‘You Shall Not Pass’ Is Still One Of The Greatest Movie Scenes Of All Time
At 82 years old, Sir Ian McKellen’s timeless screen legacy was forged in four words: you shall not pass.
In the realm of fantasy and sci-fi, an actor’s association with a popular character carries a daunting permanence. Daniel Radcliffe will always be Harry Potter, Robert Downey Jr. is Iron Man, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is oft-celebrated, and despite its cultural fall from grace, Emilia Clarke will be seen as Daenerys for years, if not decades to come.
Lord of the Rings is perhaps the greatest example: with a wealth of unreal performances, Christopher Lee’s Saruman is indelible; Elijah Wood and Sean Astin forever hold our hearts as Frodo and Sam; I still open double doors like Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn; and McKellen’s Gandalf the Grey still carries the weight of one of cinema’s most breathtaking moments.
After the titular Fellowship of the Ring are forced inside the Mines of Moria, they’re soon pursued by the fiery Balrog. As they cross the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, with Frodo, Sam, Aragorn and others safe on the other side, one wizard stands in the darkness between Durin’s Bane and Middle-earth.
‘You cannot pass,’ Gandalf warns. ‘I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn.’
As the Balrog swings his flaming sword into Gandalf’s, his might is no match for the wizard’s light. Frodo looks on, fearful, while Aragorn’s eyes foretell an inevitable fate.
‘Go back to the shadow,’ Gandalf says, facing off against a crack of the Balrog’s wrathful whip, before proclaiming, ‘You shall not pass!’ A slam of the staff, a bridge crumbled, a snorting beast flung to the depths of darkness, only to pull the wizard down with him. ‘Fly, you fools.’
I’ve just spent the past 20 minutes rewatching this scene. Jackson has no shortage of wonder in his trilogy, from the quiet sanctuary of Hobbiton, to the tactical heft of the Battle of Helm’s Deep, to Sam’s ultimate brotherhood on Mount Doom. Gandalf’s stand-off against the Balrog is the one scene to rule them all.
In bringing a book to life, a filmmaker must battle the limitations of the medium versus the boundless imagination of readers – but here, the leap from J.R.R. Tolkien’s page to Jackson’s screen isn’t conditional. It’s epic, majestic and absolutely unforgettable; a brief but timeless showdown enshrined in history with the euphoric might of just four words.
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