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"LORD OF THE RINGS" AS WAR



 

“Lord of the Rings” as War
Peter Bradshaw of UK’s “The Guardian” addresses the matter thusly:

“‘The Lord of the Rings’ always has that stolid, puddingy heaviness, the earnestly childlike quality that almost, but not quite, prevents it from being pompous…Has this film anything meaningful to say about war, or about the eternal moral contest with evil?…There is no compelling intelligence directing the forces of darkness.  The only people killed in battle are trillions and trillions of nameless beasties and anonymous hordes. No one important. Very different from warfare in the non-toytown world.  There is no sobering experience of loss, no real sense of the obscenity and tragedy of war and therefore nothing really at stake. That's why it appeals to adolescent boys, and to adults sentimentally loyal to their departed, adolescent selves…It's tripe. But [director Jackon has] made it mind-blowing tripe.”

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the trilogy is its sanitized portrayal of war.  For all the size and grandeur of the movie’s battlefields, it all sure looks like fun, and unless you’re a Main Character on the Good Side, you’re forbidden to weep over your dead comrades, which only happens at a rate of about once every five hours of screen time anyway.  It’s also important to note that, although we may hear about it, I don’t think we ever actually see the orcs win a battle.  They’re always coming close though.

Michelle Alexandria of EclipseMagazine describes how the trilogy stumbles as both war movie and adventure:

“In the first two films the good guys never die.  Sure, we got some moments when we ‘thought’ they were dead, but after watching two films where the major characters supposedly ‘die’ only to turn up again a few minutes later, and this is repeated time and time again, I started to feel manipulated and just annoyed. [Gandalf “dies” in the first film but comes back in the sequel; Aragorn “dies” in the second film but comes back later; in the third film Frodo and Sam are surrounded by molten rock and have given up, only to be rescued; Faramir is on his funeral pyre when he turns out to be okay; Boromir dies in the first film but is briefly “resurrected” for a flashback in the extended version of the second; Merry/Pippin “dies” when he messes with that evil orb thing, and then Merry/Pippin “dies” on the battlefield, only to be okay later.  Religious metaphor, maybe, but invincibility is not good for an adventure—F&SN].  When your heroes are faced with 10,000 Orcs and the odds are 1,000 to one, yet they still win the battle, without even getting a scratch, you start to believe that everyone is invincible. I was never emotionally connected to the plight of the situation.”

And forget about any emotion at all—fear, horror, disgust, pity—if you’re one of the enemy.  You’re the enemy of our great state.  You don’t have feelings.  The city nearly obliterated in battle in the middle of “Return of the King” is fine at the movie’s end.  We see no one in celebration with missing limbs or packed in bandages, as they inevitably would be after such a pitched fray.  The message is clear and despicable:  violence has no lasting negative consequences on human society.  (I say “human society” to differentiate “LOTR” from films such as “Bridge on the River Kwai” and “The Thin Red Line,” in which, as much as people suffer, the land and the trees appear blank and indifferent.  Nature appears patient with the damage we will cause her, knowing full well that she will swallow up all her wounds.)

(Even older war films, whose lack of gory realism might cause modern audiences to regard them with condescension, avoid these traps.  The gore-free “The Longest Day” from 1962 gives us both the Allied and Axis points-of-view and makes a point of introducing us to and sympathizing with so many characters, of both sides, who get killed, sometimes only minutes later, in pointless, depressing, random ways.  If you’ve seen the film, remember the German officer who puts his boots on the wrong feet; remember the sergeant Robert Mitchum field-promotes to lieutenant; remember when Roddy McDowell brags to his friend about what a good shot he just made; remember that big healthy German shepherd brought to the Normandy bunker the morning of the attack.  And then remember all their fates.)

But wait, you say, what if Tolkien’s intent, and therefore Jackson’s, is to “renounce the corruptions of the 20th century:  industrial, artistic, political, and social” and write “with the extroversion common to more archaic styles” (see
J.R.R. Tolkien vs. the 20th Century)?  Isn’t all this “treat your enemy as human beings” stuff only a product of our time, and wouldn’t it be out of place in more archaic writing?  Why don’t we find some archaic writing and see what it has to say.  Here are a few excerpts from a poem a little bit older than Tolkien’s novels in which very, very minor characters on the losing side get killed in battle:

 

“There Telamonian Aias struck down the son of Anthemion
Simoeisios in his stripling’s beauty, whom once his mother
descending from Ida bore beside the banks of Simoeis…”

“There was a man of the Trojans, Dares, blameless and bountiful
priest consecrated to Hephaistos, and he had two sons…
…and Diomedes thereafter
threw with the bronze, and the weapon cast from his hand flew not vain
but struck the chest between the nipples and hurled him from behind
his horses.  And Idaios leaping left the fair-wrought chariot
nor had he the courage to stand over his stricken brother.
Even so he could not have escaped the black death-spirit
but Hephaistos caught him away and rescued him, shrouded in darkness,
that the aged man might not be left altogether desolate.”
“Meriones in turn killed Phereklos, son of Harmonides,
the smith, who understood how to make with his hand all intricate
things, since above all others Pallas Athene had loved him.”

“…Phainops was stricken in sorrowful old age
nor could breed another son to leave among his possessions.
There he [Diomedes] killed these two [sons of Phainops] and took away the dear life from them
both, leaving to their father lamentation and sorrowful
affliction, since he was not to welcome them home from the fighting
alive still; and remoter kinsmen shared his possessions.”

That’s right, The Iliad, more than 2000 years older than Tolkien, genuinely “old” instead of faux “old.”  What’s all this about fathers lamenting, being left desolate, and dead men having once been children cradled by loving mothers?  All the dead men listed above are insignificant characters, fighting for the Trojans, who lose the war (“the bad guys?”).  Yet Homer, two millennia before the phrase “bleeding heart” was coined, shows fathers, mothers, and immortals weeping over their loss, which is a damn sight more humane than the faceless treatment of the “opponents” in “LOTR.”


 


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