Guilty Pleasures: Bill Cameron

The Lord of the Rings, 1978
Directed by Ralph Bakshi

Maybe I should start with my capsule review of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy: It was … fine.

To be a bit more specific, I found it to be a striking visual spectacle, yet ultimately flawed. So … yeah. Fine.
But, before a nerdstorm of true believers claws its way through the intertubes to disembowel me with their Andúril replica swords, let me say I own—and watch, often—the Jackson films. The stuff he got right, he got reeeeally right. Gandalf? Best casting decision ever. The oliphaunts, and Gollum? Delicious. Cate Blanchett as Galadriel? More, please. The Balrog? Oh, hell yeah. I can watch the Balrog scene a hundred times over. Love it.
And, yes, Viggo Mortensen made a superb Aragorn, despite being written as an emo. And I like Sean Bean even in his bad outings, but no danger of that here; he did Boromir proud. Legolas and Gimli were solid. I know it’s kind of a kewl kidz thing to hate on Orlando Bloom, but I don’t.
And yet, the hobbits did nothing for me. Elijah Wood’s constipated faux accent and Sam’s bitchiness never rang true. Dominic Monaghan played the same asshole he played in Lost, only shorter. Whatever. The hobbits weren’t very important anyway, not in this retelling. Though, credit where credit is due. Billy Boyd was convincing, the only one of the Fellowship hobbits.
The low point in casting was Liv Tyler as Arwen.
Think about this for a moment. Liv Tyler. As Arwen.
Are you kidding me? And not just Liv Tyler as Arwen, but Arwen taking Glorfindel’s place in the flight to Rivendell, and then doing that magic zapping of Frodo? What the hell was that? (Did Peter Jackson and his minions actually read The Lord of the Rings. Or simply skim the Cliff’s Notes.) Liv Tyler may be kinda cute, but she possesses all the gravitas of a Skipper doll. She’s about as far as you can get from the heir of Luthien and still be bipedal. Give me a break. Liv Freaking Tyler. Where’s my hammer?
From there, it was production design first, every thing else second, or not at all. Pretty, with splashes of stunning visual pyrotechnics. But little more. That The Return of the King got all those Oscars is a testament, I suspect, to Academy exhaustion. Or maybe it was the oliphaunts. They were very cool.
Of course, Jackson’s not the only Lord of the Rings effort. Before Viggo charmed us out of our pants as Aragorn, there was Ralph Bakshi’s benighted effort from the 70s, a movie I love despite the fact it is—and I admit this right upfront—awful. Oh so gloriously awful.
Way back in the Second Age, er, the 70s, Bakshi had a couple of home runs in Fritz the Cat and Wizards. Fritz was just a bit early for me to see legally, but that’s okay. I saw it anyway, sneaking into a midnight showing with a friend when we were supposed to be camping out in his treehouse. I was about thirteen, which meant I thought Fritz the Cat was a sex ed documentary.
Wizards was a genuine tour de force. Dark, dramatic, with moments of rich comedy and a true pathos at its core. Visually stunning in an age when CGI was in its infancy. I saw Wizards at a midnight showing as well, but for that one I actually bought a ticket. Not that my parents knew I was there. Hell, no. But that’s another story.
So when me and my friends heard Bakshi was doing The Lord of the Rings, our immediate thought was, “Oh, fuck yeah.” The anticipation was palpable. It got especially intense with the official Lord of the Rings lead miniatures became available at the local games store. They weren’t very good, honestly, not compared to most of the lead miniature offerings out there, but who cared? Frodo! Gandalf! A guy who might be Aragorn! We were jacked. As dungeon master, I found myself crafting scenarios which could take advantage of the swarms of orcs I was buying.
Then the movie arrived, and, and, and …
My immediate reaction was bemusement coupled with a roiling, half-acknowledged disappointment. Not that I could admit it openly. This was The Lord of the Rings, after all, and I was a nerdtron teen who re-read the book like scripture. I read The Silmarillion too. More than once. I couldn’t face the fact my precious had been sullied, so I pretended it was … misunderstood.
Of course it came out at a time when it wasn’t easy to see again and again like movies are now. The cinematic run ended fairly quickly. VCRs still were but an amazing device teleported from the future into the homes of rich people. In that reality, we didn’t have the opportunity to dissect movies through a nigh on infinite number of viewings.
A few years later that would change. In 1981 I acquired a video disc player (from the Future!), and sure enough The Lord of the Rings was one of my first discs. And my worst fears were confirmed.
It was bad.
And yet, as I watched it, again and again, hoping yet mostly failing to find some redeeming quality, I fell in love with damnable thing.
This is a movie which is decidedly schizophrenic. That worked in Wizards, but not at all with a story like The Lord of the Rings. The production is a mix of traditional cel animation and rotoscoping, which means the visual style would change dramatically within the same scene. I know this was intentional on Bakshi’s part, but when you see line drawing Fellowship characters fleeing from shaded, almost natural-looking orcs, the effect is jarring.

Wizards was striking for its use of expressionistic backgrounds to highlight characters and action at key moments. In The Lord of the Rings, the same effect comes off almost as a cheap shortcut. Splashes of bright color behind the Nazgûl as they attack the beds where the hobbits are apparently sleeping, or during the flight to the ford, detract from the drama rather than enhance it. This is particularly disappointing considering how beautiful the background artwork is when Bakshi isn’t going for warpy, glowy melodrama.

Despite its obvious flaws, I find the movie has a heart. It’s weird-looking and disjointed, but but I never get the sense that Bakshi didn’t understand his source material the way I do with Jackson. Jackson’s are among the most technically proficient films ever made. Beautifully shot, with amazing production design, costumes, sets. You name it. But emotionally flat. Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings looks a bit like a Funny-or-Die send-up, but I feel it captures more of the essence of Tolkien’s story.

Still, nowadays I watch Bakshi’s movie more to marvel at its weirdness than to appreciate its redeeming qualities. I chuckle at the sequence when 17 years pass by in the Shire, the screen flashing through the seasons like a child’s flip-book—unintentional comedy gold. The weird rotoscoping is often hypnotic, especially when the Bree men are drunkenly dancing to Frodo’s song. I watched that scene so many times on my video disc version of movie it developed a terrible skip. Ah, vinyl.

As with Jackson’s LOTR, there’s no Tom Bombadil. And poor Glorfindel gets shortshrifted, but in Bakshi, he’s replaced by Legolas. Wrong person, but at least Legolas made a certain kind of sense. (Liv Tyler? Seriously?) And Bakshi couldn’t quite commit to what to call Saruman. More often than not he’s referred to as Aruman, perhaps to avoid possible confusion with Sauron. But a few times Saruman slips out. Oops.
The Balrog is simply goofy, a fiery, winged pig with giant feet—not nearly as frightening as Aragorn’s nose. Boromir had a terrifying nose too. I guess Bakshi’s vision of Men in the Third Age of Middle Earth was as undercard boxers who’d suffered more than a few knockouts. The elves could be pretty spooky though too. And Samwise, that dude had himself some snaggle teeth.
Of course, the strangest thing about the movie is the way it suddenly ends about halfway through the story. We get a voiceover: “And then they won.” Something like that. (I admit I usually doze off before I get to the voiceover.)
I guess it was a money thing. Bakshi apparently couldn’t get the funding to make part two. A few years later, Rankin-Bass produced a deeply surreal made-for-TV version of The Return of the King which sort of finished what Bakshi started. I kinda liked the Rankin-Bass version of The Hobbit, but, Gott in himmel, who thought their assault on The Return of the King was a good idea?
In the end, Jackson did a much better job, despite his effort’s limitations. I’m going to put one of the Jackson discs in the DVD player five times as often as my copy of Bakshi. But in the end, I have a greater affection for Bakshit’s (typo, and I’m keeping it) version. What can I say? I guess that’s why they call it a guilty pleasure.Bill
Bill Cameron lives with his wife and a menagerie of critters in Portland, Oregon. His stories have appeared inSpinetinglerThe Dunes ReviewThe Alsop Review. He is a member of Friends of Mystery and International Thriller Writers, and serves as Vice President of the Northwest Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. For more, head over to his site.