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“How did it come to this?” The humble beginnings of the Middle Earth “franchise”

“Its not a [contemptously] “franchise”, its a series of films” – Sir Ian McKellen

Damn straight, Sir Ian. It is a series of films, twenty years in the making, six-entries strong (coming up on seven thanks to The War of the Rohirrim), with $6 billion in theatrical revenue, 20 Academy Awards, 13 BAFTAs and 4 Golden Globes. But how did it come to this? What are the origins of this franchise – and, by extension, of The Rings of Power – beside the obvious answer of “Duh, The Books!” What are its cinematic influences and wellsprings?

Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings

I find it astounding that all of this came to be because a Kiwi teenager in 1979 saw this:

While he had “heard the name” of the book, Jackson admits that his first proper introduction to the story was through this, Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated The Lord of the Rings. Jackson was already a huge fan of fantasy and a fan of Ralph Bakshi’s earlier work, and went to see his film at 1978 or 1979, aged 17.

Jackson admits that without having seen it he “might not have read the book” and recalls that he “enjoyed the film and wanted to know more”, calling it “ambitious” and pointing out shots – specifically, Odo Proudfoot shouting Proudfeet and the Black Riders galloping out of Bree – as “great” shots that he “remembers very clearly.” However, he also said it ultimately “didn’t turn out that well.” His full thoughts, which I think speak for many people, are:

I liked the early part – it had some quaint sequences in Hobbiton, a creepy encounter with the Black Rider on the road, and a few quite good battle scenes – but then, about half way through, the storytelling became very disjointed and disorientating and I really didn’t understand what was going on. However, what it did do was to make me want to read the book – if only to find out what happened!

This then is the wellspring of the Middle Earth media “franchise” which is still going so strong today. But is it an actual major influence on the films? That is a more difficult question to answer. Bakshi himself has an oversimplified answer: he claims his film was being screened “every single day at Fine Line [studios]”, which author Ian Nathan asserts wasn’t the case. He goes on to say:

They took everything from me. The ring wraiths were taken from me. There was a lot! I mean, I designed the ring wraiths. […] Peter Jackson looked at it and said, I like that, I don’t like that, I can improve on that. Who are you kidding? Look at his Lothlorien. Look at my backgrounds of Lothlorien. Take a look! He had much more to see than I did, and if you don’t think he lifted it over and over again, you’re wrong. I mean, how did he design a knife in Lord of the Rings? How did he design a sword? How did he design the dwarf with his axe? How did he design the fur around him? Why did Peter Jackson put fur around the dwarf? Because I put fur around the dwarf! Why would the dwarf have fur naturally? […] How about under the tree, under the limb, when the wraith on the road is trying to find Frodo, Sam, and the guys were hiding under the bush, under the tree, under the limb on the road, and it was on top? Where did that come from? […] Why didn’t you take a look to see the shot-for-shot cuts and background for background? […Jackson] had my movie. Why would he contact me? He robbed me to begin with. What right did he have to make the Rings?

This is a preposterous accusation, made all the more preposterous because Bakshi maintains that he had never watched the films, only basing his accusations on hearsay and having seen pictures and trailers. Its an accusation that leaves Jackson himself puzzled: Jackson was aware of the various attempts to adapt the books before him, many of them by filmmakers he much admires like Boorman, Kubrick and Lean; and while he did eventually get a hold on a copy of Boorman’s script, he was adamant that, during the writing, they didn’t base their work on anyone else’s. Indeed, after his big win at the BAFTAs, Jackson said that The Fellowship of the Ring “doesn’t remind me of any other film I’ve seen.” Damn straight.

Bakshi had riled against this, saying that Jackson had intentionally downplayed the part of his film in inspiring Jackson’s decision to make the films. While it does seem Jackson wasn’t exactly keen on reminding people of a 1970s catoon, he didn’t actively deny having seen Bakshi’s film, which he mentions in the audio commentary twice, as well as in passing in the appendices, and in several interviews at the time as well to his two biographers.

But is there a truth to Bakshi’s argument that Jackson’s film is deriviative of his? In the case of examples like Lothlorien its easy to answer – the two don’t look a thing alike. Bakshi’s comments about Gimli are curious, since Gimli’s costume in the Jackson films does not have furs. He mentions the ringwraiths and – in another interview – Gollum, both of which appear in many illustrations, both predating and following Bakshi’s, in similar guises. So those are generic similarities, to which it would be reductive to pin Bakshi as the “inspiration.”

Curiously, Bakshi doesn’t state the one shot that Jackson explicitly designates as a “homage” to Bakshi: “The shot of Proudfoot, yelling “Proudfeet!” where I deliberately copied the angle Ralph Bakshi used, which I thought was great.” There is however another shot which Bakshi does point out: The four Hobbits hiding under a tree-root from a towering wraith. This was actually one of the very first shots filmed for the trilogy, and while strictly speaking it was made off of a John Howe painting, the painting itself was modelled on Bakshi’s film. Jackson will have been aware of the similarity, given that in his quote above he recalls this very scene, which he would have seen again not that long prior to the filming of this scene, in the Miramax conference. So, to quote Gimli, “two already!” There is even a third one: both Jackson and Bakshi misidrect their audience to think the Ringwraiths had killed the four Hobbits in their sleep at the Prancing Pony. Again, this was shot quite early so not too long removed from the story conferences in Miramax, and ideed was storyboarded not long after that meeting. But this is really where things stop being so clear.

There would seem to be  structural similarity: starting with a prologue and, later on, pulling Gandalf’s meeting with Saruman out of flashback. But I think those are again, somewhat generic. A prologue was a solution many a storyteller chose to undertake in adapting The Lord of the Rings, including Brian Sibley in his superlative 1981 Radio adaptation (admittedly “modelled” on Bakshi), the 2002 Vivendi Fellowship of the Ring game, even the amateur, 1956 story treatment by Morton Zimmerman. Jackson, too, hit upon the idea before meeting with the Weinsteins, and modelled it not on Bakshi’s exposition-dump but on the cold opening of a James Bond film.

If its “inspired” by anything at all, its by the radio serial, which Jackson remembered much more vividly in 1997 than he did Bakshi’s film. So, too, was the decision to tell Gandalf’s story in real-time: indeed, in the earliest incarnations of the story, we follow Gandalf from Orthanc to Edoras where he gets Shadowfax to ride: this is directly following from Sibley’s radioplay, which even includes a scene from Unfinished Tales of the Ringwraiths interrogating Grima as to the location of the Shire. Sibley himself, who became Jackson’s biographer and helped author much of the behind-the-scenes interviews and literature, says Jackson admitted to having been inspired by his radio adaptation.

Another similar choice is to have Erkenbrand replaced by Eomer. Jackson admits to thinking very little of the second half of Bakshi’s film, so its unlikely he would have used any of it as a model and indeed, even after having seen it, Erkenbrand persisted in Jackson’s scripts (originally, to be killed in the Paths of the Dead). Earlier in the story, both filmmakers replace Glorfindel with Legolas and Arwen, respectively. Glorfindel actually does appear in Jackson’s initial treatment, but its difficult to say this idea came from Bakshi, as such.

Really, ultimately, the two movies don’t look much alike: Bakshi’s film is rooted in an aesthetic that derives from Frank Frazetta, with whom Bakshi would go on to make Fire and Ice, whereas Jackson’s is rooted in the iconography of Medieval-themed films (see below). “The design is different”, Jackson says. But did Bakshi’s film influence other members of the creative team? Doubtful. Co-writer Philippa Boyens had never seen it, and many of the cast members were in the same position: Sean Astin watched it in preparation for the part, being horrified by Bakshi’s Sam, but reassured by Jackson that “we’re not doing that.” Andy Serkis hadn’t heard Bakshi’s Gollum (which was also Sibley’s Gollum, incidentally) until after he’d performed the part for Jackson. Was Bakshi’s film influential on the producers, in their decision to back the film? If anything, it had a deletrious effect on this arena: the whole reason Harvey screened it was to boast this “we will never make that” and the last thing Shaye would have wanted was to be reminded of (or to remind audiences of) was a half-finished cartoon. Then there’s Bakshi’s even more abstract claim: that Jackson could learn what NOT to do from his film. This is such an abstract notion its nearly impossible to back-up, but we’ll deal with some of it in the next segment.

1980s Fantasy Genre

There’s a narrative, that Jackson sometimes contributes a bit to, that fantasy before The Lord of the Rings was nothing. It wasn’t: There had been the Ray Harryhousen films he had enjoyed as a child, the success of which was part of the appeal of making a Lord of the Rings film back in the 1960s. Come the 1970s, Star Wars was a fantasy of-a-kind, which Jackson saw “cheering like mad when Luke destroyed the Death Star.” Then followed Bakshi’s film – which turned a nice profit at $30.5 at the box-office. The sequel to Star Wars – which Jackson didn’t enjoy as much as the original film – was preceeded in UK screenings by a fantasy short, Black Angel. Such a screening greatly inspired filmmaker John Boorman who was gearing up to make an Arthurian film, to the extent that he adopted Black Angel‘s dreamlike visuals and put The Force into his film under the name “The Dragon.”

Another stepping stone towards Middle Earth: John Boorman’s Excalibur

For all its trippiness and R rating, Excalibur also turned in a nice profit (beating-out Touchstone’s fantasy bomb, Dragonslayer, who’s dragon Jackson much admired) and started a trend of fantasy movies, which would reach its commercial apex with a similarly violent and lusty Conan the Barbarian. Both films are flawed, but Jackson has a warm place in his heart for them: even as late as preproduction on The Hobbit, he could be heard citing Conan’s fighting style, and in fact before making Bad Taste, he had started designing a Troll head for a Conan-styled fantasy film. Excalibur is an “absolute favourite” of his, and you can see something of that film in Jackson’s love for plate armour. Nevertheless, they’re very minor, localized influences.

Jackson admits to have watched “all the fantasy films” that followed, most of which were box-office bombs. One of those was Ridley Scott’s Legend. Jackson is a great admirer of Sir Ridley (who isn’t?) and he thought Legend looked gorgeous, but – rightly – asserts that the script was “terrible.” The last film in the fantasy genre to make a nice (if overly modest) profit was Willow, which had George Lucas’ name attached. It even helped pump money into New Zealand’s fledgling film industry. Curiously, Jackson hates it, calling it “meaningless fantasy mumbo-jumbo” and citing the witches’ fight at the end as the epitome of the cliche of “old men firing lightening out of their fingertips.”

The “visual magic” of Legend, terrible though its script may be, inspired Jackson

So Jackson definitely picked some things up from the 1980s fantasy genre, but for the most part, he learned what not to do, circumnavigating the sugary cutesiness of Willow and Dark Crystal,  as well as the cluttered storytelling of Excalibur and Legend and the pulpiness of Conan and Krull. This he said in the following quote:

It might be clearer if I described it as an historical film. Something very different to Dark Crystal or Labyrinth. Imagine something like BRAVEHEART, but with a little of the visual magic of LEGEND. (LEGEND had a lackluster script in my view. It looked great, but the visual style was too unreal, overwhelming and not suitable for this story).’
It should have the historical authority of BRAVEHEART, rather than the meaningless fantasy mumbo-jumbo of WILLOW.

Braveheart

So there you have Jackson’s true inspiration for the films: the 1995 historical epic, Braveheart. Jackson will have seen it before he and Walsh started brainstorming ideas for a fantasy film that would eventually turn into The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. He had loved the historical epics of the 1950s and 1960s, and even DW Griffiths’ silent epic masterpiece Intolerance. He further exemplifies this in the following quote: “[we should make it] just as if we were making ancient-roman film, or making Braveheart, you know, about Sir William Wallace.”

Obviously, by the time they were actually going forward with the film, Braveheart was an Academy Award winning film, and bone-fide classic: It had influenced Cameron’s Titanic, with Cameron reteaming with Doctor James Horner after having loved his score to Braveheart. While in LA for his first meeting with New Line, Jackson had watched Saving Private Ryan, which was also inspired by Braveheart. It used the same filmmaking techniques, such as jump-cuts to elevate the violence: “great flattery”, as Gibson saw it. The 13th Warrior was perhaps less flattering…

While Jackson was making Rings in the mould of Braveheart, two other filmmakers pretty much carbon-copied it: Ridley Scott with the masterful Gladiator, and Roland Emmerich with the enjoyable but less-than-masterful The Patriot. After Rings, there would also be Troy and Kingdom of Heaven, both featuring alums (and rejects) of Braveheart and RingsThe Last Samurai went as far as hiring Braveheart‘s (superb) editor and DP and was partially shot in New Zealand. Braveheart‘s John Kavanagh was one of the only actors to go through Alexander with his dignity intact. “Many films started copying it”, said Gibson.

Nowadays, its influence can be felt on the gritty fantasy and period pieces that dominate TV, namely Game of Thrones: In Jackson’s “Braveheart meets Legend” comparison, Game of Thrones would lean hard in the direction of the former. Early drafts of Braveheart presage Game of Thrones even more closely than the finished film: originally, we were going to be introduced to Robert the Bruce in a “sexposition” scene, over a decade before Game of Thrones would trademark this kind of scene.

So, could it be that Jackson purely used Braveheart‘s name for appearances? I think the depth of influence that I will demonstrate below would be enough to disprove this, but a much easier evidence is that the film was being used in conversations that were held in closed doors. When they started designing, Jackson had told Sir Richard Taylor to avoid thinking of earlier fantasy films (Conan the Barbarian was cited), pointing him to historical epics instead. Taylor later recalled that “Peter pointed at Braveheart as a good example of the feeling he hoped to evoke in Middle Earth.” So, I’ll be going through a series of ways in which Braveheart influenced The Lord of the Rings: The visual style, the battles, the characters, and the tone and themes.

The visual style

This is the easiest category. When I first watched Braveheart (which would have been shortly after The Fellowship of the Ring in 2002, I believe) this was readily appearant to me, without reading a word Jackson said on the matter. Both films have a lush, earthy and historical look: it doesn’t matter that Braveheart is one of the least historically-accurate films ever made, but it does mostly look and feel very real.

One of the ways in which it achieves that is just how run-down everything is: Jackson had cited Star Wars for its “used world” look, but he may just as well have taken this idea from Braveheart, which arguably takes it a lot further than Star Warseverything in Braveheart – even the English castles or the Scotts’ council-chamber – is dank, dark, dirty and worn-down. The Scottish council chamber clearly has writing on its walls, but its been eaten and peeled away by the elements to the extent that the writing is wholly uninteligible.

Middle Earth is a bit more sumptuous, but still very, very earthy in that way: The Shire is covered in moss, partially the result of letting the set sit for a year before they started shooting; Laketown’s buildings are teetering over rotten stilts, its wooden platforms covered in grime. When Gandalf arrives at Bag-End after having uncovered the history of the Ring, his hair’s a mess and his robe rubbed-in with dirt; we haven’t even taked about the pure slime of Goblintown.

Jackson wanted the design aesthetic of Middle Earth to be historical: basically, he wanted it to be a quasi-Medieval film, first, and a fantasy film, second. Bree, Rohan and much of Gondor and Laketown all convey this very very succesfully. Of course, The Lord of the Rings doesn’t try to historicize the fantasy alltogether a-la 2004’s King Arthur: its mostly the bad guys that get the more fantastical designs, which bear the influence of the aforementioned Legend, Excalibur and Conan.

Meanwhile, Rohan which is basically a historical recreation of Dark Age Anglo-Saxon culture, is not a far-cry (kilts notwithstanding) from the Medieval Scots of Braveheart, and was indeed an example Jackson cited a couple of times as to how The Two Towers further made The Lord of the Rings even “more in the direction of Braveheart.”

Braveheart was shot in Scotland and Ireland and is replete with the kind of sweeping landscape shots that Jackson would then double-down on for The Lord of the Rings. It is also replete with something else: rain and mud, which were unavoidable in Scotland: faced with constant downpours, Gibson had made the early (and bold) decision to “not wait for weather.” This was fine by DP John Toll, who doesn’t believe in “magic hours” in photography: if a scene started raining part-way through, they’d make the necessary adjustments and shoot the rest of it with water-towers, to suit.

This added to the movie enormously, “it looks absolutely gorgeous”, said writer Randal Wallace. Of particular note is William and Murron’s wedding night, the eroticism of which is heightened enormously by seeing the breath of the two lovers. With reports that Amazon may want to inject a bit of sensuality into their Lord of the Rings series, this might be a good example to follow.

More to the point, this earthy versimilitude strikes me as being the origin of Jackson’s desire to deliberatly shoot in the rain for sequences like Helm’s Deep or Bree: “I was determined to shoot in the rain”, he said, to make Middle Earth feel “not like a ‘movie’ world”, which exactly the effect the rain and grime gave to Braveheart‘s Medieval Scotland.

But Braveheart is also full of a different kind of visuals: softer, more aethereal, more surreal. In a couple of shots, this is the result of the demanding schedule and difficult conditions causing some shots to have been left out-of-focus, but in other cases its very much deliberate, especially in the stylized dream sequences (a mainstay of Gibson’s filmography) and in the more romantic scenes.

For instance, Wallace’s wedding night, with the mossy backdrop and Horner’s score (more on that later), feels like something that would not have felt out-of-place for Aragorn and Arwen in Jackson’s film, in spite of it being much more explicit: indeed, Jackson had seriously considered making the relationship with Arwen more explicit, and its rumoured Amazon are deliberating on the same subject now.

Another shot – one of the greatest in all of cinema – is the lamenting bagpiper in sillhuette through the smoke in Braveheart. It has the same feel and a similar position and purpose in the narrative as the Dwarves solemn song for their lost homeland. Its therefore not surprising that the tune of the Dwarves’ song (chosen by Jackson) is not too far from the theme in Braveheart. Both tunes wander from the diegetic music to the score, on which we will talk later on.

This more aethereal style very much influenced the final colour grade of The Lord of the Rings, where Jackson tried to soften the footage a little bit, making it more painterly and gauzy. Braveheart is a historical film, but a lot of it feels like a grim Celtic legend, and Jackson evidentally wanted to capture the same feeling in his film.

Its also in the iconography: Compare the way the armies clash in the battle of Falkirk to the way they do in the Battle of Morannon or in (one of several instances within) the Battle of the Five Armies. Instead of having one army cut through the other like a hot knife through butter (again, as was the case in earlier films) they just clash into a big mass of crowd. Perhaps more of a generic similarity, but the Uruk’s defense at Helm’s Deep (and that of the Elves against Dain’s troops, and that the Dwarves then put against the Orcs) is not at all unlike the chiltrons that Wallace et al put up against the English cavalry. One of Braveheart’s greatest moments is the rush that Wallace has at the end of the Battle of Stirling, which is not unlike how Thorin rallies his troops at the Battle of Azanulbizar or how Theoden declaims “victory!” at Helm’s Deep.

These are all clearly modelled on Braveheart’s (pitch-perfect) evocation of these idioms. While some of these similarities could be considered to be generic, there’s at least one shot that’s clearly strongly based on Braveheart: the so-called “mountain-skiing” shot of Wallace overlooking the highlands is very much the forebearer of Aragorn overlooking Helm’s Deep.

The Battles

Unquestionably, Braveheart‘s biggest influence not just on Rings but on movies in general, was in its depiction of big battles. Prior to Braveheart, big battles were out-of-vogue for thirty years, and even prior to that, they were more about the spectacle of the big crowds assembled for the scene, than about the excitement of the action: David Lean’s attack on Aqaba from Lawrence of Arabia is more about Lean showing-off by covering most of it in one very wide, long take. Highly impressive, but not much of an action sequence: The fighting itself isn’t the subject – it is impressive rather than exciting.

In Braveheart, Gibson wanted to “cover the battles from the inside”, instead: we get a lot of closer shots of our heroes engaged in melee, while the background is filled with extras and the foreground has people passing by to heighten the “busy” feeling of the shot: which is exactly what Jackson would later do in The Lord of the Rings. Early on it cutting the Battle of Helm’s Deep, Jackson learned that if he had more than three or four shots of extras fighting, it started feeling stale, and so he would always cut back to his main characters, much as Gibson did in his battles.

At the same time, Gibson was also the first to provide the audience with a sense of strategy: of what each army was doing at any given point, and which side has the advantage at any given point. In Lean’s battle of Aqaba, its a swift victory for the Arabs, whereas Gibson’s battles have several beats and, in the case of the battle of Falkirk, the tides of the battle change several times in favour of each side and the audience can follow it.

In the Battle of Stirling, we have a series of beats: the Scots feign a partial retreat, goading the English into a premature cavalry charge; they defeat the cavalry with the surprising addition of chiltrons, before engaging in a full melee, while their own cavalry flanks the English.

This was an enormous influence on Jackson: his battles all feature these elements. The surprising cavalry charge that saves the day in both big battles in The Lord of the Rings are obviously Tolkien’s concept, but their cinematic realization bears the mark of the battle of Stirling, which is still the best battle ever put to film.

Indeed, Jackson had to laugh when his battles were compared to those in Seven Samurai, which he had never seen: it only influenced him insofar as it influenced Gibson, who studied Kurosawa (as well as Spartacus, Alexander Nevsky and Chimes at Midnight) closely. In fact, Jackson was the first to do such big battles after Braveheart: In Gladiator there’s only one major battle in the beginning, and we don’t see all that much of the fighting itself. Kingdom of Heaven would then revert back to a more David Lean-esque style of emphasizing the spectacle of the big crowd, often cutting away from the fighting itself alltogether.

There are even specific beats and visuals in Jackson’s battles that harken back to Braveheart: while Jackson had cited Zulu as inspiring the long build-up to the battle; the long standoff in the immediate preamble to Helm’s Deep, followed by the Uruks taunting the defenders, is very close to what Gibson does with the Scotts in Stirling. It is here that Braveheart‘s AD made the comment: “Well, so far we’ve shot all foreplay and no fuck.”

The Battle of Pelennor Fields is closer to the battle of Falkirk, in the sense that its more about the characters than the fighting – its a stage for the drama of characters like Eowyn and Pippin, in much the same way that Falkirk is about Longshanks, Wallaceand Robert the Bruce in a way that the battle of Stirling isn’t.

Falkirk also has another influence on Jackson: the lesson of making each battle different, which is done masterfully in Braveheart. Indeed, for the Battle of the Five Armies, Jackson wanted to have the Dwarves fend-off the Elven arrow barrage by some means which is different to yet another wall of Shields “like Braveheart.

Another influence is the degree of violence. Both Jackson’s and Gibson’s filmography are drenched in gore, and its not hard to detect a tone of disappointment in Jackson’s admission that “the battles can’t be Braveheart violent.” Indeed, he tried to push it as far as he could: every single one of his entries brushed right past the R-rating: indeed, while shooting he was deliberately aiming for “the first cut that we present gets an R-rating and we have to go back and trim some shots […] so that we get a PG[-13] but only just.” Already in preproduction he had the idea of the extended cut, particularly so that he could put those shots back in for a “slightly ‘harder’ version” of the movie. Indeed, the extended cuts ARE more violent, although only The Battle of the Five Armies ended-up scoring the R rating.

The Characters

Braveheart however also had a more profound influence on the films’ characters. For one thing, it was a major summer release in which everyone – even the big American star – were delivering thick Scottish accents, quite unlike (Jackson noted) Kevin Costner’s American accent in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

This had helped cement Jackson’s insistence on British accents and British-Commonwealth actors, in spite of the studios being “concerned that having no American accents will alienate a US audience” – big blockbusters prior to this have always been Americanized: George Lucas had went through the trouble of dubbing almost everyone in Star Wars because he was making it for an American audience, and when Spielberg had considered taking on Harry Potter, he wanted to Americanize it as well.

In early hypothetical discussions with Miramax, they wanted to “Americanize” Rings, too, going as far as suggesting Morgan Freeman for Gandalf! New Line, too, had suggested people like Brad Pitt (Aragorn), Bruce Willis (Boromir) and Christopher Plummer (Gandalf), and were greatly in-favour of Jackson’s proposal of Liv Tyler for Arwen.

Jackson, however, mostly insisted on Brits. To begin with, he wanted all four Hobbits to be Brits: he admits he “would have never thought” of Elijah Wood had he not sent an audition tape voluntarily. Indeed, Wood only sent a tape because Jackson wasn’t going to come to LA to cast the Hobbits, focusing his efforts in London instead. Johny Vegas was a runner-up for Sam, but ruined his audience by arriving hoarse.

Gandalf, Jackson said, was going to be “obviously, an English actor.” In a private convesation about Viggo, Dame Frances Walsh marvelled that “there was nothing English about Viggo and yet he seemed completely right for the part”, which itself was only after they had dispensed with Irishman Stuart Townsend.

In fact, Jackson had specifically wanted at least one member of Braveheart‘s cast: Patrick McGoohan, whom Jackson of course knew previously from his surreal TV show Danger Man, but obviously McGoohan’s turn as the villain in Braveheart did not go unnoticed by him.

Early on, in a conversation with fans, Sir Sean Connery’s name was mentioned for Gandalf (even before New Line suggested him), with Jackson saying “Sean Connery won’t be Gandalf”, concluding that “I don’t think he’s right for the role.” He did however, respond positivelly to the suggestion of McGoohan for the part: “I like the Patrick McGoohan idea somebody mentioned … that type of thinking is the right way to go.” Indeed, McGoohan was the first person Jackson met for the role of Denethor, but Jackson was greatly disappointed when McGoohan proved “quite grumpy.” Nevertheless, there’s more than a touch of McGoohan’s abusive-father from Braveheart in Jackson’s realization of Denethor, a fairly-less sympathetic version of the character than Tolkien’s.

A character even more informed by Braveheart than Denethor is his son, Boromir: he’s much more overtly Patriotic – in a 20th century sense of the word – then book Boromir, who more closely resembles a real Medieval nobleman. I think that’s a very clear lift from the patriotic, borderline-jingoistic Braveheart. Its a comparison made all the more handy by the fact that both Boromir and Wallace lay down their lives.

This would become even more pronounced with Jackson’s Thorin Oakenshield: like Wallace, he too fights to liberate his people’s homeland, unlike book Thorin who seems to just want to reclaim his hoard. Since, like Wallace, Thorin also dies, its hardly surprising that Thorin’s look is basically the same as Wallace’s, again very different to Thorin’s description in the book.

Aragorn is also subtly influenced by Wallace. He doesn’t so much look like him (although his sword recalls Wallace’s hefty claymore, certainly in its dimensions) but there’s one bit where he acts extremlly like Wallace. Braveheart is often derided for its percieved simplicity, which I tend to rail against because Wallace does things that makes audiences wince in ways that other action heroes don’t do: when he captures the English Lord who killed his wife, Wallace offers no chance of pardon: in spite of the English Lord having been captured and disarmed, Wallace just slits his throat.

Now, this kind of act is not presented for the audience to condemn it: its mostly meant to come across as badass, which in a twisted way it does: it IS a movie set in the 14th century, after all, and bearing in mind the heinous deeds of these characters, most audience members are willing to give Wallace a pass, although as this sort of thing recurrs again and again, one can’t help but wince, which (I would argue) adds a complexity to the character.

Kingdom of Heaven tried to do this, much less succesfully, when it showed Roger De Cormier’s son get dispatched, and Troy was even worse with Achilles basically being a big brute throughout most of that film. The Patriot and The Last Samurai also have shades of this.

I would argue that The Return of the King was more succesfull at this when Aragorn just beheads the Mouth of Sauron with no warning. People may disagree as to its effectiveness, but I think there’s little doubt its the same kind of beat as Braveheart‘s: its meant to come across as badass.

Another big influence is the comic relief: its very telling that Jackson not only turned Gimli into the comic-relief, but also gave him a Scottish brogue. This was an early decision – its not Rhys-Davies’ natural accent. Indeed, one of Jackson’s earliest ideas for the role was Sir Billy Connoly (later recast in the similar role of Dain Ironfoot), wanting a “mad Scottish warrior.”

Ironically, the comic character in Braveheart is not Scottish but Irish (albeit played – wonderfully – by a Scotsman), Stephen, who is very much the progenitor of Gimli. One of Gimli’s funniest jokes, “shall I describe it to you – or would you like me to find you a box?” is basically a PG-13 version of Stephen’s hillarious line: “The Lord tells me he can get me out of this mess – but he’s pretty sure you’re fucked!”

Indeed, in earlier drafts, much of Gimli’s comedy was derived from his foul language, and a bit of this survives into the finished film, albeit in Dwarvish without captions. Jackson would revisit this line for The Desolation of Smaug, where it was given a specific meaning: “I shit on your grave!”, very much in the style of the bad-mouthed Stephen.

This irritable, gruff, “mad Scottish” characterization is also appearant in Dain (who uses the most obscene language in the series like “bastards” – a prevalent word in Braveheart – and telling the Elves to “sod off”) and in Dwalin: in early edits of The Desolation of Smaug, Dwalin remarked that the Furnaces are “colder than a well-digger’s arse” – he’s a cross of Stephen and Wallace’s mammoth right-hand man, Hamish. To wit, Jackson had considered Peter Mullan (who had a memorable bit part in Braveheart) for Balin, and he was cast in Amazon’s Lord of the Rings prequel, presumably as Durin III.

Could it also be that Braveheart informed the theme of forbidden love that pervades Jackson’s Middle Earth ouvre? Obviously, the Arwen-Aragorn relationship is all Tolkien, but could Jackson’s decision to play it up have been based on Wallace’s (utterly a-historical, by the way) affair with the French Princess, married to the English prince? I certainly see shades of Kili and Tauriel there, especially in the way the relationship ends in tragedy. Both aren’t among the most succesfull elements of their respective films, but I do think the affair with Isabella is worth it for the payoff we get off of its back.

There are other bits and bobs here, too: is Dourif’s parchment-pale Grima Wormtongue so unlike Smythe, the sickly English pederast that sets the events of Braveheart in motion? Is Theoden’s war speech not in the style of Wallace’s rallying speech before the Battle of Stirling?

The Tone and Themes

Even more importantly, perhaps, the tone of the films is deeply influenced by Braveheart: Arguably, The Lord of the Rings was much more serious and dark (and a touch more melodramatic) than any of the big, fantastical blockbusters that have come before. And that’s because it wasn’t concieved as a “fantasy” film in the way that Star Wars or the contemporary Harry Potter films were: it was concieved of as a pseudo-historical film like Braveheart.

Indeed, When New Line’s CEO first saw dailies of Rings, his response was recorded as “everything is so serious!” At a screening of early footage, his partner Michael Lynne said “its actually a drama!”

This air of seriousness is achieved through many things, one of which is the films’ willingness to let sad beats like Gandalf’s demise linger and fester for a long share of screentime. This is, I think, very close to the way in which the death of Wallace’s father does in Braveheart, or how the shadow of the defeat at Falkirk hangs over the last third of the film; something Christopher Nolan would later also do in Batman Begins with the death of Bruce’s parents. Films aimed at a younger crowd would sweep these kinds of beats under the rug a minute later.

Beyond the earnest performances, the tone is greatly influenced by the score. Interestingly, while the studio was very keen, Jackson didn’t want James Horner: he had tried synching some of his tracks to the animatic to mixed results. Says Jackson:

Some of the more obvious choices, such as James Horner’s score for Braveheart, seemed predictable and clichéd whereas once you added Howard’s music to our pictures, they immediately became atmospheric, dark and evocative.

I would argue that this, too, was an influence: knowing where to diverge from Braveheart, but nevertheless using it as a touchstone: that it was an “obvious” choice is itself a mark of an influence. Furthermore, pieces of Horner’s score were nevertheless used for the animatic, including the pitch video to New Line.

When Shore came to score the film, the temp-track had used “bits of Braveheart in some of the more epic scenes”, which were also used for those parts of the Cannes preview that had not been scored by Shore; and in the first couple of trailers. Both Shore’s early Shire pieces and Plan 9’s Flaming Red Hair were scored (independently of each other) in the soulful Celtic style of Braveheart. This was under Jackson’s directive, which he had decided upon during pre-production: “I’d like a create a Celtic feel”, he said. By The Hobbit, Shore had incorporated the Uileann Pipes and Highland bagpipes used by Horner in the Scottish epic.

Another influence was the pace: both films are around the three-hour mark. Braveheart‘s rough-cut screening went so well that the studio head immediately declared it a masterwork (quite right) and said she doesn’t care what length it would be. With The Lord of the Rings, Jackson shared final cut with CEO Robert Shaye. While all parties are adamant that Shay never invoked his right to cut the film, he did insist that The Fellowship of the Ring be no longer than 2.5-hours, which Jackson “ignored”, ending up at a length (theatrically, at least) shockingly close to that of Braveheart.

Structurally, the way the two films go about telling a three-hour story is actually very different: Braveheart’s narrative is much less streamlined (which is not to say its worse!) whereas Jackson and his co-writers had some formal understanding of the three-act structure and tried to mould the story into it. Nevertheless, it was the precedent set by Braveheart (which, in this regard, itself took a page from Dances With Wolves) that made it concievable for The Lord of the Rings to be this lengthy.

Another influence was in the narrative itself: The Lord of the Rings is principally in the action-adventure genre. Braveheart is certainly an action movie, with elements of adventure, but after the Battle of Stirling it starts morphing into a Machievalian thriller of sorts between Wallace, the nobles and Robert the Bruce. “That may be the true heart of the picture”, says writer Randall Wallace.

While Jackson obviously embraced the action-adventure element of The Lord of the Rings, he often seems at his happiest when he gets to delve into the same, thriller-like aspects of the storyline, like the grievances between Theoden and Denethor. He particularly relished the first half of The Battle of the Five Armies, which had nothing to do with the titular battle and everything to do with the intrigue between Thorin, Bard and Thranduil. He enjoyed making Gandalf a “strategic manipulator” rather than merely the requisite old sage. This aspect is especially relevant now that Amazon wish to delve back into Middle Earth to tell a likewise Machiavelian story.

But Braveheart also influenced the very themes of the work. Both The Lord of the Rings and the script to Braveheart were written by deeply-Catholic writers, and so its unsurprising that they both coincide in certain points, such as a strong theme of martyrdom. Gibson is also deeply catholic, although Jackson and his co-writers are notably not, so this is a case of similarities in the source material rather than filmmaking.

Actually, Jackson had said he didn’t want to put his own thematic ideas into the films, but evidentally (and inevitably) he had, and these had been influenced by the Gibson Magnum Opus. One of the most significant ways in which Braveheart shaped Jackson’s translation of Tolkien’s themes to cinema is one which we already touched upon: it injected it with a much stronger, 20th-century sense of patriotism. This is appearant in the characters of Boromir and Thorin (and the Dwarves of The Hobbit in general), but also in the Hobbits setting out “to save the Shire.” Its very much a patriotic sentiment that is anachronistic to the vaugely-Medieval setting of the book, and its not very appearant (albeit not wholly absent) from Tolkien’s book.

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Chen

Historian and perpetual Wagnerian, I had discovered the Lord of the Rings along with Tolkien’s other, multifarious writings after the release of The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001. As an avid filmgoer and writer, I take a particular interest in adaptations of Tolkien’s works – past, present and future, realized or otherwise – and participate with Fellowship’s podcasts in that capacity, researching and discussing the Amazon show.

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