Be honest, how many of you were expecting to see a poster with Peter Jackson’s name glowing proudly above the title? His Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the greatest achievements in cinema, and are some of my favourite films. Nonetheless, I am often surprised by how few people know that there was another adaptation of Tolkien’s epic novels which was made over twenty years before production began on The Peter Jackson trilogy. Today, I thought I would show the first cinematic take on Middle-Earth a bit of love; because it dearly deserves it.
Director: Ralph Bakshi
Starring (Voices): Christopher Guard,William Squire, John Hurt and Anthony Daniels, etc.
This version of the legendary fantasy books is probably most famous for being released unfinished. Saul Zaentz had bought the film rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in 1976, off the back of winning an Oscar for Best Picture for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The Lord of the Rings was made with a rather modest $4m dollar budget (which equates to around $16m in today’s money), and this budget refused to be stretched; meaning that this film ends quite abruptly following the Battle of Helm’s Deep. Naturally this does make this film more enigmatic, for we will never know what Bakshi was planning to do with the final book in the series, even though a third (vastly inferior) film was made for television by a different set of animators a couple of years after this one.
Considering the team behind the film had to condense two pretty complicated novels into a 2 hour running time, this is an adaptation that is surprisingly faithful to the original source material. Tom Bombadil (not for the last time) is dropped, while it is Legolas who helps Stider and the Hobbits to reach Rivendell rather than Glorfindel (as in the books) or Arwen (in the PJ films). This does mean that the film flows quite quickly, and though it is probably quite suitable for a child; older viewers may want to be well-accustomed to the general storyline before sitting down to watch Lord of the Rings.
What really makes this film sizzle in my memory, however, is the genius of Ralph Bakshi in his directing. The Lord of the Rings marks one of the first uses of a technique none as rotoscoping in modern cinema. Rotoscoping is when a scene is shot in live action before then being traced over several times by animators, meaning that the subsequent animation looks realistic. This film is, by a lot of standards, quite creepy; and it is certainly even scarier and unnerving than the live action films from the beginning of the 2000s.
The first Ringwaith scene is genuinely spine-tingling, with the help of a versatile score by Leonard Rosenman; while the rotoscoping turns the Orcs into quite animalistic creatures who are more in shadow than not.
With red eyes and in some cases horns, these creatures are ape-like, and are probably even scarier than the frankly unkillable Uruk-hai as shown by Peter Jackson. The villains in this film certainly have the advantage, and the combat seems to be much heavier here than it was previously.
The good guys would normally appear to have their work cut out, but Bakshi makes them an interesting group of individuals. Boromir is practically a viking with a horned helmet, while Aragorn is painted as being almost Native American like. The Hobbits look so innocence you really do wonder why anyone would rely on them to save the world, while Gandalf is most similar to his live-action counterpart. The only disappointment is probably the depiction of Gimli, who doesn’t have much to do here; and is probably a bit dull to the tell the truth. The voicework helps across the board, apart from a grating Saruman who seems a lot more annoying and less powerful than Christopher Lee’s take on the character. Best among the voice acting is, as you’d probably expect, John Hurt – who gives Aragorn a voice that oozes menace to begin with, but then awesome bravery as the film goes on.
Upon its release, Lord of the Rings met with mixed responses, though it did receive a Hugo nomination and a Golden Globe nomination for best score. More promising was a $30million dollar box office take (around $120m today) which showed that Tolkien’s work could be commercially viable. The most notable legacy of the first Middle-Earth film is that it helped to inspire Peter Jackson to direct his take on the novels twenty years later. There are some clear shots that bridge the gap between the two (Weathertop and the Ringwaiths at the Prancing Pony being two great examples) while Jackson himself said that a shot of Odo Proudfoot shouting “Proudfeet” was a direct copy of the animated predecessor. Though this film might not be able to match the outstanding films that would come later, it is certainly one film that will last long in the memory – and it deserves to.
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Coming up next time: another highly rated, but mostly-forgotten action classic that combined the talents of one of Britain’s best actors with one of America’s best actors.