We sometimes use the word ‘epic’ in ways we probably shouldn’t. Many movies especially are deemed so. But if there is one film franchise that deserves that moniker, it is the movie adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s genre-defining books. Let’s take a closer look at the first in the series and a crucial moment in the start of this, well, epic journey.
It’s easy to forget how good The Fellowship of the Rings truly is. That’s what happens to most great films. They fall to parody and imitation so often, we tend to lose sight of what made them so renowned in the first place. Watching the film again (raise your hand if ‘again’ puts you in double digits), the movie only improves upon itself. Director Peter Jackson‘s achingly good eye for detail and setting makes every scene pop with wonder and creativity. Because the story is so familiar now, repeated viewing allows the eyes and ears to explore the peripherals and see and hear how vividly the world of Middle Earth is so breathlessly imagined on film.
That’s not to say the characters aren’t exceedingly well-developed and brought to life. From Elijah Wood‘s career-defining turn as Frodo to Sean Astin‘s sensationally emotional portrayal of his friend Samwise, there are dozens of highly impactful performances. That’s the key to the success of the entire series really. These characters all share a powerful sense of authenticity. Each is so perfectly realized, we become invested in their quest with effortless joy.
The Fellowship of the Ring is as the name implies. It starts the trilogy off by joining together a band of nine diverse people of Middle Earth, a world inhabited by human-like species in a mythological past. They are comprised of Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves, Men and one Wizard, all at odds but all bound by one common threat. There is a dark lord named Sauron, a Necromancer who once forged and wore the One Ring that allowed him to rule the land. Centuries ago it was lost to a Hobbit who was consumed by its powers and turned into the ghastly, pathetic Gollum, who in turn lost it to the clever Bilbo, another Hobbit on a quest to slay a dragon. Now, it is given to Frodo, who is charged to end the growing darkness in Mordor, where Sauron has risen again. Okay, so that’s a highly-abbreviated description, but it’s long movie. There are dozens of important moments in the story, but let’s discuss one that takes place at the middle of the journey, where an Elf lord and a wizard meet and come to a troubling understanding.
Failures of Man
Before the Fellowship is formed, ranking members of the people of Middle Earth arrive in Rivendell, an Elven town. Holding council is Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving), a mixed race human and elf who thousands of years before chose to live among the immortals. Sitting at the gathering are representatives of Dwarves, Elves, Humans, and Hobbits. They have come to decide the fate of Middle Earth and the discovery of the long lost One Ring. Joining them is Gandolf the Grey (Ian McKellen), a wizard with great power who stands alone.
To this point, a great number of adventures have already befallen several who have come, including Frodo, who suffers the most as he is burdened with the weight of the ring. In the safety of the Elven city, many settle in before the council meeting. Frodo and Samwise have decided that they have done more than what Gandalf asked of them, bringing the Ring to Rivendell, and are longing to return to their home in the Shire. As they make plans, above them on a terrace, Gandolf and Elrond watch and talk.
Elrond is impressed with Frodo’s resilience of the ring’s power. He implies that it is Frodo who should be the one who sees this journey to its end. Gandolf, who understands fully the threat Sauron and what his forces mean to Middle Earth, believes they have already asked too much of the Hobbit. He should be relieved of his part in this tale.
Elrond becomes heated, declaring that Sauron’s army is amassing in the east and his eye is fixed upon Rivendell. Worse, Saruman the White (Christopher Lee), a wizard of immense power, who has been sent to Middle Earth in defense against Sauron, has been corrupted by the Necromancer and sworn allegiance to the forces of doom. More still, he has mutated Orcs with Goblin Men. He is creating a vast fortified army to support his new master. It deeply concerns Elrond.
This means there are two armies Rivendell must fight, and they are not equipped to survive. Sauron and Saruman are coming for the One Ring. Nothing in Rivendell can stop that. Lord Elrond concedes. The Ring cannot stay in the home of the Elves.
It is here, below the two men’s roost, where the others of Middle Earth begin to arrive: Boromir (Sean Bean), a prince and a Steward of Gondor; Legalos (Orlando Bloom), an elven prince of the Woodland Realm; Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), a Dwarf warrior, and more. All join the Hobbits and Aragorn (Viggo Mortenson), a descendant of Isildur (who we’ll talk about in a moment).
Back on the terrace, Elrond confesses to Gandolf that the time of the elves draws near. They are leaving these shores. The peril of Mordor is for all who remain in Middle Earth. And once the Elves are gone, who will Gandalf look to as protectors of the land? It can’t be the Dwarves, Elrond snidely laments. They live in the mountains seeking only riches. Gandolf has an answer. It is in Men that they must place their hope.
Elrond shirks at the prospect. He turns away in obvious disgust. Men are weak, he states, leading Gandolf off the balcony and into a chamber. He continues, claiming that the race of men is over, their blood spent. In fact, it is because of men that Middle Earth is in jeopardy. It is men who allowed the Ring to survive.
We then cut to a flashback, one that is familiar. The opening of the film recounts of the last great battle against Sauron, where the armies of men and elves faced the dark lord on the open fields. It shows how one brave man, a warrior named Isildur, got near to the towering Necromancer and lopped his fingers off with one blow, having the ring fall to the ground.
What we see at the start of the film is his defeat of Sauron and then his corruption at the will of the Ring after he takes it. Now, as Elrond recounts his past, we return to that fight. This time however, we follow Elrond as he fights alongside Isildur and his father. He was there when the Ring fell into Isildur’s hand. He beckoned the man to follow him into the bowls of Mount Doom where the ring was forged.
Isildur follows. They arrive at the precipice where, as the roaring flows of lava nearly drown his voice, Elrond commands the son of Elendil to cast the Ring into the fire.
But the Ring will not be destroyed. Not at least by the hands of Man. Isildur, already consumed by the Ring’s dark heart, walks away from the Elf. The evil is transferred from Sauron to Man, and a new reign of terror is set to begin.
That was 3,000 years ago. Elrond tells Gandolf he was there when men failed. The line of kings was broken and the strength of men disappeared. They broke into factions and scattered among the lands, leaderless. There is no hope in Man. Gandolf disagrees however, and says there is one who can unite the people. We all know who that is.
The significance of this moment is its assertion and proof that Man is corruptible. Of the many themes in Tolkien’s work, and well-represented in the film, it is the contrasting duality of the dark and light of Man. We learn that Isildur and his weak heart were easily overtaken and then betrayed by the Ring. So too were the Ringwraithes, led by the Witch King, all Men who were given rings, each wholly devoured by the evil of Sauron. But alongside that, as the story progresses, we meet other men, most notably Boromir and Aragorn who work to challenge the established condemnation of their race.
This moment is crucial in completing the circle revealed in the film’s opening, allowing us to see that there is blame to be given for the suffering of Middle Earth and for the quest these men in the Fellowship must endure. Elrond has not forgiven Isildur for his weakness, and has spent thousands of years in the shadow of what that man’s choice left behind. As the One Ring has resurfaced, and Sauron’s power rises, he is faced again with a fight he nearly won before. But he sees no hope in the people who must take up arms.
Weaving is a great choice to play Elrond, his hardened face and piercing eyes help to betray the long torment the character embodies. Once an elf of great action, a soldier in the massive war to save Middle Earth, he recognizes the futility of a war with Sauron. The only way to defeat the enemy now is the destruction of the One Ring. Having had that chance metaphorically and nearly literally slip through his fingers, he is burdened himself, much like the ring-bearer themselves. That pain is clear in his face as he tells Gandolf of his past. And this is key. As he recounts how Man failed Middle Earth, what Elrond truly reveals to Gandolf, in the shadows of his own home, is something more troubling to the great Elven Lord: his own failure. He watches as Isildur makes it to the cusp of salvation, on the brink of ending evil and darkness for all time. But at the last steps, as the fire and heat of the heart of Mt. Doom boiled around him, he succumbed to its power. Then walked away.
Imagine the thousands of years of doubt and guilt. Elrond made no effort to stop Isildur. Perhaps he knew his own weakness if he were to have contact with the ring. What he did know is the Ring’s true power. In the hands of Isildur, maybe he couldn’t defeat the man. But it’s his inaction that torments. His story to Gandolf betrays his own lack of sacrifice. There is a revealing cut in this sequences that occurs while Elrond narrates his story. As he speaks the line “It should have ended that day, but evil was allowed to endure,” it does not show Isildur with the Ring, but instead, Elrond in the past realizing what is happening, and then Elrond in the present, bearing the weight.
It’s a remarkably subtle but highly effective clue to the true depth of Elrond’s concern and a nod to the far-reaching power of the One Ring. It’s That Moment In The Fellowship of the Rings.
J.R.R. Tolkien (novel), Fran Walsh (screenplay)
Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom, Sean Astin, Viggo Mortenson. Sean Bean, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving