In a January editorial in USA Today, movie and cultural critic Michael Medved caustically criticized Viggo Mortensen for “pacifist preening” and “ill-timed political posturing.” Why? Because Mortensen has been using his new-found celebrity as an opportunity to speak out against the war in Iraq, and American political policies in general. Medved sees Mortensen’s actions — and also those of conservative voices such as John Rhys-Davies — as antithetical to Tolkien’s vision and to art in general. “When outstanding actors feel compelled to place their work in a polarizing political context,” Medved wrote, “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.”
It’s an interesting position for Medved to take. He even opens the article with a quote from Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn, who disliked politicization of film: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” Isn’t it odd to find Medved aligning himself with a Hollywood mogul? Methinks Mr. Medved doth protest too much.
Michael Medved himself has certainly parleyed his celebrity as a movie critic into opportunities to advance his own conservative agenda. As long ago as 1993, Medved published Hollywood vs. America, a book which Publisher’s Weekly politely called a “jeremiad” (a dolorous tirade; a long and mournful complaint), and which the Library Journal described as a “scathing indictment” of Hollywood’s supposed agenda: “portraying religion unfavorably, glamorizing violence, and celebrating immorality.”
Medved’s own publicity clarifies the book’s thesis. “Hollywood ignores — and assaults — the values of ordinary American families, pursuing a self-destructive and alienated ideological agenda that is harmful to the nation at large and to the industry’s own interests.” Now, whether or not Medved is right, his book’s agenda was not purely artistic — it was political, commercial and personal; and in the last decade he’s gone on to host radio shows and serve as a voice for a host of conservative causes.
Is there anything wrong with that? Certainly not. But why doesn’t he allow others the same latitude? If we apply the same criteria to Medved as Medved himself does to Mortensen and others, we should be able to state the following with confidence: “When outstanding critics 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.” Now, I don’t think this is a statement with which Medved is likely to agree; but it only differs from his statement about Mortensen by one word: the substitution of critics for actors.
On Christianity Today’s Film Forum, Jeffrey Overstreet commented on the hubbub. “Is it ‘preening’ to suggest that leaders should act without arrogance?” he asked. “Is it ill-timed political posturing for a person to suggest that a powerful nation should show respect for the U.N.?” Overstreet and I both sat in on interviews with Mortensen in L.A. last December — separate sessions in separate rooms. And the views Mortensen expressed certainly tended to be anti-war; but in no way did Mortensen come off as “preening,” or even eager to share his views. Instead, he openly, honestly, and thoughtfully answered the questions which he was asked.
Medved’s reaction to Mortensen left Jeffrey Overstreet and me both scratching our heads, wondering exactly what Medved was thinking when he wrote his editorial. I doubt that the interview transcript which follows will clarify issues terribly — but it may serve as a partial antidote to the bad taste which Medved’s editorial may have left in some folks’ mouths.
The questions in the interview are posed by press from a variety of publications, and Mortensen’s responses are given verbatim. Where necessary, extraneous or unintelligible remarks are indicated by bracketed ellipses, so:
Karl Urban is one of many people who have talked about you being an incredible role model in every aspect — not only as an actor, but as a person. Are you conscious of that when you’re on set, and where do you think that comes from, as a person?
I don’t think that my approach — I mean, in my way I did the same thing that everyone else was doing, which was to work in a way that I was giving everyone around me the best chance of doing their job well, you know. Because — also for selfish reasons — because the better they do, the better the team is going to be, and the better I was going to be in the scene. And it was such a long haul that for all of us it was a question of getting through it. And the best way to get through it, the most satisfying way to get through it, was together, and to support each other. So that’s the way that I looked at the story, and I think that’s the way the characters are in the story as well.
You said in a Newsweek interview that you felt that you had two bosses: Tolkien and Jackson. How did you, I guess, feel like you were being genuine to both of their visions?
Well, I think that Tolkien — and beyond that I think you can look further back too — I think that Tolkien was, in writing this story, which was in a way an excuse for him to exercise or have a play with his knowledge of languages, history, mythology, his idea of religion, literature — he was showing respect for people who had sought wisdom for its own sake, in the past, and who had made an effort to connect with their environment, and with other beings on this planet. Rather than separate, or islolate. And I think Peter, in his way, showed respect for that same thing, for those people who lived thousands of years ago. And in some sense — regardless of your spiritual persuasion or your political beliefs or wherever you live in the world — this story, people can connect to it because it is essentially the same story that’s been told a thousand times in a thousand places, you know, over thousands of years. It’s essentially… You know, there’s a challenge: there’s a challenge to your conscience, there’s a challenge to you directly, physically — whatever you want to look at it as, you know, initially to the Fellowship, to the Nine — which you accept or do not accept of your own free will. You do the right thing for its own sake, not necessarily to impress someone. Because you know that you probably should, and if you don’t you’re going to have to live with yourself. And once you’ve accepted that challenge, it’s going to get tougher. And it’s going to get, even if you know — I mean, characters even like Aragorn, and Gandalf, in the Fellowship, more than the others know that it’s going to be very difficult, and that the chances for success are unlikely. But obviously, by the time you get to Helm’s Deep, it looks ridiculously lost. By the time you get to the Black Gate, it’s now a foregone conclusion that everyone that goes to the Black Gate is going to die. But Aragorn is only able to persuade the armies of Rohan and Gondor, the surviving armies of those places and all the people that go with him, to essentially commit suicide — to sacrifice themselves for the good of Sam and Frodo –because of the example he has set. Like others in the Fellowship, he has shown that he has an interest in the common good, that he will put community, or the group, before his own selfish interests. So — I don’t know where I started…
I would assume that you’ve read The Lord of the Rings? Some have and some haven’t.
Several times. I had not read it before I did this movie.
Because when you’re reading it, if you take into account that this is a man who took part in a battle where a hundred thousand people were either killed or maimed in one day, there’s a certain gravitas to that.
With everyone. I mean, when you get to the end of this movie, I think that’s why, when I saw it, it’s pretty quiet at the end. I mean, people were moved, and people cheered to some degree; but it wasn’t like the first two. It was different. It was a little quieter. A little more thoughtfulness. And I think that’s because there’s a bittersweet quality to the ending. No matter how shiny [it is], and how much there is to celebrate, there’s a certain sadness there, you know — even in the coronation, but certainly with Frodo’s departure from Middle-Earth with the Elves and all that, and Bilbo’s. What you get from this story, which is what you get from life, I think — and which is another reason why people can apply it to their own existence, and to their own experience in life, in that there is a price paid, and that life, in some sense, is, as Galadriel terms it, a long defeat. And as Joseph Campbell said, all life is sorrowful. You can’t change that. But we can change our attitude toward it. And what I got out of the experience of making these movies — and I think that’s what the book is about, it tells you that the journey, how you handle life, and how you treat others during life, is a lot more important than how long you’ll live, or where you’ll end up at the end of your life, or where you go when your life on earth is over, if you believe that you’re going somewhere. It doesn’t really matter. What’s most important, I believe, and that’s what you get from this story, is: How do you handle it? You know, interestingly, although Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and you can certainly read… The beauty of a story like this is that you can apply it whether you’re a Japanese person or someone from Africa or Argentina or Italy or the United States or Scandinavia — you can apply this story to your life. You can find stories like this story in your own culture no matter where you live. And I think that even though he was a devout Catholic, and obviously believed in the hereafter, and in a heavenly reward for doing right and being righteous in this life, there is a lot of connection not only with Nordic literature but with Nordic cosmology, which placed an emphasis on doing the right thing in this lifetime and that doing the right thing was its own reward whether or not — and this is also true, obviously, in Christianity — whether or not anyone else knows that you’re doing the right thing. You knew. And in Nordic cosmology that’s definitely true, you know. There isn’t necessarily a promise that you’re going to go anywhere, or that anyone’s going to pat you on the back or go add up the good and the bad you did and say, “Ahh, you did all right, you’re in.” You know, it’s about doing the right thing. I mean there’s a lot of cases — and some of them that you see in the movie, but — there’s a lot of cases in Tolkien’s story where you see… I mean, you see all of the characters — there’s not just one hero, there’s many heroes, and all of them have flaws. As brave as Aragorn is, and as proven as he is — as a compassionate being, as someone who puts self interest aside, you know, for the common good — he has moments of weakness, moments of irritation, say, with Boromir, (you see that in the extended version), frustration, and of fear, he… You see all of these characters having to examine their conscience, at certain points; and there’s going to be — no matter how well you live today, and how well you may have handled your interactions with other people, or with your environment, tomorrow’s another day. This afternoon’s another moment. I think, for example, if you’re sitting in a restaurant — let’s say we’re all sitting, you know, we’re having dinner — and we’re talking about a bunch of things, and we’re talking about the common good. And the waiter comes over, and I say,” Please go away we’re in the middle of a conversation!” I’ve just blown it. I have to start over. You know what I mean? So that’s what this story is telling you all the time. And I think that’s what I took away from it.
Something else that I gleaned from it was the fact that you were patient in love, and for most women, we were like, “He stayed. He chose.” Because in this day and age, it seems like, with men especially, it’s out-of-sight, out-of-mind. You were true. In the second one, I was like, “I hope he doesn’t end up with the blond chick.” And you were like, “I can’t give that back to you,” not even knowing for sure if [Arwen] would be there. I think that just said a lot.
I think that the Arwen-Aragorn relationship — like the Frodo-Sam, like the Merry-Pippin, you can make any combination you want in this story — the common thread is their awareness. I think Arwen and Aragorn have this awareness throughout their nearly 70-year relationship to that point (and others, if they didn’t have that awareness, like Legolas and Gimli, come to that conclusion by the end): and that’s that our union — whether it be two people, or a whole table, or the whole world — our union is more significant than our individual existence ever will be. And that’s something that Arwen and Aragorn realize, like you see older couples who — not out of convenience, but because they want to — are together. And this is the way they talk, and they finish the sentence — but without interrupting, but they sort of just boom-boom-boom, there’s this — they’re speaking as one, and the absent-minded, you know… like that, and they’re talking. You know, they just do things, or they just pick something up when something fell down, and they don’t even notice they’re doing it. They are connected, and the unspoken truth there is that we’re better together than apart. And I think that’s true about the world. And I think that’s where we go astray, as a nation, you know, as Americans. When we erect — I mean, when we separate ourselves, and see ourselves as better or certainly different, or having a right to behave in a way that the community of nations says, “No, that’s not good” — when you do that sort of thing, when you isolate yourself, and say, well, “I am different, I am American,” or “I am Israeli,” or “I am a Latin,” or “I am English,” or whatever you want to say: I am white, I am black, I am Christian, I am whatever — you are erecting the walls of your own prison. There’s no way out of that, other than saying, “You know what? I was wrong. I should start over.”
Because if people see you live it, then they’ll ask you. And you won’t even have to say anything.
I mean, you can always learn stuff.
I have a question about something from the extended edition of the first film. Several Tolkien scholar types and I debated this. There’s a moment when Boromir’s dying, and you take his sword and put it into his hand, and the question there is: is that a sign of respect to him that he’s a warrior, and he should die with his sword, or is that the very first moment that Aragorn begins to think — accept being King? Did you hand him the sword so that he can swear fealty?
No, I think that his swearing fealty, I think that he would have done that anyway. And the gesture goes nicely with him doing that. But that was something that I wanted to do and that Sean was into as well because, you know, I was conscious of a connection with the [Nordic] sagas, and — but it’s not just that, it could’ve been a Lakota Sioux warrior or a Japanese samurai warrior, or any number of cultures where that would’ve been important. I knew that that is something that he would want. And we found a way to do it in which I notice that he wanted his sword, and so I was just as a friend, you know… It could have been anything, it could have been a cup, it could have been a ring, it could have been a — well, not that Ring — it could have been, you know, a photograph, and it was a comfort. You know, it was the only thing that I could do at that moment, at that moment, to help him with that which was true to that kind of, to that kind of … it was kind of Nordic, but it was also just to make him comfortable, and then he asks something else of me. That was the next thing I had to do, which was doing something for myself and indirectly for Middle-Earth. Aragorn probably would have come to that eventually, you know, as he says to his father in the extended version, to his adopted father, who says, “This is your destiny, you must do this thing.” And he says, “I don’t want that power. I’ve never wanted it.” There’s something good in that, which fits in well to be a good leader, which is: there’s a humility there. He doesn’t want it. He’s not, you know, seeking office. But on the other hand he’s also afraid of it, and that’s something he’s going to have to eventually face up to at the end of the day.
In Tolkien and in C.S. Lewis, in both of their stories, the man who is not sure that he can be king, that’s the first sign that he’s man enough to be king.
Well, I think a healthy amount of self-doubt is one of the best qualities of any leader. And I think there’s unfortunately a great lack of that in our world today. There are very few people who will — I think Helen Clark, Prime Minister of New Zealand, is to be commended for her stand in terms of [declining participation in] the war on Iraq; there was a lot of pressure on her from her neighbor Australia and from her distant neighbor the United States, to not do so, not that they were like, “This is the be-all-end-all,” but the idea and principle of, “You should go with us.” And she said, no we don’t think so. And I think that’s laudable, that she had the humility and the self respect to do that.
Do you have a favorite of the trilogy?
We split them up as [parts] One, Two and Three as a way of identifying them. But just as Tolkien was forced to put this book out in three parts, by his publisher, and to name it in three parts — but still saw it as one book — I look at this as one long movie. And one day I hope to look at all three extended versions in one go, near the restroom…
Jeffrey Overstreet, at Looking Closer, offers a transcript from another interview with Viggo Mortensen, conducted on the same day — one in which he explicitly answers the question, “Do you feel a responsibility to use that platform that you have to share your political beliefs, or do you just do that out of who you are?”