Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Lord of the Rings Edition - The Part-Time Critic

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Lord of the Rings Edition

*To get straight to the list, scroll past all the following paragraphs

Are you ready to go on an adventure? Do you want to sit and watch six Lord of the Rings films that run over twenty hours combined (I'm an extended edition only kind of guy) to rank and critique their action sequences? Oh, I see you are a little hesitant...didn't you binge watch like 20 episodes of House Hunters or whatever new home makeover or reality show is out? Oh, shaming you isn't helping? How about I entice you with words of lavish praise for what you might find in those twenty hours? Better? Okay...I'll try. 

I didn't grow up a fan of the Lord of the Rings books or know much about them, let alone that it was a trilogy, as I sat in the theater with my family to watch The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time in December of 2001. I didn't realize it while watching the film, but I got pulled into the story hook line and sinker. I distinctly remember Boromir's speech in the council of Elrond sequence where he walks through the deadly path needed to take the ring to Mordor, "It is folly." By the time the film was nearing its end at and the fellowship had parted their ways, I thought to myself, "Wait, they haven't done all the things Boromir said was required, how can this end...oh...there's more to come...that will be in the sequels...but I want to keep watching this story...this can't end now!" I walked out of the theater unable to stop thinking about the story. I watched the film eight more times in the theater over the winter. I couldn't wait to hear how the story would end so I bought the book series for Christmas and starting with The Hobbit read entirely through them in just a couple months. 

When the special extended edition of the film came out on DVD in November of 2002, I bought it, watched all of the special features, and re-watched the films numerous times (listening to every commentary track available). This cycle would happen two more times with The Two Towers and my favorite film of all time The Return of the King - which I ended up seeing ten times in the theaters (still a record for me). These films were not just "action" or "fantasy" films, but fully realized stories with drama, comedy, beauty, grief, bravery, etc. in fully realized worlds with well-rounded characters. Still, the action of the films played a central role in their appeal to me. That is what I want to examine, rank, and share with you. In the list below you will find what I think are some of the greatest action sequences ever put to film. In particular, the top 7 are really great and the top 3 are masterpieces. I'm excited for the chance to share them with others. Before I get to the list, a couple of things to note.
After a marathon of the original trilogy in 2006
Having watched the films numerous times (again, I'm working from the extended editions only), there is a general formula the director Peter Jackson likes to use. It's not universally applied, but it does find strong application throughout the franchise. What does the formula look like? 
  1. Set the Scene of the Conflict: Jackson takes time setting the scene by making clear the stakes of the sequence and giving some kind of intimidating precursor (the drums of Moria, the orc army marching in the rain in Two Towers, the glowing blue blade signaling orcs nearby, etc.). 
  2. The Clash: There is an initial intense and powerful clash between the two opposing sides that is highlighted by the lack of score and emphasis on the diagetic sounds of conflict. 
  3. The Highlights of Conflict: We get several moments of "action", often very creatively displayed with a dynamically moving camera, that highlights the skill, impact, violence, spectacle, or humor inherent in the scene. 
  4. The Drama of Conflict: The soundtrack comes back into the sequence to denote and guide the "dramatic" turn of the battle which now focuses on the story/character based elements within the action. 
  5. The Conflict Conclusion: The action in the sequence ends with some kind of big and violent conclusion to the main antagonist(s). 
  6. The Cost of the Conflict: Finally, there is an immediate turn to reminding the audience of the dramatic stakes and cost of the action (think Gandalf falling at the end of the Moria sequence, Aragorn falling at the end of the Warg sequence, Eomer finding Eowyn at the end of the Minas Tirith sequence, etc.)

To make the list, I re-watched the entirety of the six films and identified twenty four significant action sequences. Some sequences are memorable and iconic but very tough to identify as "action" sequences to my mind - so you will not find scenes like Siege of Barad-Dur from the prologue of Fellowship of the Ring, Aragorn saving the Hobbits on Weathertop, the Watcher at the Mines of Moria, and the Rohirrim destroying the orc camp in Two Towers. The sequences are either too short to really count or the "action" plays more as moments of terror and horror. At other times, action sequences might be intercut heavily with other storylines and identifying when the sequence should be considered one or two different ones isn't always easy. So, even though there's a lot of subjective nature to it, events like the Battle for Helm's Deep get lumped into one long sequence (because they could naturally play that way to me dramatically and logically without the inter-cutting to Merry/Pippin and Sam/Frodo) but the Battle of Five Armies felt like two different and distinct dramatic sequences. To keep the length of this article down, I've chosen only to do commentary on the top ten sequences and a select few others I really wanted to talk about. Lastly, I've decided not to include links to the action sequences in this edition. Most of the sequences just don't work as 4-5 minute YouTube clips like a fight sequence does. Anyways, with that out of the way, let's get into it.


All Lord of the Rings Action Sequences Ranked
(24-21)
24. “Warg Search Party Chases the Dwarves” -The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey 
- In general, the Hobbit trilogy is just not in the same league as the original trilogy. This doesn't fully become clear until you get to this "action" sequence in the first film. The entire concept is the Radagast the Brown uses his rabbit-led sleigh to distract a search party of orcs on wargs while the Dwarven company escapes. In reality, it looks like they filmed this in a single day with Jackson telling them, "Now run over there and hide behind a rock...don't worry, we'll add the orcs in later...now run over there and hide..." Often, the orcs appear just fifty feet away from the dwarves and in the next shot they appear a thousand feet away. The logic and scale are completely off. It feels like this sequence was a victim of behind the scenes arguments of story structure (a real problem in the Hobbit trilogy) and they cobbled whatever they could together. What they end up with is a bit of an embarrassment to the entire series.

23.
“Finale: Into the Trees, the Fire, and Rescued by Eagles” -The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
22. “Finale: Barrell Rider & Dwarven Company vs Smaug” -The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
- What a mess of a finale. I'll never forget walking out of the theater feeling completely deflated at what I had just witnessed. The sequence does earns some merit for its ambition, but it’s an absolute mess of logic, enjoyment, and focus. It feels like the convoluted level of a bad video game version of the movie, the level where writers had to invent a bunch of nonsense activities up in order to get extra time out of the game, "Now go turn the lever...now go light the furnace fire...now ride this wheelbarrow down a gold river..." This entire sequence suffers from the filmmakers not making clear what plan the dwarves had in mind to deal with the dragon all along. Everything feels arbitrary here, mostly the CGI setting which feels invented solely for the purpose of whatever action they wanted next. Most importantly, the thing that matters most in the end, is that the plan they do invent just isn't satisfying dramatically or visually.

21. “Dwarves vs. the Trolls” -The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

(20-16)
20. “Wizard Duel: Gandalf vs. Saruman” -The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
19. “Smaug Destroys Laketown - Bard Fights Back” -The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
18. “Black Riders chase Arwen to the Fords” -The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
17. “Dol Guldur: Gandalf, Thrain, & Sauron” -The Lord of the Rings: The Desolation of Smaug
16. “Stone Giants Battle in the Misty Mountains” -The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

(15-11)
15. “Orcs, Elves, & Dwarves Battle in Lake Town” -The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
14. “Gandalf vs.The Balrog Redux” -The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
- This is a tough little scene to rate. What we get is an amazing special effects spectacle and surprise for the first time viewers who wanted to know more about what happened to Gandalf in Moria, but it’s really really short. If you are generous and you add in the second half of it told in flashback by Gandalf later in the film, then it still doesn’t add more than a minute or so. Still, on a pound for pound basis, this sequence packs a nice little punch.

13. “Escaping the Spiders in Mirkwood” -The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
- This is a nice little sequence that is overall enjoyable, but feels a bit restrained for Jackson. Given the unique setting, I would have felt it was a natural place to let the creativity juices run wild, especially since they had so much runtime to fill.

12. “Osgiliath: Orcs Attack. Retreat, & Rescue by Gandalf” -The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
- Not a long sequence here, but I've always felt like there was a nice "Dunkirk" kind of feel to it. The orcs attack by river at night and we get some nice war action between the two sides as the orcs assault the city. The camera is incredibly dynamic here; two shots in particular stick with me. First, there is a decently long take where the camera circles around a soldier as he looks up to the sky to see the arrival of the Nazgul on Fell Beasts. Second, as the Gondorian soldiers escape, there are big sweeping shots of the Nazgul harassing and plowing through the soldiers. Gandalf arrives, wards off the Nazgul, and then there is this amazing shot that rides is behind Gandalf and feels "handheld" that slows pans/sweeps right showing Minas Tirith as they ride towards it. It's a striking visual and overall a great little action sequence.

11. “Escaping Goblin Town” -The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
- This sequence illustrates an issue that plagued the Hobbit trilogy when compared to the original – the decision to render all of the orcs using CGI opened up more creative possibilities but left many of Peter Jackson’s tendencies for silliness and over the top spectacle unrestrained. Drawing the line between awesome spectacle and silly is difficult, but I think he’s clearly stepped over it here. Jackson has gone from the action being grand but always feeling grounded in the original trilogy to action that is still grand but now often comes across as too goofy and cartoonish. This sequence in particular features Jackson’s dynamic flying camera and handfuls of fun little moments, but they come so fast and furious and with so many CGI orcs getting killed in increasingly goofier ways that it has lost any grounding or feel of genuine stakes. By the time the entire group falls hundreds of feet down a pit with a bridge “breaking their fall” only to mostly laugh it off – something has been seriously broken in the execution. Still, it’s a fun sequence if you can find a way to look past those moments.

Top Ten
10. “Galadriel, Elrond, and Saruman save Gandalf from Sauron” -The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
- This is a creative take on what a fight might look like between spiritual/ghost type creatures and magical wizards/elves. Since the film hasn’t really spent the time to establish an entire ruleset for their powers, the sequence does a nice job surprising us with creative visual ways to show their back and forth conflict without making it look too arbitrary or overpowered and still keeping some sense of suspense. Galadriel in particular comes off as incredibly powerful here, but they do a great job showing how much of her strength it takes away to use it. Also, they don't shoehorn a bunch of unncessary humor or over the top gags. It's a few minutes long and it gets the job done. 

9. “Battle of Five Armies: Ravenhill Finale” -The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies
- This second half of the battle of five armies feels purposefully crafted to try and tie up a lot of individual plot lines and give the large cast at least something to do (Legolas takes on Bolg, Tauriel tries to save Killi, Thoren takes on Azog the Defiler, Bilbo has to send a warning -until he’s knocked out for the rest of the fight – the Eagles and Beorn take out a supplemental army etc.) Like the escape from Goblin town, the decision to go all CGI for these orc baddies and almost all CGI for the environment might have saved them time and money, but it certainly makes this fight feel less grounded and real. So much of this sequence, despite many good features, feels artificial and by the end, a bit exhausting. Speaking of which, it features the most artificial and over the top Legolas sequences of all six films – creating more groans than awe and wonder. I realize they wanted to meet the expectations for the cool things Legolas could do, but after the standard set by Return of the King, it would have been much wiser to try and subvert an expectation that couldn’t be fulfilled without damaging the character. Overall, the sequence is mix for me, some really good, some meh, and some bad. For such a long sequence, the swordplay is pretty good, but not uniquely great. Special shoutout goes to the Beorn fight sequence though, great little moment and easter egg for fans.

8. “Warg Attack” -The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
- This scene is a bit controversial to Lord of the Rings fans, as it’s something entirely made up by the filmmakers and is heavily dependent on CGI for the wargs. Despite CGI that isn’t perfect (the Legolas horse mount has been dated), I think the sequence holds up much better than anticipated and provides a needed bit of action adrenaline into a film that doesn’t have a genuine action set piece until the finale at Helm’s Deep. For pacing, it’s a needed bit of action and I think the sequence is enjoyable enough, and raises the dramatic stakes enough (separates Aragorn from the group) that it’s a worthy addition to the film. This sequence follows the Jackson formula perfectly and is greatly helped by the score and having a tight running time and not being intercut with other storylines. 

7. “Frodo & Sam vs. Shelob” -The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
- This sequence plays out in three distinct phases: Frodo’s initial escape from Shelob and fight with Gollum, the stealth victory of Shelob, and Sam’s heroic counterattack. The first two phases of this action sequence play out more like a horror-thriller and only when Sam arrives do we get a more traditional and heroic encounter. It features enough creep out imagery to give you the chills, enough intimidation and atmosphere to really sell the threat of Shelob, and the action is just clean enough to be enjoyable, but clumsy enough to believe someone like Sam could possibly pull off the victory. Memorable and iconic - "Let him go you filth!" 

6. “Escape from Mirkwood: Barrel Riders” -The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
- This one has a special place in my heart and is probably the single best thing about Desolation of Smaug. I can understand why some might be surprised that I'm not criticizing this sequence as similar to the Goblin town one, but I think it finds a way to be grounded for the majority of the chase. The setting itself, unlike Goblin town, feels like they were in an actual river, in actual barrels. I find two places it can get silly and receive most of the critiques: Legolas’ one take destruction of orcs and the one take of Bombur’s barrel exploits. With both of these sequences, I think they feel grounded in a real setting enough that they mostly work. Additionally, they come within the context of enough "real" river context that they are the exception, not the rule. In Goblin town, everything feels CGI and fake and almost all the shots are long and silly/cartoonish actions. I think there’s enough restraint here, enough uniqueness to the setting and action, that it stands out and would have felt mostly at place in the original trilogy.

5. “Orcs Attack the Fellowship at the Falls of Rauros” -The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
- This franchise primarily features two different types of major actions sequences – one that is telling a largely action oriented moment in the story but fills it with great moments of drama or a sequence that is telling a largely drama oriented moment in the story but fills it with great moments of action (this doesn't always apply to the Hobbit trilogy). I think this is one of several reasons that made the original trilogy stand out from its genre - it integrated action and drama as much as possible. This particular sequence is primarily about the drama of Boromir attempting to take the ring from Frodo and Frodo realizing he must make his own way from the fellowship. Jackson then surrounds and elevates that drama, with the battle. The battle action itself is strong, memorable, and engaging, but it largely plays background to the drama. That said there are still iconic action moments here: Legolas’ multiple quick arrow one take that would simply tease the audience for better things to come and Aragorn’s decapitation of Lurtz after Lurtz pulls in Aragorn’s sword like a savage.

4. “Battle of Five Armies: Mayhem at the Mountain & Dale” -The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies
- This war sequence is essentially the entire first half of the battle, before things turn to the finale sequences on Ravenhill. I absolutely love the ambition on display here. If we are giving credit where it is due, the ability of Jackson to pull off a battle that makes sense of several different armies with different agendas in a setting we don’t know too well where we still get a good sense of the geography and back forth is quite an achievement. He fills the battle with shots, like the picture I used above, that always give us a good sense of geography. That the battle is filled with wonderfully creative battle engagements (the whirly twirlies that eat up arrow volleys, the war vehicles, various new troll characters with different roles, etc) and a dynamic camera that can capture an epic scale as well as intimate force just shows Jackson uniquely gets this stuff. The real problem with this sequence, and it has little to do with the actual on-screen action, is that we don’t really care about the character nor does it feel like the battle is a heroic, brave, or courageous. Look again at the picture I used for this sequence, sure it gives a sense of geography, but does it really inspire you and excite you? Contrast that with the sweeping shots of the battles of Helm's Deep or Minas Tirith. Something is off right? Despite it’s great ambitions and military creativity, it’s ultimately undercut by the story and characters. Unlike one on one kung fu fights that can be largely appreciated even when completely lifted out of the context of the entire film, war sequences like this are very dependent on the narrative and characters that embody it. While kung fu fights are usually their own sequence, this battle is intercut with lots of sequences and moments we just don’t care about. I wonder how well this would have gone over if the Hobbit trilogy narrative actually worked like the Lord of the Rings narrative did.

3. “Mayhem in the Mines of Moria” -The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
- This is the first perfect example of the Jackson action formula in the LOTR canon. There is great build-up as the movie teased the danger of the Moria orcs (and a deeper danger) well before this battle ever begun. As the group comes upon a tomb they read an ominous journal outloud. The mistake of Pippin adds further atmosphere as we now hear the previously teased drums and anticipate our heroes will wind up like the previous tenants of the mine. The initial rush of orcs and the cave troll is met with a flush of action and great sequences of skillful, violent, and humors interactions as the score drops out. Eventually the score returns and a focus on the drama of Frodo surviving his interaction with the Cave troll due to his Mithril vest. The sequence continues with the fellowship’s flight as the numbers of the orcs swell and build only to be trumped by the arrival of the Balrog – ratcheting up the intensity further. A nice little sequence involving the traversing of some crumbling stairs then leads to a bridge (“Nobody tosses a dwarf!”) and climaxes in Gandalf’s showdown with the Balrog. The action of the sequence is excellent, but what kicks it up a notch is the way from beginning to end it manages to capture a range of threats and with the fall of Gandalf, becomes an important turning point in the group dynamics and the overall story.

2. “Finale: The Battle of Helm's Deep & Destruction of Isengard” -The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
- This is one of the finest fantasy war sequences ever put to film. I’ve gone back and forth on whether or not to combine all of the battle sequences into one or consider them on their own – since they are intercut with other storylines at times. In the end, it’s clear that all the Helm’s Deep sequences are essentially meant to be one giant battle as a whole and the destruction of Isengard a secondary element to it. Since it essentially plays out this way, I’ve included it as one giant sequence. If you’ve watched any of the making of The Lord of the Rings footage, you know that large scaled miniatures (bigatures as they called them) were used for much of the Helm’s Deep wide shots and computer animation for any of the large army shots. If this film had been done a few years later, with more developed CGI, they likely would not have used the bigatures, and I think it would have suffered worse for it. While the keen eye can tell it’s a model, there’s a tactile and practical nature to bigatures that gives this action set piece a grounded feeling that few CGI battles can match. Watching this sequence in theaters in 2002, there are several sweeping camera shots that are so inspired, so unique to the time, that they make you feel like you’re watching something you’ve never seen before. This happened for me when the wall was initially scaled with propped up ladders, when the wall exploded with grandeur and scale, when the giant ladders were knocked over, and when Gandalf’s riders charged down the hill. Incredible setting, sweeping fantasy war action, and an ebb and flow to the battle give this sequence the epic reputation it handsomely deserves. 

1. “The Battle for Minas Tirith” -The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
- This is my pick for the greatest Lord of the Rings action sequence and one of the single best action sequences ever created. For anyone who has only grown up on the Avengers being the biggest action spectacle they can think of, have I got something for you! Just like the Battle for Helm's Deep, I've decided the only way to give the sequence it's due credit is to admit it's actually just one long action sequence. Let me try to sum up my love and appreciation for this sequence with four basic reasons to persuade you of its greatness:

Reason #1: It is the most visually overwhelming action I've ever seen. On the visual component alone, the Battle for Minas Tirith is on a level of its own. The scale and beauty of Minas Tirith surrounded by plains and mountains is breathtaking. The ability for the camera to always find the right angle to highlight the epic scale, grandeur of thousands of armies, the intimacy of conflict, and the thrill of  violence is completely on point. Whether it's Gandalf scaling stairs to see the orc armies for the first time, the Fell Beasts divebombing the city, city walls being catapulted into the battle, war elephants devastating charging hordes, or Legolas taking one down, this sequence throws visual spectacle at the viewer like a boxer punching a speed bag. While the visual effects of the large armies are always going to be "dated" in a world of ever-advancing special effects, they are employed so beautifully and artistically here, that whether "they hold up or not" transcends the issue of mere graphical fidelity, and like a classic painting, will find a timeless appreciation. 

Reason #2: The structure of the Battle for Minas Tirith plays out as a perfect story within the greater story of Return of the King within the The Lord of the Rings. It's perfectly paced and perfectly structured over five distinct phases (mostly corresponding with my Jackson formula btw): 

Phase 1: The Initial ClashOpening volley’s with catapults and trebuchets, Nazgul on Fell Beasts dive-bombing the city, siege towers attacking the wall.
Phase 2: Things Break Down - Breaking down the front gate and the fighting reaches the inner city, Denethor lights Faramir on fire, the Witch King takes down Gandalf
Phase 3: The Ride of the Rohirrim - The response to the inevitable doom is the arrival of Theodon and his army. The charge of the Rohirrim is one of the single greatest moments in all of cinema. The music builds, Theoden's look of despair as he understands the task before him, the embrace of death, the horns (!), and the charge. The clash of sides is epic, it is titanic. To help tell it, Jackson gave us my single favorite visual effect shot of all-time captured somewhat in the gif below :
Coming within the context of the charge, this shot conveys the sheer scale of conflict while doing so in a grounded "I was there" kind of feel. I can't quite describe how this moment makes me feel except to say it literally inspires awe in me and I always finding myself pausing it and stepping through it frame by frame until you can see Minas Tirith appearing in the background. Incredible.
Phase 4: The Final Push - In a normal great war scene, this would be the end. This battle doesn't end here though, it throws one more great punch at the heroes, we then get the charge of the Haradrim (War Elephants). I love how Jackson has the camera come in tight on Theoden as he hears and sees the war elephants and all the great joy that he hasn't died and he survived the initial charge drains from his face and he realizes that he must make the decision to embrace death again. He pauses and firmly decides, "Reform the Line – sound the charge – take them head on!" - they charge and we get more incredible and sustained visual war action unlike any seen before. This is followed by the arrival of Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas and the Army of the Dead and their exploits. Finally, Eowyn and the Witch King have their showdown.
Phase 5: The Aftermath - Jackson ensures that we take a moment to linger and count the costs. 

Reason #3: The battle produces more earned emotions than almost any other sequence ever created
  • Awe and Wonder
  • Intimidation and Fear
  • Dread and Despair
  • Grief and Mourning
  • Honor and Courage
  • Humor and Silliness
  • Energy and Exhaustion
Reason #4: The battle represents a key dramatic moment in the arcs of every main character participating. Most importantly, these are arcs that are don't feel arbitrary, but have been seeded throughout the films so far. On this point alone, the battle transcends mere fantasy war spectacle and synthesizes action with dramatic storytelling in such a satisfying way.
  • Aragorn: Will he be able to save the world of men as a true King? Or will he fail them?
  • Gandalf: Will he help lead the men to persevere despite his doubts about Frodo and his ability to defeat the Witch King?
  • Theoden: Will he honor his ancestors by finally be a true leader of his men for good?
  • Eowyn: Will she prove that a women can contribute on the battlefield and fight for those they love?
  • Merry & Pippin: Will they serve and contribute rather than remain sideline annoyances?
  • Legolas & Gimli: Who will end up with the greatest tally?
  • The Army of the Dead: Will they prove their loyalty and be released from the curse?
Can you think of a single other action sequence that accomplishes what this one do so truthfully and beautifully?

That's it, those are my picks and those are my reasons. Thanks for going on the adventure with me. What do you think? Have I convinced you?

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