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Past Article

The Next Reel
By Nina Rehfeld
December 18, 2002 - 3:00 AM PST

Gimli vs Wormtongue and Théoden

All stories can be read as parables. You could grab at random any story typed out by William S. Burroughs at his most buzzed out, rip any page from a printer hooked to a computer choking on the wreckage at the intersection of Google and Joseph Campbell or turn to the proverbial room full of monkeys hunched over a room full of typewriters and wrench some sort of meaning out of whatever they've come up with. You probably wouldn't even have to wrench all that hard. It's in our nature to try to make sense out of things. Specifically, narrative sense. Whether or not any sense at all was intended in the first place, we reach for the patterns we know -- beginning, middle, end; cause and effect -- and see if we can't make them match up with the puzzle before us.

The more immediately sensible the story, and what's more, the more emotionally engaging, the stronger that impulse will be. If we get caught up, we'll want to know the reason why. And we like getting caught up. The books and movies that sell best are still the ones that adhere closest to the most traditional narrative structures. We allow ourselves a little more leeway, a little more whimsy when it comes to looking at paintings or listening to the radio. But when the lights go down, we want, at most, fresh variations on formulas we already know very, very well. In the world of poetry, The Waste Land was news for its between-the-wars desolation, but it was read, and is still read for the familiar rhymes and rhythms TS Eliot barely hid in those verses, for the ancient cadences and ultimately conservative worldview lurking behind its supposedly radical break with all that had gone before.

Indy 4?

John Rhys-Davies as Sallah in Raiders of the Lost Ark

I don't think it will happen. Every few years we hear something about it. I've had these conversations with Spielberg and Harrison and so on. In truth, it depends on three men. George Lucas, Steven Spieberg, Harrison Ford. They've got to agree for it to go ahead.

These guys don't do it for the money anymore. They do it for that extra bit of fame in the history books. So the fourth film has got to be better than anything that came along before. Getting a script that's better than those is hard. Getting something as revolutionary as Raiders of the Lost Ark is very hard. Added to which: The Spielberg who did Raiders of the Lost Ark is now the Spielberg who's handled any number of graver themes. He's not the same man. To get him interested in something as slight, as light and as funny as Raiders of the Lost Ark is, I think, a lot harder. So my bet is that, yes, probably one day there will be a number four, but I think it will be possibly with a different director, possibly with a different Indiana, and most probably, if you go with a different Indiana, you might as well start with a clean slate again, try to keep the franchise going. And Sallah would be too old by then anyway.

Eliot, by the way, isn't an accidental tangent in an intro to interviews regarding The Two Towers. It's not just that this or that verse might come to mind while watching Peter Jackson's cinematic rendering of the tale -- The wind / Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed. -- but also the overlapping concerns of Eliot and JRR Tolkien, both English (Tolkien by birth, Eliot by choice), both shaken by a war the likes of which the world had never seen before, both convinced that that war signaled the beginning of a long wane of something they desperately hated to see go.

But there is one big fat obvious difference. Both were academics, but Eliot remained read primarily by other academics while Tolkien became one of the most widely read authors in the English language. In a marvelous piece for Wired a little over a year ago, Erik Davis tried to explain why that happened, why reading The Lord of the Rings has become an almost universal rite of passage:

One thing most critics don't understand is that LOTR is more than a story. It's a portal into Tolkien's Middle-earth, the most realized imaginary realm in the history of the fantastic. For millions of contemporary readers, Middle-earth serves the function that Eden once did for the common man, or that Dante's Inferno did for the literate elite: It has become a collective map of a moral universe, a fabulous landscape that, in its depth and detail, floats just beyond the fields we know. ... Like today's VR and game designers, Tolkien knew that successful Secondary Worlds were not wild flights of fancy, but products of consistent detail and clever technique -- what he described as an "elvish craft" capable of suspending the disbelief of "both designer and spectator."

This is where our natural impulse kicks in. We want to think through, nail down and understand not only this story Tolkien's told but also its astounding, persistent popularity. If this is a "moral universe" we're dealing with here, one that so many millions have bought into, what does the moral code running it look like? Don't even try to count the attempted answers to that one. Just in the past few weeks, for example, David Brin has argued that that code would be extremely Romantic with a big R, backward-looking and anti-tech (shades of Eliot again, despite all his Modernity with a big M). Or there's Stephen Shapiro asserting that LOTR is "an epic rooted in racism":

One can read the book as a kind of ideal of Great Britain. ... We have a pure village ideal which is being threatened by new technologies and groups coming in. I think the film has picked up on this by color-coding the characters in very stark ways. For instance, the fellowship is portrayed as über-Aryan, very white and there is the notion that they are a vanishing group under the advent of the other, evil ethnic groups. The Orcs are a black mass... For today's film fans, this older racial anxiety fuses with a current fear and hatred of Islam that supports a crusading war in the Middle East.

Hm. To think that others have seen the fellowship as anything but "über-Aryan" and rather an admirable example of a thoroughly mixed bag of races pulling together to get a job done. If anything, examples like these show how varied readings of a single text can be. That'd be kind of a fun thought if it meant that we all let a thousand readings bloom and that was that. But some readings are, well, more equal than others. Think back to the 80s when Ronald Reagan's mad, absolutely mad missile defense system became known as the "Star Wars" program. The implication was clear: If America could make such a smashingly successful and innovative movie, it could also throw nuclear weapons up into space and the ending would be just as spectacular and happy.

When The Fellowship of the Ring was due in theaters just two months after 9/11, many wondered if America was ready to flee the reality it'd just been jolted awake to and, as it turned out, America and much of the rest of the world was. We moviegoers embraced the first installment of the trilogy to the tune of nearly a billion dollars. At about the same time the following year, prior to the release of The Two Towers, many of the same voices were predicting that this hellish chapter, shot through with doom, gloom and, most of all, war, would jibe very well indeed with audiences mentally bracing themselves for the second chapter of the Gulf War.

But can this war movie be laid seamlessly over the pattern of our own impending war? John Rhys-Davies, who plays Gimli the Dwarf and voices Treebeard, definitely thinks so. Frankly, as the editor around here at GreenCine, I have to say it's almost physically painful to run his reading. Naturally, we don't have to. But on second, third and fourth thought, a little stoking of the fires, a little reminder of the mentality that has given us such enthrallingly simplistic readings of the world and how it works as the phrase "axis of evil" may not be a bad thing. After all, we do have discussion forums where GCers can vent one way or the other. And besides, we're lacing Rhys-Davies's comments with those of Brad Dourif and Bernard Hill, who play, respectively, Gríma Wormtongue and Théoden, King of Rohan, and who quite clearly see Rhys-Davies's clear-cut world through eyes a bit more sensitive to the manifold layers of gray between utter black and utter white.

Rhys-Davies's conflation of the Palestinian cause and al-Qaeda's goals, just days after Arafat again went out of his way to denounce Osama bin Laden, is particularly spurious and, rhetorically, falls into the same category as his harumphing that no westerners have as yet blown themselves up inside a mosque. Perhaps that's because the west has whole air forces that can anonymously launch smart bombs from on high and then broadcast the abstract, corpseless victory blast on CNN. It should be obvious that these are means simply unavailable to the oppressed, but Rhys-Davies reminds us that you can never restate the obvious too often. [dwhudson]

John Rhys-Davies: Tolkien very vigorously resisted the notion that you should try to apply a simple translation to this thing. When people said it was a parable about the rise of Hitler, he was very dismissive and said, Absolutely not. It's certainly got nothing to do with that.

But one of the things I think it is about is that at certain times in history, your very civilization is challenged. And if you do not respond with courage and make the right decisions, you may lose your civilization. You see, his life is wonderfully uneventful. He's just a brilliant, successful teacher, loved by his students, published. He's at Oxford. He has friends who love and adore him. The dark part of his life is earlier on. He is a captain in the British army in the first battle of the Somme in World War I. In the first day of the first battle of the Somme, the British army lost 20,000 men. Killed. Multiply that by, what, four or five for wounded. The German army had actually suffered the same sort of losses.

Brad Dourif as Wormtongue and Bernard Hill as Théoden

Brad Dourif: One of the things that Tolkien does in this thing: he makes evil very personal. I think the big spiritual journey of every human being is to face what they're afraid of. You either resolve it or you're doomed to experience it as fate, as Carl Jung once said.

At one point in the movie, you use the word "war-mongering."

Brad Dourif: Yes.

To me, it kind of crossed the "T" in terms of the comparison I was drawing in my mind between the king and George Bush, how on certain days, he seems to be drawn in one direction, and then on others, in another.

Bernard Hill: That's a spread. But as much as Osama bin Laden represents evil to a certain segment of society, and so does Saddam Hussein, to another area of society, George Bush represents evil. How you see evil is a question of perspective. It's like how you see the blame in the break-up of a marriage. It's a question of your perspective. We all have these elements within us. The thing we have to recognize, I think, is that we can't have the good without the evil. It's a function of human nature. It's a function of our development. We develop both within us at the same time.

After the Second World War, we thought that we'd rid the world of evil. We haven't. Other evils were hiding in other places. And now it's come out in a big, big way.

Brad Dourif: There's a difference, too, between political evil which came in at about -- there's a book by Elaine Pagels on this -- when it started being A.D. Around that time, that turn. And there's this whole political idea that somehow a human being is actually possessed and is a part of the devil. When you're killing a person under these conditions, you're not killing a human being. You're killing the devil. That's the kind of talk about evil that we're seeing today. In our country, we have super-ultra-right-wing religious groups and they're very dangerous. They're very good at dehumanizing people, at making people appear as though they're not really people at all.

But this is not Tolkien. This is not this book. Sauron is evil. I mean, he really is -- he doesn't even have a body! He's got one eye sitting up on top of the thing there peering around everywhere and he's just a power that kind of comes in, a whisper, that weak part of ourselves.

So there are things when we talk about evil that are pure language. It isn't real. Look, I think Osama bin Laden is an insane guy. And I think he did a terrible thing, but I don't think it's evil. What I mean is: I don't think the devil came up inside of Osama bin Laden and if we shoot Osama bin Laden, we are shooting the devil. I don't believe that at all.

Do you think, though, that this film has taken on a whole, strange new relevance? There's also this nostalgia about the good king, the good patriarch, doing the right thing for the people. Is that not seen in politics anymore?

Brad Dourif: What about Kennedy? That idea is never going to leave any culture ever. We all want the Good King to come. Our father, the man we look up to that makes us feel part of something really good and noble.

But it does seem that there's no one in sight currently to fill that role.

Brad Dourif: And isn't that strange. I think that that's one of the things that's really very different about the time that we live in now. There seems to be a need to take anything that might look heroic and find some niggly thing and take pictures of it and write about it and utterly destroy it. I mean, I really don't want to know who the President of the United States is sleeping with. I'm sorry. I have no interest in seeing that at all. And I really feel angry -- still -- as an American about having that in my face. I just didn't like it. I don't care who he slept with.

Bernard Hill: He didn't actually sleep with Monica Lewinsky.

Brad Dourif: I don't care. I actually know graphically what he did to her and I really don't care.

But is it tougher to play a good guy or a bad guy?

Brad Dourif: I think that Bernard's effort in taking a character that is, frankly, a little flatter than Wormtongue, and infusing it with so much humanity was really necessary because it made the Rohan important. There is this mythological idea of a king. How do you play King Arthur? I don't know the King Arthur in me. I don't know how to do that. The problem with playing a king and making him human is probably much more difficult than playing someone with all his weaknesses out on his sleeve for everyone to see. I don't mean to take anything away from myself because I really worked hard on it, you know? I'm very proud of what I did. But I really admire what Bernard did with that.

Bernard Hill: When we got the screenplay, we were all asked to work with the writers, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. We got this very condensed, very strict adaptation of the book. With all the trimmings taken away, the whimsy taken away and the tangents and the overwriting taken away. They'd narrowed it down, and it was out of that we plucked the sections, the dehydrated ideas that we kind of rehydrated with our own impressions of where we wanted it to go. That, then, turned into the script eventually, through lots of different processes. So we'd get the pages with those particular impressions and then we'd send them back with more notes and they'd come back and so on and so on. When that all settled down, it'd get passed to Pete and he'd give it a tick and then that was what we used, then, the next day.

In that process, we talked about character, all of us, about where the character should go and about where the whole theme involved with our character should go. One of the things I was very careful to point out was that I don't believe that kings are just kings. They're human beings as well. They have a role to play in their position as both. Some do and some don't. I think our royal family struggles with it through their sort of English processes. They struggle with their human side, their ability to be fathers and mothers. It's a struggle because of the system that surrounds them. They do the royal thing really, really well. Which is why we're finding it very hard to get rid of them.

Brad Dourif: Not that he has an opinion on the subject.

Bernard Hill: [laughs] I'm talking about "we" as a nation, of course, because I'm still looking for a knighthood like everybody else.

You don't go through that crucible without having to ask certain questions. You ask yourself: What matters and what doesn't. Tolkien is quite sure of the existence of good and evil. He's pretty darn certain that we can choose to enslave ourselves if we're not careful. Don't forget: The Orcs were once Elves. They have deteriorated. They have become distorted because they have succumbed to evil. And in a way, the Elves represent the spiritual qualities.

So I actually think there is a peculiar resonance that Tolkien has for our time. I think that, in some ways, our very civilization is being challenged. I believe that the crisis that we have at the moment is far more profound than we are prepared to admit. And it seems to me, to be ruthlessly honest with you, your colleagues, the political analysts, are doing us no service at the moment. Because there is an oversimplification that's going on that is basically anti-American and basically does not have a real understanding of the crisis we're in.

My nightmare is this: What happened to those Buddhas in Afghanistan? If we do not get this right, someone will be taking, in 70 years time, a hammer to the Pieta. The David. And they will be looting, they will be burning all the representational art in the Louvre, everywhere. We could lose western civilization if we get this wrong. That is how serious I think this crisis is. We must find a way of containing fundamentalism. We must hope that Islam finds a new imam with the authority to modernize Islam. That's the hardest and most difficult thing of all.

All the norms of fighting wars are being thrown away by a very small group of people. In the end, you can overcome that sort of terror but the challenge for us will be meeting it without losing our values.

I believe in western civilization. I am for dead white male culture. I do believe that we are the heirs of Athens. We have an infinite amount to learn from eastern civilization. But the pursuit of happiness, the sense of individual freedom, the right to free intellectual inquiry, these are all the benefits that derive particularly from western civilization. I would hate to lose that. It is a disaster to the world if we do lose it.

That is, I think, the challenge. If you read what the head of Hamas said -- "There is nothing that you can give us that we want. We want to eliminate you." -- this is a level of intractability that we liberals cannot understand. We always believe, "You have an argument with me? It must be something that I've done wrong, so let's sit down and discuss it. We'll try and put it right. If you've got a reasonable claim to make, we can put it right." What if you're dealing with people who are saying, "It's nothing you're doing. It's just that everything you're doing is wrong."

There is an argument on the other side that their war has been fought to save their civilization. To save us from destroying their civilization.

There may indeed be an enormous impact of the west on Arab civilization. But I do not see, for instance, fanatics wrapping bombs around their chests and hurrying into mosques to blow them up. There's not a day that goes by that a synagogue or a church somewhere in the world is not attacked. Not a week that goes by. We accommodate and we equivocate, and rightly so, in a way, because we want to be reasonable. Because we believe that there is enough room for us all to live with wholly different views and wholly different opinions. But ultimately, our civilization is challenged. Think about the Buddhas. Think of what we could lose.

I don't see the west destroying frontally anything Islamic. Anything at all. The Americans have great dealings in Saudi Arabia and they run their country in what way they want to. Now, if you want to get all the Americans out of Saudi Arabia, that's fine by me. That's negotiable. If the House of Saud really wanted that, that's what would happen. But there's an intractability on one part.

People are always going on about George Bush and this damn Iraqi war. This is my fear: It isn't so much about nuclear weapons, though there is some evidence to suggest that in five or six years time, he will have maybe 60 sort of small atomic weapons.

Is it possible that you could find people to infect themselves [for a biological attack]? There's no difference between a man prepared to wrap explosives around his chest and man who would infect himself with something like this. So let's say you take that nasty version of the small pox virus that the Russians had and that we think was taken to Iraq sometime in the early or late 80s. Let's say that that's been played up so that it's more virulent. Let's say that you get 20 or 30 people, which you could manage -- if you could get 20 people to fly airplanes into the towers, 20 or 30 seems a reasonable sum. They agree to infect themselves and go to a number of cities in the United States. What is the time threshold between the outbreak and the point at which you can no longer contain it? How many resources do you have to have? At what point do you simply overwhelm your interior self-defense? What do you do, then, if it really does break out? You can't contain the outbreak in San Francisco. Because literally so many people are infected and so many people are fleeing that you can no longer contain it.

That's what's giving people in the Pentagon and in the White House restless nights. Because you may end up having to use nuclear weapons on your own cities to contain it. And you see, the wonderful thing is, in terms of quarantine, the western nations would do the quarantining for you. As soon as there's an outbreak of something like that in the United States, no planes will come into Europe. No planes will come into Africa from the United States. The west will do the quarantining for you.

And if you could take the Americans out of the equation, if you could take the Great Satan out of the equation, then it might be possible, and in fact, it should be possible to break up the rest of the western alliance. It's fanciful, it's ambitious, but then, if it is your intention to kill or convert the infidel, then dammit, it's doable. If you're smart enough and ruthless enough.

next >>>

Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens
"The film is beginning to take on an identity of its own."
Christopher Lee
The Merry and Pippin Show
Gimli vs Wormtongue and Théoden
Frodo and Sam

back to past articles


Nina Rehfeld
A freelance journalist based in Berlin, Nina Rehfeld's reviews, interviews and articles have been published in several major German papers and magazines. For more info, see the Kulturbotschaft.

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