Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Saddam = Sauron?

At this stage of my life, I get to see so few movies that I am happy when I get to see a film once. I don’t usually worry about seeing anything a second time. An exception was in December 2001 when I got my chance to see The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, in glittering Las Vegas of all places. I couldn’t wait to see it a second time. I’m still waiting.

Although The Fellowship of the Ring seemed to hang around in cinemas for ages, events conspired to keep me from getting down to see it before it finally vanished to make room for the summer releases. In November I got the movie on DVD (an early birthday gift from the Missus), and so I began looking forward to at least seeing the film again in the comfort of my own home. I’m still waiting for that too. Somehow, it’s just hard to make time for a three-hour movie, especially when you’ve seen it before and there are so many other things that need to be done.

In the case of The Two Towers, on the other hand, I got my second viewing in less than a month. This was a total fluke. A couple of weeks ago I brought my brother-in-law Joseph to the nearest multiplex in County Mayo to see Gangs of New York, which had just opened, and something happened that had never happened to me before. I got turned away from a movie in Mayo. After seeing such movies as Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Die Another Day and Star Trek: Nemesis on the opening day, or even before the opening day, and having no trouble whatsoever getting a seat (I even sat in a near empty auditorium in County Kerry on the first day that Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones opened worldwide last May), I had gotten blasé about booking ahead or even arriving early for movies. But, apparently, the story about Irish immigrants fighting unwelcoming descendents of earlier immigrants in 19th-century New York City (or else Leonardo DiCaprio’s “dreamy” eyes) attracted Irish viewers in hordes. Our most time efficient second choice turned out to be The Two Towers, which Joseph hadn’t seen. It only seemed only humane to give the fellow the chance to see the best movie of 2002, and I personally welcomed a second viewing. I sat in attention as rapt as the first time, and the three hours passed just as quickly as the first time, if not more so.

It is a great movie—visually, aurally, and spiritually. Apparently, a lot of people agree with me. The numbers of people who bought tickets to this film, as well as The Fellowship of the Ring, not to mention the DVDs and videotapes, testify to the fact that this trilogy, even though only two-thirds released, has struck a chord with audiences everywhere. If this was a breakfast cereal, instead of a movie, its marketing slogan could well be: “It’s not just for geeks anymore!”

Are the numbers of people drawn to this movie merely a testament to a work of art that is hugely entertaining? Or is the film touching something deeper? Last week I alluded (in my usual tongue-in-cheek manner) to the fact that The Two Towers had been largely ignored by the Hollywood foreign press in its voting on the Golden Globes and that this might be due to the fact that the movie raised uncomfortable emotions, if not outright issues, in the context of today’s verge-of-war-against-Iraq anxiety. There is something very satisfying about seeing a world where good and evil are very clearly defined and recognizable. Where good people are attractive and evil people are ugly. Where the heroes don’t shirk from a fight and battle evil with undeniable courage. And there is something recognizable in characters like King Théoden, who has retreated into a premature old age and closed his eyes to the dangers menacing his land, and the exquisitely named Gríma Wormtongue, the poisonous adviser whispering bad advice into the king’s ear. Haven’t we all known a Wormtongue at sometime in our lives, whether it is at work, in school or in our own families?

There is a strangely timely quality in the confrontation between Gandalf and Théoden, who derides Gandalf as “storm crow” for uttering Cassandra-like warnings. The known world is in danger, and evil will triumph if men like Théoden do nothing. It’s as if the Bush administration had purchased a product placement for war. Interestingly, even critics who praise this movie for its artistry are quick to point out that it is pure fantasy and that trilogy author J.R.R. Tolkien himself always insisted that it was based entirely on old legends and was not some sort political manifesto or roman à clé for 20th century Europe, as some readers suspected.

And yet, the questions remain. Hasn’t this movie struck a chord with the masses? And should we be analyzing for some guidance (unintended or otherwise) about navigating our geopolitical situation today? Or not? I will attempt to tackle this one next time.

* * *

As thorough as I try to be, when I do my annual final fanfare for filmdom’s fallen for the previous year, I usually manage to leave someone out. I’m starting to think that I need to spend more than ten or fifteen minutes a year researching those columns. Anyway, please insert the following paragraph in the January 16 column, between Ward Kimball and Frederick Knott:

Hildegard Knef: Three’s the charm, at least where your American career was concerned. Your first attempt to follow the better known Marlene Dietrich to Hollywood was aborted by your refusal to change your name and pretend to be Austrian instead of German. So you stayed at home and shocked everyone with a famous nude scene in The Sinner. Your second foray resulted in a minor name change (from Knef to Neff) and a supporting role in The Snows of Kilimanjaro. The third time, you took the Greta Garbo role in Cole Porter’s Broadway musical adaptation of Ninotchka, Silk Stockings. So it’s ironic that you played the older version of a mysteriously reclusive Garbo-like actress in Billy Wilder’s underrated 1978 movie, Fedora.

-S.L., 30 January 2003

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