The War of the Rohirrim as an Intermezzo
Before Fellowship of the Fans was a glimmer in Fellowship’s eye, one of the things I did on Reddit was a a structuralist study of film series according to the three-act structure: basically, taking a film series as though it were on long film told in parts and seeing how well its structured, when viewed in order and as though for the first time. This brings into question: Where and how will The War of the Rohirrim sit within the bigger construct of the Middle Earth film series? Should be placed as per the story chronology order, before An Unexpected Journey, or elsewhere? Perhaps its actually best enjoyed as a “break” between the two trilogies? Like an intermezzo?
Obviously, not all film series function in a way that makes such a formalist study of structure permissible: some film series are anthologies, where each film is a standalone vignette: Indiana Jones is perhaps the best example, but so are Star Trek, Mission Impossible, Fast and Furious, James Bond, most DC-themed films and so forth. Actual cycles, where the films function are parts of a single story are quite rare: we have the Harry Potter films, the Star Wars films and, significantly, the Middle Earth films.
The difference between an anthology and a cycle is equivalent to the difference between a comic-strip and a proper novel. Not that these definitions are necessarily binary: Just look at the Marvel “Cinematic Universe”: In spite of the (retroactive) moniker “Infinity Saga”, you can’t in good conscience say that ALL Marvel films (up to Phase IV) are about the conflict between Thanos and the Avengers, but it is what they all culminate it.
Cyclical film series can also have anthological aspects: even without counting the spinoffs (or the sequel trilogy, for that matter), Star Wars had actually been originally envisioned as an anthology – not as a cycle – and still retains some of the trappings of an anthology.
As cycles go, Middle Earth is the longest (19 hours and 17 minutes sans end-credits) but also the most tightly-knit: six movies, ALL BY THE SAME FILMMAKERS, charting a single central conflict, that of Sauron versus the Free People: we have the set-up of Sauron’s first appearance as “The Necromancer”; the conflict proper, as the Dol Guldur army is unleashed, effectivelly jump-starting the War of the Ring; replete with a major twist in the proceeding as, in the prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring, Bilbo’s magic ring is revealed as the secret weapon upon which the tide of the war hinges; a low-point in the conflict in which the Ringbearer is captured and Minas Tirith brought to its knees, followed by a triumphant climax as Sam and the Rohirrim, respectivelly, show-up to save the day and the War is ultimately won.
What we’ve charted here is a three-act structure. Of course, these plot points appear in any story, but its the proportions that count: the basic premise is that you don’t want to sit and wait too long for the central conflict to manifest intself, and so the first act should end within 20-30% of the runtime, and likewise the climax is difficult to sustain for very long and is subsequently quite short. In other words, its a short-long-short structure.
Other film series tend to lack this prportion: even in Harry Potter, which we generally experience as a satisfying multi-film story, it takes exactly half of the series’ runtime for the main conflict to begin in earnest, with Voldemort finally appearing in the flesh; and both it and the Star Wars series (perhaps the wonkiest of the bunch) have continuity hiccups and lack of stylistic continuity due to changing filmmakers which further hampers our ability to enjoy them as parts of a would-be single movie.
Middle Earth, however, fits reasonably well: Sauron’s armies issue from Dol Guldur 26% of the way through, the midpoint twist comes right at the beginning of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, 43% of the way through, and the low-point followed by the move towards resolution at 92% of the way through.
That it was all done by one writer/producer/director and one production crew, with all six entries going into production within less than a decade of each other, certainly helps, too; especially after the Ultra High-Definition remaster. In that way, it really is, as Sir Ian McKellen says, “not a ‘franchise’, but a series of films.”
Jackson had in fact been explicit that he would like the films to be experienced in the narrative sequence even by first-time viewers: “[new audiences] will have no memory or knoweldge of how these films were released or came-out, all they’ll have is a six-part box-set and they’ll hopefully start at the beginning and, if they like it, they’ll go through to the end.” And, true to form, his prequels are designed to NOT spoil the plot of the “later” films like the Star Wars prequel trilogy spoils the twist of The Empire Strikes Back. There’s even a funny, telling bit on the audio commentary on An Unexpected Journey where, of Narsil’s appearance he says, “it will come to have a great significance in the later trilogy.”
And then… Warner Brothers decided to make The War of the Rohirrim. Jackson, having just finished a three-part Beatles documentary, had expressed great enthusiasm towards the project, but is not involved: its all the more commendable that he doesn’t let the series dominate his career. But, then, how (and where) does that film fit in the Middle Earth cycle? On the face of it, this would be first anthological entry in the series, our Rogue One as it were, which would on the face of it, be disconcerting: is it the beginning of the “comixification” of Middle Earth? Is this great series doomed to fragment into a picaresque lineup of movies like the overwrought comic-book franchises?
Like the Gareth Edwards film, or even like Rowling’s maligned Fantastic Beasts films, it reprises quite a few visuals from the main cycle (Edoras, Dunharrow, Helm’s Deep, the Mumakil and possibly Isengard and even Minas Tirith). Lines like “Helm’s Deep has saved them in the past” will certainly gain a new significance for audiences.
The War of the Rohirrim can even build-up elements that will be important for “later”: Nerd of the Rings concludes that we might see The Deeping Wall erected, which is certainly important for The Two Towers. Nevertheless, the film doesn’t directly further the story of the conflict between Sauron and the Free People, UNLESS the former is shown (or hinted-at) as being behind the Easterling and Corsair attacks.
But, there are ways in which The War of the Rohirrim is different to films like Rogue One and certainly Solo: for one thing, at least at the moment, its one single film rather than one of a number of slated “spinoffs.” Even if its (hopeful) success engenders more early-Third Age stories like the Fall of Arnor or the Alliance of Cirion and Eorl, those stories (with the possible exception of the Kin-Strife) DO involve Sauron and his minions (and would, hopefully, be done live-action!).
Sure, The War of the Rohirrim – much more so than any Star Wars spinoff, as it happens – involves quite a few creatives from the films: Despite the Disovery merger, Carolyn Blackwood is still heading New Line, and is the executive producer of the film just like she was on The Hobbit. John Howe and Weta Workshop pulling double duty from working on The Rings of Power, but so are Alan Lee, as well as Sir Richard Taylor and Philippa Boyens producing. Some of us are also still holding our fingers crossed to have Howard Shore (long reported to be involved in The Rings of Power) score The War of the Rohirrim; and if Philippa Boyens had any hand in picking the cast (which seems likely given the enthusiasm she expressed over the voice-cast) she might have helped cast some of the rejects of The Lord of the Rings casting process, like Sir Patrick Stewart, who read for Theoden.
Nevertheless, its being filmed by fresh blood: directed by Kenji Kamiyama, produced by Joseph Chou and written by Arty Papageorgiou and, interestingly, by Phoebe Gittins, aka Philippa Boyens’ daughter, who cameo-d in The Desolation of Smaug. She and Papageorgiou are rewriting an earlier script (which maybe disatisfied Boyens?) by Jeffrey Addiss and Will Matthews.
On a more ceremonial level, The War of the Rohirrim is the only Middle Earth film thus far to be scheduled for a summer release, although The Battle of the Five Armies was originally slated for such a release, as well, so there is some precedent going on.
But, really, its different in other, much more meaningful ways: It being animated is one very major, palpable difference, obviously; and its likely to be a much shorter presentation, too: at the moment lets assume a circa-120-minute film. Just as meaningfully, though, its a story of inner-wars within mankind, and as such is poised to feature strictly men and maybe a cursory roles for Saruman: as it is, Dwarves, Elves, Orcs and even Hobbits (sandwiched into The Rings of Power) are all absent.
Indeed, it is the only Middle Earth story thus far with no overt fantasy elements, except the Mumakil (which are really just fantastically-upscaled war elephants) and maybe the fantasy inherent to the topography of places like Dunharrow or Minas Tirith (should the latter appear). But there’s no overt use of magic (Saruman notwithstanding), neither overt fantasy creatures like Trolls or Dragons, nor any supernatural phenomena as such. Sure, they can theoretically shove things like Ents in there, but being that its a single film, likely of around 120 minutes, its unlikely they could shove too much stuff into it. In that regard, its the complete antithesis to the more fantastical-seeming The Rings of Power, which is not part of the same audiovisual continuity, strictly speaking.
Now, technically speaking, The War of the Rohirrim takes place BEFORE An Unxpected Journey: about a decade prior to the events featured in that film’s prologue, in fact. But I don’t think it would fit into the viewing order that way: its not suited to serve as a prelude, not just because its animated and the main cycle is live-action but also because it doesn’t have that “in the beginning” storytelling quality that An Unexpected Journey has. But also, by putting it at the front, we lose the short-long-short proportion of the three-act structure: assuming a 120-minute film, the first act becomes elongated to 34% of the cycle’s runtime. If it longer, it’ll be even wonkier!
Rather, I think the best place to put it, structurally speaking, is between the trilogies. Its even inherent to the way the film is branded: although (like with The Rings of Power and any number of games) it was done for brand-recognision purposes, calling it “The Lord of the Rings” means it will sit on the shelf more neatly alongside those films than alongside the preceeding The Hobbit.
By putting it there, we’re elongating the first part of the second act, which is disproportionally short compared to the second part: from being 15% of the total runtime, its now extended to 24%, putting the midpoint twist closer to the actual midpoint of the cycle as a whole. If its longer, it will make the two halves of the conflict even more symmetrical.
Also, placed there, the different style of the film and its distinct narrative can serve not as a tangent but as a welcome “break” from the overall style and story of the main cycle just as we transition from The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings. This is analogous to an old storytelling form: the intermzzo or intermedio. In Renaissance plays, the action was typically divided into several acts. Filling the breaks were the intermedios: short acts, unrelated to the story of the main play and deliberately of a contrasting mode and style: if the main story was a tragedy, the intermedios would form a comedy.
In Baroque opera, these developed into the intermezzo: so the three acts of the serious Il prigionier superbo were bracketted with the two acts of La serva padrona, a light, domestic comedy contrasting with the earnestness of the opera seria. All the more fitting, since this tradition of intermezzi evolved into the concept of double billing, which evolved into the tradition of preceeding a film with animated shorts, which is kind of what we have here, wrought on a much larger scale.
The War of the Rohirrim could serve the same function, at least until more Middle Earth films go into development. The fact that the films themselves are so non-linear, jumping in and out of flashbacks and flashforwards, makes it all the more palatable to fit the film in the middle of the cycle, out of the chronological order of the story or the фабула, to quote Viktor Shklovsky.
However, is the Intermedio tradition a succesfull one that we should draw upon it? At the time it was so popular that the intermedi often proved more entertaining, popular and enduring than the main event, but its noteworthy that its not a tradition that had survived to modern day dramaturgy. Certainly, I wouldn’t want each entry in the Middle Earth cycle to be bracketed by “a Middle Earth story”.
Again, the Star Wars comparison is an illustrative one: how is the dramatic structure really expected to work if we’re “supposed” to watch three films, ostensibly about the rise of the Sith, only to interupt this flow by seguing into two standalone entries (Rogue One AND Solo) in a row before returning to the main event? What’s more, the added spinoffs do not aid in evening-out the structural issues with Star Wars as a cycle. This is certainly something we’ll have to contend with as even more Middle Earth third-age stories are made, presumably, but that’s still in the future.
I guess a good comfort is that there aren’t actually that many early-Third Age stories that lend themselves to be adapted: there are basically a trilogy of Gondor stories – the Kin-strife, the Battle of the Camp and the Alliance of Cirion and Eorl – and there’s The Fall of Arnor, which is alluded to numerous times in The Hobbit. Could those all be interspersed amidst the six films to create a single, nonlinear but satisfying viewing experience? One wonders, one wonders…
But that’s way in the future, if at all. With regards to The War of the Rohirrim, the only question remaining is, within the viewing order I proposed, will The War of the Rohirrim “spoil” later story elements: Will seeing Edoras, Dunharrow, Helm’s Deep, the Mumakil and so forth so much earlier in the course of the viewing experience spoil the gratification of getting to see them in The Two Towers and The Return of the King? Jackson spends a solid hour deliberately hiding Edoras: when Eomer first brings the wounded Theodred there, he intentionally forgoes giving us a wideshot, so that we only get one when our heroes first get there, and are all the more awed by it for having waited for it so long.
On the other hand, having The War of the Rohirrim precede The Fellowship of the Ring means that when Gandalf namedrops “The gap of Rohan” (the first mention of the realm in the cycle) it’ll play more as a conscious setup for the kingdom’s major role in the following entries. I’ve known of viewers who, when Rohan is first introduced in The Two Towers, view it as a kind of detour. The War of the Rohirrim, placed before The Fellowship of the Ring, could help redress this.
Obviously this is still rather speculative on my part: to some extent, we won’t know how The War of the Rohirrim plays next to the live-action films until we get to actually see it, or at least until we get a much stronger sense of its visuals and the scope of its story: what role does Gondor (which ultimately comes to Rohan’s aid) plays in it? What role does Saruman play in it? Does Sauron figure into it at all?
All of these are important questions to answer not just to know what we’re facing with this film, but also to know exactly how it will sit alongside the live-action film on the same shelf. Some of these will be answered to some extent when we know the casting and certainly when we have a trailer, but ultimately there’s no substitute for watching the film.