In November 1995 the relatively unknown director Peter Jackson decided to take up a challenge previously dismissed by filmmakers as impossible: he would bring J. R. R. Tolkien’s legendary “The Lord of the Rings” to the silver screen. His aim was to make a dramatic film worthy of Tolkien’s great work, faithful always to the spirit of the epic tale if not following the plot of the book in every instance. The resulting film is a stunning success, combining a mixture of old tricks and groundbreaking technology to create an unrivalled piece of cinema.

“The Bridge of Khazad-dûm”, the scene I have chosen to analyse, begins with the Fellowship running through a hall swarming with malevolent orcs which encircle them and cut off their escape. At the sound of the approaching Balrog, an ancient demon of fire, the orcs flee and the Fellowship’s path to the exit is clear. They run to a stairway, the only way out, but find a gaping hole in it. Some of them jump over it but the stairway starts to crumble. Aragorn and Frodo are stranded on the wrong side of a gap too far to jump, but then the massive section of stairway they are on begins to collapse, falling onto the other part of the stairway and bringing them back to the rest of the Fellowship. They cross the Bridge just as the Balrog approaches from behind. Gandalf defeats the Balrog in an awe-inspiring showdown and casts it into the abyss, but the Balrog seizes hold of Gandalf and drags him down too. Here is a perfect example of how much the final version of the film has developed from Jackson’s original vision: what is now a thrilling seven and a half minute action scene was included in the first screenplay as “The Fellowship run down a staircase and across the Bridge”.

This embellishment is typical of the film, and with such an action packed plot much of the complexity of Tolkien’s world of Middle-earth would be lost were it not for the efforts of the people who designed and made all the scenery, props and costumes. The architecture in this scene is in the style of the dwarves, a race of miners. If the audience thinks about it, the angular, geometric shapes everything is made from are a logical design feature: they are easiest to carve in stone. Each of the enormous pillars in the hall looks ancient and makes the audience feel as if it has been there a long time; you are drawn in and wonder what other exciting dramas have been played out in their domineering presence.
The characters’ costumes give a glimpse of a wealth of other cultures as well as the dwarves: the immortal elves, the down-to-earth hobbits, the fledgling race of men, the great wizards and even the evil, cockroach-like race of orcs. They once again show the subtle, layered quality of Middle-earth, with each race developing their own style of clothing to match their way of life. This sense that things have evolved to become what they are at the time of the story rather than just popping into existence the way they are adds to the believability, something that is remarkably important and hard to achieve in a fantasy film. When things that are not real have a reason to be the way they are, the audience finds it easier to accept them and once they are immersed in the world they can follow the story without interruption.

The props once again display the lavish attention to detail and painstaking care which brings the audience closer to the characters and setting of the film. In this scene, most of the props are carried by the actors as the dwarf halls are no longer lived in. These props work with the costumes to help define the individual characters and the races they represent and allow the audience to get to know and understand the characters better. For instance, the ranger Aragorn, accustomed to living alone in the wilderness, carries a bow to shoot animals for food and a whetstone to sharpen his sword; he is the original Boy Scout and he is always prepared. These props show more about his life and mentality than the script has time to include and allows the audience access to his thoughts and feelings, going one step further to involve the audience at as many levels as possible.

In contrast to the effort spent establishing the world as a whole in the props and costumes, the lighting focuses very much on the atmosphere in the place and time of the scene. At the beginning of the scene the lighting is high contrast with the light coming from only two sources, a single shaft of daylight and the glowing crystal at the tip of Gandalf’s staff. In the vast pillared halls the shadows are used to hide the distant walls and ceiling, creating the illusion that the halls are infinite and making the audience feel very humbled by the majesty of the towering stonework. That they should be in a place like this gives the audience a renewed sense of the importance of the Fellowship’s quest. Later, as they enter the Balrog’s domain, fire begins to issue forth from the walls and floor creating, along with the increased daylight, more sources of light. The hot reds invoke feelings of violence and danger, which heightens the audience’s adrenaline levels as Gandalf battles the Balrog. The daylight from the doorway shows how tantalizingly close they are to escape, which makes it even more devastating for the audience when Gandalf falls.

The camerawork increases the tension even further. A series of swooping wide-angle shots shows the legions of orcs scuttling over the floors, pillars and even the ceiling show the audience the gravity of the situation. Before they can become too detached from the situation, however, they are dropped in the thick of it once more with a series of close-up hand-held shots giving the impression that the camera, and therefore the audience, is a character in the story running alongside the Fellowship. This makes the drama and excitement so much more personal and the audience becomes enraptured as they feel they will share in the characters’ experiences. There are a few more wide shots, but once again you are not allowed to linger in these distant images but are brought straight back into the action with an immensely powerful piece of camerawork, shooting at great speed along the flight of an arrow which pierces an orc squarely between the eyes.

Low and high angle shots allow the audience to see the incredible extent of the halls, which the characters would sense around them, thus reinforcing the audience’s inclusion in events. It also shows once more the evil of the place; the limitless expanse of darkness that devours Boromir’s dropped torch seems a malign presence in itself. The camerawork is essential in creating scale in the film, not only the soaring pillars of the halls and gargantuan monstrosity of the Balrog, but also in the way the normal height actors who play the hobbits appear small compared to the rest of the Fellowship. If the audience does not realise that forced perspective is being used to make fifteen feet of stairway look endless but is subconsciously content to accept the steps go on forever, the camera people have done their jobs.

Much of what you see in this scene is not real at all, or exists only in miniature. The computer graphics create fire and creatures of the deep and add them seamlessly to shots of the scale models and actors so well you cannot tell what is real and what is not, and this obviously is their intention: if the audience is wondering how something is done, they are not paying attention to the storyline.

By now the audience is so well integrated into the cultures of Middle-earth that they are prepared to accept almost anything. By keeping the flashy, Hollywood-style magic to a minimum and using instead forces of nature to represent the supernatural the acceptance is even readier. The Balrog looks as if it is made from lava with a hardened layer on the outside. This makes it seem dangerous to the audience, as if it is a pure force of violent destruction held in check only by a thin layer of crusty rock which cracks visibly more as the scene progresses; we just have to hope it does not erupt. Gandalf’s magic is represented only by light, a thing we associate with goodness, and the audience hopes that it will overcome the shadowy Balrog, once again making them feel a part of the story .

The score for this scene is my favourite in the film and is one of the most dramatic in cinematic history. It is a low piece, with lots of drums, the sound of which reverberate around the space reinforcing its size. As the Fellowship overcomes an obstacle there is the heroic Fellowship theme celebrating their triumph, making the audience proud to be a part of their tale. There is also a male voice choir singing lyrics in dwarvish, one of the languages Tolkien made up for his world. This again gives a tremendous history to the world and makes the audience feel as if it is bigger than they can comprehend. The sound effects also play out subtly in the background and you do not notice them until they stop right at the end after Gandalf falls. The quiet gives the audience space to feel shocked that Gandalf, a force for good, has fallen with the evil Balrog. The audience’s disbelief is mirrored on screen by the looks on the characters’ faces, and then the music starts again, a mournful, piercing lament which makes the audience recall sad moments in their own lives and compare them to this, making the sorrow more individual.

With the epic plot and tremendous film experience playing out before your eyes there is little time for the nine main characters to develop much individual depth in this film. However, each character is as deep and elaborate as the world he lives in and you will see this if you watch for it. Costumes and prosthetics work with props to define the character physically while the body language of the actors conveys even more. A good example of this is Legolas, the elf. Immortal, he is thousands of years old and his thoughts are beyond our understanding, and so when a glimmer of fear registers in his eyes at the approach of the Balrog the audience knows it must be something truly terrible. He is ever alert, keeping his bow at the ready. His arms never rest by his sides, giving the impression that he is always poised to strike and the audience realises he will be the first to react to anything, so watching him is a good indication of when something significant is about to happen.

This watching and waiting is proof that Jackson has done his job: he has recreated Tolkien’s world with such skill that the audience can become totally engrossed in one of the most exhilarating plots in film history. It achieved instant cult status; even people who usually dislike the fantasy genre left the cinema knowing they had just watched an incredible movie and that they would eagerly await its sequel a year later. Every technical aspect of this film is above top quality, each of the design and production departments going far beyond the call of duty to create a world as real as this, characters with more depth than many real people and a delicious atmosphere of tension and excitement which sweeps the audience up and plants them firmly in Middle-earth. The reason this film is such a success can be summed up thus: even when you know how the Balrog has been computer generated, even when you have analysed and admired how each camera shot has been achieved, even when you have heard the actors discussing the film at length, each time you watch it you cannot help believing it is real, and wanting to be a part of it.

Written and Owned by Joanna Piancastelli

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