Cinematography is a special branch of filmmaking I hold very dear. The ability to convey a story visually, through the movement of a camera, the setting of a scene and the action of a character, is one of the most powerful tools of making a good film.
Tied to this are also those visual transitions that help to alter the mood of a scene by whatever is happening on screen. For example: two characters talking to each other in a room, when the camera suddenly swings round behind the back of one of the characters. Suddenly, the conversation changes direction or something is introduced that shifts the overall tone.
Nothing quite exemplifies this idea in The Lord of the Rings than two pivotal scenes in The Two Towers and The Return of the King, to convey this change in the character of Théoden and the setting he is in.
Let’s take a look at both scenes individually …
Gandalf the White rides to Edoras. He releases Théoden from Saruman’s grip and is presented with his sword Herugrim. As the King holds his sword up — literally splicing the film frame in two — the camera shifts to the left, using the sword as a transition to demonstrate Théoden’s altering expression from surprise and relief to anger.
I don’t know about you, but that simple camera move and brilliant piece of acting just give me chills. You can literally see the change in both the character’s and the setting’s mood as the sword swings across the screen from left to right.
Now, the same thing happens in The Return of the King to the same character, but in very different circumstances …
The Rohirrim have arrived to witness the besieged city of Minas Tirith. Their King compels them to battle and they ride over the Pelennor Fields in earnest battle lust. The orcs despair and flee, and Rohan seemingly saves the day. A confident Théoden regroups his men, only to hear an ominous sound that quickly changes his expression from one of hope to near despair. Yet again, his own sword swings into action to present the audience with this emotional shift.
In a sense, this acts as the reverse from the kind of alteration found in The Two Towers. Here, that same sword movement shifts the tone from one of confidence to gloom, and is presented as a kind of foreshadowing to Théoden’s own fate.
And that folks, is one of the multitude of reasons that make The Lord of the Rings such a memorable and enjoyable viewing experience. It’s not just the story or the characters, or the world itself, but also the exquisite filmmaking traits that reverberate across the entire trilogy.
I miss Peter Jackson’s bygone directorial skill …