First Thoughts on The Lord of the Rings (1978)

*All reviews contain spoilers*
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Welcome back to the First Thoughts Anniversaries series! For this week, I saw my first Ralph Bakshi film, his animated version of The Lord of the Rings – which, like Watership Down, is celebrating its fortieth birthday this year. Bakshi first encountered J.R.R. Tolkien’s work early in his career when he was working at Terrytoons, and he apparently made several attempts to produce The Lord of the Rings in animation before finally getting funding from producer Saul Zaentz and distributor United Artists. UA had acquired the story rights from Tolkien himself in 1969 for around £100,000 (well over a million in today’s money) and directors such as John Boorman and even Stanley Kubrick had planned adaptations before Bakshi’s; Kubrick’s was set to star the Beatles, of all people, but Tolkien was still alive at that time and wasn’t having any of that. Bakshi wanted to stay as faithful as possible to the source material, but he was subjected to a great deal of executive meddling which interfered with his overall vision for the project.

This film starred Christopher Guard in the lead role as Frodo, with William Squire as Gandalf, Michael Scholes as Sam and the legendary John Hurt as Aragorn – another thing it has in common with Watership Down, not to mention The Black Cauldron. In addition, we also have Guard’s younger brother Dominic as Pippin (funny that either Merry or Pippin is played by a Dominic in two versions of this story; Peter Jackson’s films had Dominic Monaghan as Merry), Simon Chandler as Merry, Norman Bird as Bilbo, Michael Graham Cox as Boromir, Anthony Daniels as Legolas (yes, C-3PO himself), David Buck as Gimli, Peter Woodthorpe as Gollum, Fraser Kerr as Saruman, Phillip Stone as Théoden, Michael Deacon as Wormtongue, André Morell as Elrond (he sadly died of lung cancer just weeks after the film came out), Alan Tilvern as the Innkeeper (Butterbur, unnamed here), John Westbrook as Treebeard and Annette Crosbie in the sole female role of Galadriel.

From an animation perspective, the thing this film has become infamous for its extensive use of rotoscoping, a technique in which scenes would first be shot in live-action and then traced onto animation cels with the aim of creating greater realism. While rotoscoping had often been used as a guide to aid animators on many earlier feature films, this one used it almost exclusively, with pretty much the entire film being shot on location in Spain using actors in costumes. Apparently, after the Spanish film development lab discovered modern paraphernalia like cars, helicopters and phone lines throughout the footage, they tried to incinerate the film to prevent Bakshi’s “sloppy” work from tarnishing Spain’s reputation with Hollywood as a shooting location. Some of the footage was also solarized (basically reversing the tone of the negatives) to try to produce a more three-dimensional look. To be fair to Bakshi, it’s no wonder the odd slip-up occurred as he was basically making “two pictures in two years”, to quote the man himself.

Aragorn 1978

The finished film was advertised as the “first movie painting” to hype it up as something new and different (I think Loving Vincent has a stronger claim to that title, to be honest), but in reality, the rotoscoping was done primarily to save money. This it did, as well as allowing for far greater complexity in depicting battle scenes at a time when everything in animation had to be done by hand, but it does create a kind of “uncanny valley” effect and really hasn’t aged well at all. Bakshi himself later regretted relying on the technique so heavily; for my money, while I do agree that rotoscoping has its place in the world of animation, I think this film takes it way too far – it might as well have been live-action for all the creativity it allows in the character work.

Outside of the animation, any good adaptation of Tolkien’s Middle Earth stories also needed a well-written script. The first draft for this film was done by Chris Conkling, who ultimately turned in six drafts from a variety of angles in an attempt to do justice to the epic story – he cut huge portions of the story in most of them, and one version was even going to be done from Merry and Pippin’s perspective! In the end, Bakshi and producer Zaentz brought in the sci-fi novelist Peter S. Beagle to create another draft, although Conkling retained credit as co-writer for the work he’d done. Apparently, Beagle was promised by Zaentz some better-paying work after completing Lord of the Rings, but this promise was not fulfilled. Zaentz later commented that producing this film was the worst experience of his career, but one must wonder whether some of his colleagues felt the same way, considering that last fact. Anyway, the writers struggled with the mammoth task of squashing Tolkien’s sprawling world into a single feature film and made several cuts, including some of the same ones that Peter Jackson would later make in his trilogy (e.g. everything involving Tom Bombadil and Glorfindel). Bakshi, for his part, had intended to make multiple films, but was prevented from doing so for reasons we’ll get into below.

The major artistic influences on Bakshi for this film were classical illustrators such as Howard Pyle and N. C. Wyeth – names I’m sure any fans of my Disney reviews will recognise, as the artists there also made frequent references to their works in the canon classics. Bakshi stated specifically that no contemporary illustrators influenced the style of the film at all; he was going for a rich, earthy look to compliment the style of the story and it does work beautifully, with the film’s often gorgeous backgrounds among its highlights. I’ve always felt that background art is one of the areas in which animated films have a distinct advantage over live-action ones; no matter how beautiful the scenery can be in a real-world location, there’s just something subtly moving about a handcrafted painting or watercolour. It’s one of the many things I miss about traditional animation.

On the music front, we have a score provided by the late Leonard Rosenman, who got his start in the mid-fifties creating music for James Dean’s films. Originally, Bakshi had planned to use Led Zeppelin’s music in the film, but Zaentz worried that he wouldn’t be able to release the soundtrack through his Fantasy Records label if they did so. Later on, Bakshi would state that he hated Rosenman’s “cliched” score, and many reviewers echoed his thoughts, commenting that it was not some of Rosenman’s best work. I’m no expert in these things, but I didn’t particularly notice the score at any point in the film and that’s never a good sign – there’s simply no comparison with Howard Shore’s unforgettable and ethereal work on Jackson’s films.

The editing on the film was done by Donald W. Ernst (another name you may recognise, as he later went on to do some great work at Disney), with cinematography by Timothy Galfas. Despite the rather lacklustre soundtrack, this became one of the first animated films to be released in Dolby Stereo sound, following Watership Down a few months earlier.

Now then – what did I, a fan of the books and the Jackson films, and someone who has never seen a Ralph Bakshi film before, think of this? I’ll be honest; it may be a tad unfair, but I can’t help but compare this to Jackson’s epic production, because the latter was such an astounding piece of work and truly set the bar for all other Tolkien adaptations, both past and present. Of course, as a lover of animation I’m thrilled that Bakshi attempted this intimidating project in the medium, and I do think he did an admirable job – it’s just that this film doesn’t have the same sense of scale or grandeur, and it suffers from some pacing problems, somehow feeling too rushed and too slow at the same time. Some of the quieter, dialogue-driven scenes like Boromir’s death are nicely handled, but the wider narrative is simply too big for even half of it to be crammed into one film like this. It charges through a good third of Fellowship in just a few minutes near the start, and the Moria section (my favourite from Jackson’s first film) completely lacks any of the tension which Jackson so skilfully builds there (although I must admit that I prefer Bakshi’s less melodramatic depiction of Gimli’s grief over Balin). Of course, I know full well that this wasn’t Bakshi’s fault – I blame the executives of United Artists for restricting him like they did, preventing him from realising his vision for a series of animated Tolkien films and leaving him with a half-finished compromise of a film.

The characters are something of a mixed bag. Frodo as depicted here is quite different from Elijah Woods’s version, rather tougher and more mature, and I honestly can’t decide whether I like this interpretation or not. It doesn’t feel quite as realistic in context as Woods’s more timid Frodo did – after all, this is supposed to be an ordinary, peace-loving little hobbit thrust into a world totally outside his comfort zone – but at the same time, Guard’s version of him does make for a stronger protagonist, and the original Frodo of the books was fifty years old at the start of his adventure so a little maturity doesn’t hurt. It may be irrelevant, but his design is also adorable!

Gandalf and Frodo 1978

The other hobbits haven’t fared so well, however. What in the name of all that’s holy have they done to Sam? The version of him we have here is an obnoxious, pesky little gnome of a hobbit who is completely outclassed in every way by Sean Astin’s gentler, nuanced take on him. He is a grumbling incompetent who adds nothing to this version of the story whatsoever, and when he began to go “Oooh, hooray!” with his tongue hanging out, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It’s no wonder Scholes didn’t go on to act in anything else. As for Merry and Pippin, they are so underdeveloped that it’s difficult to tell who’s who – while they were never my favourite characters, I have to say once again that Jackson does a much better job with them.

The rest of the fellowship aren’t too bad, at least. Gimli and Legolas aren’t given much screen-time (and I got a good chuckle out of Legolas’s design), but Boromir was quite well done and I actually found myself caring more about him here than I did in Jackson’s films, where he’s more abrasive (although that’s not to say I didn’t like Sean Bean’s portrayal, because I did). Aragorn is given an impressive air of gravity appropriate to a future king, a very different approach to the character than Jackson’s but one which I appreciated – although why he’s been turned into a native American I don’t know. The version of Gandalf we have here is a bit of a drama queen, but I greatly enjoyed him all the same; he has the same kind of stern yet caring manner that Ian McKellen gave to the character, albeit with less of his commanding presence.
Ringwraith 1978

The ringwraiths are terrifying in both versions of the story; there’s just one, brief moment in this film where they lose that presence, where one of them starts making weird simpering noises as the hobbits hide beneath it in the hollow tree, but other than that, they’re just as chilling here as you’d expect. They are perhaps the only characters who truly benefit from the rotoscoping, as it makes them feel creepier and more unearthly. We also have Gollum, of course, who is as neurotic and treacherous as ever, if a little prissier than I’m used to. It’s a pity he’s introduced so late, as he never really gets a chance to shine – he doesn’t play much of a role in Fellowship, which is what this film mostly focuses on.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth stories have never been known as high points for the representations of women, with only about three playing a significant role in the original books and in Jackson’s films, but this version marks a low point even by those standards. The only female character to get any lines is Galadriel and she has none of the gravity of Cate Blanchett, looking very “seventies” and treating the “test” of Frodo’s offer of the ring like a bit of a joke. Éowyn, meanwhile, is seen but not heard in a single scene towards the end, and she looks so much like Galadriel that you could be forgiven for mistaking the two of them for one another upon a first viewing – poor old Arwen, meanwhile, has been omitted altogether. Again, I understand that Bakshi was hindered by being forced to drop half the story, but it’s a simple fact that Jackson’s takes on the women of Middle Earth are far, far superior.
Galadriel 1978

Overall, while I do like most of the voice work (Michael Scholes’ horrendous turn as Sam excepted), the rotoscoping makes most of the acting feel “wooden” and drags the performances down with it. Also, while I hate to nit-pick, I couldn’t help baulking at the absolute butchery of some of the pronunciations in this film – I mean, “Aruman”? What is this new devilry? Apparently, the studio heads are responsible for that particular one; they tried to change Saruman’s name early in production to avoid viewers confusing him with Sauron, but the decision was later reversed. Despite this, many instances of “Aruman” remain in the film – I can only assume they ran out of time to record pick-ups.

After all of the problems Bakshi had encountered while making the film, he was then hit with a final whammy once he’d finished; the studio told him that audiences would not pay to see an unfinished film, so they released The Lord of the Rings with no indication that a second part would follow it, despite fierce objections from Bakshi himself. He knew that audiences would be shocked to see the film end abruptly in the middle of the story and was furious that he was never given the chance to finish it; there never was an official sequel, although the Rankin-Bass studio (who had produced a 1977 animated version of The Hobbit) eventually released The Return of the King direct to television in 1980 as their way of “completing” the story. Due to the studio’s meddling, Bakshi later considered the experience of making this film a disappointing one which “took more out of {him} than {he} got back”, and I sympathise deeply with him for being made to suffer this indignity.

Most critics at the time seemed to be on his side, too, complimenting the ambitiousness of his attempt and acknowledging how difficult the story was to adapt in the first place. Despite receiving some backlash for the stilted animation and incomplete story, the film was a financial success and gradually became a cult classic over the years, with Peter Jackson himself citing it as an influence over his own trilogy (something he didn’t admit right away, for some reason). You can recognise the staging of several scenes from this film if you’re familiar with Jackson’s, particularly some of those involving the wraiths.

The film scooped nominations for Hugo and Saturn Awards for Best Dramatic Presentation and Best Fantasy Film, respectively, with even Leonard Rosenman’s underwhelming score garnering a nomination for a Golden Globe for Best Original Motion Picture Score. Bakshi also won a Golden Gryphon award for the film at the Giffoni Film Festival in 1980.

One final interesting fact: with an impressive running time of around 132 minutes, this is perhaps the longest western animated feature ever made, which isn’t surprising given the subject matter. Animation is notoriously time-intensive and before the advent of computer technology, films rarely exceeded an hour and a half. Even today, it is surpassed in length only by a few anime films, with The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya (2010) and Final Yamato (1983) among the very longest at 162 and 163 minutes, respectively.

To conclude, all I can say is that while I do personally prefer Jackson’s films, I am still very glad I saw this version. It was a unique take on the story and has a lot of merit in its own way; I enjoyed Bakshi’s interpretations of characters like Gandalf, Frodo and Aragorn, and it was a real treat to see a story I love done in a medium I love like this. If only Bakshi had been able to finish it, it could have been spectacular… Jackson’s films may be better, but this is largely because they enjoy higher production values and Jackson himself had the luxury of time to fully explore the Tolkien legendarium, allowing him to better translate it to the screen. Bakshi had none of these advantages and creating this film was an uphill struggle for him from the start; you can only respect the guy for trying. I do recommend it for fans of Tolkien’s work if only as an exercise in comparison, but if you’re thinking of seeing it purely from an animation perspective, it might be worth looking up some of Bakshi’s earlier works instead, as the overreliance on rotoscoping in this one is limiting.


Thank you for reading, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this review. Next week, the series continues with Katushiro Otomo’s thirty-year-old, post-apocalyptic fantasy Akira, so be sure to look out for that. Until next time, stay animated!


By Source, Fair use, – credit for poster – credit for Frodo/Gandalf image – credit for Galadriel image – credit for ringwraith image – credit for Aragorn image – the Nostalgia Critic’s comparison of this film to the Jackson trilogy


8 Replies to “First Thoughts on The Lord of the Rings (1978)”

  1. Frankly, I just can’t with Bakshi. To me he is the Ed Woods of animation, certainly enthusiastic about it, but also, well, not really good in what he is doing and way too sure of himself. So sure that he basically blocked himself from ever truly improving in any way.

    Maybe I am too harsh, but I always felt that just because someone does something different it doesn’t automatically mean that said different thing is also of artistic merit (aside from naturally every piece a human created having some basic merit just by existing).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for reading!

      That’s fair enough, I’ve certainly seen a *lot* of criticism of his work as I’ve started to look into it a bit more. Even the man himself is very polarising, it seems, with his opinionated and argumentative manner. This is the only work of his I’ve seen so far so I can’t judge his entire output, but I feel like with this film, he was compromised somewhat by studio meddling – that’s not to say it would have been glorious had he been given total free reign, but it probably would have been better (and at least complete). In animation terms, I agree, there’s not really anything of worth on offer here, but I do think some of the background work is impressive in an abstract sort of way.


      1. See, while I appreciate that it is difficult to put together an animated movie on a shoestring budget, there is a good way to do it and a bad way to do it. I have seen TV shows which had better animation than Bakshi offers. I mean, South Park (and I am not necessarily a fan of the show) goes really cheap but also has an absolute unique style.

        I agree about the abstract Backgrounds but I actually think that they are mostly an accident. Mostly because the rest of the movie is so incompetent in terms of animation. The characters to constantly off-model, the blend of animation and live action is jarring and the character designs are just…ugly.

        Frankly, to get an idea about who Bakshi is, just watch The Wizard.

        Liked by 1 person

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