“If you want to send a message, call Western Union,” said Hollywood pioneer Samuel Goldwyn to filmmakers and stars who sought to use their movie projects to advance some political agenda.
Although the telegraph is a largely irrelevant alternative in this Internet age, the thinking behind Goldwyn’s advice remains sane and solid: Political preachments, on or off camera, only interfere with the entertainment value of creative work by major Hollywood stars. Recent comments by some of the prime participants in the triumphal box-office hit The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King illustrate the uncomfortable implications of trying to impose timely messages on timeless fantasy.
Viggo Mortensen, who plays the title character in The Return of the King, has used the publicity platform provided by his role to trumpet his anti-war and anti-Bush views. Since the release of last year’s Rings installment, The Two Towers, he’s turned up for numerous press interviews wearing a “no more blood for oil” T-shirt and freely offered his bitter critique of U.S. foreign policy.
This fall, with the distribution of the biggest movie of his career just weeks away, he appeared at a Washington anti-war rally sponsored by International ANSWER (a coalition to “Act Now to Stop War and End Racism”), identified by its own leaders as an off-shoot of the Socialist Workers Party, a Stalinist fringe group. In the midst of speakers defending Palestinian terrorists, Cuba’s Castro regime and the saber-rattling North Korean government, Mortensen read an interminable original poem about exploding bombs, burning flesh, flattened huts and American guilt. No one who witnessed this embarrassing and befuddled performance could put it entirely out of mind when watching Viggo impersonate the fearless, regal warrior Aragorn in The Return of the King.
Nevertheless, Mortensen believes that he had no choice but to distract attention from his martial role with his pacifist preening. As he told USA TODAY’s Susan Wloszczyna: “It is not something I would normally go out of my way to do at all. But it was in response to what I’d been hearing in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, and what happened the year following when The Two Towers came out. A lot of people misrepresented what we had done in the films and Tolkien’s work, saying they justified the actions of the U.S. government and war in general. I didn’t think that was the case.”
In all of the hundreds of statements by Bush administration officials attempting to explain our battles in Afghanistan and Iraq, I don’t recall any references, ever, to Middle Earth to “justify” U.S. policy. Of course, many critics and commentators noted that The Lord of the Rings story involves a climactic struggle between good and evil, and suggested that the tales achieve special contemporary resonance because many Americans see our fight against terrorists in similar terms. Surely, Mortensen agrees with the proposition that Tolkien’s novels, and director Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptations, involve a defining war between light and darkness, decency and corruption. If he questions the relevance of those absolutes to the present war on terror (as many people do), then that opinion involves his take on current events rather than any disagreement about the movie’s real meaning. Challenging the wisdom of injecting his controversial opinions into the movie’s promotional campaign in no way denies Mortensen his First Amendment rights to free expression; it merely questions the judgment behind his ill-timed political posturing.
In fact, Mortensen’s protests set up a potential ideological conflict with one of his Rings co-stars: veteran actor John Rhys-Davies, who plays Gimli the Dwarf and voices the character Treebeard the Ent. In recent comments to the media, Rhys-Davies delivered his own interpretation of the epic cycle: “I think that Tolkien says that some generations will be challenged, and if they do not rise to meet that challenge, they will lose their civilization. That does have a real resonance with me.” Leveling a stinging accusation at leading reporters, he declared: “What is unconscionable is that too many of your fellow journalists do not understand how precarious Western civilization is, and what a jewel it is.” He went on to warn about the potentially devastating impact of the rise of aggressive, uncompromising Islamism among the growing Muslim population of Western Europe.
It would be difficult for even Rhys-Davies’ allies to suggest that those comments bore any special relevance to the movie he is promoting. In fact, the attempts by actors and cultural observers to score topical points with references to The Lord of the Rings clearly contravene the intentions of the movie’s creators, and of novelist J.R.R. Tolkien himself.
In his forward to the work, the author insisted that the world of Middle Earth exists as an independent universe, with no connection to current events. “As for any inner meaning or ‘message,’ it has in the intention of the author none,” Tolkien wrote. “It is neither allegorical nor topical.”
Tolkien understood that the finest works of art appeal with equal power to people of all political persuasions, without sacrificing their permanent meaning through association with transient debates. When outstanding actors feel compelled to place their work in a polarizing political context, they only diminish its value and its ability to connect with a diverse audience. If nothing else, controversial off-screen pronouncements color our on-screen perceptions of Aragorn or Gimli, and threaten the perceived — and heroic — unity of the Fellowship of the Ring.
The Ring represents the temptation of power — a temptation that must be resisted and destroyed. The participants who helped to create this most spectacular trilogy in cinema history should resist a similar lure, and leave The Lord of the Rings unpolluted by politics.