UNILAD Voices is a new series where our writers argue in favour of an opinion they’re truly passionate about. Let us know your thoughts in the comments.
So yesterday, some of you will have read why Francesca Donovan and countless other Lord of the Rings nerds thought the third and final instalment in the trilogy, The Return of the King, is the greatest trilogy instalment of them all.
I’m here to tell all those people who agreed, they’re wrong.
While Return of the King has the relentless catharsis required to finish off a trilogy of this magnitude – and f*ck me does it deliver – the simple fact of the matter is that it doesn’t encapsulate what Lord of the Rings is all about as well as The Two Towers.
Before getting into the nitty gritty details of why The Two Towers is the best of the three, it’s important to note that yes, Return of the King won the most Oscars. And yes, it’s rated the highest of the three on IMDb. But The Two Towers comes out on top on everybody’s favourite movie rating site Rotten Tomatoes – and we all know that’s a far more accurate reflection of how good a film is than anything else.
It’s also worth mentioning I’m not about to spend the next thousand words talking about Helm’s Deep. I don’t think there is a single Lord of the Rings fan who would try and argue that any battle scene is better than the one at the end of The Two Towers. Nothing comes close to the tense hour-long slaughter between the Rohirrim and those bearing the white hand of Saruman.
That’s all I feel I need to say about that. It’s been argued to death and isn’t the reason The Two Towers comes out on top for me.
So let me get into it…
The Lord of the Rings is about the journey. It’s not about the beginning. It’s not even about the end (we all knew they’d destroy the ring). It’s about the seemingly insignificant being significant. It’s about realising your place in the big wide world around you. It’s about ploughing on no matter how stacked the odds are against you. Most importantly, it’s about hope – and never giving up on it.
No film better reflects those themes than The Two Towers. Not a scene goes by where the characters aren’t learning their place in this tale. And it’s this relentless character building that makes The Two Towers the best film in the trilogy.
The Fellowship introduces everything, Return of the King gives you the emotional release, but it’s The Two Towers where you learn who all these characters really are.
From the opening scene where Frodo dreams about Gandalf falling at the Bridge of Khazad Dum to Merry and Pippin resolving not to just return home to the Shire but continue the fight against evil, not a single character doesn’t go on their own epic journey during this film. Not a single character doesn’t realise the magnitude of the task ahead of them. And not a single character gives up on hope, even when it seems like there’s no chance of any sort of victory.
Name me any character and it’s in this film where you see them become what they’ll go on to be during the rest of the saga.
Gandalf’s journey is an easy one to map. Gandalf the Grey, a casualty in victory over the Balrog of Morgoth, becomes Gandalf the White. His wink at Aragorn upon entry to the Golden Halls of Medusel at Edoras as he sneaks his wizard’s staff in is a seemingly insignificant moment, but shapes the rest of the quest. No staff, no drawing of Saruman from the cursed King Theoden, no defence of Rohan, no hope for Middle Earth.
You may have to wait until Return of the King for the line to be uttered, but hope was kindled at that very moment. Not when the fellowship left Rivindell. Not when Theoden decided to answer Gondor’s call for aid. Not when Aragorn took up the sword of Elendil and convinced the Army of the Dead to fulfil their oaths. It was when Gandalf snuck his staff into that hall. Seemingly insignificant, yet significant.
Gollum’s journey is complete by the end of The Two Towers. From murderous villain at the beginning, to forgiving servant in the middle and back to scheming killer by the end, Smeagol becomes the Gollum we expected by the conclusion of the middle chapter.
And interestingly his character arc perfectly reflects the theme of hope, and never giving up on it. As Frodo says to Sam during Smeagol’s short-lived redemption, “I have to know he can come back.”
The ring has taken Gollum and corrupted his soul. Sam sees this – “He’s nought but a villain.” Frodo needs the comfort of knowing you can return from the ring’s corruption.
Here, Frodo is looking for hope. Hope he can come back. Only, Gollum never comes back. By the end of the film he’s plotting Sam and Frodo’s death. It again shows the audience that you should never give up on hope. Just because one character couldn’t be saved from the ring’s corruption, it doesn’t mean another can’t, even though there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest Frodo could ‘come back’.
Frodo and Sam
Frodo and Sam begin the film lost. They’ve decided to go it alone to Mordor and they’re not just geographically lost but mentally. The ring is taking a hold of Frodo. Sam’s everlasting trust in Frodo is waning as he decides to bring Gollum with them on their quest. Their relationship is strained as they wander to the Black Gate before capture in Ithilien at the hands Faramir (who I’ll discuss next).
Their relationship by the time they reach Osgiliath is broken. All hope in the journey is lost as Frodo stands in front of the Nazgul, seemingly about to gift the One Ring to the forces of evil. And it’s in that moment Sam realises the size of the task ahead as he wrestles Frodo to the ground.
And then one of the most inspirational speeches in movie history perfectly maps the journey Frodo and Sam have been on during The Two Towers and will continue on during Return of the King. They become what they’ll go on to be in this very moment:
Funnily enough, it’s as Faramir watches Sam and Frodo lay bare their emotions in the ruins of Osgiliath that he becomes the duty-bound Captain of Gondor his brother Boromir became just too late to save his life. (FYI, I love Boromir and he redeemed himself before his death – a flawed hero, not a villain).
Faramir appears every bit the greedy leader of men his brother became in the woods of Amon Hen. He even describes taking the ring from Frodo as a chance to ‘show his quality’. The world of men is falling all around him as his scouts report back to him from lost battles all over the realm of Gondor. His chance to show his father his worth and bring hope to men with the Ring of Power in the hands of the Steward of Gondor? A chance he couldn’t possibly give up.
But he does. Because he learns that his duty isn’t to his father but to Middle Earth. And despite all hope being lost, the only chance is to allow two insignificant Hobbits who’ve learned their place in the tale before his very eyes, go free. His life forfeit, his place in the big wide world secure.
Merry and Pippin
They start the second film captive. They start this film viewed as Hobbits have been perceived throughout the journey so far – baggage, helpless, defenceless, stupid. Even the orcs can see ‘they don’t need their legs’. Why would they? They’re useless.
But they’re not as they’d go on to prove.
They escape captivity. They run cluelessly into Fangorn Forest. Little did they know this small act of self-preservation would actually completely shape their role in this story and who they’d go on to be.
After meeting Gandalf the White and witnessing the lengthy monotony of the Entmoot, the penny drops for Merry. From ‘We shouldn’t have left the Shire, Pip’, to ‘You’re part of this world aren’t you!?’, Merry’s journey to the brave Hobbit he displays himself to be in Return of the King is complete.
And as for Pippin, well, he wants to return to the Shire. But after Merry’s stirring speech to the Entmoot, he realises his own place in the tale. He uses his cunning, which you see him display in Return of the King upon lighting the beacons of Amon Din, in telling Treebeard to take them to the border of the forest closest to Isengard. An insignificant request that’d have extremely significant consequences for Middle Earth.
Aragorn (Plus Legolas and Gimli)
As much as I love Legolas and Gimli, their roles in the trilogy are very much to support the ranger Strider in becoming who we all know him to be: Aragorn, son of Arathorn, Isildur’s heir and heir to the throne of Gondor. He is the Return of the King.
Only, that’s not possible without The Two Towers. It’s in this film Aragorn becomes who he is meant to be. While it’d be easy to argue he truly became King when he took up Anduril and got the Army of the Dead to fulfil their oaths, his transition from outlaw to the man and king Gondor has waited for is set in motion by the end of The Two Towers.
His first scene in the film is with his ear to the ground, tracking the Uruk Hai across Rohan. Next he works out Merry and Pippin’s escape from the slaughter on the border of Fangorn Forest. He’s a ranger. He may be Aragorn in name at this point but he’s still Strider in his actions.
After meeting Gandalf the White and riding to Edoras, we see Aragorn become the king he was always meant to be. He learns from Theoden. Though he disagrees with his tactics and pleads with Theoden to get help, the King of Rohan’s stubbornness in the face of certain death teaches Aragorn valuable lessons he takes with him into Return of the King.
And it’s during the battle of Helm’s Deep we see Aragorn become not only a commander of men and elves but a true leader. “Ride out with me,” he says to Theoden, as all hope is lost. It’s the final act of a true leader. He’s now not advising King Theoden, he’s leading King Theoden.
Aragorn’s journey in The Two Towers makes him the rightful heir we see in the all-action final instalment of the trilogy.
The Fellowship and the Return of the King are great movies in their own right. But it’s The Two Towers where you see the themes of the trilogy as a whole come to fruition. The character development, as illustrated above against the themes, is phenomenal. And that’s what Lord of the Rings is all about – the journey, the growth, the never giving up.
All of that is in The Two Towers – more so than in either of the other movies. All that and I haven’t even gone into Helm’s Deep. And that’s why it’s the best movie in the trilogy. Sue me.