20 Years Ago, The Two Towers Gave Us Cinema’s Greatest Fantasy Battle: Helm’s Deep

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20 Years Ago, <i>The Two Towers</i> Gave Us Cinema&#8217;s Greatest Fantasy Battle: Helm&#8217;s Deep

Rarely is the middle installment in a film trilogy the entry that any fandom would coalesce around and advance as that trilogy’s finest moment. The Empire Strikes Back is much more exception than rule in this respect, and middle installments have a tendency to suffer in retrospective analysis, lacking the wondrous introduction to a cinematic world offered by the first entry, or the catharsis of closure found in a trilogy ender. Too often, these follow-ups feel more akin to connective material, bridging the gap between a memorable introduction and epic conclusion.

And yet, if you polled film fans about the best pure entry in Peter Jackson’s iconic Lord of the Rings trilogy, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if middle movie The Two Towers managed to edge out The Fellowship of the Ring for the crown, with The Return of the King finishing a distant (and deserved) third. That second entry, released 20 years ago this weekend, can’t lay claim to the heart and warmth of Fellowship, or the scale and stakes of Return of the King. But what it can boast is the best damn fantasy battle in cinema history, and one of the most satisfying incarnations of Tolkien’s story, in the form of Helm’s Deep. With that giant set piece as its anchor, The Two Towers both honors its source material and provides a thrilling siege that few other films have managed to even approach in the last two decades.

Granted, we were exceedingly lucky to ever have a chance to see such a spectacle brought to life in the first place, a topic we’ve written about before at considerable length. Peter Jackson’s film trilogy was a deeply unlikely movie miracle, one that came about with exactly the right people, at exactly the right time, as the keys to the most famous fantasy fiction IP in history were improbably handed off to a relatively untested New Zealand director best known for splatter horror movies. The visuals seen at Helm’s Deep, meanwhile, couldn’t have been rendered only a few years earlier, with groundbreaking effects work (especially in large crowds of CGI orcs) from Weta Workshop that set a new standard for large-scale action scenes. And lord only knows what Jackson’s LOTR might have looked like if it had been stuck in development hell for a few more years, arriving after Spider-Man had more thoroughly established the mold of the modern superhero film, and in turn the modern blockbuster franchise. The director’s own Hobbit trilogy from a few years later gives an unnerving glimpse of how easily this project could have been sabotaged by studio meddling.

We should never stop being thankful, then, that The Lord of the Rings arrived when it did, and that Jackson was given free rein to project the somber, dignified, noble but despairing energy that makes The Two Towers stand out so starkly. This is the film in the series with an ethos most succinctly summed up with a single word that characters are always repeating (it’s “hope”), but there’s also a lot more to it than that. The film captures the fear in Tolkien’s own heart of a sense of grandeur, magic, nobility and compassion slipping away from the world, of crumbling societies forgetting and discarding the principles that once made them great in favor of cold, emotionless modernism. We meet Theoden, King of Rohan as the last, faded remnant of a line of men who were wiser, stronger, more valiant and enduring than he has proven to be, and we watch him be pulled back from the brink with the aid of his new allies. But still, the true battle unfolds in his heart, between conviction and utter despair at the thought of his people being wiped away forever by forces beyond his control. As the heartbroken man demands to know in his lowest moment: “What can men do against such reckless hate?”

Naturally, there is some revisionism inserted into the Helm’s Deep battle in the translation from Tolkien’s page to the screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair and Jackson. The contingent of elves from Lothlorien arriving before the battle to lend aid wasn’t an aspect included by Tolkien, but it works well as a symbolic step in the overall series theme of reforging ancient alliances that have been allowed to atrophy and decay over the course of centuries—a step in Aragorn’s growth as a would-be uniter who can reforge those old bonds, much as the sword of the king is ultimately reforged. Likewise, the film portrays the numbers in the battle to be considerably more one-sided than in Tolkien’s novel, in order to exemplify the underdog status of Theoden and his people. Again, an understandable change from a cinematic perspective, one that heightens the drama of Theoden and Aragorn’s eventual decision to “ride out and meet them,” as the audience knows just how futile this final charge is likely to be.


So too does Jackson find little ways to preserve certain, integral aspects of Tolkien’s overall philosophy toward these characters, such as resisting the temptation to write Gandalf a more pivotal and direct role in the battle. This is fitting, given that rarely if ever does Tolkien allow the characters in his story who are implicitly imbued with the most power—Gandalf, Galadriel, Elrond, etc.—to physically step in and demonstrate the depths of their strength, outside of feats described in the appendices. Gandalf’s power, in both the books and the films, isn’t expressed through martial prowess or blasts of lightning from his fingers, striking the enemy dead where they stand. Rather, his gift is the ability to imbue compassion and inspire bravery and valor in the everyday people around him, be they hobbits or doughty warriors of Rohan. The wizard doesn’t win the battle with his late arrival; he merely brings these people—Theoden, Aragorn, Eomer and his riders—together so they can win the battle, and in doing so, fill themselves with the resolve to win not just the battle, but the war. And that’s The Lord of the Rings at heart; not a story about superpowered, battling heroes, but a story about the conscientious contributions made by small, individual players that turn out to be momentous in the end.

Make no mistake, though, the Battle of Helm’s Deep pales in comparison to the sheer scale and epic breadth of Return of the King’s Battle of the Pelennor Fields, which unfolds before the gates of Minas Tirith. But I would argue—and I expect no small number of LOTR geeks would agree—that Helm’s Deep is ultimately more satisfying, because it feels significantly more grounded in the physical, grinding struggle of our weary protagonists as they throw wave after wave of Uruk-hai back from the walls. The grand battle of Return of the King can’t help but surrender itself more to CGI-driven spectacle, especially once the massive war beasts get involved, with those digital images serving to hold our heroes at least slightly at arm’s length from really feeling like they’re interacting in the struggle. At Helm’s Deep, on the other hand, the mud, rain and grit seeps into every pore. It projects a much more desperate, vicious feel, a fight to buy additional minutes and seconds to stave off the inevitable. As Theoden leaves his post on the wall commanding the battle to take up a spear and physically confront the enemy at the splintering gate, it’s clear how high the stakes have become.


It’s a battle with gravitas, a doomed last stand transformed against hope to miraculous victory, and a cinematic experience I’ll never forget. I can still remember, in fact, the exact moment of rapture I experienced as a 16-year-old Tolkien geek, as Theoden began intoning his “where is the horse and the rider?” poem. “I can’t believe this made it into the movie,” I marveled. “I can’t believe I’m actually watching any of this on the big screen.”

Two decades later, it still seems just as remarkable that Jackson pulled it off.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.