The Lord of the Rings (1978)
By: Mr Intolerance on September 5, 2009  | 
DVD
Warner Home Video (Australia). Region 4, PAL. 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced). English, French, Italian, Dutch, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Romanian, Bulgarian, English (FHI), Italian (FHI) Subtitles. 128 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: Ralph Bakshi
Starring: Christopher Guard, William Squire, Michael Scoles, John Hurt, Simon Chandler, Dominic Guard, Norman Bird
Screenplay: Chris Conkling, Peter S Beagle
Country: USA/UK
External Links
Purchase IMDB YouTube
It's kind of sadly ironic, given the immense box office success and critical acclaim that Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King garnered as his The Lord of the Rings trilogy, that this more humble offering from animator Ralph Bakshi was such a critical flop upon its release in 1978. I mean, it's the same story, has the same characters, is based on the same material, and yet never captured the public imagination in the same way. Maybe it's because of the fact that Bakshi filmed his version using rotoscope animation as opposed to using real actors and a hefty dose of generally well-rendered CGI (most adults won't go and have a look at an animated film after all), but given the incredibly epic scale of Tolkien's novel (and remember, The Lord of the Rings was originally written as one novel, not as a trilogy), Bakshi made an obvious choice to try to create a fantasy world in the most cost effective way possible at the time: he drew it. A live action version of this iconic, Viking saga-inspired tale would have been literally impossible and utterly unfilmable in the late 1970s.

Oddly enough, a live action filmed version had been bruited about since the 1960s, at one point featuring The Beatles, with John Lennon playing Gollum (!), but the various screenplays had tried to incorporate all three books, and that, of course, was destined to failure given the limited nature of running time of the average film back then – considering that Jackson's extended versions of the films run for over 14 hours when viewed as a whole (and still compresses some elements of the text uncomfortably briefly and entirely unsatisfactorily – the hobbits' return to the Shire being one annoying sticking point), and yes, this The Lord of the Rings nerd has sat through that particular awesomely enjoyable marathon; a two hour feature version of the entirety of The Lord of the Rings was never going to work. Bakshi should've thought about the logisitics of this exercise before this noble failure, which attempts to encompass The Fellowship of the Ring and about half to two-thirds of The Two Towers, was green-lit by Warner Brothers, after they shit-canned John Boorman's apparently incoherent script, and Kubrick's fell by the wayside.

I say "noble failure" as I actually kinda like it, despite its many deficiencies. Oh sure, the film is deeply flawed in a range of ways – I'm not blind after all. Some of the characterisation is hokey beyond belief, the film takes about an hour or so to really get going (the first half of the film has about all the tension of a guitar strung with wet spaghetti, bar one neat scene in Bree with the Nazgul, and another at the ford of Rivendell), the script does at times read like The Dummies' Guide To The Lord of The Rings, and criminally enough given that this is an animated film and thus reliant on pictures, some of the visuals (the immensely disappointing Balrog for example) are utterly underwhelming. But it has heart, displays a love for its text and tries its best to be more than it actually is – a synopsis of the first two novels.

That's part of the problem – when the film leaves something out (will Tom Bombadil or the Barrow-Wights ever be seen on the silver screen? I think not), the seasoned Tolkien fan harrumphs in disappointment. When the action really starts moving along at a rapid rate of knots assuming knowledge from the viewer having read the novels, the LOTR noob is left somewhat mystified, with little idea as to what's going on. One of the reasons why Jackson's version of the story worked so well has nothing to do with technology or special effects. It's quite simple: he explained everything that required explaining. Better yet, he showed you, rather than told you. Expository dialogue? Yeah, there might have been some of that, but think about the prologue scene in The Fellowship of the Ring: could you need any more explanation than that, even as a person who'd never read the novels? I don't think so, and bear in mind that Jackson actually trumped Tolkien in one regard – nowhere in the novel of The Lord of the Rings or even in The Silmarillion do we ever get a sense of how powerful the One Ring actually is. When Sauron (the evil nemesis of the film) strides onto the battlefield against the last alliance of Men and Elves bearing the One Ring and starts hammering the fuck out of his foes with his mace – THAT gives you an idea of its power, as does the implosion/explosion when he is vanquished by Isildur on the slopes of Mount Doom.

Sadly, that level of Wagnerian grandeur and epic scope ain't to be seen here; this is a shame, as when I saw The Fellowship of the Ring at the movies, that opening sequence almost had me leaping over seats attacking orcs with my longsword (in the real world: battering annoying cinema patrons with the collapsable umbrella in my briefcase). Due to the nature of this being a two hour cartoon feature, the level of introduction we get tells us briefly about the rings of power, and that's about it. This isn't a comparative study, so I should stop comparing and give you the synopsis, with a bit of background. In the olden days, the different races of Middle Earth made rings of power. Each ring was imbued with virtues to help those races in their various pursuits – the seven rings of the Dwarf-kings aided them with their principal concerns, mining and forging. The three rings of the Elves were for longevity, courage and maintaining the status quo. Sauron, the Dark Lord, gave nine rings to Men, the least hardy and most mortal of the races, and thus ensnared their souls – upon their deaths, the power of those rings kept them in a state of undeath as ring-Wraiths, the Nazgul, terrible shadows under the control of Sauron, the most merciless and most powerful of his servants. And Sauron? Well, once he'd learnt the art of ring-making, he created the One Ring, an object imbued with his soul, a sentient ring that contains a large part of his life-force, and without which he can never be whole. And that One Ring holds dominion over all of the other rings. If it goes, so do they. Moreso, while the Ring exists, Sauron can never die.

As I mentioned before, Sauron lost the One Ring at the vengeful hand of Isildur, a king of Men who cut it from Sauron's hand after Sauron killed Isildur's father Anarion. Instead of destroying it in the fires of Mount Doom as he is immediately told to do by the Elves, Isildur kept it as an heirloom for his family. That didn't work so well, and after being assassinated by a pack of orcs (a terrible race of grotesque things originally created by Sauron's boss Morgoth from the Elves he captured, tortured and deformed), the Ring floated to the bottom of the Anduin River, and waited. Eventually it was found by a rather pathetic proto-hobbit called Deagol, who was killed by his kinsman Smeagol for it. Smeagol's obsession with the ring became all-encompassing over the centuries (the Ring grants power according to the stature of the bearer; in this instance, the power to become invisible, and long life), and yet he still lost it – the ring wanted out from Smeagol's hidey-hole at the bottom of the Misty Mountains, and did its level best to achieve its ends. Now, the Ring had warped Smeagol physically into the emaciated and pitiful, yet still evil being he became – Gollum (so named for the noise he makes in his throat every so often). By pure luck, the Ring was found by one Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit, or halfling, from the Shire (no, not Cronulla), and taken out of the Mountains to be kept as a bit of a curio, and as a way of avoiding unwelcome family members.

Gandalf the wizard, one of the mightiest of the Istari, was a friend of Bilbo's (although the hobbits never knewthe true extent of his power), and while he had some interest in Bilbo's magic ring, never guessed that it was the One Ring until things had come to a pretty pass indeed. The Ring passed from Bilbo to his favourite nephew Frodo; Bilbo, unnaturally old, yet still appearing youthful handed the Ring over to Frodo unwillingly, under instructions from Gandalf who feared greatly for Bilbo's soul, and that pretty much brings you up to speed for the beginning of the action.

Gandalf advises Frodo to leave the Shire post-haste, as the Nazgul are drawing ever near to the Shire, having been told by Gollum who "stole" the Ring. Accompanied by his gardener Samwise Gamgee (who's drawn and acted in an unnecessarily comedic fashion), and his cousins Meriadoc Brandybuck (Merry), and Peregrin Took (Pippin, or Pip), Frodo sets out to meet Gandalf at the town of Bree. On their way the hobbits have an unwelcome encounter with a twisted black rider – two red eyes set in an impenetrable darkness under a hood – unbeknownst to them, one of the Nazgul, who are hot on Frodo's heels.

In Bree, Frodo draws unwelcome attention to himself and the Ring, which wants to be found and returned to Sauron. He also draws the rather more welcome attention of a man called Strider (voiced by God-among-mortal-men John Hurt), a ranger from the North, and although the hobbits don't know it, Aragorn, son of Arathorn, bearer of Narsil (the now-broken sword that Isildur used to cut the Ring from Sauron's hand – later reforged by the Elves as Anduril, "Flame of the West"), and next in line to be king of Gondor, the last bastion of Men. Gandalf never shows (due to his imprisonment in the the tower of Orthanc by the treacherous leader of his order of wizards, Saruman), and so Aragorn takes the hobbits to Rivendell, to seek counsel from the half-Elven heavyweight Elrond. But, the path of heroic adventuring never did run smooth, and not only do the Nazgul turn up in Bree to attempt to slaughter Frodo and the others, and thus in one scene reveal their true selves as a real sense of menace – and as a seven year old kid, I was terrified of this scene – but when Aragorn leads our troupe into the wild, they turn up again, and the leader of the Nazgul, the Witch-King of Angmar, stabs Frodo with a Morgul-knife, a deadly and sentient blade which tries to work it's way to the victim's heart.

Aragorn drives the Nazgul away, for the moment, but Frodo is wounded badly and needs immediate treatment beyond that which Aragorn can give. Much haste is made towards Rivendell, and the fellas are met along the way by the Elf Legolas (voiced by Anthony Daniels – that's right C-3PO from Star Wars – again the books lose out; in the novel it's Glorfindel who rides out to meet them, one of the mightiest among the firstborn Elves who single-handedly slew Balrogs and dragons of the calibre of Ancalagon the Black in The Silmarillion, in Jackson's film it's Liv bloody Tyler as Aragorn's love-interest Arwen), and there's a fine, if somewhat-dated via the special effects, chase scene to follow – Frodo races to the ford of Rivendell, but those pesky Nazgul aren't quite so keen on returning to Sauron without the Ring. Which is a shame for them really, considering what happens...

One rather tense scene behind us, and the film slows down again (and indeed it's Bakshi's lugubrious pacing that tends to leave the audience a bit cold), and Frodo is advised at the Council of Elrond to take the Ring to Mount Doom to be destroyed. Of course, not everybody thinks it should be destroyed – indeed Boromir of Gondor, a Man from that last stronghold of men Minas Tirith, rather inopportunely situated on the border of Mordor, Sauron's land, wants to use the Ring as a weapon against Sauron – a course of action that can never be, seeing as how the Ring is part of Sauron himself. Matter of fact, the only positive course of action reached during the council is that Frodo be accompanied by a bunch of like-minded folks to take the Ring to Mordor to be destroyed – his crew? Aragorn, Gandalf, Legolas, Gimli (a Dwarf, and son of one of Bilbo's old travelling companions – and thankfully not the comedic version he was played as in Jackson's films), Boromir (portrayed as a kind of barbarian figure – Sean Bean's more knight-like and less overtly shifty version rang more true in Jackson's films), Sam, Merry and Pippin. The nine walkers against the nine black riders – if I was a betting man, I know where my money would be.

Y'see, the problem that they face almost immediately is that they aren't just facing one evil sorceror, but two – Saruman wants the Ring just as much as Sauron (although oddly, by this point, the characters now refer to him as "Aruman", rather than Saruman), and the company are forced to bunk down (due to his shenanigans) in the mines of Moria, one of the last great Dwarven kingdoms in the good old days, but now more a tomb than anything else, full of dead Dwarves, and orcs looking for mithril, true-silver. Pippin fucks everything up for everybody during their stay, and the breathless race-to-the-finishline nature of this sequence of the film is one of its redeeming features. There's a pretty neat fight-scene in a literal tomb, some awesomely eerie-looking orcs (rotoscope rules!), and then Gandalf's stand-off against the Balrog (aww, like you didn't dig watching Sir Ian McKellen in Jackson's version, "You shall not pass!" - if only this version held the same weight), which has a pretty unexpected end. I have to admit, the Balrog itself is pretty disappointing – this ultimate figure of evil looks for all the world to be a vaguely muscular man with a lion's mane and some hairy boots. I've stated before that comparisons are odious, but Jackson's Balrog was frankly terrifying; menace incarnate on two legs – this is little better than risible.

Out of Moria and our crew hole up in Lothlorien, one of the last strongholds of the Elves, ruled over by the Lord Celeborn, and the Lady Galadriel (one of the first-born, and unbeknownst to Frodo, bearer of one of the three Elven rings, voiced by Annette Crosbie, whose work I best know from One Foot In The Grave). Frodo is granted the wish to look into Galadriel's magic pool (that's not a euphemism), and asks her to take the Ring. Even though he does so in a most disingenuous manner, she does not take it, although she is sorely tempted. One of the common features between the novel, this film and Jackson's now almost canonical version of the film is Frodo's humility, which borders on the abject. He doesn't want to bear the Ring, basically because he doesn't believe that someone such as he should bear it – it belongs to a great Elf warrior, or a Man of great renown; but Aragorn refuses it, too, as does Gandalf.

This, I guess, was part of Tolkien's original purpose. The hobbits were meant to represent the English (although without the West Country accents that Jackson gave them – as comedian Bill Bailey once stated, they sound like a bunch of folks at a cider festival, kind of like The Wurzels – remember "I've Got A Brand New Combine Harvester" from Evil Aliens? That accent), Sauron's troops, the Nazis – although Tolkien himself swore up and down that his novel wasn't a metaphor for World War Two. The basic idea of the novel is meant to show that even if you withdraw from the world at large (as do those in the Shire, and as did England under Chamberlain), you can still be affected by it. And as much as Tolkien might have stated that his novel basically existed for him to show off his invention of a brand new language (Sindarin – the language of the Elves), albeit heavily influenced by that of the Vikings, it really did reflect world politics of recent times. Sauron does equal Hitler, just in fancy dress, no matter what Tolkien himself says to the contrary.

Once out of Lothlorien, and without the guidance that the company used to have, everything rapidly turns horrible. Merry and Pippin are captured by orcs, somebody from the company dies (although, truth be told, they die nobly and in the cause of good), and the whole Fellowship is irrevocably fractured. Frodo and Sam head towards Mordor, through the wasteland of Emyn Muil, picking up a certain someone along the way. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli hook up with the horse-lords, the Rohirrim, in a pleasingly bloody battle against Saruman's Isengard hordes of Uruk-Hai orcs at the ancient Rohan castle of Helm's Deep. And just who is that White Rider anyway?

I think that the rotoscope animation probably took the general populace by surprise – it's the process whereby animation is placed over real people, to varying degrees. Sometimes, the characters look like traditional cartoon characters, at other times they look rather disconcertingly real, with a wash of paint over them. Thankfully, once past Bree, that ceases to be a problem (until we hit Rohan), but the weird natural unnaturalness of the image suits the bad-guys admirably – the orcs and the Nazgul realy do stand out from the rest of the characters through their appearance, and through the change in background mattes that they're given. It works in their favour and no mistake.

If you're looking for an accurate, mimetic version of Tolkien's original story, then you'd better shop elsewhere. This is very much an abbreviated version of The Lord of the Rings, and while it's still pretty neat, it does indeed induce cringing at times – mainly due to the appalling dialogue, apart from anything else. It's remarkably bloody for a cartoon, and almost unremittingly grim, but once it gets going, which it takes a long time to do, it's a roller-coaster ride of the sword and sorcery genre. A failure it might be, as I mentioned before, but it's an attractive one, nevertheless.
Video
Well, it's being a cartoon, the film hasn't aged all that badly in terms of film stock. But in terms of animation it's deeply wedged in the late 70s. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it has dated the film a little.
Audio

The score by Leonard Rosenman is appropriately heroic and bombastic. Otherwise, yes, the audio is all good, even if in its aged 2.0 form.

Extra Features
Y'know what it says here for "Special Features"? I'll tell you: "Interactive Menus" and "Scene Access". Well, plait my shit, Warner Brothers really went all out there to produce a comprehensive package, didn't they? I have a strange inkling that a definitive version of this film might still be somewhere further down the line...
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
A pleasingly dark take on Tolkien's tale, The Lord of the Rings works reasonably well, but is hampered by a range of different issues: firstly the scriptwriters' hack'n'slash approach to the source material, and then it's simply down to the characterisation from there, as well as the more than problematic stop-start pacing. It generally looks pretty good, with a suitably gothic atmosphere, but the saga needed more than that. Like I said before, it's a noble failure. It tries very hard to achieve the scope and scale of what Tolkien was trying to achieve, and in some instances is much closer than Jackson's version to the original. Ultimately though, it doesn't work. It's a threadbare blanket of a film; comfortable certainly, but lacking functionality – your big toe sticks through it at more than one point. I don't know if it's a shame or not that the proposed sequel never got made. Bakshi did far better with his Conan-esque Frazetta-inspired fantasy Fire and Ice.

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