interest is in people who want to "go along for the ride," those willing to enter into the world of Middle-earth and the war against the evil lord Sauron. And he's confident they won't be disappointed.
"Obviously we set out to make `Towers' an entertaining film," he says. "We tried to do what we did with `The Fellowship.' The central quest is not resolved--obviously Frodo doesn't reach Mount Doom--but we are looking to end the movie with an emotional impact."
"Fellowship" deals with the struggles of a company formed to carry the Ring of Power to Mount Doom, where it can be destroyed before it falls in Sauron's hands. Protecting the Ring-bearer Frodo (Elijah Wood) on the journey are three fellow hobbits (Sean Astin, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan), two men (Viggo Mortensen and Sean Bean), an elf (Orlando Bloom), a dwarf (John Rhys-Davies) and a wizard (Oscar-nominated Ian McKellen). The movie ends with the scattering of the fellowship before it can achieve its purpose.
"Towers" ends with the waging of two epic battles, and the Ring still in play.
Keeping to author's vision
Despite his avowed aim to serve Tolkien's novels, it was Jackson's willingness to fiddle with the story that earned his film greater critical appreciation than Harry Potter, which was slighted for being slavishly literal. For example, in Tolkien, the death of the warrior Boromir comes at the beginning of "The Two Towers," not at the end of "The Fellowship," where it provides the film with an emotional climax.
Likewise, Frodo's encounter with a vile giant spider, which ends the literary version of "Towers," is being held back for the third film. These are liberties that a few years ago would have been unthinkable to Tolkien fanatics, the kind who wear furry rubber hobbit feet to the theater. But now they are praising Jackson for being true to the spirit, not the letter, of Tolkien's books.
"We tried to analyze what seemed important to Tolkien and make the movie for him," Jackson says. "We're not building in any message or theme that he didn't create. We're not putting our own baggage as writers or filmmakers onto the movie. We're doing it for him."
Themes start to resonate
The well-noted themes found in the books are starting to emerge more clearly in "The Two Towers." Many readers and critics assumed that the Middle-earth-shaking war in Tolkien's work, published in 1954, was intended as an allegory of World War II. Tolkien vehemently denied this, despising any hint of allegorical intent.
Jackson wisely gives it a nod anyway, with a scene in which the renegade wizard Saruman reviews his 10,000-strong orc legions before dispatching them to wipe out the humans who have taken refuge at Helm's Deep, a previously impenetrable fortress. It's a scene with clearly intentional similarities to newsreels of Hitler reviewing and exhorting Nazi troops at Nuremberg.
"When you read the books you understand some of the motivations and things that irritated him," Jackson says. "We have definitely tried to present those themes so that if he were able to see these films he would feel satisfied."
Jackson's collaborator, Richard Taylor, who won an Oscar for his work with miniatures, weapons and make-up on the first picture, says the big topic of discussion among the filmmakers is Tolkien's animosity toward technology.
"A movie could have been made at any point in the past 50 years," Taylor says. "But not this movie, not so true to Tolkien's vision. It's only with technology that we can capture the massive battle scenes, the magical creatures like Gollum."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun