Rewatched Jul 30, 2011
This review reportedly contains spoilers.
I can handle the truth.
Michael Mackenzie said:
As I suspect most people know by now, Ralph Bakshi originally planned to adapt Tolkien's THE LORD OF THE RINGS as two films, only the first of which ever saw fruition. Despite Part 1 being a box office success, distributor United Artists abruptly decided not to finance a sequel, meaning that the action only advances to the point of Frodo, Sam and Gollum setting off for Cirith Ungol and victory at the Battle of the Hornburg - coincidentally (or not, as the case may be) the exact same point in both story strands at which Peter Jackson elected to end his later adaptation of THE TWO TOWERS.
I first saw Bakshi's film at the age of nine while I was less than half way through reading THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (I believe I was still in the wilderness between Bree and Rivendell with Strider and the hobbits - at any rate, I had yet to discover the reason for Gandalf's delay). Suffice it to say that it made a big impression on me, and for some considerable time it shaped my impression of Middle-Earth as a land filled with gloomy, overbearingly drab landscapes; monstrous, ape-like orcs; and of course lots and lots of men with no trousers. Bakshi's take on the material is nothing if not idiosyncratic, and while we were ultimately spared the horror of what would have been John Boorman's take on what has been called the greatest novel of the 20th century (www.rottentomatoes.com/vine/showpost.php?p=9151429&postcount=3), it goes without saying that the end result didn't exactly match many people's interpretation of Middle-Earth.
Which is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. Bakshi's film is unquestionably his own - I doubt anyone else could have come up with anything quite like this, and while many people decry his bizarre depiction of Aragorn as a Native American or Boromir as a Viking, it always amuses me that many of the same people happily swallowed Peter Jackson's far greater departures from the source. Actually, on a narrative level, Bakshi is incredibly faithful to the novel, though this is something of a double-edged sword as it requires a degree of pre-existing familiarity with the material in order to actually understand what's going on. A case in point, and an example that is characteristic of Bakshi's scattershot approach, comes when Gandalf, after asking Frodo if he sees any markings on the Ring, flings it into the fireplace at Bag End. In the novel, this serves two purposes: first, it highlights how attached Frodo already is to the Ring; second, it reveals that fiery letters on the Ring that confirm beyond doubt that it is the One. Bakshi gets the first part right: Frodo gapes in horror and has to be held back by Gandalf to stop him diving in after it. The fire-writing, however, never materialises, which begs the question as to why Gandalf brought up the subject of markings in the first place.
The answer, I suspect, is that Bakshi, an avowed Tolkien fanatic, was determined to be as faithful to the book as possible (unlike Jackson, he lifts whole chunks of dialogue with only minimal alterations) but knew he had to cut, cut, cut to get the running time down to a manageable length. Lacking the necessary distance from the material, he failed to see how incomprehensible certain deletions would make the film. In perhaps the most serious instance, I wonder if anyone who hadn't already read the book would actually understand precisely WHY the Fellowship was taking the Ring to Mordor. And yet, despite Bakshi's apparent love of the book, the film is littered with mispronunciations - witness the, erm, creative ways the actors find to say words like Minas Tirith, Sauron, Balin, Uglúk, Celeborn and Gríma... to say nothing of the White Wizard, who is alternately referred to as both "Saruman" and "Aruman", sometimes within the same scene. Apparently bean-counters were worried that audiences would confuse Sauron and Saruman and asked for the latter's name to be changed to better distinguish them. A valid concern, I suppose, but the end result only serves to make the situation even MORE confusing.
The result is a film that is at times as staggeringly incoherent as it is idiosyncratic... and yet it contains so many moments of brilliance, however fleeting, that it's difficult to dismiss it out of hand, even with the altogether more consistent Jackson adaptations now readily available. True, it frequently lurches from inspired madness to just plain awfulness, but a surprising amount of it genuinely works. The orcs in this version are truly hideous, far more effective than Jackson's comedy Cockneys, and the Black Riders are similarly chilling. I still remember the shiver that ran down my spine on seeing that low angle shot of the Rider on his horse while the hobbits hid from him in a hollow beneath the roots of a tree (a sequence shamelessly plundered by Jackson, along with a later scene involving the Riders raiding the hobbits' room at the Prancing Pony), and the "Flight to the Ford" sequence, in which Frodo's gradual succumbing to the poison of the Morgul-knife is brilliantly realised as something approaching a fever dream. Later on, the orc band's death march and the attack on them by Éomer and his riders are handled far, far better than in the Jackson version, and in his final appearance towards the end of the film, we get a brief glimpse of a run down, exhausted Frodo that perfectly evokes the toll the Ring is taking on him. I even like the oft-criticised Leonard Rosenman score a great deal, which may not be a patch on Howard Shore's work on the Jackson trilogy but has its own moments of brilliance.
The visual depiction of Aragorn is bizarre to say the least, but the vocal performance by John Hurt is exceptional, and his remains the voice that I hear in my head whenever I read the character's dialogue in the novel (just as I hear Michael Hordern as Gandalf and Ian Holm as Frodo, both from the later BBC radio adaptation). Actually the voice acting on the whole is rather good (and Peter Woodthorpe as Gollum and Michael Graham Cox as Boromir obviously impressed someone, as they were both subsequently cast in the same roles in the radio version), with the exception of Fraser Kerr's shrill, raspy Saruman (no Christopher Lee, this man). As for Sam, his characterisation sucks, but I'm not sure whether the blame lies with the voice actor, Michael Scholes, or Billy Barty, from whose performance the rotoscoped animation was derived. (Scholes certainly falls into the trap avoided by Bill Nighy in the radio version and Sean Astin in the Jackson films: he interprets the dialogue literally, meaning that the character more often than not comes over as a buffoon.)
It's too bad the animation so rarely matches the quality of the vocals. In choosing to rotoscope the entire film (i.e. shooting live action footage first and then tracing over it), Bakshi delivers a film that looks as wildly inconsistent as the script itself, occasionally impressive but more often than not sloppy, jittery and overly pantomimey. In this regard the increased resolution of the Blu-ray version doesn't do the film any favours: I remember being a lot less distracted by the ropey animation when I was watching it through the haze of a second-generation VHS copy. Particularly in the film's second half, a decision seems to have been made (whether as a cost- and labour-saving measure or for more creative reasons) to simply copy much of the live action footage to celluloid with the contrast ramped up, foregoing the tracing process altogether. Ironically, this process is far more effective than the rotoscoping, not least because it is largely restricted to the orcs and Black Riders (at least until the Rohirrim show up) and gives them a palpable otherworldly quality. On the whole, though, it's a spectacularly ugly-looking film, with even the locations that are meant to appear lush and striking, such as the Shire, Rivendell and Lothlórien, looking grim and depressing.
Bakshi's film concludes unsatisfyingly and self-contradictingly with a voice-over that states both that "the forces of darkness were driven for ever from the face of Middle-Earth" and that here ends "the first great tale of THE LORD OF THE RINGS", and for all its faults I wish the film hadn't been cut off so abruptly. Had Bakshi got a chance to make his second part, a number of lingering questions could have been answered. Would Faramir have shown up? Would Boromir's fellow Gondorians have been similarly attired in Viking-like garb? How would Bakshi have resolved the problem of not having bothered to introduce Arwen at all? (Perhaps he would have gone with Tolkien's original plan to make Éowyn Aragorn's love interest.) Would the Scouring of the Shire have been depicted? And perhaps, most importantly of all, would we have got to see an army of giant carrots destroying Isengard? (If you've seen how Treebeard is depicted in the film, you'll know what I'm talking about.) Bakshi's THE LORD OF THE RINGS is one big, frustrating "What the fuck?" but a fascinating work all the same, in spite of (and indeed in many cases BECAUSE OF) its numerous flaws.