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

*Last Update: 6/18/2022

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. 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 diegetic 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.)
If you are curious, here is how I'd rank the six films in the franchise:

6. The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug (C) 2013
5. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (B-) 2012
4. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (B) 2014
3. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (A) 2002
2. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (A) 2001
1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (A+) 2003

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, 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. All that being said, let's go on an adventure!

All Lord of the Rings Action Sequences Rated & Ranked

Largely bad/insulting sequences that have at some kind of redeemable quality 

24. “Warg Search Party Chases the Dwarves” -The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) 
- Commentary: This sequence is like a turd in a punch bowl, a sign the prequel trilogy party is going to be of different standards than the original. The entire concept is the Radagast the Brown uses his rabbit-led sleigh (which is a really cool idea) to distract a search party of orcs on wargs while the Dwarven company escapes to Rivendell. 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 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.

Mediocre sequences that have some flaw or issue I find somewhat insulting or offensive.

23. “Finale: Into the Trees, the Fire, and Rescued by Eagles” -The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
- Commentary: After escaping Goblin Town, the Dwarven party are attacked by the main Orc henchmen, Azog, and his warg party - forcing them to go into the trees. After some silliness with tree dominoes, the whole group ends up in the final tree at the edge of a cliff (it's pretty silly the way its layed out). Gandalf comes up with the idea to make fire pine cones and the floor of the trees turns to fire forcing the wargs back a bit. Thorin, who suffers from the worst character writing of the entire six films, decides to use this as his chance to fight Azog. He leaves the tree and begins a fight (with the choral music pumping grandiosity in the background) and is immediately knocked to the ground and bested requiring Bilbo to come to his aid, which then apparently inspires the rest of the dwarves to fight back (they were holding onto the tree to their doom before). Finally, the Eagles arrive to finish off the wargs and let the dwarven party get to safety. Seriously, the creatives have made the dwarven party out to be a bunch of generic loud mouths, who talk big and can't do anything on their own in this film. It's a real problem. Why are these compelling characters we want to enjoy?

22. “Finale: Barrell Rider & Dwarven Company vs Smaug” -The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)
- Commentary: 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 go light the furnace 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 and ad hoc here, including the CGI setting which feels invented solely for the purpose of whatever action idea they wanted to throw out next. The payoff of the golden idol that melts and covers Smaug only for him to shake it off like a dog after a bath is so pathetic and idiotic it makes me sad for the creators. Most importantly, the thing that matters most in the end, is that the plan they do invent just isn't satisfying dramatically or visually. By the end of the sequence I find myself hating the dwarves even more, for they have proven themselves as boring, dependent, prideful, and selfish characters through and through. Not only that, but their greed and pride has led to the eventual destruction of the Lake Town (which is a bit of a sad and helpless place too!). Just depressing all around here.

Mediocre sequences that lack anything that makes them stand out. Decent, but forgettable.

21. “Orcs, Elves, & Dwarves Battle in Lake Town” -The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)
- Commentary: Intercut with the Dwarves vs. Smaug is a little bit of fighting action between a group of orcs against Legolas, Tauriel, and Fili. It's somewhat decent choreography, but the whole thing feels so redundant. How many times do we need to see Legolas bring down an orc? We saw him dispatch like thirty in the barrel sequence. Unless you come up with a cool new gimmick, how are we supposed to get excited watching him take on a handful during the finale?

20. “Smaug Destroys Laketown - Bard Fights Back” -The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)
- Commentary: Carrying over the tragedy from last film, this film begins with Smaug's destruction of Laketown. Visually, it's done well - the aerial shots of Smaug sweeping down with streams of fire and the Lonely Mountain in the background are awe-inspiring. The issue here is that the whole thing feels stretched out with needless tension, like the imprisonment of Bard, him having to fight his way to the tower, and then shooting the arrow to take down Smaug. They stack the odds against him so much that it feels like they want this to be a finale sequence, but it's just an opening to set the table. The second biggest issue is the way the film has portrayed Laketown so far - all of the officials and townspeople are so poor, uninterested in goodness, or corrupt that the entire town is depressing. I'm not saying they deserve to die, but in a story where we are meant to be cheering for someone to take down the dragon, it would certainly help if we actually liked the city or the people in it. Nice spectacle, not much else to see here.

Largely mediocre sequences that have some redeeming or standout feature. This, to me, is where the average decent action sequence ranks.

19. “Wizard Duel: Gandalf vs. Saruman” -The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
- Commentary: More of an atmospheric battle than a kinetic one, this is about how we slowly and subtly learn that Saruman the White has turned and joined forces with Sauron. Once Gandalf learns of it Saruman closes all exits and we get a brief battle of powers between the two: pushing each other into walls and such. Saruman gains the upper hand when he forces Gandalf's staff into his hand and then spins Gandalf round and then ultimately lifts up into the highest part of Orthanc Tower. It's short but a nice interesting engagement between the two.

18. “Dwarves vs. the Trolls” -The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
- Commentary: I'm a bit mixed on this sequence. This is really our first chance to see the dwarven company work together and accomplish a martial goal. This was a chance for us to see what they could do when the dwarves work together. Once the conflict gets going we get a nice one shot that initiates us into the battle, but after that its just different shots of different dwarves fighting. There's not a single - "Oh, that dwarf is good at that! Oh, when you don't want to get in a position where he can do this! Oh, when these two work together..." You know what I mean? Instead, because we know that the trolls have to win so that Bilbo can show his smarts in tricking them to talk to dawn, the dwarves ultimately lose. It's not shot poorly, it just doesn't set us up to bond with these dwarves. How are we to expect them to be successful if they can beat three dumb trolls? I think the filmmakers could have come up with something more clever here.

17. “Dol Guldur: Gandalf, Thrain, & Sauron” -The Lord of the Rings: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)
- Commentary: After finding that the nine wraiths have burst from their tomb, Gandalf decides to head to Dol Guldur and confront whatever evil may be lurking there. He first finds Thrain (father of Thorin) who attacks him - under some kind of spell. After the spell is cleared, Thrain begins spilling the secrets of what is happening at Dol Guldur. Azog shows up and Gandalf does battle against Azog and Sauron using his ill-defined powers (stopping illusions, causing light distractions, making towers fall, a protective light bubble). It makes for some cool wizard/powers visuals but it's not exactly easy to understand since we don't really know what Gandalf is capable of or who is stronger than what, etc. It's visually interesting and an emotional punch to see Gandalf bested - just wish we understood the rules of the game here better.

16. “Stone Giants Battle in the Misty Mountains” -The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
- Commentary: One of the frustrations of turning the book into three films is that the initial part of The Hobbit is incredibly similar to The Fellowship of the Ring - moving from Hobbiton to Rivendell and then through the Misty Mountains. There's really nothing the creatives could do about that. However, one of the fun differences between the experience of the Misty Mountains in The Hobbit vs Fellowship of the Ring is the encounter with Stone Giants who are battling each other with our Dwarven company caught in the middle - these giants are literally the size of mountains and they are hurling what amounts to giant boulders at each other. It's a really cool sight and Jackson does a great job of letting the spectacle play out and highlighting the danger the company would ensure from it. A nice pop of fantasy her for the journey.

Good sequences that have some issue holding it back from being solid.

15. “Opening: Gandalf vs.The Balrog Redux” -The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
- Commentary: 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 and deserves credit for knocking our socks off to start out The Two Towers

14. “Escaping the Mirkwood Spiders” -The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)
- Commentary: This is a nice little sequence. Bilbo and the company of dwarves are captured by a group of large spiders in Mirkwood. Bilbo, using his word and the ring is able to get free and hide among the spiders. I love the added touch of him being able to understand the language of the spiders when he is wearing the ring. He helps the dwarven party recover and we get a decent little action scene here, but it 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 when they decided to make three films. Why not let this be a standout action set piece? Ultimately, Legolas and the female elf Tauriel come and make the save. It's a nice character builder for Bilbo who gets all rageful on a spider who seems to threaten his hold on the ring ("Mine!"), but this sequence again doesn't really do much for all the other dwarves (outside of sowing the seeds for Fili's love story with Tauriel) who come off again as generic and always in need of someone else saving them.

13. “Black Riders Give Chase: From Bree to the Fords” -The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
- Commentary: After the hobbits give the Nazgul the slip in the village of Bree, thanks to Aragorn, they enter the wilds. It's not before the Riders attack again on Weathertop when the young hobbits can't resist making themselves a dinner. As a result of this attack, they are saved again by Aragorn, Frodo is injured and needs special medicine and healing. Arwen arrives and agrees to ride Frodo to Rivendell, a special realm of the elves. A chase ensues with Arwen riding hard against the Black Riders. They end up at a river crossing where Arwen summons the waters and she is able to make a powerful rush of water take out the riders before they make it across. It's an engaging hunt (even before the slip in the village of Bree) and the chase moves and keeps moving. There's no "highlight" moment which is normally what I love in action - but I love just the feel of a chase taking place in the wild that feels mostly grounded and on the tip of failing constantly.

Good action sequences with much to commend about them. They are a solid entry into their genre.

12. “Battle of Five Armies: Ravenhill Finale” -The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies (2014)
- Commentary: 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 each individual 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.

11. “Osgiliath: Orcs Attack. Retreat, & Rescue by Gandalf” -The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
- Commentary: Not a long sequence here, but I've always felt like there was a nice "Dunkirk" kind of feel this one. The orcs attack by river at night and we get some nice war action beats 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 and the orcs sweeping through the city. 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 us 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.

10. “Escaping Goblin Town” -The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
- Commentary: This should have been a standout sequence for the first film and something every LOTR fan looks back on fondly. Unfortunately, Jackson's great action sensibilities are undermined by two major issues (ones that would plague the Hobbit trilogy). First, 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 much of its grounding or the 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. Second, the lack of genuine characterization for the dwarven party makes everything feel more generic. Try to answer this question, did this action sequence help us understand or get to know any of the dwarves better than before? Their fighting style and reaction to the plot is so generic and controlled by other things, that they've just become passive characters. I mean, there are several moments where the group does something clever - like make use of a pole to joust orcs off the path or cleverly cut a line to stop oncoming orcs on ropes. Why not attach "cleverness" to one of the weaker dwarves and that become a skill we look forward to, like we did with Legolas' athletic skill. At the end of this battle, we just get that the group needs Gandalf to lead them and Thorin doesn't quite get the job done. Huh? Still, it’s a fun sequence with a lot of great visual spectical. It just does nothing for any of the characters and continues to give the film a generic feel. If you can look past those things, there's a cool scene here.

9. “Galadriel, Elrond, and Saruman save Gandalf from Sauron” -The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)
- Commentary: This is the kind of moment the Hobbit trilogy had the chance to give us that the original trilogy never did - a wizard duel between against spiritual/ghost type creatures. I love the creativity in how they depict the ring wraiths - not quite physical yet, but still something to be dealt with. I love that we get the chance to see Saruman, Elrond, and Galadriel get to use their powers - it's new and its pretty darn glorious. It also gives us a glimpse into what Saruman was possibly thinking when he decided to betray Gandalf in Fellowship of the Ring - seeing how they were barely able to banish him here. 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 unnecessary humor or over the top gags. It's a few minutes long and it really gets the job done. 

8. “Warg Attack” -The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
- Commentary: 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 not held up well at all), I think the sequence holds up much better than previously thought and provides a much needed bit of action/adrenaline into a film that doesn’t have a genuine action set piece until the finale at Helm’s Deep. Still, one shouldn't just have action for pacing, which is why I think the sequence thankfully turned out pretty well whether it was done for pacing reasons or not. First, there's a lot of nice action beats here with Aragorn, Legolas, and some of the Rohirrim. Second, we get some memorable comedy from Gimli. Third, it raises the dramatic stakes by separating Aragon from the group just as everyone was really getting the sense that he would help lead them to victory. This forces everyone to look to Theoden for leadership without Aragorn/Gandalf present. This sequence follows the Jackson formula I outlined before perfectly and is greatly helped by the score and having a tight running time and not being intercut with other storylines. 

Very good action sequences with something holding them back from greatness. These sequences are typically best in their film and represent something above and beyond expectations.

7. “Frodo & Sam vs. Shelob” -The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
- Commentary: 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 heroic action beats are just clean enough to make you cheer on Sam, but clumsy enough to believe someone like Sam could possibly pull off the victory. A memorable and iconic battle - "Let him go you filth!" 

6. “Escape from Mirkwood Prison: Barrel Riders” -The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)
- Commentary: This one has a special place in my heart and is easily 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 Escape from 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 with actual water, and in actual barrels. There are two places it does cross the line of too 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 just have to plead they don't bother me THAT much. I think they feel grounded in a real setting enough that they mostly work. Additionally, they come within the context of enough "real" river 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. Additionally, the Legoals and Bofur moments are largely to build character distinctness, which was a real problem in the Golbin Town one. At least by the end of this sequence you feel like you know Tauriel, Fili, Bofur, Bilbo, and Legolas better in the process of getting a fresh action gimmick (barrel riding). To sum it up, I think this scene is more enjoyable because it's tied to a fresh new setting (not completely CGI) that builds up characters alongside of the action. 

5. “Battle of Five Armies: Mayhem at the Mountain & Dale” -The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies (2014)
- Commentary: 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 from Peter Jackson 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 inspire wonder, dynamic movement, and the battleground layout. 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 characters nor does it feel like the battle is a heroic, brave, or courageous one. Additionally, the plot of the battle is conflicting - starting out as between elves, men, and dwarves we get some pretty savage battles. Then when the orcs show up the dwarves and men and elves join up pretty easily. Even then, when the battle looks fairly grim, Thorin our major hero group finally join the battle which is supposed to be a heroic moment but they've been cowards this whole time.  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 ambition and military creativity, it’s ultimately undercut by the convoluted/conflicting story and unlikeable characters. Seriously, are we supposed to like the elves and their unlikeable leader? The humans from Lake Town and their unlikability? The dwarves led by Thorin? The battle is filled with so many unlikeable characters. Only Bilbo and Gandalf make it out of this one with their reputation in tact. Unlike a one on one kung fu fight 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? I hate that so many cool and creative war moments just got lost in a story that doesn't deserve it. 

4. “Finale: Orcs Attack the Fellowship at the Falls of Rauros” -The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
- Commentary: The original trilogy primarily featured two different types of major action sequences – one that is telling a largely action oriented moment in the story but fills it with great moments of drama (Mines of Moria) or a sequence that is telling a largely drama oriented moment in the story but fills it with great moments of action (Chase of the Black Riders). The integration rather than separation of the drama and action make the original trilogy special. 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 action of battling against an attack from Saruman Uruk-Hai. The battle action itself is strong, memorable, and engaging, but it largely plays background to the drama. Tell me what you remember more, Aragorn's swordplay or Bormir's death? Legolas' bow work or Frodo's farewell? That it's tough for you to answer shows just how successful the blending of the two was done here. 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. I remember being so excited after this sequence, when Aragorn suggests the group go on the hunt for the orcs who took the hobbits, that I forgot it was the end of the movie. When I remembered that this was just a first entry in a trilogy that wouldn't wrap up for two years I was so deflated. This sequence sucked me in so much that I couldn't wait to see what happened next. So I went out and bought all the books and read them before the next movie came out!

Great action sequences that can compete for best of the year and best of all-time.

3. “Mayhem in the Mines of Moria” -The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
- Commentary: This is the first perfect example of the Jackson action formula in the LOTR franchise. For the first time viewer, this sequence gets a lot of fantastic build-up as the we are constantly teased by characters about the danger of the Moria mines (and a deeper danger) well before this battle ever begun. When the group is forced into the Mines by a water monster near the entrance, there is a feeling of inevitable doom as our fellowship makes their way hesitantly into the dark. Eventually group comes upon a tomb where they read an ominous journal out loud. The noise mistake of Pippin adds further atmosphere as we now hear the previously teased drums of the deep and anticipate that our heroes might meet the same fate of the previous tenants of the mine. The initial rush of orcs and a large cave troll is met with a flush of skillful, violent, and humorous action beats with the score dropped out. Eventually the score returns and we get a renewed focus on the drama/narrative of Frodo surviving his interaction with the Cave troll due to his Mithril vest. We also get a cool action beat with Legolas - a nice taste of things to come going forward. 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 giant Balrog – ratcheting up the intensity further. A nice 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 separates it from other action set pieces is how from beginning to end it manages to capture a range of threats, ramping up the threat, and ending with the significant and film-changing fall of Gandalf. It's not only the biggest and best action sequence of the film but it becomes an important turning point in the group dynamics and the overall story. That's how you make an sequence! I think this is likely the best "fantasy action" sequence ever made (that's not a war sequence). This is a band of people with different skills working together travel in a world that's bigger than them, that they cannot control, and this sequence perfectly embodies that feeling. 

An all-time great action sequence. This does not mean it is a technically perfect action sequence, just that it is "perfect" to me. This is one I can watch over and over and it doesn't lose its power.

2. “Finale: The Battle of Helm's Deep & Destruction of Isengard” -The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
- Commentary: 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- but in the end, it’s clear that all the Helm’s Deep sequences are essentially meant to be one giant battle and the destruction of Isengard a secondary element to it.  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 me feel like I was watching something I'd 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, the tossing of Gimli, when the giant ladders were knocked over (!!), Theoden's charge and especially when Gandalf’s riders charged down the hill to save the day. 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 (2003)
- Commentary: This is my pick for the greatest Lord of the Rings action sequence and I think it's also one of the single best action sequences ever created - if not the single best. 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 multiple armies with thousands of soldiers, 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 of cavalrymen, or Legolas taking a war elephant 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 I think.

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. It somehow hits the full spectrum here:
  • Awe and Wonder
  • Intimidation and Fear
  • Dread and Despair
  • Grief and Mourning
  • Honor and Courage
  • Humor and Silliness
  • Exhilaration 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 to be completed in this moment. 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 by leading the army of dead? Or will he fail them/be too late?
  • Gandalf: Will he help lead the men to persevere despite his doubts about Frodo and his inability to defeat the Witch King?
  • Theoden: Will he honor his ancestors by finally becoming a true leader of his men for good?
  • Eowyn: Will she prove that a women can contribute on the battlefield and deserve to 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 does 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?