Review: The Lord of the Rings [Film] (1978)

I have previously taken a look at three older, and pretty obscure, Tolkien adaptations: the 1966 Snyder Hobbit, the 1985 Soviet Hobbit, and the 1993 Finnish Lord of the Rings. Today, I thought I’d review another pre-Jackson effort – Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, which covers the whole of The Fellowship of the Ring, plus the first half of The Two Towers, before stopping arbitrarily after Helm’s Deep. Bakshi’s Rings is obviously better known than most older Tolkien adaptations, though these days it has been well and truly eclipsed by Peter Jackson.

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Bakshi’s film was the only Tolkien adaptation I ever saw during my childhood. In those days, if you wanted to watch an older film, you were reliant on the mercy of one of New Zealand’s three television channels doing a re-run, or else a video rental, and I don’t recall the video stores in my part of the world ever stocking Bakshi. So catching a re-run it was.  By good fortune, my parents then recorded it using that wonderful VHS technology. Seriously, for a child of the 1980s-1990s, VHS was awesome.

So I first watched this in the mid-1990s. By that point, I was a huge Lord of the Rings geek. I had literally devoured the one volume paperback edition I had been given for my ninth birthday in December 1991, to the point where I had to use sellotape to keep it together. But because this was a time before the internet, and I had never met any fellow Tolkien fans, I had no idea about the Bakshi film’s reputation. I wanted to like this thing so much – my expectations were those of a naive child enthusiast who had never previously realised an adaptation of his favourite book existed.

Oh dear.

Amusingly, I was also something of a Purist during my first viewing. I remember being vaguely annoyed at the cutting of Tom Bombadil, and by the time I realised that Glorfindel had been replaced by Legolas at the Ford, I was livid. Yes, it’s all very funny in hindsight. Of course, once I decided the film was terrible (there were at least a couple of years of denial about this), I considered it firm evidence that Tolkien’s work was unfilmable*. When I did encounter the internet, I ran across the Tolkien Sarcasm Page’s scathing review of Bakshi, and laughed my head off. A guy in his late teens will inherently enjoy mocking bad films, I think.

*By the time I was participating on forums, I had concluded that since you couldn’t make a Good Pure version, you might as well make a Good Revisionist version. People change.

I have seen the Bakshi version again since, of course, but always with the view of laughing at its gaping flaws. And, yes, the 1978 film has flaws. They’re undeniable, which is why the conventional wisdom puts it firmly in the So Bad It’s Good category. The Tolkien Sarcasm Page casts a long shadow. But as I have grown older, and seen Peter Jackson’s efforts come and go, it’s a conventional wisdom I have been tempted to re-visit. Basically, is there anything that can be salvaged from the Bakshi film, or is it truly an unmitigated disaster?

Having watched it again last night, I am inclined to class it as an Interesting Failure. It’s a genuine failure when viewed purely against the source material, or as a stand-alone piece of creative art, but when viewed against Jackson’s effort, one not only sees the influences of Bakshi on Jackson, but also the roads left untraveled, so to speak. The places where the two film-makers diverge, and where we see a different (and arguably more Purist) interpretation of Tolkien from the ubiquitous Jacksonian vision.

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To cite an example where I actually prefer Bakshi to Jackson: the portrayal of the Ringwraiths. They’re undeniably creepier in the 1978 version, and Bakshi’s handling of the attack on Weathertop is superior (certainly less farcical). Meanwhile, the First Black Rider Scene in Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring is an obvious lift from Bakshi. Two other such lifts being the bouncing Ring in the Prologue, and Gollum in a loincloth.

It’s not just the Ringwraiths either. While they do arguably evoke the Sand People from Star Wars, I prefer Bakshi’s Orcs over Jackson’s – they are much more intimidating, and in combat situations feel like more of a threat. And speaking of combat situations, it felt refreshing to see a Tolkien adaptation that portrays War as a horrifying necessary evil, rather than a meat-headed matter of “Stand and Fight”. Bakshi’s Gandalf has many faults, but his advice on Helm’s Deep is superior to Jackson’s – basically because Bakshi’s adaptation is more Purist, it ended up capturing that particular theme better. And I say this as someone who is neither a Purist, nor someone who particularly likes the 1978 film on its own terms.

A couple of other divergences where Bakshi isn’t obviously inferior to Jackson – the characterisation of Frodo and Aragorn. Jackson’s Frodo is the innocent youth, worn out by the weight of his burden. He’s rescued by Arwen at the Ford, and clearly out-of-it as the Morgul Knife shard edges ever closer to his heart. Bakshi’s Frodo is tougher. Rather than being carried behind another character like a sack of potatoes, he defies the Ringwraiths himself, just before the Ford sweeps the enemy away. Similarly, Jackson’s Frodo at the Prancing Pony intervenes against the idiot Pippin, but in Bakshi, it’s Frodo that’s the idiot. Bakshi’s Frodo is more proactive, but makes more mistakes.

As for Aragorn… Jackson’s Aragorn carries that ancestral guilt complex around with him. He’s a reluctant hero unwilling to claim his destiny. Bakshi’s Aragorn is tougher, savvier, and more self-confident. When he tells Frodo that he could take the Ring any time he wants, one can definitely believe him. Mind you, one would have to be self-confident, running around without any trousers…

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A third character handled quite differently (and not necessarily for the worse) in Bakshi is Gimli. Jackson’s Gimli is, well, comic relief, bordering on Yosemite Sam. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s overkill, but it’s a conscious artistic decision that becomes more apparent the more Merry and Pippin (the initial comic relief) mature as characters. Bakshi’s Gimli is less hot-blooded, much quieter and more dignified, and only played for laughs once (the canonical moan that he can’t run all the way to Isengard). The downside is that this Gimli doesn’t stand out as much as Jackson’s – he’s really a sort of good-guy in the background. As is Legolas, for that matter.

***

Thus far, I’ve been quite positive about the Bakshi film, probably more positive than it deserves. And, to be fair, it is something of a Curate’s Egg – notwithstanding the general failure, parts of it are pretty good, or at least interesting. Is there anything else that comes to mind as a positive? Well, yes. The background animation is very pretty, whatever you want to say about the mixed success with the rotoscoped characters.

And that’s really it. Because there is really not much else nice to say about the 1978 adaptation. Many of the other online critiques of the film have referred to its problem of being Tolkien’s Greatest Hits – a jamming together of cool scenes and lines from the book, with little thought given to the coherency of the result. And, yes, that is an extremely valid criticism, one that is arguably a result of trying to make a film too Purist. Since you’re cutting, rather than changing, you’re also cutting the stuff that makes the scenes comprehensible.

While re-watching it yesterday, I kept wondering whether someone who had not read the book would have been able to understand Bakshi’s film at all. The answer is that someone unversed in Tolkien probably would have been confused as hell. Say what you like about Peter Jackson, but at least his version stands on its own, in broadly accessible fashion. There are plenty of people who have seen Jackson’s trilogy without even having read a word of Tolkien. Bakshi’s handling of Aragorn’s broken sword, among other things, testifies to a film that relies on its audience’s book-knowledge to fill in the gaps. And that’s just bad.

The worst aspect of the Bakshi film for me – even worse than the despicable treatment of Sam (who comes across as a particularly slow-witted Orc-Hobbit hybrid) – is Gandalf. Jackson’s Gandalf, masterfully played by Sir Ian McKellen, is one of the highlights of the story. He’s such a cool, lovable old guy, at turns mysterious, wise, caring, and snarky. Bakshi’s Gandalf, loaded with exposition, is just obnoxious, to a degree where his fatal fight with the fluffy-slippered Balrog of Moria is a cause for mockery, rather than despair.

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Bakshi’s Gandalf has no humour to him. As the Tolkien Sarcasm Page correctly notes, he’s a ponderous Prophet of Doom, and little else. When he yells at Aragorn about taking the way into Moria, my own sympathies were solidly with Aragorn. Not merely because I knew what was to happen (of course I did), but because Bakshi’s Aragorn is easily more likeable as a character. Worse, since the other characters in Bakshi’s film regard Gandalf with the same reverence you see in Tolkien’s original (or in Jackson), you get this weird discrepancy between what me-as-the-audience feels, and what you are seeing on screen. I don’t care about this Gandalf… but they do? That’s bad storytelling.

As for the other characters, I have already mentioned Sam. Played for comic relief here, the result is embarrassing, and enough to anger anyone who likes Tolkien’s original Sam. Merry and Pippin – in marked contrast to Jackson’s films – have vanishingly little characterisation at all. They’re there, basically because Tolkien’s story requires them to be there, but that’s it. Legolas is forgettable, Boromir’s OK – leaving aside the horned helmet, Bakshi makes a decent stab at him. Bakshi’s Boromir is not a patch on Jackson’s version though, which is a testament to the excellent performance of Sean Bean.

Then there are other minor bits and pieces, enough to cause small-scale irritation, without actually destroying the film in their own right. Bakshi’s Celeborn gets mispronounced as Sell-a-born, rather than as Kell-a-born. The temptation of Galadriel lacks the power Jackson gives it. Considering I once thought Galadriel in a microwave to be highly cringe-worthy, that says something about the weakness of Bakshi’s film. And there is a weird moment during the Battle at Helm’s Deep, where the Orkish armies close in on our heroes… amid uplifting music. Audio signals matter – are we supposed to be cheering for the Orcs at that point?

***

So… The Lord of the Rings, as imagined by Ralph Bakshi some forty-two years ago. It lacks both the effectiveness of Peter Jackson’s 2001-2003 effort, and the sheer bizarre nature of the aforementioned Soviet and Finnish versions. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s not actually So Bad It’s Good, but rather a cautionary tale about the art of adaptation, with the odd little redeeming feature (in terms of both character and theme) buried in there. I’d say it’s less interesting as a movie in its own right, even to laugh at, and more something worth checking out if you are interested in what Jackson’s trilogy could have been. For good or ill.

Mostly ill.

4 thoughts on “Review: The Lord of the Rings [Film] (1978)

  1. That’s kind of the way I feel about all of Bakshi’s films.
    I can settle the question of whether someone who hadn’t read the books would understand the movie. I was in line to see it on opening day, and I can report that there were no such people in evidence. (There were loud arguments about Elvish dialects going on as we waited.) Perhaps if the film had stayed in the theaters longer, it might eventually have become an issue.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Review: The Hobbit [Film] (1977) | A Phuulish Fellow

  3. Pingback: Review: The Return of the King [Film] (1980) | A Phuulish Fellow

  4. Pingback: The Lord of the Rings: Movie Review

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