Friday, January 30, 2009

Biased Opinion - Nitpicking Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings

I first saw all three Lord of the Rings movies in their theatrical release. Every year, for three years, the Christmas gift I looked forward to was the Special Extended Edition DVD of each movie. Before I go any further, I must emphasize that I like the Peter Jackson movies. They are better than anything a fan could have hoped to expect, and certainly leaps and bounds better than the Bakshi or Rankin Bass animated movies.

Even so, when recently rewatching them after not having seen them for about a year, I became convinced that, as good as they are, the movies should have been much better. Elements that I mentally glossed over in my mind jumped to the forefront when seen again. This, and the following posts, are the result of the observations I made while watching the extended editions of the movies, and listening to the various commentary tracks on them (for the record, there are four commentary tracks on each movie).

Note: All of my comments relate to the Special Extended Edition DVD versions of the movies The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King.

My first nitpick applies to all three films, although it isn't so much a Lord of the Rings nitpick as it is a general complaint about movie making. I am referring to the phenomenon I think can be best described as Hollywood Armor - specifically, the fact that on screen, armor provides absolutely no protection against anything at all. In all of the Lord of the Rings movies this is true as well - armor is little more than decorative clothing that doubles as a uniform.

This lack of protection manifests itself in many ways in the film - armored arms are cut off with ease, arrows pierce every armored chest (I believe that every arrow fired in the movies kills someone, no matter how much protection they are wearing). There is only one scene I can remember in the trilogy in which armor actually protects someone, and I suspect that is because the scene is drawn directly from the original books - when Frodo is stabbed by the cave troll in Moria and is saved by his mithril shirt. But I think that three scenes illustrate just how useless armor is in the Lord of the Rings:

1. The first is quite short, part of a much larger battle sequence in fact. In The Return of the King, after the forces of Mordor have battered down the gates of Minas Tirith and are flooding into the city, a wild melee takes place as poorly armored orcs take on the city's soldiers who are clad in what appears to be plate armor. I say "what appears" because it seems to be made of tinfoil. Orcs armed with wooden clubs batter the defenders into submission. In the silliest part of the fight, an orc grabs a guardsman and bites him on the shoulder. His plate armored shoulder. From the resulting pained expression on the soldier's face, apparently orcs can bite through steel.

2. In the climatic battle scene in The Fellowship of the Ring, Aragorn manhandles a helmed Uruk, bashing his head against a stone pillar. Or rather, bashing his helmet against a pillar. Apparently, Uruk helmets provide no protection against blows to the head, as the Uruk immediately collapses, apparently knocked out.

3. And in the silliest scene: When Eomer is banished by Wormtongue in The Two Towers, some of Wormtongue's henchmen grab the hero and rough him up, by punching him in his mail armored midsection. This is just ridiculous - punching an armored person in the stomach won't hurt them in the slightest, and will just injure your hand. So, in the scene, does Eomer smirk as the henchmen howl in pain from their broken fingers? No, he doubles over, since his armor provides no protection at all, even against unarmed attackers. The real stupidity of this scene derives from the fact that it could have been easily changed to make sense: the hoodlums could have hit Eomer in his unarmored face, or menaced him with knives or swords. But no. We have a typical, boring, and ultimately stupid roughing up sequence reminiscent of a B grade mafia movie.

The lack of usefulness of armor in the movies extends to shields as well. For example, the Uruk-Hai and other orcs often carry shields. But they don't seem to actually use them as protective devices - Uruk shields are used as weapons or snowboards more often than they are used as protection. The Rohirrim seem to have figured the uselessness of shields out though, since they carry them to the Battle of Pelennor Fields, but leave them hanging off their saddles. (One wonders why they bothered to weight their horses down with heavy equipment they obviously considered useless). Often, you see characters carrying shields in a fencing stance, with their shield behind their bodies, so they can have a range of motion to parry with their sword. Note to Hollywood fight coordinators: When a character carries a shield, he should use that to block incoming attacks, not his sword.

Once again, shields prove useful (in a limited sense) exactly once, and for the same reason armor proved useful once - when Eowyn confronts the Witch-King, she grabs a shield and it protects her from one blow of the Nazgul's giant flail. I strongly suspect that if Tolkien had not explicitly written the shield smashing element into that battle, Eowyn would not have bothered with this sort of protection.

The Lord of the Rings movies aren't the only offenders in this area - the full plate armor worn by the knights in Excalibur proves to be surprisingly ineffective. The Normans in the Robin of Sherwood BBC series universally wear mail armor and carry shields, both of which prove to be entirely useless when it comes to actually protecting them.

This is a Hollywood trope that needs to die, and die soon. Quit putting characters in armor and then treating it like they were wearing sweaters or sheets of aluminum foil. If someone carries a shield, they should treat it as more than a cumbersome bashing tool. These sorts of silly fight conventions just make movies look stupid, and pull the viewer out of the action with their ridiculousness. Just stop it. Stop it now.

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