The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost… for none now live who remember it.— Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett)
No film’s opening quote has so perfectly embodied the spirit of not just its own narrative, but the impact it would have on cinema. One look at what Peter Jackson’s legendary The Lord of the Rings trilogy has become now—a monolithic piece of modern pop culture that immediately cemented its place in blockbuster cinema and propelled its cast and crew to untold heights—obfuscates what expectations for it were before the premiere of its first instalment, The Fellowship of the Ring, in 2001, and the pervasive uncertainty surrounding what it would end up becoming. Even mentioning the year of its release alone should be enough to convey how high the stakes were for such a large-scale film franchise being made (especially in the pre-Marvel Studios era, where such gargantuan cinematic tasks were financially unwieldy), but merely describing when the trilogy was planned and created doesn’t do justice to how much of a liability it was as it was being made.
All legendary tales of yore begin somewhere, and while The Lord of the Rings‘ odyssey begins with the forging of the Great Rings, the odyssey of its production starts in 1995, in which a then-breakout Peter Jackson (with formative memories of reading J.R.R Tolkien’s fantasy novels as a boy), sought to create a Tolkien-esque fantasy film after wrapping The Frighteners (1996); a desire that soon evolved into plans to adapt The Lord of the Rings itself into live-action. Up until this point, however, Jackson had only really made schlocky horror-comedies such as Bad Taste (1987) and the grounded psychological thriller Heavenly Creatures (1994), which weren’t strong indicators of a director gifted in crafting multi-million-dollar epics for the silver screen.
At the time, Jackson was in contract with the now-vilified Harvey Weinstein and Miramax, a connection that proved to be useful in getting the rights to Rings from producer Saul Zaentz. The planning that ensued, however, was laden with disagreements and conflicts, as Jackson’s original intention to make two films from the novel were shot down by Miramax, who asked that he adapt all of Tolkien’s volumes into a single two-hour film. It wasn’t until further connections were made with New Line Cinema that Jackson was thankfully permitted to expand his plans into making three full movies rather than just two. Jackson was now all set to begin realising his vision for The Lord of the Rings; a journey that was going to be something far, far bigger than anything anyone involved in the project had taken on before.
What made The Fellowship of the Ring‘s success so undeniably vital as a result was the colossal risk it posed: the fact that the film being anything but an incredible beginning to a major saga would be an instant death knell to the careers of everyone taking part in its making. And yet, The Fellowship of the Ring isn’t merely a phenomenal beginning to a mythical trek down the corners of Middle-earth—it’s a flat-out perfect beginning, brimming with craftsmanship so ambitious and spotless it becomes evident just how well the cast and crew understood the risks, and proceeded to throw all their blood, sweat, and tears into ensuring this film could be the best it could be. The end result is a pivotal work of not just high-fantasy cinema, but of cinema in general, one that so fundamentally altered its medium that no other blockbuster since has come close to staking a claim to its influence.
Here, we return to the forging of the Great Rings, the impetus for this trilogy’s grandiose battle between Good and Evil. Narrated by a sagely alluring Cate Blanchett in her unmistakable portrayal of the Elvish Lady Galadriel, The Fellowship of the Ring‘s opening sequence introduces us to the world of Middle-earth—its magic, history, races, and regions—with such remarkable efficiency and emotion that there’s almost no way for even a half-engaged audience member to be unaware of the ensuing events. Galadriel opens her monologue by explaining that 19 magical rings of power were given to three races of Middle-earth during its Second Age: three to the immortal and wise Elves, seven to the craftsmen Dwarves, and nine to the powerful yet easily corruptible Men, all of which were used to govern each race’s respective realms.
“Yet they were all of them deceived,” Galadriel continues, “for another ring was made…” that belonged to the Dark Lord Sauron, who forged the all-powerful One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom in Mordor in an attempt to control the bearers of the Great Rings. To fight off his growing influence, an alliance of Men and Elves assembled to defeat his forces, a massive battle depicted with jaw-dropping spectacle in the film’s first major action setpiece. Gargantuan hordes of Orcs slam themselves against equally enormous, regimented battle lines of soldiers and knights, with arrows whizzing through the air at mach speed while hand-to-hand combat on the field is hard-hitting, unpolished, and at points starkly brutal.
Framing all of this with dynamic, overpowering panache are sweeping wide shots from cinematographer Andrew Lesnie that give us a sense of the battlefield’s vast size, and handheld close-ups offering us an extraordinarily raw perspective on the fighting’s grittiness. Animated by a special CGI system called MASSIVE, which individually programmed each fighter on the field to take on unique movements, this battle in particular essentially asks for special highlighting, as it could very well have been the stirring climax of any other epic high-fantasy film. Instead, it’s placed smack in the opening 20-minutes, at once making it a piece of foreshadowing for the spectacle of more battles to come in the trilogy, and a memorable first impression of the scope and atmosphere the trilogy intends to execute.
The battle for the free peoples of Middle-earth ends in victory; Sauron is defeated by Isildur (Harry Sinclair), heir to the throne of Gondor, who dismembers the Dark Lord’s fingers using his father’s half-broken sword and takes the One Ring for himself. After being ambushed by Orcs some time later, however, he and his soldiers are killed, and during the massacre the Ring escapes, not to be seen for thousands of years before being found by a Hobbit named Gollum (Andy Serkis), who’s corrupted by its influence over the course of four centuries. It’s not until after that time that Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) discovers it in Gollum’s cave, and secretly keeps it with him in his hometown, the Shire—portrayed in the film as a modest place full of similarly modest gardeners and rural lifestyles, and whose concept of conflict is at most limited to light skirmishes between families. Greenery lines every inch of its hills, its wooden houses and huts constructed with round features and antiquated simplicity; another early sign of the film’s thoroughly well-researched production design.
On Bilbo’s 111th birthday, however, the Ring awakens once again, and his good friend, the legendary wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), begins to notice its troublingly negative effects on Bilbo, among them being an unusually extreme sense of possessiveness and anger. When the Ring is soon handed down to Bilbo’s nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood), Gandalf, who realises its dark history and true nature, tasks Frodo and three other Hobbits—the naïve-yet-loyal Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin), as well as the playfully loudmouthed Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd)—with taking the Ring and leaving the Shire, setting them down a path of both horrifying danger and wondrous awe as they come to realise the stakes of their newfound mission.
As the film begins to expand its world-building, every single location it introduces contributes immaculately to the diverse, vibrant range of this trilogy’s Middle-earth. For one, the tower of Saruman the White (Christopher Lee), the head wizard who Gandalf consults immediately after sending the Hobbits away, is a deeply menacing, pitch-black industrial structure surrounded by countless variants of foliage and plant life; all of which Saruman eventually tears down to barren, fiery shreds long after he reveals his loyalty to Sauron and betrays Gandalf in a starkly suspenseful scene. Meanwhile, lavish locations such as the Elvish city of Rivendell are lit gorgeously by the sun shining through the waterfalls and mountains surrounding it, its luxurious architecture integrated into the forests and imbuing the entire structure with a profound sense of life. As for the Mines of Moria, the Dwarvish location of the film’s climactic centerpiece, its barren, empty, yet colossal halls and stairs are the detritus of an erstwhile industrial stronghold, a place once inhabited by countless Dwarf craftsmen before being disemboweled by darker forces who’ve left nothing behind of its former glory.
Howard Shore’s remarkable score, now canonised in modern film history as a quintessential film soundtrack, doesn’t just complement these distinct locations and set-pieces—in fact, its litany of leitmotifs (repeated musical themes) reinforce the identities of not just the film’s settings, but also its characters and thematic focal points. One of the first major musical themes of the trilogy—introduced while the title card fades in after the film’s opening quote—is a mystifying and foreboding minor-key string melody that’s consistently reincorporated in scenes where the Ring’s alluring influence takes centre stage. The Shire, in the meantime, finds itself with a violin and woodwind-centric theme, a folkish tune that evokes both nostalgia and a youthful sense of joy: perfectly fitting for a location that essentially serves as the trilogy’s hometown-like anchor. And for a character-focused example, the banshee-like Nazgûl—the fully corrupted forms of the nine Men who bore their Great Rings, and the first major threat that the four Hobbits face early on in their travels—receive a tensely descending brass-heavy motif that explodes with a bombastic chorus singing in the ancient speech of Men.
After being rescued from the Nazgûl by a ranger named Strider and an Elf named Arwen (Liv Tyler), the four Hobbits and Gandalf make their way to Rivendell, where they’re introduced to Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Arwen’s father and an noble Elf who fought alongside Isildur in their battle for Middle-earth. There, they meet with none other than the members of the titular Fellowship: Boromir (Sean Bean), the noble heir apparent to the throne of Gondor; Legolas (Orlando Bloom), an expert Elvish archer; Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), a blunt and often comedic Dwarvish warrior; and Strider, who reveals himself to be Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Isildur’s heir and the rightful king of Gondor. Together, they join forces to carry the Ring to Mordor and throw it into the fires of the volcanic Mount Doom, the only place where the Ring—and Sauron, by association—can be destroyed. Shore musically punctuates this moment by utilizing a fully-fledged variation of a triumphant, fanfare-esque letimotif for the Fellowship itself, one that emerges in scattered pieces before their eventual union and builds even further as the film reaches its climax.
Merely the act of juggling such a colossal cast in writing through adapting Tolkien’s work is an admirable and punishingly difficult feat for Jackson as well as co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. Even more impressive, however, is how Jackson and the casting directors ended up finding the perfect troupe of actors for these roles. The members of the Fellowship are rather archetypal in characterisation, but that doesn’t stop each performer here from bringing the absolute best from their characters on a consistent basis, especially when most of their roles have only just started showing signs of further complexity and development. For one, Bloom and Rhys-Davies are excellent at portraying the contrast between Legolas’s often smug sense of refinement and Gimli’s more brutishly clumsy personality, but anyone who’s aware of the growing bond the two share over the course of the next two films will have much to chew on in regards to the details in their friendship’s more adversarial beginnings.
As for the Hobbits, Wood and Astin are nothing short of marvellous as Frodo and Sam, respectively—portraying them as both meek and, at points, relatively innocent (especially an important trait for this first instalment), yet always being sure to give their characters a sense of genuine loyalty, making their contributions to the Fellowship far more sincere and pure-hearted than any of the trained warriors they trek through Middle-earth with. Mortenson, meanwhile, portrays Aragorn in Fellowship with a thorough understanding of his true potential, emphasizing the chivalrous nobility that Aragorn already embodies, before expressing how much further Aragorn still needs to grow as a leader and as a warrior in order to reclaim his birthright. Playing off of Mortensen is Bean’s portrayal of Boromir, whose ambitious, well-intentioned aims of using the Ring’s power for noble purposes leads to him embodying the easily corrupted hearts of Men—an eventual source of insurmountable tension for the rest of the Fellowship.
Special mention, of course, goes to Ian McKellen as Gandalf, one of the few performances in film history where the actor is completely, entirely irreplaceable for the role. As both an (evidently!) enormous devotee of Tolkien’s work and a prolific actor in theatre, McKellen portrays Gandalf with a stunning amount of controlled emotionality, incorporating even the most minute traits specifically written by Tolkien for Gandalf alongside more obvious characteristics such as the wizard’s unrivaled moral sagacity. His dynamic voice and profoundly expressive eyes both give him an at-points-overpowering charisma that’s impossible not to be utterly enchanted or awe-inspired by as Gandalf demonstrates unimaginable power, boundless kindness and nobility, and longstanding wisdom in equal measure.
The major turning point in Fellowship, and the first to be found in the trilogy as a whole, is the journey through the Mines of Moria; the greatest test of the Fellowship’s integrity, and one that seems to end in disaster, as their battle against the mines’ most hellish threats—not to mention their resistance against the Ring’s seductive allure—have devastating consequences for the stability of the group. Shore’s leitmotifs, in response, also falter and fragment, each recapitulation of the Fellowship theme becoming more solemn, brief, and sparse in instrumentation, while nearly all of the cast’s performances take on a darker, almost mourning air merged with their characters’ typical personalities, weighed down by the realisation that the strength of the Fellowship as a unit may never fully recover after the crushing defeats, betrayals, and losses that occur.
However, as the story slowly leads into the next volume in the trilogy, The Two Towers (2002), the final moments of The Fellowship of the Ring embody determination and hope; the need to continue fighting for the right thing even as insurmountable tragedy arises, because the peril of turning back now and giving up is far too great to bear. And perhaps it’s that deeply human, sincere core at the heart of The Lord of the Rings that makes all of its volumes and parts so moving—beneath all of the spectacle and the enormity of Middle-earth is a tale that evokes profoundly intimate, personal emotions and scales them up to the colossal size of the world its people live in. In times like these, where evil and tragedy seem more prevalent than ever in our everyday lives, The Fellowship of the Ring forever remains a pivotally inspirational viewing experience even as merely the beginning of a grander story: a sprawlingly powerful reminder of the crushing difficulties that come with fighting for a better world, yet also one of the light at the end of the tunnel that lives on when we continue to persevere.
“A wizard is never late, Frodo Baggins,” Gandalf says near the beginning of the story, “nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.” And 20 years after Fellowship‘s initial release, the quote almost feels self-referential; no newcomer to the trilogy will ever be too late to understand its universally acclaimed place in pop culture, and diehard fans of the trilogy will continue to readily acknowledge the still-meteoric and everlasting impact of seeing Fellowship again in repeat viewings, even after all this time. To quote the Grey Wizard once again: you can learn all that there is to know about its ways in a month, and yet after twenty years… it can still surprise you at a pinch.
NEW ZEALAND • USA | 2001 | 178 MINUTES (THEATRICAL) • 228 MINUTES (EXTENDED EDITION) | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH • SINDARIN
Cast & Crew
director: Peter Jackson.
writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson (based on the novel by J.R.R Tolkien).
starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Sean Bean, Ian Holm & Andy Serkis.