The Lord of the Rings (1978)

Time to recover some history. It’s all but passed into the Grey Havens by now, but in the dark heart of the 1970s, a man with a dream managed to do what was previously thought impossible: make a Lord of the Rings movie. The one my generation grew up with, because it was pretty much all we had.

His name was Ralph Bakshi, and back then, as now, he’s most well-known as the director of the X-rated cartoon morality play Fritz the Cat. But he was (and, far as I know, still is) also a Lord of the Rings OG who tried to get someone interested in adapting the Holy Trilogy from the moment he started working in animation, back in the mid-50s.

Fritz was Bakshi’s directorial debut, and rather than crank out sequels until his soul died, like certain people wanted, he followed it up with his own epic fantasy quest film about the birth of a new age, midwifed by a massive war against an evil sorcerer: Wizards. Which ran out of money near the end of production, forcing Bakshi to construct his climax out of battle scenes from other movies. In order to keep things as aesthetically unified as possible, Bakshi had his animators paint over the live-action stock footage – a process that’s still called “rotoscoping,” even though most of the animators work in CGI these days. And this, Bakshi says on Wizards’ DVD commentary, “showed [him] how to do Lord of the Rings.”

Epic fantasy adventure films were at least ten years in everyone’s past by the mid-70s. But a new power was rising, and it’s victory was at hand, thanks to that other 1977 epic fantasy quest film about the birth of a new age, midwifed by a massive war against an evil sorcerer. Both it and Wizards were 20th Century Fox films starring Mark Hamil, who jumped back and forth between sets, since they were both filmed at the same time. Financial troubles forced (unintentional pun) both directors to go back to Fox with hat in hand. And both were told, “Hey, you guys asked for all those back-end royalties and toy rights – why not pay for them yourselves?” Which only reinforced both director’s pre-existing hatred and distrust of the studio system. It’s funny how history works sometimes.

After one of those two epic fantasy quest films proved to be an international excuse to print money, all the “smart” players figured Star Wars was just another fad, sure to die out when the sequel inevitably disappointed. Might as well flood the market with as many fantasies as possible before the wave rolled back. Hell, why not give that Fritz the Cat guy four million to play around with? See what he can do.

United Artists was already planning a single-film Lord of the Rings adaptation, written by John Boorman, and once Bakshi heard about that, he convinced MGM to pay Boorman off. The idea of cutting Lord of the Rings down to one movie (no matter how epic its length) seemed blasphemous – like stretching The Hobbit out into a trilogy just because your studio’s gotten used to that annual, billion-dollar cash injection. Or making two movies out of the last book in a series for the same reason. Crazy, right? Well chew on this, True Believers: somewhere, out there, in the multiverse, there’s a dimension where our first Lord of the Rings movie came to us from the writer/director of Zardoz.

In our dimension, the first one came from the director of Fritz the Cat, starring Caligula as Aragorn and C-3PO as Legolas…which, really, isn’t much weirder, when you think about it. Bakshi even got The Last Unicorn’s own Peter S. Beagle to whip the script back into something like its original shape, because two Lord of the Rings fans are better than one. But as with Wizards, money and basic, human communication problems plagued the picture. Chief among them: the studio’s inability to understand why the trilogy’s a trilogy in the first place. Crack open any of those three books and you learn the series actually contains six. Seems tailor made from the recognizable-franchise-obsessed Hollywood of today, but getting the Hollywood of 1978 to sign off on just two movies required a lot of sweet talking and a lot more penny pinching.

It shows. Moreso than Beagle’s contributions, because our screenwriter did the noble thing and used as much of Tolkien’s dialog as possible. Which creates its own double-edged sword, since Tolkien did a lot of his best work in descriptive prose. And the higher you climb up Middle Earth’s social ladder, the more dialog purposefully imitates medieval epics. Not even John Hurt or Anthony Daniels can make all that sound natural all the time – not to modern ears. Which was part of Tolkien’s point: that the English languages lacks a proper, epic storytelling tradition, and proper, epic stories to give it life. We just stole a bunch from other cultures to make up the difference. A tradition all of England’s colonies continue to uphold – especially in America, where we get pissy and defensive when we’re called on it.

Assuming a plot synopsis is unnecessary, let’s get to why this film wasn’t the Star Wars United Artists was looking for. False advertising’s at the top of my list. This isn’t the decompressed, “extended edition” Peter Jackson would go on to make after watching this sucker as a young man and being disappointed by it. But it is, unfortunately, exactly the kind of Abridged Lord of the Rings Bakshi feared when he first heard of Boorman’s script. It’s all of Fellowship of the Ring and about half of Two Towers. But United Artist’s insisted to calling it The Lord of the Rings, fearing no one in their right mind would pay to see half a movie (which seems an unbearably naive thought today). On the other hand, if people paid to see a whole movie, and left unpleasantly surprised to discover they’d only gotten half…well, that would be their problem, wouldn’t it? Caveat emptor, after all…which is Latin for “Your money is now our money and we will spend it on drugs.” Or more James Bond movies, in UA’s case.

“So what did they change and what did they leave out?” are the questions most good Hobbits ask. Change? Not much. Less than Jackson did, really. Leave out, though? You mean apart from the entire third act? No matter what story you’re telling, it better have a real climax, a crescendo, and some resolution. Bakshi knew all this – it isn’t his fault a studio double-crossed him after he multiplied the money they gave him by seven. But the sad fact remains: this sucker cuts off right after Helm’s Deep, with little more than some triumphant music and a voice over.

Like a certain, later adaptation, it begins with a voice-over as well…not from Galadriel, but from…well, who the hell knows? Elrond does some narration work later on and Gandalf talks over his escape from Isengard….but consistency is nice, ya know? Especially when you’re introducing an audience to a whole other universe, and a story with roots as deep in the past as this one. I suspect that’s why, rather than open in The Shire, we open on the One Ring’s forging, its loss after the end of the Second Age, its mutilation of the person Smegol into the creature Gollum, and its eventual fall into the hands of Bilbo Baggins.

All this we see in silhouette, for reasons that might be budgetary, or artistic. Only our director knows for sure and I’m holding off on listening to his commentary until I finish this. While it does hit every major story beat in the book-and-a-half it depicts, tons of stuff is condensed to all hell, starting with Bilbo’s Eleventy-First birthday party and going all the way up to the big battle at the end. This adaption also omits Tom Bombadil and Goldenberry to make room for a wizard fight. Unlike later ones, however, this also shafts Merry and Pippin – they just appear on the road with Frodo and Sam, and their appearance gets waved away in a classic case of the “tell, don’t show” storytelling. Something Tolkien struggled with himself. The trip from Moria to Lorien is one hard jump-cut, while the great run across the fields of Rohan is dragged out to an absurd degree. But at least we get to hear about Beren and Luthien (Middle Earth’s own famous star-crossed lovers) from the mouth of a once-and-future-king who’ll go on to relive their tale with a certain hot daughter of Rivendale – whose name might as well be “She Who Does Not Appear In this Film.”

The backgrounds are universally gorgeous. Bakshi was a stickler for that – as seen in any random exterior shot from any of his other films. Character designs, on the other hand, are all over the damn place. The distracting regularly of their fluctuations leads to many a moment when I’m pulled right out of the narrative. Partly that’s because our director was too busy working on what amounted to his first live-action picture to sweat the small stuff. And partly, that’s the inherent downside of rotoscoping. It only sounds like a full-proof plan in the abstract. “How can your animators draw off-model if there’s a human model standing right there, in the shot, already in glorious, true-to-life 3D?” Hey, you try getting six hundred-plus artists to do anything together, never mind draw the same thing the same way. Disney only managed it for as long as they did by treating everyone like replaceable parts. Even levels of rotoscoping vary from scene to scene and decrease in tandem with a character’s importance. So while our four Hobbits are always animated (I might even say over-animated, in the case of poor Samwise Gamgee), the Rohirrim who rescue Merry and Pipin from the Uruk Hai look like they’ve been traced by a half-drunk inker.

Monster designs suffer as well, becoming either hilariously ugly, or obscured to the point of non-existence, like all the orc’s faces. The decision to make the Balrog a man in a lion head and batwings was…not the best. What’s the point of animation if you can’t, say, for example, make your Balrog the size of King Kong and give it a face like the Red Bull from Last Unicorn? The evil powers of Mordor suffer as a whole, seemingly confined to making the backgrounds get expressionistic, whether Frodo’s got the ring on or not. And try your best to not be distracted by how often character’s feet seem to float above the ground they’re supposed to be walking on…though I’m afraid that, just by my mentioning it, you’ll never be able to un-see it.

Hell, I’m afraid most of you will be distracted by hearing John Hurt’s voice coming out of a dude who looks like he modeled for an old silver dollar. And that opens up a whole other box of nick-picking production design complaints. Like: how come all the men of Middle Earth seem to wander around (and, hell, ride horses) without any pants? The Rohirrim are obviously meant to be Vikings of a great, grass sea, so how come the men of Gondor get to rock the horned helmets? It’s like this production went to Spain specifically so they could raid the costume stores of those old Spanish/Italian sword-n-sandal epics from the ’50s and ’60s. And why in Illuvitar’s name did they put Saruman in red? If you’re not going to give him his Coat of Many Colors, leave him in White – it’s all colors combined, anyway, and it contrasts with his growing, interior darkness. And what’s up with everyone dropping the “S” from his name half the time? “Aruman” sounds at least 50% less evil without that drawn out sibilant at the beginning….The voice-acting’s all right, though. A little more enthusiasm from everyone would’ve been nice but I’ve been spoiled by a generation of voice directors who shove their cast into a single room rather than shove each actor into an individual booth. Acting is reacting, after all, and you can hear the difference once you’ve heard enough of it.

I’m starting to realize why everyone’s all-but forgotten about this one: it’s more of a historical artifact than a movie. Ending as it does, it left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth at the time, and it’s since been caught in a strange middle-ground: neither as beloved as Rankin/Bass’ Hobbit, nor as despised as Peter Jackson’s. Even in its time, it was almost immediately overshadowed by a non-sequel that everyone treated like a sequel anyway – another network TV animated movie, produced by Rankin/Bass and animated by Topcarft, which we’ll discus next time. As for this – the red-headed stepchild of Tolkien-based animated movies – hell, give it a go. Regardless of how ambivalent I sound, I’d be truly interesting in seeing what you all make of it.

3 thoughts on “The Lord of the Rings (1978)”

  1. Man, I just saw this for the first time and the viewing was hurt by my expectation that Bakshi would ascend against grave misfortune and budgetary didgeridoo, like he had with WIZARDS. In my eyes, AMERICAN POP is one of the greatest motion pictures of all time, and HEY GOOD LOOKIN’ is very, very close (although that does not mean I will be introducing my GREASE-loving wife to it anytime soon). I just naturally assumed he would triumph, despite decades of reviews saying otherwise.

    1. Yeah…sadly, the evil forces arrayed against him were too numerous in this case. But hey: he tried! Which was more than most were willing to do at the time. And I like to think the lessons learned during this production lead directly to the awesomeness of his next two films. I’d even say “his next three films,” since Fire and Ice was once my jam, back in the day. Mostly because my local video store didn’t have Pop or Good Lookin’…but they had plenty of Cool World. More Cool World than anyone really wanted, but they had it.

  2. Yes, but the forces were really arrayed against him on WIZARDS–I think the fact that he forced to use the Third Reich footage is what made it sing beyond its range. But I did not know until your review that he was actually a LOTR fan–I thought that WIZARDS was critical commentary on any charge you might levy against the three-volume epic fantasy.

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