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It’s been 17 years since The Fellowship Of The Ring was released into the world, in what would become the first of three of the most accomplished pieces of blockbuster filmmaking in history.
Before I begin my love letter to Fellowship, let me preface this by saying in no way am I disparaging The Two Towers or The Return Of The King, which round off this near-perfect trilogy.
Together they make a whole, complete and satisfying piece of fantasy filmmaking unrivalled in their scale or ambition either before or since. But of the three, there must be one. One film to rule them all.
When Fellowship was released, few people could see the immense impact the film would have on cinema, and looking back, it’s easy to see the influence of the film. Good fantasy films were like gold-dust, and Fellowship’s success breathed life into a genre which long lamented proper attention.
But what is it about the film which makes it superior to the other two? Let’s start with a little hole in the ground, just as Tolkien himself would have wished. For it is here where we find our soul of the trilogy.
You can keep your fancy battles, you can bathe in your spectacle in the subsequent films, but no place in Middle-earth will feel quite like The Shire.
Watching Gandalf roll on into Hobbiton is the part of the trilogy which brings a smile to anybody’s face; it feels like you’re returning home to Bag End yourself. Bilbo’s one-hundred-and-eleventy-first birthday looks like the kind of knees up you can only dream of.
This first act of the film, while feeling like a warm embrace of a very old friend, also serves to offer us the most accurate rendition of Tolkien’s work to date.
Far removed from the ever-detached adaptations to come, Peter Jackson used extreme deftness of touch in weaving the whimsy and wit of Hobbit life, with the pathos and melancholy of Gandalf’s realisation of just what was in Bilbo’s pocket.
In fact, Peter Jackson fares better in all of this film than he does in the two to follow, resisting the urge to rely too heavily on CGI, and maintaining the root of the characters as the basis for the drama unfolding around them.
Yes, The Two Towers has Helm’s Deep, and Return Of The King has the final battle outside The Black Gate, but what is missing from those two films is the sense of intimacy with the characters. We are watching things happen to them, rather than experience these things along with the Fellowship.
Fellowship, however, takes its time to breathe, allowing the audience to watch Merry, Pippin and Boromir play fight. It allows you to pontificate with Gandalf as he deliberates on which direction to take in Moria. It even allows you to ponder the merits of second breakfast.
It’s easy to understate the importance of these moments, of which there are many. But it’s precisely these sparks of quaintness which ground the whole film into Tolkien’s universe. When this is combined with the sweeping wide shots as the Fellowship trundle across vast landscapes, you get a sense of place and character unmatched in the other two, or in any fantasy in the years since.
Personally, I also happen to think Fellowship also boasts one of the best battle sequences of the entire trilogy – certainly better than anything in Return of the King – the battle in Moria.
Gandalf knew not to follow the path bellow the mountains, and he was absolutely right not to. The onslaught of goblins and orcs in Balin’s tomb – not to mention that massive fucking cave troll – was undoubtedly one of the smaller fights the Fellowship endured in terms of sheer number.
But that battle had claustrophobia, and tension unlike any we witnessed since. It also had stakes for our heroes, something conspicuously missing from most battles henceforth. Sure the fate of Middle-earth hung in the balance, but did we ever think Aragorn, Legolas and Gilmi wouldn’t save Merry and Pippin? Did we ever really believe Frodo or Sam to be in danger of Shelob?
No, because it’s almost impossible to do that once Gandalf returned and the hands of fate became more prominent.
There were no such issues in the Fellowship, and when Gandalf fell along with Durin’s Bane – also the best villain of the trilogy – adults and children around the world were in shock. Surely they didn’t kill the most powerful character? How could they do that?
Things didn’t exactly let up for the Fellowship at that point either, and Boromir’s eventual defeat remains one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in modern cinema history.
The emotional weight of their actions never hangs so heavy in the trilogy than it does at this moment, and the little musical cues from Howard Shore’s score ingeniously bring our memories back to The Shire.
Just as Frodo is trying to row away, and Sam is drowning trying to follow him, we are reminded of why they are on the journey in the first place – their love of The Shire. It is home which drives them forward, and the kinship they have found in each other.
Sure, Return of the King may have raked in the most money at the box office, but equating popularity and quality is a dangerous game and we all know where that leads. Four more Avatar sequels is where it leads. The merits of the films lie within their running times, and Fellowship is objectively the most complete film within those running times.
In the words of Tolkien himself:
All that is gold does not glitter.
Fellowship may not glitter with the scale of Towers Or Return, but unlike them it contains the heart of Tolkien, and that is why it is the greatest Lord of the Rings film.