The middle chapter in any trilogy has the unfortunate luck of being an oasis interlude that by definition can’t have an opening or a conclusion, because a hunk of story came before it and, naturally, there’s more to come after. However in the case of Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, it adapts and adjusts that malady by finding it’s own groove with a surging forward momentum that is removed from the episodic nature of both Fellowship and Return Of The King. It’s not my personal favourite of the three (Fellowship holds that trophy on sheer potent nostalgia alone) but to me it’s the most unique in the sense that *because* it has no bookend on either side of its narrative, it ironically feels like the most independent chapter.
There’s a restless surge of movement from every side of the action here; Frodo and Sam are uneasily led by Gollum through a haunted, labyrinthine marsh ever closer to the acrid peaks of Mordor. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli furiously race to save the entire population of Rohan from devastation at the hands of Saruman, the good wizard who went about as bad as you can go, and his manipulative lackey Wormtongue. Merry and Pippin are whisked away on the shoulders of Ent elder Treebeard on an endless hike through Fangorn Forest, and eventually Isengard itself. Even Gandalf doesn’t get a sit-down or a smoke break, propelled on a dizzying battle with the Balrog and thrown right back into the struggle for Middle Earth with Tim for nought but a wardrobe update and hair dye. It’s that movement, the ever forward rhythm that sets this one apart and emphasizes what a truly massive journey this whole story is. Fellowship had dreamy interludes in Rivendell, whimsical leisure time spent in The Shire and near constant time to reflect and sit down for these characters, and Return had… six different endings that broke the pace. Two Towers begins with fiery chaos in Moria, holds that note throughout and finishes literal moments after the thunderclap battle of Helms Deep, which is still just an incredible piece of large scale filmmaking.
This one also introduced two of my absolute favourite characters in the whole trilogy, Theoden king of Rohan and his warrior niece Eowyn. Played by Bernard Hill and Miranda Otto, these two performances just sing through the whole film, drawing sympathies not just for Rohan but the entire human race, it’s struggle and earning every cheer out loud moment. The whole conflict with Rohan, despite again not being the inciting event in the war for Middle Earth or even the final battle, feels very immediate and important thanks to Hill, Otto, everyone involved and the monumental special effects involved in bringing the terrifying Uruk Hai army to life. There’s a tactile use of CGI that’s almost subtle enough to blend in with the real world elements, and despite being made like almost two decades ago, they still hold up and eclipse other similar efforts in more recent years, especially with the battle, Treebeard and poor Gollum who still looks fantastic. The stuff with Frodo is less compelling, or at least to me, I’ve always found in the latter two films that his trajectory gets increasingly dark, horrific and suffocating and find myself counting down the seconds until we rejoin the others. I suppose that’s the point as he is carrying that terrible Ring, but nevertheless, always tough to make palatable.
The climactic battle that goes on for nearly fifteen minutes, the incredibly cathartic siege of the trees on Isengard, the hair raising Warg attack, Gandalf’s final boss battle with the Balrog, Eomer (Karl Urban, a study in badassery) and his company massacring the Uruk war party, all are standout moments and fantastic pieces of cinema. But there are a few moments that are always present and important in my mind when watching this film: As a small village in Rohan is plundered by marauding orcs, a desperate mother sends her two (Robyn Malcolm) sends her two children ahead of her on horseback, and nothing is more heartbreaking or immediate than this parting. Later on, Theoden stands by the grace of his son and weeps against a twilit sky while Gandalf looks on in sorrow and utters words of comfort. Elsewhere, Frodo, despite being under the malicious influence of the Ring, takes pity on Gollum and treats him with compassion even though the creature has a track record of nasty behaviour. It’s the little moments like these that ground the story in emotion, create a stirring palette for the characters to interact in and make the battle scenes count for something.