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Dissecting the Classics – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

November 23, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers Viggo Mortenson Image Credit: New Line Cinema

Oh man this was a mistake. Scheduling a three week look at nine hours of film all through November? What was I thinking? I hope you enjoy the fruits of my cramped for time efforts as I’m just coming off of a vacation and right back into Thanksgiving, so… yay!

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Wide Release Date:
Directed By: Peter Jackson
Written By: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair & Peter Jackson
Produced By: Barrie M. Osborne, Fran Walsh & Peter Jackson
Cinematography By: Andrew Lesnie
Edited By: Michael Horton
Music By: Howard Shore
Production Company: WingNut Films & The Saul Zaentz Company
Distributed By: New Line Cinema
Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins
Sean Astin as Samwise Gamgee
Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn
Orlando Bloom as Legolas
John Rhys-Davies as Gimli & Treebeard
Andy Serkis as Gollum/Smeagol

What Do We All Know?

After The Fellowship of the Ring proved to be a massive critical and commercial success, there was no question about the sequels being released to theaters. The films were all filmed at the same time, but the material had to prove itself and it did. And there would be no sophomore jinx: The Two Towers grossed nearly $1 billion worldwide en route to topping 2002’s box office, and won two of its eight Oscar nominations. Rather than slowing down, the series continued to pick up momentum that would carry through to the mega success of its final chapter.

For me personally, The Two Towers was the first of these I really loved. Some of that has to do with the increased attention span of my teenage years, sure, but the movie is also just easier to follow and has some of the coolest things in the series. While time and perspective hasn’t been as kind to the middle child as its brothers, the film is still incredible and manages to get there despite lacking a proper beginning or end. Not too shabby.

What Went Right?

Last week I covered the basics of what these films all have in common: amazing production design, a solid cast with a few stand outs, a passionate and capable director, the all-time best music score for film, and great source material to work with. All of that applies to The Two Towers and The Return of the King when we get there, and for the sake of my sanity I’m just going to refer you back to Fellowship for my complete thoughts on that. Suffice to say these are the very definition of epic films and the way they brought tangibility to Tolkien’s books is probably their greatest accomplishment. With that out of the way, let’s take a look at what specifically makes The Two Towers great in its own right.

After the Fellowship crumbled at the end of the first movie, we have two divergent paths that soon split into three. Frodo and Sam are now alone as they walk to Mordor to destroy the Ring of Power, while Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are on pursuit to rescue Merry and Pippin from the band of orcs that killed Boromir. We’ll get to Frodo and Sam’s story in a bit, but for now I want to focus the second group. This is the movie where I feel Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli really got to define who they were. Legolas and Gimli’s competitive friendship is fully established, Legolas takes the first steps to his apparent godhood, and Gimli provides most of the film’s memorable jokes. Aragorn basically has his entire arc showcased, starting as the ranger hunting orcs and ending as an inspiring military leader who proves to be the equal of a king. Their part of the story is what really what hooked its claws into me at first, as their deeds just seemed more dangerous and heroic in this film than the first one.

As it turns out, the journey to save Merry and Pippin is cut short as they manage to escape on their own… with the help of a walking, talking tree creature and the seemingly back from the dead Gandalf the White. Here the story diverges again, as the hobbits travel with Treebeard while Gandalf directs Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas to the kingdom of Rohan, which is under relentless attack from Saruman and his orc hordes. Rohan introduces us to a new cast of characters: Bernard Hill as King Théoden, Miranda Otto as lovesick for Aragorn but totally badass shield maiden Éowyn, Brad Dourif of Child’s Play fame as the scheming Gríma Wormtongue, and a young Karl Urban as Éomer. All of these are solid additions to the cast and help populate the heroes’ side for the epic battle of Helm’s Deep. While I do have a few minor complaints about the build up to the battle itself, this climactic confrontation between Rohan and its allies and 10,000 orcs is just incredible. These epic war scenes are where the translation from page to screen benefits the most, when done right, and this is one of the finest examples in the series.

Of course, while these grand defenses of castles makes for epic fantasy scenes, the most urgent tension is still Frodo’s quest to destroy the One Ring. Much like the three heroes who travel through Rohan, Frodo and Sam’s dynamic is really fleshed out in this one, mostly because they don’t have any other friends to play off of this go around. I think it’s important to give credit to these two for their performances, because they can’t help but be overshadowed by Gollum. Brought to life by Andy Serkis’ motion capture performance (a very new branch of special effects at the time), Gollum was the aspect that would make the film sink or swim. Not a one-scene CGI wonder, Gollum had to be a believable, fully realized character. Somehow, Serkis and the effects department absolutely nailed this character, making him compelling, menacing and sympathetic as the plot demanded. One or two missteps and this could have easily been another Jar Jar Binks situation, but thankfully it went right and we got one of the trilogy’s greatest accomplishments. In many ways, that kind of sums up the series as a whole; it’s a monumental undertaking that could have gone wrong in so many ways but somehow didn’t.

What Went Wrong?

While the overall package of Two Towers is excellent and the parts that work stand tall over the parts that don’t, I do have a few points of umbridge. Normally, I don’t take a stand against things that are added or taken away from the book, this is an adaptation, not a live reading. But it just so happens that some of the additions to this are also the parts of the movie that kind of suck. There’s an extra attack where orcs on giant wolves attack Rohan as they are headed to Helm’s Deep, leading to a stupid fake out death for Aragorn that leads to an extended tangential scene where Arwen and her father debate the merits of Arwen staying in Middle Earth for the sake of her love. You know, in case there was too much male bonding for you. I already spoke about the lack of chemistry between these two in Fellowship but this is where it probably bugs me the most. It comes out of nowhere and has nothing to do with the rest of the plot and I genuinely hate this scene and the script’s profoundly stupid way of getting to it.

Another addition that I hate is sticking the hobbits in the battle of Osgiliath. While I think their interactions with Faramir are good and Faramir’s conflict over taking the ring make him a more interesting character (we’ll talk more about him next week, don’t worry), I would have probably omitted this scene entirely as it is mostly uninspired and is subtraction by addition when paired with the Helm’s Deep battle. Yes, even Sam’s moving speech. At this point it’s just distracting. In general, I also think the film’s rewrites starting showing through the cracks at times – having the elves at Helm’s Deep is a change I mostly embrace, but the changed context between the original script and the final product leads to some sloppy editing that only barely works. Putting that aside, I think shifting parts of the book to other movies means that the build up to the battle of Helm’s Deep takes too long and hits the same note of hopelessness a bit too much. Lastly, while I do enjoy Treebeard and really like the ents taking out Isengard, some of the scenes do drag a bit and I imagine others look on them with much less affection than I have.

And In Summary…

While my appreciation for The Fellowship of the Ring has only strengthened over time, my affection for The Two Towers has waned somewhat. It’s still a great movie, but parts of it are just too slow to enjoy on the rewatch, and I didn’t even bother with the extended cut. I think this is the weakest of the three movies, but as mixed bags go, this is pretty amazing. The Battle of Helm’s Deep is one of the series high points, while bringing Gollum to life is perhaps its most impressive and miraculous achievement. It’s a great middle chapter and I was happy to rewatch it for this column.

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Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Captain America: The First Avenger, In the Heat of the Night, West Side Story, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Rocky, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sixth Sense, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Clerks, Goodfellas, The Avengers, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Frozen, Jaws, The Omen, The Incredibles, Life of Brian, Escape From New York, Independence Day, Vacation, Ghostbusters, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Hook, Men in Black, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Double Indemnity, Lethal Weapon, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, The Exorcist, Psycho, Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Haunting, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Fellowship of the Ring

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I log reviews for every film I see, when I see them. You can see my main page here. I haven’t been to the movies lately, as I just got back from visiting Michael Ornelas in L.A. for a wrestling weekend that included NXT WarGames and WWE Survivor Series. And more importantly, a great time with one of my best friends, which gave me plenty to be thankful for.

And a late Happy Thanksgiving to those who celebrate.