It was a joke for years after the culmination of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Everyone just acknowledged that The Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King are masterpieces, but The Two Towers was merely okay. This never landed with me. I love all three of the movies, which feel so different from each other in great ways, but I’ve always connected more to The Two Towers, its focus on the light at the end of a long darkness, and the way it explores so much of Middle-earth. 20 years on, the second chapter still feels the most immediate, the most engaging, and the most rewatchable to this viewer.
The Two Towers Makes the Fellowship Better
While The Fellowship of the Ring is a wonderful beginning to a saga, its sole focus is Frodo and the growing (and shrinking) of the Fellowship. After the outstanding prologue, we stay with Frodo for nearly the entire movie, all the way from the Shire, to Weathertop, to Rivendell, then to Moria, and finally Fangorn Forest. It’s a lengthy journey already, and one that introduces several key members of the story. However, it also makes everyone except Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, and “Strider” feel secondary. Boromir is an antagonist; Gimli and Legolas are grumpy accompaniers. Heck, even Merry and Pippin just seem like goofy comic relief. None of them seem all that integral to the story.
But not so in The Two Towers. As the second film begins, our heroes split off into three groups. While Frodo and Sam continue their trek to Mount Doom, Merry and Pippen are in the clutches of the Uruk-hai. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli go on an Orc hunt to retrieve the two other Hobbits. It’s a great starting point for the movie.
Getting Merry and Pippen away from Frodo and the One Ring allows their own journey to shine. They meet the Ents, and Treebeard, and get to see the horrors of Saruman at Isengard. Aragon, Legolas, and Gimli get to get embroiled in the plight of the Rohirrim, meet the newly rejuvenated Gandalf the White, and play crucial roles in the Battle of Helm’s Deep. Not to mention, we learn so much more about Aragon through his would-be romance with Eowyn.
Gollum, My Precious
But what about Frodo and Sam? Well, we can’t talk about The Two Towers without talking about the Gollum of it all. Despite the glorious realization of Middle-earth in Fellowship, and the superb makeup effects for Orcs, Dwarves, and Elves, if the performance capture technology of Gollum didn’t work properly, the movie—and the saga—would have failed. Gollum is very likely the reason the trilogy as a whole is as beloved as it is.
Andy Serkis’ performance is, and I only use this word when the situation calls for it, iconic. Through Gollum, we see the distorting, destructive power of the One Ring on its bearer. Even those who have no desire to wield it for power, it mangles them and removes their agency. The Ring, as Gandalf says in the first part, wants to be found. Gollum’s duplicity makes the movie more intriguing, and it’s testament to how compelling he is that a scene where he’s effectively talking to himself feels both real and tragic.
Also not for nothing, the song about the fish is a delight.
The Two Towers Shows Us So Much More of Middle-earth
With three separate hero plots, we also triple the amount of time we spend in various parts of Middle-earth. While the Shire, Rivendell, and Moria are memorable locations, they don’t represent parts of the world directly affected by Sauron and Saruman’s plot. For that, we go to Rohan. Rohan, one of the kingdoms of Men, is in the middle of a beautiful, pastoral part of the country. Edoras, the capital of Rohan, sits atop a gorgeous hill surrounded by mountains. The people, the Rohirrim, are horse lords, their culture very Celtic in representation.
To put it mildly, friends, I was obsessed with Rohan. I would watch the establishing shot of Edoras over and over, listen to Howard Shore’s score on repeat. It just seemed so peaceful and serene and I wanted to live there. Because of that, it made the protection of it in the film seem all the more imperative. These people needed to survive, if only so Edoras could stand another million years. Eowyn emerged as my favorite character in the film, her desire to protect her kingdom and her uncle the king from Wormtongue the most compelling.
On top of Rohan, we also got to see more of Isengard, and the evils of Saruman’s sacking of the forest. We see our first glimpse of Mordor, the sacked city of Osgiliath, the depths of Fangorn Forest, and of course the fortress of Helm’s Deep. The evils of the Dark Lord permeate all aspects of this movie, and it’s for that reason it needs to succeed. We know that our heroes need to fight to save Middle-earth, and The Two Towers shows us why it’s so important to save it.
The Battle of Helm’s Deep Still Rips
I think, inarguably, the best sequence in the entire saga is the gargantuan Battle of Helm’s Deep. Taking place entirely at night in the pouring rain, this battle has dozens of stories within it. From the initial tension when the Uruk-hai appear to the errant bow fire from a nervous and undertrained Rohan archer, to the breaching of the wall, this is perhaps the finest battle sequence ever put to film. And yes, I think it’s better than both the Battle of Pelennor Fields and Battle of the Black Gate in The Return of the King.
The arrival of the elves lets us know that indeed this is a larger struggle than simply the Kingdom of Rohan versus some Orcs. But even two armies work incredibly hard to fend off the invaders, and they very nearly don’t. King Theoden believes no force can breach Helm’s Deep and it falls so very quickly. This threat is the greatest that any of them have seen.
And then. You guys, and then. When the first light pierces the ground and Gandalf, astride Shadowfax, surrounded by the Riders of Rohan, appear on the crest of the valley, it is one of the most relieved and triumphant moments in modern cinema. A small group of humans and elves (and one grumpy Dwarf) fend off 10,000 invaders by their reliance on hope.
Yes, the Battle of Helm’s Deep is merely the precursor for the Battle for Middle-earth in the next movie, but this let us know it was possible. Good can overcome evil, through fellowship and perseverance.
For me, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers has always been the best of the Jackson films, a reminder that middle chapters can and should raise the stakes and introduce compelling wrinkles to a larger story while acting as a damn fine movie on its own.