The Two Towers has been my favorite movie for a long time, but I didn’t know why until I woke up in the middle of the night, just now. There was a vague impression that it was due to the beautiful feeling that accompanies the rise of the sun as Gandalf and the Rohirrim charge the Uruk Hai, near the very end. But can I justify this to myself? It’s just a single moment. I mean, Fellowship of the Ring was arguably a better made and more enjoyable movie, all around, whereas it’s much easier to find flaws in The Two Towers. There’s no moment where Legolas shoots an elephant dead and then surfs its trunk like Disney’s Tarzan, but still there’s plenty of unintentional silliness.
For a long time I thought it was because I’m emotionally stunted, and the depressive tone and dark atmosphere of The Two Towers just made an impression on me at a tender age. But I’ve since realized that unlike the other two Lord of the Rings movies, the entire second movie works as a coherent whole to convey a singular idea-as-sense-impression, and with great force. Like any good climax, the movie is only able to hit you in the eye at the end because the groundwork had been laid for the previous 165 minutes.
The point of the movie is heroic struggle against despair.
Every small plotline rehashes this point in the small, against a backdrop of helplessness and hopelessness. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli choose to chase after Merri and Pippin, running full-speed for days without sleep, even though success would require a miracle. Eomer and Eowyn remain true to their king and country even when it stops making any sense. Frodo takes pity on Gollum even though the perfectly justified and rational thing would have been to cut his throat and be done with.
Movies have a lot of sensory tools for expressing a message, and The Two Towers makes wide use of them. Until the end, the music is either anxious or subdued and weary. The actors aren’t seen smiling, kissing, eating, or sleeping restfully. Their makeup makes them look tired. The set pieces are dark and foreboding. Every small success is only a brief respite, after which the characters immediately set to work on the next impossible problem. The atmosphere is generally oppressive- even when the camera pans over New Zealand’s haunting splendor in full sunlight, it somehow feels like it could pass into shadow at any moment. By rights, the movie should be exhausting.
Helm’s Deep is the culmination of the smaller storylines that don’t involve the hobbits (which is to say, the ones that aren’t boring). It is also the time of the movie where despair makes the most sense for the characters. The entire race of the Rohirrim is on the verge of extinction. Every action is a fighting retreat. There is no way out. Gandalf had insisted the tide was about to turn, yet only a fool would hold out hope. I absolutely love the moment where it starts raining and no one even bothers to say “oh great, as if it wasn’t bad enough”. Captures the spirit of despair perfectly.
After the king gives up, and Aragorn convinces him to at least die with some dignity in a vainglorious and suicidal rearguard action, Gandalf shows up with the cavalry. This is the first clearly good thing that has happened in the entire movie, after 165 minutes of small pyrrhic victories. It is the first sign of real hope.
That moment is perfectly iconic. The color palette is just so. See what I mean about all the parts fitting together?
Afterward, the dam breaks and the good guys suddenly start kicking some ass. This is helpfully illustrated by the ents breaking a literal dam. Sunlight transforms the battlefield. The music goes nuts. A short essay can’t possibly capture the impact of three hours’ sense impressions of fear, dread, and darkness, with just tiny glimpses of light, when suddenly dawn breaks.
Fortunately, the internet can be of some assistance:
Gets me every time.