Leaving aside the squabbles of a few (million) fans, it's basically obvious that Peter Jackson has achieved that rare and wonderful thing: a successful film adaptation of a literary work. It's a bit like David Bowie - everyone either loves it or is like whatever about it, neither of which perspectives offer a very robust platform for discussion.
Firstly, let's clear up the matter of genre. This is a war movie, from beginning to end. Secondly, a single line of dialogue for consideration: 'You are men of the West.' It doesn't really matter where this line occurs in the scenario - it's really just one brilliant moment among millions. As it happens, it is Aragorn's battle cry to the hastily amassed armies ready to do the business on the gates of Mordor.
Just what is it to be men of the west? Those four words alone provide enough argument to drive an entire humanities faculty - about which more later. For now, let's just say that it's a tribute to PJ's cinematic fidelity that Tolkein's own moral values are not only preserved, but writ large and literally emblazoned across the screen in giant symbols of fire.
He wrote LOTR between the world wars 1 & 2 of the 20th century. To be a man of the west - in Tolkein - is to be a member of the chosen race, the race that defeats all else - no matter that all else is stronger, better armed, greater in number and simply thrives on endless war. Men of the west stand fast on nothing but their moral righteousness - their character - and evil just evaporates, like oil spills burning in the deserts of Iraq.
It is tempting to imagine Britain's hunger for this kind of narrative as it shed bitter memories of hellish, victorious trench warfare, and simultaneously galvanised itself for more. Further, there is the tempting comparison between Sauron's single minded genetic breeding programme of Orcs (which begins in Two Towers, or perhaps earlier) and the marshalling - and costuming - of nationalist armies by the European fascists.
On the other hand, there's probably wisdom in going to war with the conviction that you're exercising some kind of moral imperative. People everywhere yearn for the abolition of annoying difference. Difference is simply exhausting. It kills us, especially during wartime. When Satre said that hell is other people, he wasn't kidding around.
There's a military philosophy - first articulated by one Carl von Clausewitz 200 years ago - that war is the extension of politics. Politics, that is, as the business of power, more than the business of ideology. The reality is that no idea is worthy of murder. Power itself - in the form of resources, food, or land - can justify killing. Food itself is the business of life and death.
In fact, nearly everyone in LOTR is obsessed with food. Great battle scenes are juxtaposed with funny - and some disturbing - eating scenes, in most of which there just ain't enough to go round. On reflection, this is perhaps one of the main differences between the soldiers of Mordor and the 'men of the West': the soldiers of Mordor have a nasty tendency to eat their victims on the battle ground, whereas the good guys are good apparently because they prefer to eat at home, before and after fighting, but not during.
Other than that, the only difference between good and evil is that the bad guys are covered in mud and the good guys are ... men of the West. Narrative progress is predicated upon life and death, every time. Kill or be killed. That's it, just as surely as either you support the war on terror, or you are a terrorist.
People in LOTR who oppose war just mope around, cowering in draughty throne rooms, turning grey, dribbling, swearing and just generally pissing the hell out of Gandalf and his men of the West. In Middle Earth (a fantasy, idealised, mother-England Europe that tolerates only moderate difference in the name of good manners) opposition to war and killing is tantamount to the opposition to life and peace. Sound familiar?
Other great war films such as Apocalypse Now or Lawrence of Arabia tend to treat war as a sort of institutional inevitability. In these films, war is there because professional politicians and soldiers have put it there ... it's crazy ... but what can you do? Well, you can be a Lawrence, a Willard or even a Kurtz, but LOTR extends military logic to question the morality of killing anything, human, animal, or completely alien.
Aficionados will have already identified the problem with this analysis, which is that Tolkein takes great pains to construct the warlike imperative of the narrative around the ring itself. Perhaps this is a sort of Archduke Ferdinand analogy - indeed we live in a time intimately familiar with wars waged on red-herrings, obscuring dark and more sinister agendas.
And on yet the other other hand, the whole thing is a brilliant romp in the cinema with the perhaps most reliable teller of tales New Zealand has yet produced. There's a lot here from his earlier - and earliest - works. Lots of the Orcs look like the zombies from Bad Taste. There's a similarity in the slapstick and pratfalls that characterise lots of the fight choreography, which Jackson fans will know is always a good chance for a laugh. And I'm sure I glimpsed the same location where they filmed Bill Ralston getting chewed to death by a rabid monkey in the first five minutes of Braindead. Well, maybe ...
And at the risk of looking like a tag line on Amazon, people who like LOTR will also be interested in Richard Wagner. Dragons, dwarves, cosmic warfare, realms of fire and toil all abound in his extraordinary operas, and their influence on subsequent Western culture is as incalculable as it is controversial. They also feature a gold ring forged in magic fire which induces all who behold it to forsake love for power ... sound familiar? This guy makes Tolkein read like Enid Blyton.
So anyway, speaking of humanities faculties, it seems strangely fitting that Roger Horrocks should retire from his role as Professor of Film, TV and Media Studies at University of Auckland at the same time the final episode of LOTR goes worldwide. Roger's contribution to screen culture in the country is hard to summarise, it's so vast. The feeling I've had when working around him is that he seems to like nothing more than making culture, and to see others doing the same thing. He's incapable of small-talk, and has an almost dogmatic obsession with turning big talk into big actions.
As one of the driving forces inside NZ on Air, Roger's done as much as anyone - and more than most - to find a way through the political wilderness of the 80s and 90s to bring about a three-fold increase in local TV production. Within Academia he is among the first pioneers to have recognise the pedagogical value of researching screen arts, and has pushed hard for its inclusion as a post graduate subject. Now, media studies has reached the high-school curriculum and tertiary film schools abound. Beyond all that, there's his scholastic interest in poetry, his expertise in experimental art films, the Len Lye biography, an opera libretto ... did I mention he's hard to summarise? Good on you, Roger. What's next?