Huddled in tunnels beneath the stone fortress known as Helm's Deep, men, women, children, kings, and soldiers press together and listen, faces turned upward, as if in some mystical restaging of those old news photos of families cowering in the London subway during the Battle of Britain. The thumps grow louder, a sickening thunder growing steadier, moving closer, until you are convinced giants roam above. Then the camera races to the surface, circling high to reveal a vast army stretching to the horizon, tens of thousands in black armor, spears poised, teeth gnashing, moving in lockstep like Middle-earth's most sinister Shriners parade.
I dare you: Just try not to shudder. The new Lord of the Rings movie, The Two Towers, is darker, weightier, a more rousing installment than the first film, last year's lyrical and moving Fellowship of the Ring. Director Peter Jackson indulges his knack with evil. Notice the strips of steel holding together the skulls of his demon armies. Listen for that ominous whomp-whomp of dragon wings. If Jackson sputtered a bit with the light stuff in the first film, this one rectifies that by not really having any light stuff. It's about courage and foot soldiers, looming war, and the men in high towers calling the shots.
It's also not merely the middle film of a $350 million magnum opus based on the classic J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy. Jackson has transformed The Two Towers into one of our great war films. Fittingly, The Two Towers is less warm than Fellowship, not as moving. After establishing an air of dread last year, Jackson now assigns a palpable air of anxiety. When our hero, Frodo (Elijah Wood), says the ring of power he carries is getting heavy, he seems to speak not of its actual weight, or even his own temptations.
The epic itself is growing heavy. If Fellowship was about staring hard into the face of sacrifice and recognizing what you gotta do, Two Towers brings an exhilarating moment-of-truth gulp. When we last left the Fellowship, that tenuous coalition of Hobbits, dwarves, elves, and men, they still had to reach the fires of Mordor and destroy the ring. But the group had splintered. Two Towers picks up the story almost to the last footfall, and the two movies flow together seamlessly, tipping Jackson's hand: After The Return of the King arrives next December, he'll have a single nine-hour epic. Accordingly, Two Towers offers no recap. If you haven't seen Fellowship, I warn you: This one does not explain the story thus far. Don't wing it.
The Two Towers is structured along three paths, the most important being the trail of Hobbits Frodo and Sam (Sean Astin). On the long road to Mordor they're joined by an emaciated, corrosive goblin named Gollum who looks like the genetic splicing of Klaus Kinski and Burgess Meredith. No less than the first believable digitally created movie character, Gollum is a bundle of tics and inflections that deliver a performance no actor could. His eyes, for instance, explode in whelms of pathos, not quite Loony Tunes, not quite human.
Elsewhere in Middle-earth, Hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) have escaped their captors only to find themselves pleading with a stately race of walking, talking trees, not yet convinced they need to join the fight against the evil lord Sauron (Christopher Lee). It's the weakest subplot, but a bold one for a war film - a serious argument for conscientious objection.
Where the film sings is its third strand, about the dashing Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and wizard Gandolf (Ian McKellen), thought to be dead, who rally the people of Rohan against Sauron's imminent onslaught.
When they fall back to the Helm's Deep, a few hundred men against tens of thousands, a siege begins that builds into a 40-minute sequence so dramatic it qualifies as positively Biblical. “What can men do against such reckless hate?” asks the king of Rohan (Bernard Hill), watching a battlefield of seething and churning enemies, hails of arrows flying. “Ride out to meet them,” Aragorn replies, and this guy ain't kidding.
Rows of enemy soldiers go down and more replace them, and the spectacle Jackson has concocted here is a dash of David Lean and an ounce of Cecil B. DeMille. There's a flood, a massive explosion, stones crash everywhere. Catapults spring. And just when you think this masterpiece of a sequence within a masterpiece couldn't get more immense, thousands on horseback ride out of the mountain to meet the hordes.
Gandolf, on his white horse and in new bleached duds, leads the charge, and watch closely: when the good guys reach the base of the mountain, they leap, horses and all, into the scrum of armor and spears.
You will gasp.
Is it too early to call The Lord of the Rings the most accomplished Hollywood series since Francis Ford Coppola delivered the first two Godfather movies? Perhaps. Though somewhere Akira Kurosawa, the late Japanese master who gave us sweeping war epics like Ran, is shedding a tear. He'd be impressed; not just by Jackson's mastery of scale, but because the director never loses track of humanity in his spectacle.
Jackson finds compassion where you wouldn't expect it, in the spoiled daughter of a king or a duplicitous creature. With rare grace, he is forever shifting from the pastoral to the grimy, from the personal to the epic with an eye for the telling detail. When a flag on a castle rips away from its post and sails into the wind, you gauge the crumbling of an empire. When Gandolf runs into Aragorn midway through the film, the promise of these films seems to hang in a single line: “I come back to you now, at the turn of the tide.”
Is he speaking of the future of the Hollywood epic itself? A year from now that surf will break, and the battle for Middle-earth will become a war, and judging by the warm-up of The Two Towers, you can stick me on the front line.
In fact, I can't wait.