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(Major spoilers ahead)
 
Three films to rule them all,
Three films to top them,
Three films to contests call
And effortlessly stop them.
 
In ages long past, there were forged mighty rings,
And one was the greatest, to rule over kings.
‘Twas forged by the Dark Lord, one Sauron by name,
Who barely was beaten when men and elves came.
Isildur, however, retained the One Ring,
Which went on to spend centuries poisoning
The mind of poor Gollum, obsessed with his prize,
Until it was picked up by one of small size.
This hobbit named Bilbo returned to the Shire
And kept the Ring, growing in secret desire.
 
On Bilbo’s birthday, he intends to depart,
Although nephew Frodo is close to his heart.
The wizard Gandalf bids the hobbit farewell
But, wishing old Bilbo’s temptation to quell,
Insists that the Ring stay behind at Bag End,
For Frodo to keep safe, if not comprehend.
When Gandalf discerns that the Ring is the One,
He sends Frodo off since the hunt has begun.
With friends Samwise Gamgee and Pippin and Merry,
The hobbit seeks Bree on a life-saving ferry,
For nine fallen kings known as Ringwraiths now ride
To claim Frodo’s ring, knowing he cannot hide.
 
As Gandalf must deal with the sudden betrayal
Of white wizard Saruman, Frodo’s travail
Is still far from over, but he is defended
By Strider (or Aragorn), who’s well-descended.
When Frodo is wounded by one of the Nine,
The elf maiden Arwen assists him in time.
In Rivendell, Frodo finds rest with his friends,
Until a new journey Elrond recommends.
With Aragorn, Gandalf, Sam, Pippin, and Merry,
Plus Boromir, Legolas, and Gimli hairy,
Frodo heads to Mordor to end the Ring’s power,
As Sauron looks on from Barad-dûr’s tower.
 
When one mountain blocks them with avalanche thunder,
The Fellowship hesitantly passes under.
Through Moria’s mines and dark dangers galore
They dare, since they cannot turn back anymore.
A battle and balrog claim Gandalf, alas!
The others get out since the foe cannot pass.
Then on to Lothlórien they make their way,
Where Lady Galadriel lets the group stay.
A vision lets Frodo know what he must do,
And soon they depart down the river anew.
 
The wiles of the Ring come to tempt Boromir,
Who menaces Frodo when no one is near.
When Saruman’s fierce Uruk-hai then attack,
The men, elf, and dwarf prove that courage none lack.
Yet Boromir falls to his comrades’ dismay,
And Merry and Pippin are taken away.
As Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, all three,
Go after the hobbits in captivity,
Both Frodo and Sam head to Mordor alone
To finish the quest in the wilds unknown.
__________________
 
As Frodo and Sam wander on with their quest,
The creature called Gollum proves more than a pest.
They catch and convince him to act as their guide;
Though Gollum assists, Sam is quick to deride.
Through labyrinths of stone and a haunted marshland,
The trio continue with threats close at hand.
They find Mordor’s entrance, the dreaded Black Gate,
Much too well-defended to now infiltrate,
So Gollum (or Sméagol as he was once known)
Suggests a dark way through a tunnel of stone.
As Frodo starts trusting him, Gollum must face
An identity crisis, one half to erase.
While traveling further through Gondor’s frontier,
They’re captured by Boromir’s kin, Faramir.
 
Meanwhile, the elf and the dwarf and the man
Are chasing the Uruks as fast as they can.
In Rohan, the creatures are slaughtered that night
By banished Rohirrim while making their flight.
While Merry and Pippin take shelter with Ents,
The shepherds of trees who ignore world events,
The others find Gandalf, alive, clad in white,
And join him to set Rohan’s monarchy right.
King Théoden sags under Saruman’s sway,
But Gandalf will not let the rogue wizard stay.
With Théoden now in his right mind once more,
He does as was done with past dangers before,
Vacating the city through mountain paths steep
And biding behind the great walls of Helm’s Deep.
 
As Saruman’s army arrives seeking blood,
The men and elves battle the sword-wielding flood.
While Merry and Pippin are sad and upset
By ponderous Ents still unmoved by the threat,
King Théoden, Aragorn, and all the rest
Defend for their lives from the Uruks, hard-pressed.
For when the foe blasts through impregnable walls,
Despair enters in as their brave defense falls.
 
While Frodo and Sam are held captive by men,
Who mishandle Sméagol, made bitter again,
The Ring allures Faramir’s inner desire
To prove himself to his unpleasable sire.
In Osgiliath, as the Nazgûl attack,
A change of heart shows strength that many men lack.
 
King Théoden rallies his warriors then
To ride out proclaiming the valor of men,
And Gandalf arrives with Rohirrim in tow
To charge with the sun and thus finish the foe.
As Helm’s Deep is won, the Ents see for themselves
That Saruman’s crimes harm not just men and elves.
They storm Isengard with a most righteous rage,
And ancients prevail in their last war to wage.
The good and the free have thus won battles twain,
But darkness will strengthen before it must wane.
The hope of all Middle-earth rests in a pair
Of hobbits whom Gollum intends to ensnare.
_________________
 
While Frodo and Sam follow Gollum, whose past
Reveals the corruption the Ring can work fast,
The rest of the Fellowship soon reunite
To celebrate triumph in their recent fight.
Yet Pippin is tempted to study a sphere,
A dangerous seeing stone called Palantir,
Which gives them a glimpse into Sauron’s next plan,
To crush Minas Tirith, the threat posed by Man.
 
When Gandalf takes Pippin to outrun the foe
And warn Gondor’s capital of coming woe,
The steward of Gondor, the Lord Denethor,
The father of Boromir, knows of the war.
He’s losing his mind and deplores Faramir
In mourning his brother, both cruel and severe.
Insisting his son display loyalty vain,
He sends him to fight where he’ll surely be slain.
Though Faramir sadly submits to his will,
The wizard Gandalf has a plan to fulfill
And sends word to Rohan to come to their aid,
Through beacon fires magnificently displayed.
 
While Merry’s preparing to fight for the peace,
Assisted by Éowyn, Théoden’s niece,
Both Frodo and Sam have a difficult time
In mounting stone stairs Sméagol says they must climb.
His influence turns Frodo’s mind against Sam,
Who’s forced to turn back by a Sméagol-y scam.
Within a dark tunnel of webbing and murk,
A monstrous spider called Shelob does lurk;
Though Gollum had hoped she would earn him the Ring,
His master escapes and sends him plummeting.
As Frodo continues, the spider surprises
Till Samwise the brave takes her down a few sizes.
 
When Elrond reforges a sword legendary
For Aragorn ever to wield and to carry,
The Grey Company leaves King Théoden’s side
To seek the assistance of traitors who died.
To grand Minas Tirith, Rohan’s armies ride
To aid the beleaguered of Gondor inside.
While Denethor’s sanity cracks from the strain
Of Faramir’s loss, though he isn’t yet slain,
The men and the wizard defend the White City
From hideous hordes that refuse to show pity.
When Théoden’s forces arrive with the sun,
The battle’s tide turns, though it isn’t yet won.
When great oliphaunts join this most epic fray,
It takes a ghost army to carry the day.
 
As Gandalf saves Faramir from Denethor,
Sam rescues poor Frodo from orcs of Mordor.
With much heroism and losses endured,
The victors, to keep Frodo’s mission obscured,
March on to the Black Gate, diverting the gaze
Of Sauron’s great eye, ever watching ablaze.
Through barren wastelands, Sam and Frodo proceed,
Weighed down by the Ring from which all must be freed.
Though Gollum attacks, Frodo reaches Mount Doom
But falls to temptation that tends to consume;
It’s not until Gollum, for his Precious’ sake,
Bites off Frodo’s finger, a deadly mistake,
That Sauron’s One Ring in the fire is cast
And evil is unmade and vanquished at last.
 
It looks like the end for the two hobbits spent,
But Gandalf retrieves the small heroes he sent.
In Rivendell, Frodo is thrilled to once more
Embrace his old Fellowship left long before.
In Minas Tirith, grateful free peoples bow down,
And Aragorn humbly accepts Gondor’s crown.
Though years of peace follow, for Frodo it seems
The scars of his quest are still haunting his dreams.
When elves take their leave of mankind’s Middle-earth,
They give final passage to heroes of worth.
As Bilbo and Gandalf depart from these shores,
It’s Frodo’s time too, and the journey restores.
Farewell to his friends, ever faithful and true;
Farewell for a time until all is made new.
_________________
 

This is it, the top of my list and, in my opinion, the greatest trilogy ever made. I know that is a tall claim, but no other film series matches the emotional power, memorable characterization, and epic scope of Peter Jackson’s original cinematic tour de force. Before their release, I had never read the books or had any exposure to J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic magnum opus, so these films came as a total surprise to my family and me; what we expected to be “just another movie” turned out to be something truly magnificent.

The Fellowship of the Ring has been acclaimed as the greatest fantasy film of all time; even with the detractions of literary purists, the film certainly succeeds in crafting a wholly convincing Middle-earth and capturing the spirit of its diverse inhabitants: the curly-haired tranquility of Hobbiton; the Stygian menace of the Nazgûl; the luminous nobility of the elves; and the repulsive terror of orcs, balrogs, and the Kraken’s second cousin. The hobbits especially are among the series’ most endearing creations, bucolic folk fond of peace, pubs, and pipes but capable of unexpected heroism.

Fellowship is more episodic than the other two films, as the travelers grow in number and pass from city to wilderness to caves to forest to river, yet amid all the walking, we get to know these characters more deeply than one would expect: hesitant Frodo, faithful Sam, the comic relief duo of Merry and Pippin, sapient Gandalf, conflicted lover Aragorn, awesome Legolas, untossable dwarf Gimli, corruptible Boromir, and so on. The film also features my favorite sequence of the entire trilogy, the tense and visually stunning journey through Moria, full of colossal architecture, subtle wisdom, fearsome creatures, and a climactic sacrifice. The showdown with the troll and the Khazad-dûm collapse were the turning point that convinced me of the immensity of this story, and Frodo’s world-weary gaze once they escape confirmed its emotional punch. By the end of the film, I’m always eager for more.

Being bookended by even greater films, The Two Towers is understandably the least of the trilogy, but it nonetheless includes some essential additions to an already exceptional cast. While the sudden introduction of Rohan’s horsemasters (with similar names like Éowyn, Éomer, Théoden, Théodred, etc.) might be confusing for the uninitiated, they add another texture to this captivating land. Though the flesh-and-blood characters are engaging enough, the special effects team outdid themselves with two brilliantly rendered eccentrics. Andy Serkis’s motion-capture performance as Gollum/Sméagol is among the film’s highlights, his raspy voice and spindling physicality perfectly capturing the creature’s tragic state and inner turmoil. Likewise, Treebeard’s lumbering presence is as convincing a living tree as one can imagine, and the deep, protracted voice of John Rhys-Davies (doubling as Gimli) fits him to a tree…I mean, tee. Again, there is no shortage of riveting action sequences, including a skirmish between riders of horses and wargs, the prodigious siege of Helm’s Deep which surpasses any other depiction of medieval warfare, and my second favorite battle sequence of all, the attack of the Ents on Isengard. The latter two battles converge in the climax for a truly epic conclusion, even as Sam delivers a heartfelt speech setting the noble yet very human stakes.

My VC was especially eager for The Return of the King and, not being familiar with the books, was constantly terrified for the beloved characters, especially Frodo. She was pretty much in tears for the entire latter half of the film, from concern and happiness and from the sheer epic scale of the images before her. While it didn’t have quite the same effect on me, I wholeheartedly agree that this third film is the greatest ever made, as the culmination of the trilogy and a monumental depiction of the triumph of good over evil. Along with Titanic and Ben-Hur, it won the most Oscars ever, eleven total, and holds the record for the greatest Oscar sweep since it won everything for which it was nominated; it’s also the only fantasy film to win Best Picture and deservedly so. After journeying through two already admired films with these characters, the emotions are in high gear, devastated grief at Faramir’s sacrifice and Frodo’s rejection of Sam, heartache at Théoden’s final moments and Shelob’s stabbing of Frodo, bittersweet joy at the quest’s success and Frodo’s relieved parting glance. Like the previous two films, there are moments of unbridled awesomeness worthy of sudden cheering, like Legolas and Éomer’s single-handedly taking down enormous oliphaunts, Éowyn’s feat of female empowerment, or Aragorn’s employing an undead ace up his sleeve. The two greatest sequences are the lighting of the beacons, a perfect combination of jaw-dropping New Zealand scenery and Howard Shore’s legendary score, which is my VC’s favorite part of the whole trilogy, and the battle of the Pelennor Fields, particularly Théoden’s charge; the looks of fear on the orcs’ faces are what I imagine will be seen when the Lord returns and evil is finally stamped out. Though the multiple endings have drawn some criticism and even mockery, none of them are needless, and all serve as most satisfying closure, perhaps just with a bit too much fading in and out. Every time the credits start to roll, I feel that I’ve watched something magnificent.

Since I first saw The Lord of the Rings trilogy, my family and I have become fast fans, buying enough merchandise to probably finance one of The Hobbit films. We’ve purchased the original books, guide books, books about the films, a documentary about the films, calendars, CDs of the score, action figure playsets, and both the original films and the extended edition box set. The extended edition is now our preferred version, contributing nearly two hours of fascinating additions that complement rather than detract from the original. It’s become a tradition for my family to watch all three films in a row, usually around Christmas, as an annual reminder of how much we love this story.

While I typically shy away from violent films, and The Lord of the Rings does contain plenty of hacking and even decapitations, the battle scenes still show considerable restraint for the most part, especially for a director known for gory horror movies; plus, the film’s fantasy setting precludes any instances of profanity or foul language, which isn’t even missed. Instead, the language carries a memorable nobility foreign to modern-set films, such as the monologues of encouragement from Gandalf or from various warriors before battle (“Ride for ruin and the world’s ending!”; “It is not this day!”) The music is also particularly marvelous, and Fellowship’s “May It Be” by Enya and The Return of the King’s “Into the West,” performed by Annie Lennox, easily make my End Credits Song Hall of Fame. (“Gollum’s Song” at the end of The Two Towers isn’t quite in the same league.) In addition, it occurred to me that one more reason I enjoy the films is that Frodo’s journey at least could be considered a “meet-‘em-and-move-on” story, since he encounters several others on his quest and is ultimately reunited with many of them. By the way, (Lost alert) I must mention Dominic Monaghan, who plays Merry as well as troubled rocker Charlie on my favorite TV show and who turned out to be a major draw for me to check out Lost, which started the year after The Return of the King was released.

(On a side note, I do want to explain my wholehearted embracing of this franchise in contrast with my dislike of the Harry Potter series. While both feature magic, however fantastical, Tolkien’s tales do not employ magic as a focus and ongoing interest for his characters, and they are set in an untouchable fantasy realm as opposed to a setting and time recognizably similar to our own. In some ways, it’s a fine line, but one that Rowling’s stories cross enough to warrant caution, to my mind. My opinions match those further expanded in this long article by film critic Steven Greydanus: http://www.decentfilms.com/articles/magic.)

The Lord of the Rings will forever stand as a landmark of cinema, especially impressive coming from an only mildly esteemed horror director like Peter Jackson, who certainly earned a name for himself. No other film can match the blend of utterly beautiful scenery, memorable music, realistic effects of every kind, Oscar-winning makeup, detailed armor and weaponry, brilliant ensemble acting, impressive artistry, unparalleled thrills, heart-wrenching pathos, and tear-worthy gratification. Some films rival or even surpass certain such aspects, but not all of them. All the awards won by the third film were undoubtedly meant for the trilogy as a whole, for no other director has shot a trilogy back to back like Jackson did, an achievement he repeated with The Hobbit and one that I don’t think is appreciated enough. George Lucas took three years between each of the Star Wars films, and James Cameron recently had to postpone his planned Avatar sequel trilogy because of the massive effort involved in shooting back-to-back films. It’s obviously harder than it seems. The Hobbit trilogy may not measure up to Jackson’s original achievement, but nothing really could. They are untouchable, masterpieces of fantasy to match their literary counterparts, despite certain alterations.

This film list of mine has been a long road, but its end is one worth revisiting again and again. I’m glad to be with you, Samwise Gamgee, here at the end of this list.

Best lines from The Fellowship of the Ring: (Gandalf, catching Sam after talking with Frodo) “Confound it all, Samwise Gamgee. Have you been eavesdropping?”
(Sam) “I ain’t been droppin’ no eaves, sir, honest. I was just cutting the grass under the window there, if you’ll follow me.”
(Gandalf) “A little late for trimming the verge, don’t you think?”
(Sam) “I heard raised voices.”
(Gandalf) “What did you hear? Speak.”
(Sam) “N-nothing important. That is, I heard a good deal about a ring, and a Dark Lord, and something about the end of the world, but… please, Mr. Gandalf, sir, don’t hurt me. Don’t turn me into anything… unnatural.”    and
 
(Frodo) “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”   (Gandalf) “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. In which case, you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.”
 
Best lines from The Two Towers: (Treebeard) “I always like going south. Somehow, it feels like going downhill.”    and
 
(Sam) “Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.”   (Frodo) “What are we holding onto, Sam?”   (Sam) “That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.”
 
Best lines from The Return of the King: (Gimli, after Legolas’s oliphaunt takedown) “That still only counts as one!”    and
 
(Frodo, after the success of their quest) “I’m glad to be with you, Samwise Gamgee, here at the end of all things.”
 
 
Rank: 60 out of 60
 

© 2015 S. G. Liput

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